The Authenticity of the Other

The Kuiraishi-no-ki and Japanese Ritual Puppet Theatre

Darren Jon Ashmore, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Akita International University [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 3 (Article 14 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 6 October 2013.


This paper is one in an irregular series touching on the history and nature of Japanese puppet theatre. In this case, it analyses the outsider nature of puppet art, and one of the most important, as well as least understood foundational documents in legitimising puppet art in Japan. It re-examines the nature of the relationship between outsider status and audiences by analysing how the critical, early work Kuiriashi-no-ki (by Oe Masafusa) has been interpreted by both puppet performers and patrons over the years—particularly with regard to the religious and special status dimensions of puppets as limnal objects.

The core of the paper was researched in 2002, when the author was, thanks to the generosity of the Leverhulme Foundation, on study leave to Japan and is the result of several detailed discussions with a variety of religious and theatre figures as well as through generous access to the archives of the National Bunraku Theatre and a number of regional troupes.

This has been supplemented with further interviews in 2009 and 2011.

Keywords: Kairaishiki, kugutsu, Oe Masafusa, Puppets, Ritual, Pollution Control, Ebisu, Outcaste, Kami.


This paper came out of field research and conversations with a number of professional Puppeteers in Japan from 2001 to 2011, and is a reconsideration of one of the most important, yet least understood documents at the heart of religious ritual, and performance aspects of Japanese puppet theatre.

The work itself, known as the Kuiraishi-no-ki [傀儡子記], by the famed Court scholar Ōe Masafusa (大江匡房, 1041-1111), is a short poem which gives a glimpse into the lives and adventures of an ill-disciplined collection of itinerant ritual specialists which the author styles as the Kuiraishi [傀儡子] (also read as kairaishi or kugutsu [傀儡]). In the mind of Masafusa, these folk, though little better than beggars in the text, are described as living a life of great freedom and wonder, wandering here and there, seemingly across the known world as a whole, bringing the glories of such travel to the genteel prisoners of Heian Kyo’s imperial court.

The text (a translation of which is appended to the paper) is remarkable enough, but what makes it important for Japanese puppet art is that it is the oldest surviving native primary source which makes direct reference to the use of puppets both as ritual objects and sources of entertainment.

Though it is one of Masafusa’s shortest works it remains the cornerstone of a wide range of puppet art groups in Japan, providing a source of historical authenticity for the puppet stage, as well as connections both to the rituals of what would develop into Shinto and, very obliquely to the authority of the Imperial Court.

That so many puppeteers, of such different background, would claim Masafusa’s Kuiraishi as their own, makes this document—and the way it is signified, even today—an interesting way to examine both the nature of ritual in Japanese puppet theatre and the way in which perceived authenticity is actively sought/used by the agents of revival and preservation of such cultural properties.

By examining the nature of special status, ritual purification and the nature of puppets as liminal objects, I hope to demonstrate that the authority of Japanese puppets today can be traced not only to a connection to the ephemera of folklore, but directly—through the few lines in Masafusa’s little poem—to a world of ritual power which still remains in the hearts and minds of Japanse people who recognise that these puppets do more than ‘symbolise’.

Japanese Puppets

Known to the world at large through the grand Osaka based National Bunraku Theatre and its elegant three-man performance style, the Japanese have, employed puppets for both ritual and dramatic purposes for as long as the historical record is able to reveal. From simple amagutsu [body doubles] birthing dolls, which first saw use in the Nara Period (710-794), to the most complicated karakuri ningyō [mechanical puppets] which form the heart of one of the nation’s most profoundly beautiful arts, the manipulation of effigies lies at the heart of many Japanese cultural properties. However, though a fascinating subject of study, the various origins stories of Japanese puppetry have, until relatively recently, only really been available through the context of the professional Osaka based National Bunraku Theatre and those traditions which directly feed into its creation.

Increasingly, recent research has taken a different path. The work of scholars such as Jane-Marie Law, Poh-Sim Plowright, Shinoda Junnichi, Barbara Thornbury, Scott Schnell, Tochihara Tsuguo and A. Kimi Coaldrake has become focussed on the periphery of the puppet theatre community, examining folkloric forms of the art which have, until late, been rather overlooked by the academy.

Often simply considered to be the poor relations of the high arts of Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Takeda Izumo II and Uemura Bunrakuken III, many distinct puppet art customs have developed in Japan throughout the centuries, each being socially coded through very specific regional as well as cultural conditions and representative of their locale’s contribution to Japanese social development.

Some, such as the Awaji branch, have gone on to influence puppet theatre as a whole, providing ritualistic, thematic and structural frameworks which have even been adopted by the bunraku tradition of Osaka. Others, such as the Hachioji kuruma [wheeled] puppet branch, are all that remains of traditions swept aside by changing patterns of culture and stand as unique windows on moments in Japanese history, whilst also being of continuing value to the people who participate in their preservation.

