OSAKA – Twenty-four boys and girls aged 2 to 12 study kabuki not only to learn the traditional art of singing and dancing but also to familiarize themselves with displaying good behavior.
They sometimes practice 15 times a month in preparation for stage appearances that are held every August in Tokyo and Osaka by Matsuo Juku Kodomo Kabuki, a nonprofit kabuki school for children established in 1988.
“I had sore muscles in my stomach and feet (after the first day of practice),” said Mio Yamano, 9. “I enjoy taking lessons. I’d like to play a male part.”
She joined the school in Tennoji Ward at the start of the new practice year in April and has been studying “kouta” ballads since she was in kindergarten.
The school is run by Hideko Matsuo, 72, and was founded by her late mother, Hazue, who took part in a kabuki theater for women in Tennoji Ward. Kabuki plays are traditionally performed by men.
Matsuo, the school head, said she hopes that boys and girls “learn obligation and compassion — the backbone of Japanese culture — through kabuki.”
The school does not charge monthly fees or expenses for stage performances because the founder wanted the children to feel more involved in its activities instead of feeling they were guests who pay participation fees, she said.
The only bond that ties teachers at the school and students is the children’s “motivation” to study, Matsuo said.
The children go through with their initial lessons learning how to properly bow their heads, exchange greetings and sit on the tatami floor the formal way.
Professionals in the kabuki world serve as teachers, including those who play the shamisen and recite “nagauta,” long epic songs, and others who provide costumes and stage settings for the annual summer performance.
“Teaching (the children) gives me a feeling of the beginner’s spirit I had (when becoming a dancing pro),” said Fujima Ryozo, 62, who teaches the children the fundamentals of traditional Japanese dancing.
A shamisen and nagauta teacher at the school, Toon Nakajima Katsusuke, 66, said: “It’s very hard (for the kids) to play Japanese musical instruments, compared with playing Western instruments. It takes patience to play Japanese instruments.”
Parents encourage their children to join the school as it helps them acquire good behavior.
At 2 years old, Yukino Tada is the youngest and still in diapers. She gets tired on some days and falls asleep in her mom’s lap.
Her mother, while still pregnant with Yukino, came to the school while her son was practicing. She said her daughter learned how to sit and bow properly within a month.
Many parents used to send their children to the school to learn etiquette and good manners, Matsuo said.
However, now a growing number of mothers want to explore traditional Japanese culture together with their offspring, she said.
The annual summer performances are set for Aug. 2 in Tokyo’s National Theater and Aug. 26 in Osaka’s National Bunraku Theater.