Japanese puppet theatre company. Awaji, a small island in the Inland Sea near Kobe and Osaka, is historically speaking one of the major sites of Japanese puppetry. The experts diverge somewhat on the origins. However, they generally agree that musicians who settled in Awaji during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) and specialized in the ritual bugaku court dance are central to the story. These musicians adapted and incorporated the traditional puppets of the area into their ritual performances at religious centres, such as Shitennō in Osaka. Moreover, there are close connections between the puppeteers of the island and the sanctuary of Settsu Nishinomiya, between Osaka and Kobe, the centre of the Ebisu cult (initially, Ebisu was the protector of fishermen, and later was associated with commercial prosperity).

The Awaji puppetry became established as a prayer for safety at sea and for bounty when fishing. According to documents that have been preserved by the Hikita family of puppeteers, it is said that their ancestors went to the Palace and performed puppetry in 1570.

The popularity of these performances spread and reached its height at the beginning of the 18th century, when over forty troupes with over one thousand actors toured not only on Awaji Island but in all provinces. Until World War II these practices were part of the daily life of the inhabitants of the island, with puppeteers travelling from village to village, house to house, to dance the puppets and earn the divinities’ blessings. The spectacles were also performed for local festivals, in the sanctuaries, on the beaches or elsewhere.

Unlike classic Bunraku (ningyō jōruri) which is played indoors, the Awaji puppet performances were normally performed outdoors. These conditions favoured more exaggerated movement and larger puppets. This flamboyant style is particularly suited to historical plays or jidaimono, which are the major repertoire. Instantaneous scene transformations and quick changes or ishoyama are specialties. The theatre still has traces of the original Shinto ritual for peace and prosperity in the land and long life for its people, especially with the sacred dance of Ebisu and the dance of the Three Old Men – Okina (white-masked old Man), Senzai (1,000 year-old man, but portrayed as a young man), and Sambasō (black-masked old man).

The technique and style of Awaji is similar to Bunraku, with puppets handled by three manipulators and the recitative accompanied by shamisen (a three-stringed lute) or with the koto (a zither with thirteen strings), and a taiko drum often makes a contribution. A significant role is played by women artists, who include remarkable chanters and musicians, imparting an added attraction to these performances.

In 1964, the foundation of the Awaji Puppet Theatre formed a permanent company with a fixed theatre building, which assures the future of the theatre. This troupe inherited the puppets and props of Yoshida Denjirō, a celebrated manipulator of the mid-18th century. The troupe is made up of ten men and eight women. Among them is Tsurusawa Tomoji, a shamisen musician named an intangible cultural asset of Japan (1998), the highest official award. The troupe promotes the art through tours in Japan and abroad, as well as school demonstrations and other educational activities.

(See Japan.)