The Other—Puppeteers as Foreign, Powerful and Divine

There are other legends surrounding the foundation of puppet art in Japan but one of the reasons why the Kuiraishi-no-ki is considered such an important source for native scholars of puppet theatre is the general dearth of ancient and mediaeval sources on the subject in the Japanese record.

Indeed, as Mr. Umazume Masaru suggests, Kuiraishi-no-ki retains authenticity in the eyes of both scholars and practitioners because it is the one text which can be reliably connected to a figure of historical weight, even though Masafusa can hardly be called a scholar of puppet art by any stretch of the imagination.

If you consider the [Kuiraishi-no-ki] in itself, the paucity of information in the poem regarding the practical use of puppets in the classical period is not important in the slightest. All that matters is that these itinerant performers were visible enough to have been noticeable to a respected and educated Court commentator such as Ōe [Masafusa]. […] Like the Hachiman record it provides connection to the ritual authority of the Court, but unlike the Hachiman text its key figure is a historical figure, and this is enough to give it the sort of weight that Japanese scholars find appealing (Umazume Masaru: Former Director, Awaji Ningyō Jōruri Theatre. Interview with the author, July 15 2001.)

The Hachiman text referred to by Umazume is Usa Hachiman-gu Hojō-e Engi [The Usa Hachiman Rite for the Pacification of Souls], recorded by the priests of the Usa Hachiman Shrine complex in modern Oita Prefecture. This text describes the creation of a, still practiced, hojō-e and the part that puppets/dolls played in its formation.

Essentially, it suggests that sometime during the Yorō age (717-724) of Empress Geshō (rd. 715-724), the Hayato clan of Kyushu rebelled—fortifying a number of large fortresses in their home province, before being besieged by Imperial forces. According to the rite, only when warrior priests from the influential Usa Hachiman Shrine were persuaded to join the battle with an array of puppets and ritual effigies did the sieges end, with the defending soldiery being enticed from their bastions to watch the Hachiman performance before being taken prisoner and executed. In the following years, the Hachiman shrine incorporated several presentations from the battle, including the dance of the puppets, into a new ritual and, when perfected in 745, the Hachiman priests were able to negotiate with Emperor Shōmu the granting of an imperial charter to practice the rite, on behalf of the Imperial Family, to quell a plague that was felt to stem from the souls of the dead Hayato warriors (Law, 1994: 325-357).

It seems unreasonable to suggest that the sieges of the Hayato campaign themselves did not actually take place, for though no first-hand accounts of the engagements exist, it is known that the Hayato were one of the clans which fought during the division of northern Kyushu into the realms of Buzen and Bungo in the eighth century (Toyoda, 1997: 18-20). Moreover, it is a commonly accepted local legend on Kyushu that the shamans and warrior-priests of this age often accompanied soldiers into battle to work their magic in war, with several more continental sources supporting the Japanese use of such ritual specialists (Nakano, 1976: 92-94).

However, whether or not the Hayato were actually distracted by Usa Hachiman-gu puppeteering cannot be directly proved and, in truth, it does seem rather unlikely. However, this is not the important issue. The fact that the later narrative about the battle, the power of Hachiman and the souls of dead Hayato, includes important references to ritual puppeteering demonstrates that puppets were already being considered as objects of religious power by influential social negotiators in early imperial Japan.

On the Brink—Puppets as Liminal Objects

According to Kadoya and Yamamoto (1991: 14-16), Japanese dolls and puppets have from this early age been thought of as a powerful expression of both the divine and the mundane, possessing a dual existence as both animate and inanimate objects which can move easily from one state to the other at the will of their manipulators. However, as a concept this is hardly unique to Japanese thought. In a ritual context, this allows the puppet to be both physical and spiritual in the same instant, creating a tangible vessel through which mundane significations of the spiritual might be expressed and from which an agent might receive the favour of the spirits in return (Kadoya and Yamamoto, 1991: 26-27).

Resulting from a mixture of shamanistic influence and respect for the human form, the best example of this innate spirituality in the ningyō [puppet or doll] can be seen at the Awashima Shrine in Wakayama Prefecture. Built in the Edo period, as a centre for the worship of the bodhisattva Kannon, the current temple has become home to many thousands of dolls, puppets and other figurines which have been deposited by owners who have become fearful of the spirits which they sense within the effigies. In 2011 alone, the temple, according to Morita Etsuko, gathered about one thousand ningyō into the shrine, raising the total possessed by the centre to over ten thousand. This is in addition to the hundreds, which are ceremoniously destroyed on the third day of March each year, either by being floated out to sea each year or burned to release the spirits within them.

Every morning, we find dolls abandoned by the gates, and people will bring them in throughout the day. Those who come to us fear to take action against the dolls, puppets and other objects in case that disturbs the spirits which they perceive within. (Morita Etsuko: Miko, Awashima Shrine. Interview with the author, August 19 2011)

In this sense the puppet becomes a direct interface not only for humanity to negotiate access to the realm of the spirits, but also a way for that realm to access the mundane world and, through that, the already complex significations of man and spirit are given an intriguing alternate frame. The relationship between puppet and manipulator becomes representative of the relationship between mankind and the gods.

Neither Good Nor Evil—Kami and the Dangers of Worship

However, as Obayashi Taryō reminds us, some of the kami of Japanese native beliefs were not always viewed as the benign figures of modern Shinto, but as stern elemental beings with potentially cataclysmic powers at their command, balancing out the blessings that they also bestowed on their faithful worshippers (Obayashi, 1961: 31-32). Nakayama Tarō further suggests that it is from this wild elemental nature, when bound up in the control of specially trained shamans or priests that we begin to see the notions of taboo and pollution which came to signify access to the kami by the time large scale records begin in the early imperial period. His argument is that Japanese ritual specialists, probably following on from continental traditions of shamanism, protected their positions within society with taboos surrounding the forms which were required to negotiate with the spirits effectively (rigorous training, sacred objects, special language etc.) and that a notion of contamination, taken through illicit contact with a spirit or sacred object/site, was one such bar (Nakayama, 1930: 101-103).

An interesting parallel with the puppet as mediator can be found in the kagura, a dance ritual dedicated to negotiation with the spirits. First recorded in the legend of Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto in the Kojiki, this ceremony seems to have been conceived as a way for a shrine to attract and contain a spirit in order that the kami may be persuaded to provide favours in return for being entertained. The interesting aspect of this is that the agent who actually interacts with the kami during the ritual is not a priest but a trained maiden whose sole job is to abjure spirits and contain them within a prepared vessel, a goshintai [protective body]. Generally called miko, these girls are able safely to traverse the taboos regarding contacting the kami, something which even priests may not do safely, and aid supplicants in their negotiation with spirits without too much risk to themselves. Nakayama Tarō believes that the work of the miko actually derives from the way in which shamans were often drawn into working at shrines in the Nara period, allowing the incorporation of established matriarchal rituals into the increasingly male dominated Yamato attitudes to the Kami (Nakayama, 1930: 112-113).

However, whatever the reason, the practical result seems to have been the creation of an extension of the signification of the relationship between kami and the mundane world. At one time, the shaman would have dominated all aspects of the negotiation between spirit and man, which was a dangerous connection that placed only one fragile gatekeeper between a largely unknown power and the world of the living. However in breaking the position of the shaman down into separate areas of power, and making them part of their new forms of worship, not only was the well-known old faith tamed to the will of the new powers, but the relationships between mankind and the gods were also reduced in power by giving greater order to the rituals involved. The priest controlled the rites in general, while the miko negotiated with spirits directly and controlled the boundaries of their manifestation, while the prepared vessel became the mediation point between the two worlds.

It is the potential for violence which was thought to exist within the kami that, according to Law (1997), probably created both the need for puppets in a ritual context and ritually adept individuals to manipulate them. Of all the kami which are enshrined around Japan, only a very few have been known to number puppeteers among their retinues. Known as the ekibyō-gami [spirits of disease (control)], they included Hachiman, Ebisu-Hyakudayū of Nishinomiya, and Sanbaso,1 among them. Each one of these spirits represents both violent and benign forces to their worshippers, to a much greater degree than any other kami in the Japanese heavens (Fudo, 1937: 44). Regular worship of these deities could, according to Yoshii Sadatoshi, be very dangerous and the pollution emitting from these kami, especially from the jovial Ebisu, was perceived as being in excess of anything a miko alone might easily contain. Only when bearing an effigy of the kami, created in the image of the most benign aspect of the spirit, could a manipulator be employed to calm them during rituals (Yoshii Sadatoshi: Chief Priest, Nishinomiya Ebisu Shrine. Interview with author, April 16 2001).

This notion of extreme pollution might also be used to explain why we do not see records of shrine miko handling puppets even at the Ebisu and Usa shrines in the historical record. Both sites are known to have employed miko, but it was puppeteers from sanjō districts, areas in which outcaste people were permitted to live, who actually handled the sacred puppets, which Yoshii Sadatoshi explains as something like religious apartheid.

At a shrine as important [as Nishinomiya], good miko, who were never easy to locate in the first place,2 were certainly not going to be of common stock. The job was seen as a worthy position for the daughters of minor nobles or bushi to have until they married, you see. The chance of being contaminated by the kami [Ebisu-Hyakudayū] during a ritual was something which the shrine could not afford, especially considering the violent nature of the military classes, and so miko were barred from puppet rituals as a matter of course. (Yoshii Sadatoshi: April 16 2001.)

Perhaps this represents a rather prosaic way of looking at the relationship between outcaste people, kami and puppet, but one that should not be taken lightly. Removing pollution resulting from contact with most kami was, as Tsurumi Kazuko describes, a fairly simple affair of subjecting oneself to a cleansing ritual to acknowledge the breaking of a taboo. However, as ekibyō-gami contact was perceived to result in very tangible plagues, perhaps this is why transgressions against Ebisu, for example, were, when not punished directly by the kami, subject to rites of cleansing comparable to physical pollution with blood or dead flesh—one of the most powerful taboos to the Japanese (Tsurumi, 1977a: 12-13).

This alone might account for the prominence of outcaste peoples in the rites of such dangerous deities. However, Law makes one more intriguing suggestion regarding the status of the ekibyō-gami which seems to strengthen their connection to the outcaste community.

It has long been thought that the Gods of Fortune, of which Ebisu is one, were, in fact, Japanese variants of the Great Immortal Sages of China.3 Certainly they have always been depicted with dark skins, continental costumes and are manifest in legends that always involve travel from a far off place to the site of their worship in Japan.

The epitome of otherness, one might say.

Disease and Distance—The Ekibyō-gami as a Representation of the Foreign

In fact all the ekibyō-gami might be described as liminal deities, not part of the imperial family of powers, either through being imported, like Hachiman, or through being rejected, as one of Ebisu’s guises4 was,5 and subject to the same sort of signification to which marginal people have always been exposed (Law. 1997: 112-114). Whilst all kami might be, to a degree, considered as representing an aspect of the other for society, certain exigencies also permit them to claim status within one or more groups. For example, it could be argued that the first truly unifying signification for the Japanese as a people was related to certain kami moving from their permanent status as external powers into a position of clan membership—in their new role as the ancestors to the founder of the imperial line.

However, the ekibyō-gami, having no real native connection to the land and, possessing an unmatched potential for good or evil in the physical world, have always been kept at arms-length by the Japanese native faith. Their eventual (re)adoption by the faith, always resulting from some powerful intervention that was interpreted as the anger of the kami manifested against humanity, should not be confused with true acceptance.

As Yoshii Sadatoshi sees it, this is because while all were created as patrons of luck, or security, none were enshrined out of a sense of loyalty and only installed as deities out of a fear of the power they might release if not constantly pacified.

For myself, I interpret this as part of the process of consolidation which the Yamato brought to the native kami, as they slowly assembled the imperial family out of hundreds of tribal spirits. We have always held here that Ebisu-Hyakkudayu, was simply too important to the early community, as a founding Kami to be written out of the scheme of things. Not that I think of Ebisu, or any kami in fact, as malicious. I see them as simple, emotional powers who regard mortals as we might regard small animals—sometimes charming curiosities, but more often beneath notice. (Yoshii Sadatoshi: 16th April 2001)

Indeed, returning to the Usa Hachiman-gu’s involvement with the rebellion of the Hayato, it is possible to see in the writings that describe the hojō-e, which evolved from the battle ritual itself, that Emperor Shōmu only installed the ritual to Hachiman after an epidemic of plague in the Yamato region, blamed on the dead souls of the Hayato, acting through the will of Hachiman, let loose by the Bodhisattva after his work in ending the siege was not honoured as it should have been.

The question as to what came first, the ekibyōgami or the outcaste person, is something of a chicken-and-egg question, made all the more impossible to answer due to the lack of sources for the period in which these associations must have been first evolving. However, the fact that most of these ekibyōgami are recorded as being officially enshrined by the eighth century, the same period in which laws concerning the marginal status of outsider groups were being negotiated, has led Yoshii Sadatoshi to believe that the elite of the land effectively forced both kami and people into the same marginal space around Japanese clan groups because they were attempting to use both kami and outcaste people in the same way—further helping to define boundaries for their developing social groups.

Perhaps you could say that the outsider defines the group, just as the other defines the self. When I wrote an early history of the Sanjo [outcaste] district of our shrine, a great deal was made in the earliest records of how important these seemingly polluted ritual specialists actually were in acting as cultural markers for the limits on our communities. […] Not as bad as in the Edo period, in which being part of such a community was no different from being a criminal. Indeed, such folk supported and maintained societies by labour, spiritual or physical, which no-one else might do. However, their lives, lived right on the margins of society gave physical manifestation to the otherworldly nature of our own marginal kami. Their good will sustained us, and their ill will might destroy us. (Yoshii Sadatoshi: 10th January 2002)

This is why the puppet is so important to certain branches of Japanese native faith. Worship of a kami is not a one-way affair and anything which brings a supplicant close enough to engage with the spirit world, also allows the occupants of that realm to affect the mundane. In effect, the power of the spirit (or the outsider) is summoned to the physical realm (or admitted to the community) and needs to be controlled in order to be of value.

The Gatekeepers—Puppets and Puppeteers as Barriers Against Contamination

However, unlike the familial spirits of the land, such as Amaterasu, who can, thanks to the general intercession of the Emperor, be appeased by the dancing of a young girl in effigy of Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto-no-Kami, true outsider spirits like Hachiman or Ebisu need stronger boundaries to confine them. A puppet can house ekibyōgami far more safely than could a miko. It can be used as a mobile shrine to the kami, which befits its liminal status, and can wander wherever disease or pollution require subduing. However, perhaps just as importantly, it acts as a protective interface. It allows humanity to interact with ekibyōgami, but prevents them from drawing too close to the spirit. As if the human, animate, nature of the puppet allows a degree of sympathetic signification, whilst the inanimate, material, nature of the object denies it. Moreover, it also creates an interface between different levels of society, creating a portable marginal space from behind which an outcaste manipulator might wield the power of their kami, whilst elite members of society, humbled just as any person is before the might of an implacable epidemic, offer up prayers, and respect, to both the kami and its bearers.

It is clear that the ritual puppeteer had become, by the end of the Heian period, a very powerful, and mysterious cultural icon in the central regions of Japan. Whether they were considered outcaste or touched by the gods, the fact remains that they were effectively the only people, other than the emperor himself, who could safely negotiate contact between certain specific kami, who were worshipped out of dread of their contagious power, and mankind. Whether people admired or hated the ritual puppeteer, it is clear that, like Ōe Masafusa, the population of the country was both fearful of, and fascinated by their work. It is this interest in the ritual aspects of puppeteering, as well as the free-wheeling lifestyle of such puppeteers, that might best explain the importance of the Kuiraishi-no-ki.

Masafusa’s Puppets

The body of the Kuiraishi-no-ki makes it clear that Masafusa perceived the Kuiraishi as the antithesis of inhabitants of the imperial court, portraying them as untamed wildlings who practiced all manner of rebellious activities with which the incumbents of the capital were unlikely to be involved. However, the way the text is written also indicates that these Kuiraishi were not being viewed in a negative light by the author, in that Masafusa never goes as far as admonishing their behaviour and, actually, makes their lifestyle seem rather mysterious and attractive. Though this ambiguous quality of the text itself already makes the poem’s interpretation very problematic for the researcher, this is further exacerbated by two equally unusual facts.

First is that the poem is not only written in the style of the Chinese court of the period, but is also littered throughout with, according to Yamaji Kozo, poetic devices and references to continental cultural practices which are not commonly encountered in the surviving native literary or historical records, and can therefore only have been lifted directly from existing Chinese works (Yamaji, 1986: 55). Secondly, the term Kuiraishi/kugutsu itself, meaning a specific group of people, causes a problem of interpretation in that this definition appears in no literary sources prior to the date of the Kuiraishi-no-ki and in only a small handful of subsequent texts, most of which are commentaries on Masafusa’s work, or court diaries whose authors could simply have adopted the term from the Kuiraishi-no-ki. Thus it becomes very hard for the researcher either accurately to place Masafusa’s source of inspiration or to establish what sort of impact the text had on the signification of these, so called, Kuiraishi in subsequent generations outside the court.

Further stalling research into the text is the way in which the Japanese academy is effectively polarised between two camps concerning the historical accuracy of the Kuiraishi-no-ki. If, like Kawatake Toshio (Kawatake, 1975: 31), the researcher argues for a factual interpretation of the text, this automatically places Masafusa’s Kuiraishi at the centre of subsequent developments in ritual puppet arts in that the story contains all the basic elements which later appear as part of the ritual puppet art of religious complexes (Inoura and Kawatake, 1981: 53). However, to argue from such a position requires that a researcher also address the important issue of the lack of material directly relating to the existence of Kuiraishi as people before and after the popularisation of the Kuiraishi-no-ki.

This stems from the fact that if the poem had been written as an accurate representation of the lives of an identifiable cultural group, it is unlikely that the Kuiraishi-no-ki would be the only available examination of their ways.

If however, the researcher follows Tsunoda Ichiro in seeing the work exclusively as a poetic exercise in Chinese court verse, this would conveniently allow the seemingly out of place continental motifs and descriptions of nomadic lifestyle which appear in the poem to be explained as licence (Tsunoda, 1964: 331-335).

To a very great degree, the Kawatake and Inoura argument, that the text refers to an identifiable moment in Heian period cultural development, still seems to be the most commonly held belief in both Japanese academic and folklore circles. Supported by the work of such well-respected scholars as Honda Yasuji (Honda, 1960: 29) and Mori Shinroku (Mori, 1965: 52), the existence of Masafusa’s Kuiraishi provides a very convenient, ritualistic and wholly ‘folk’ starting point for the development of puppet theatre customs. As a result, it still persists as a plausible explanation, especially in the folk art community, where scholarship is often required to conform to the self-mythologising of unlettered, but proud performers.

Indeed, according to Ikehara Yukio, the resilience of the Masafusa-poem-as-founding-myth may be found very much in the way that the Japanese academic establishment and the groups which are perceived to have descended from the Kuiraishi have collectively negotiated the meaning of the text as a way to put a much-needed sense of closure on certain revived folk customs, each supporting the other in pursuit of their own redefinition of Masafusa’s puppeteers.

Everyone needs a beginning. Everyone needs a founder. It is important to the way [the Japanese] think about things. I doubt that our own founder [Yanagii Juzō] had this exact poem in mind when he set up his first little performance. It was only afterwards, once he had a theatre and time to think about how he fitted into the established history that he, like many others picked up [the Kuiriashi-no-ki] and saw how much potential these puppeteers had. […] Masafusa had sited his poem around the courts, but he did not say who [Kuiriashi] really were, or what they really did, or who their masters really were or anything important. Their lives are largely unwritten, and open to anyone who might claim them. So Master Juzō did claim them for the Saibata, and so do I, for Takenoko. (Ikehara Yukio: Director, Takenoko/Dekojuku Saibata Puppet Theatre. Interview with the author January 15 2002.)

This is especially important because, in most cases, accurate histories for such properties do not exist and the temptation for their revivers to extrapolate backwards to a suitable starting point, whether or not their choice can be justified, has often proved to be all too tempting, as is the case with the National Bunraku Theatre.6

Certainly the Masafusa poem does provide an exceptional example of folk arts as part of Japan’s classical period. The poem, being regionally specific, has allowed art groups in the areas mentioned to take up the Kuiraishi as something akin to folk heroes, whose work stands as validation for the contemporary activities of so-called ‘allied’ groups. It is also a socially vague text, in that the narrative seems to place the culture of the puppet stage somewhere between the common and elite environments, and has allowed groups concerned with burakumin7 rights, folk cultural revival and even elite art to claim the Kuiraishi traditions as their own, often simply labelling established properties as Kuiraishi in an attempt to give them valid cultural boundaries (Yoshino and Murakoshi, 1977: 47-48).

It might even be fair to say that because of the artificially crafted reality which now surrounds it, the Kuiraishi-no-ki has ceased to be the subject of much research and has become an object of faith for the various groups which wish to prove or disprove it, and for native performance cliques whose members wish to exploit its pedigree to bring credibility to their work. Indeed the text is now so deadlocked interpretively that it has become, as Jane Marie Law suggests, totally impenetrable, with most agents on both sides of the argument having abandoned any attempt at rational debate and simply standing by, or condemning, the Kuiraishiki work, seemingly dependent only on how successful they have been in negotiating access to the Masafusa signification (Law, 1997: 103).

Perhaps it is because of the complex nature of this work that very few people outside Japan have taken up the Masafusa poem as part of either research into puppet theatre or as part of the broader issue of early Japanese interactive social development. Donald Keene did address this issue in his overview work Bunraku in the 1960s, but only to the extent that he acknowledged that many scholars in Japan viewed the poem as being historically accurate. This seems to be due to the highly inaccessible nature of the poem itself. The work is poorly supported by contemporary records, neither are there any commercial translations or commentaries currently available to inspire further interest in the west. Moreover, being the focus of so much academic acrimony in modern Japan seems to have made use of the Kuiraishi-no-ki difficult in any serious context.

However, in the last few years, Jane Marie Law has turned to the document, and her intriguing notion concerning the purpose of Masafusa’s poem not only seems to balance out the problems associated with the hostile debate between the history versus fiction argument, but also expands the importance of the Kuiraishi-no-ki as a contextual tool for understanding changing perceptions of common Japanese culture.

Law’s hypothesis holds that the poem is factual to the degree that it was actually inspired by the lives of a wide variety of historical itinerant entertainers and ritual specialists, including puppeteers, but that these groups have been signified in such a way by Masafusa that their individual lifestyles have been merged in the author’s poem and all appear under the same banner of Kuiraishi to him. Everything about his description of these people is distant and mysterious, tied into Heian society very superficially and only in ways which secure the myth of the poem to the audience. Masafusa’s fondness for Chinese literary motifs, for example, though probably only internally recognisable to his peers at court,8 are the most extreme example of this, but he does not limit his writing to such word games. Placing the main force of his kuiraishi in the sparsely populated and wilder regions of the land he is emphasising the peripheral, even foreign, nature of his performers, as these areas were, in the eleventh century, the frontier between the Yamato-Uji and the island’s as yet unconquered clans.

Even Masafusa’s choice of name—Kuiraishi/kugutsu—seems wholly appropriate for his puppeteers because of the very liminal qualities it possessed in the language of the Heian period, carrying several distinct definitions9 which lent magical qualities to these puppeteers. It was something of a generic term that could be used to describe many things, and it is this that may have been the reason why Masafusa selected the term to describe his own generic Other, for these people were truly Kuiraishi to him, no matter what they might have been within the larger context of Heian society: they were his puppets, strung up to his pen and subject to his will.

Fundamentally though, the fact that the kuiraishi probably never existed as Masafusa imagined them is of little importance when compared to the influence that the signification of otherness which he seems to have imposed on his puppeteers had on subsequent generations. He had created a group, he had named it and given it a reality based on his preferred understanding of outcaste peoples in general. For many, this view must have come to have some value, especially if, as often happens with the work of the writer, the generations which followed Masafusa mistook the original intent of the poem, possibly as unknown to them as it is to us, as historical fact.


It is clear that the ritual puppeteer had become, by the end of the Heian period, a very powerful cultural icon in the central regions of Japan. Whether they were considered outcaste or touched by the gods, the fact remains that they were part of a very select group of people, who could negotiate contact between kami, who were worshipped out of dread of their contagious power, and mankind. Whether people admired or hated the ritual puppeteer, it is clear that, like Ōe Masafusa, the population of the country was fascinated with their work, and it is this interest in the ritual aspects of puppeteering, that might best explain the popularity of the puppet’s secular incarnation in the theatre.

Thus, the real worth of the Kuiraishi-no-ki as a document—indeed, perhaps of Japanese puppets as a concept—is its ability to contain significations of both the self and the other within permanently prepared cultural vessel. Just as the kami and mortals can exist equally within the stylised face of the puppet, we can see, in this work on the puppeteers of the Heian borderlands, the reader’s own place in the universe made small.

This, of course is the purpose of all art.

Art openly challenges our perceptions of being and the ways in which we understand our part in the world as a whole.

To see an actor on stage, or read of a character in even a simple poem, is to experience one particular response to the nature of reality. However, when faced with the concept of a puppet the issue becomes far more complex. Puppet art adds a most disturbing dimension to the expression of life, that of involuntary action. It places those who witness it into the position of having to address the fact that the course of human development is actually a series of reactions to situations over which the agents within have no substantial control. Perhaps the Kuiraishi and their puppets, as described by Masafusa were conceived as nothing more than a mildy amusing swipe at the liberties enjoyed by the lowest in the land, contrasted against the captive existence of the highest. However, in the centuries since Masafusa passed away, these ephemeral Others have become representative of the way in which puppets in Japan are actually signified.

For example, as powerful as Ebisu was in himself, when confined within the frame of a puppet he became controllable and subservient to mankind, which is perfectly expressed by his handlers being drawn from the lowest social rank available. Yet, how could a signification of a kami like Ebisu, be transformed into a secular puppet? How could a ritual for pollution control evolve into dramatic theatre? The answer in this case seems to lie in the very real spiritual connection between puppet and character, which, as will be demonstrated, relies heavily on the unique way in which Japanese puppets, and their Kuiraishi handlers—both ancient and modern—do more than merely ‘symbolise’.

Addendum 1 — Kuiraishi-no-ki [傀儡子記] by Ōe Masafusa [大江匡房] (c. 1070)

Figure 1. Kuiraishi-no-ki [傀儡子記] by Ōe Masafusa [大江匡房] (c. 1070).

Ashmore, Figure 1

Original Japanese text drawn from: Yamagishi Tokuhei, Ed. (1994) 古代政治社会思想 [Ancient Political and Social Thought], Tokyo, Iwanami Shoten. (pp 158-159).

Addendum 2 — Kuiraishi-no-ki [傀儡子記] by Ōe Masafusa [大江匡房] (c. 1070). Translation by the author, with Elm Sano and Ellen Usui

Kuiraishi are folk without anywhere to call a home, and erect their tents at will under the heavens, as water and fodder demand—much in the manner of the horse-peoples [of North China]. Kuiraishi men are masters of the horse-bow and some among them juggle swords, or many balls, and even fight wrestling bouts with fine peach-wood puppets. Their skill is such that these puppets seem as if they are alive, and these performances come close to those of the Fish and Dragon Artists of China.*

They can change dirt or stones into gold coins, and transform grass or wood into animal forms amazing the eyes of onlookers. Kuiraishi girls paint their eyes, in order to appear dour and sombre. Yet, they swing their hips as the walk, and shockingly bare their teeth when they smile, even using red powders on their cheeks for effect. Their actions hint at sexual pleasure, and they use their charms to lure young men to their arms.

Their parents, even their husbands all see these facts but do not castigate them. Indeed, they collude with these young women in making matches with many travellers, who certainly seem willing to pay for the company of such lovelies. Indeed, men who are smitten in this way will offer gifts of money, costly cloth, hairpins and lacquered boxes to these girls. [This is understandable as] I doubt if a living person could not see such experiences as worthy.

The Kuiraishi have not a single plot of land to till, nor do they gather even a single twig of Mulberry. As a result they have no obligations to the government and are, in all ways masterless folk, [not caring for] the names of those who rule over the land.

[Indeed,] the rulers themselves know nothing of them either, which fact they seem to celebrate, as it frees them from all obligations. In such celebrations they sing and dance nightly, in worship of their hundred patron spirits. Chief of these spirits is a male deity with an head.

The Kuiraishi have great influence in Eastern provinces of Mino, Mikawa and Tōtōmi. However, other bands of Kuiraishi live to the south of the mountains [of the Japanese Alps] in the province of Harima, and yet more small groups can also be found in the West, in Saikai and Tajima, which are considered to be the lowliest of these folk.

Some of Kuiraishi women are renowned, and their names are are Komi, Nichi-yaku, Sanzensai, Manzai, Kogimi and Magogimi. They kick up great deal of dust when they sing and buildings are shaken to the rafters by their voices. Men watching their performances are greatly aroused and soak [chew?] the tassels of their hats. Farming songs, poetry, songs of travel, rituals, Buddhist chants, river songs, and folk songs they sing. They know an uncountable number of such refrains.

The Kuiraishi are but one of the innumerable things under the heavens. How could a person fail to be moved by their lives?

Notes on the translation

* The yulong manyan zhixi [transformation of fish and dragons].


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[1] While Sanbaso is often seen alone, he also appears either with a twin brother, or in the company of two other kami, Okina and Senzai. With forms taken from the no these kami are often viewed as land bound counterparts to Ebisu by performers and supplicants.

[2] At another point in the interview, Master Sadatoshi classified a miko as ‘a maiden of between twelve and twenty five years, without physical blemish or sexual experience’.

[3] The most popular belief holds that Tokugawa Iemitsu, second Edo period shogun, and one of his priestly advisors, Tenkai, created the group from powerful ekibyōgami as exemplars of the duality of mankind. Each of the gods manifests in both positive and negative guises. Jurojin, represents longevity, but also has the power to cut a person’s life short by erasing him from his role of the living. Daikoku, controls the wealth of the nation, but can be as miserly as he is can be generous. Fukurokujin, represents chimerical popularity. Benten, a popular kami with entertainers, represents both skill and jealously. The soldierly Bishamon guards treasures of all kinds, but is prone to being violently covetous. Hotei, while the source of human magnanimity can also be greedy and rapacious. Finally, Ebisu, as has been said, controls not only the bounty of the seas, but is also the source of health (and disease) as well as both faces of outsiders, both fearful and friendly.

[4] His main guise, the jovial fisherman, might also be considered a marginal or foreign persona. Fishermen were, in the Nara/Heian periods considered to be outcaste peoples for many reasons. Dwelling on the margins of society, working in an environment which in itself is a signification of otherworldly power, and seen as able to negotiate access to that inconstant reality with ease.

[5] Ebisu is often connected to Hiruko-no-kami, the Leech Child of Izanagi and Izanami, one of their first offspring which was rejected because of the inauspicious way that its parents conceived him.

[6] Even though the modern theatre possesses no direct connection with the Takemoto-za, either through lineal descent or legal inheritance, it has not stopped its directors from claiming to be the direct heirs to the three masters (Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Takemoto Gidayu and Takeda Izumo II) who effectively created modern ningyō jōruri in the Edo period. However, this might be said to have stemmed from the claim that Uemura Bunrakuken I made for his first theatre at Takatsu, in as much as he had hired some of the last surviving students of the old Takemoto-za masters and used positive public signification of that connection as justification for styling his Bunrakuken-za as the successor to the great theatre of Takemoto Gidayu.

[7] In recent years, bodies such as the Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute (部落解放・人権研究所) have become ever more active in the area of cultural re-negotiation, bringing the plight of modern day outcaste people to notice by highlighting the way in which Japanese society in general has co-opted many elements of what they feel is buraku culture.

[8] The most problematic aspect of dealing with such old texts is correctly placing the modern reader amid the social and cultural significations of the intended audience.

[9] In the few eleventh century references left to us, it is made clear that kugutsu can stand for puppet, puppeteer, and puppeteering equally as well as for a variety of ritual figurines, tomb offerings etc.

About the Author

Darren Jon Ashmore was educated at the University of Sheffield, where he gained a PhD in Cultural Anthropology in the specific area of Japanese traditional theatre. His main area of research is the survival and revival of Japanese theatre arts and he has a special interest in the history of puppet theatre. He is currently Head of Japan Studies at Akita International University.

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