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  • Japanese: 序破急 (johakyuu)

Jo-ha-kyû is a concept of modulation and movement applied in a wide variety of traditional Japanese arts. Roughly translated to "beginning, break, rapid", it essentially means that all actions or efforts should begin slowly, speed up, and then end swiftly. This concept is applied to elements of the tea ceremony, to kendô and other martial arts, and to the traditional theatre.

The concept originated in gagaku court music, specifically in the ways in which elements of the music could be distinguished and described. Though eventually incorporated into a myriad of disciplines, it was most famously adapted, and perhaps most thoroughly analysed and discussed by the great Noh playwright Zeami[1], who viewed it as a universal concept applying to the patterns of movement of all things.


In gagaku, where the term originates, jo-ha-kyû was not generally cited as a single term, but as three separate terms, referring to possible portions of musical pieces which might be combined in different ways to form a complete piece. Jo sections were introductory sections, proceeding in a calm and slow manner, and lacking a set rhythmic scheme. Ha sections proceeded at a measured pace and featured a set rhythmic scheme. Kyû sections possessed a faster tempo, and a set rhythmic scheme. It was not necessary to include all three, jo, ha, and kyû sections, for a gagaku piece to be considered a complete performance piece.[2]

Gagaku music was also used to accompany bugaku dances. When this was done, a jo section accompanied the dancers as they entered, and the dance itself was performed to ha and kyû musical sections.[2]


It is perhaps in the theatre that jo-ha-kyû is used the most extensively, on the most levels. In following with the writings of Zeami, all major forms of Japanese traditional drama (Noh, kabuki, and jôruri) utilize the concept of jo-ha-kyû in the choice and arrangement of plays across a day, to the composition and pacing of acts within a play, down to the individual actions of the actors.


Zeami, chiefly in his works "Fûshikaden" and "Sandô," described a five-part (five dan) Noh play as the ideal form. It begins slowly and auspiciously in the first part (jo), building up the drama and tension in the second, third, and fourth parts (ha), with the greatest climax in the third dan, and rapidly concluding with a return to peace and auspiciousness in the fifth dan (kyû).[3] In addition, the jo should be relatively simple and straightforward, with the plot and drama being developed in the ha sections, while the kyû portion should be energetic, and come quickly to a close.[2]

Further, as Zeami explained chiefly in his "Kakyô," each of these five-part plays would form one portion of a day's program, which also followed the jo-ha-kyû pacing. In an ideal five-play program, consisting of one play from each of the five categories of Noh pieces, a god play would begin the program auspiciously and straightforwardly, corresponding to the jo, or introduction, of the program. A warrior play would represent the continuation of the jo, transitioning into the ha of the day's performance. The third and fourth plays of the program, typically a woman play[4] and a madwoman or miscellaneous category play respectively, would continue the program, also being considered firmly within the ha portion of the program. Zeami warned that entering the kyû too early in the program, that is, drawing it out over the length of time of more than one piece, would violate the concept of the kyû, which is meant to be a swift ending. Thus, the fifth and final play of the program, typically a demon play or other "ending play," would energetically and swiftly bring the program to a close on an upbeat and exciting note.[2]

Finally, as perhaps most clearly stated in Zeami's Shûgyoku tokuka, the pattern of jo-ha-kyû, starting slowly and straightforwardly, developing and speeding up, and then ending energetically and quickly, was advised to be incorporated into every element of movement, music, or vocalization.[2]


This same conception was later adapted into jôruri and kabuki, where the plays are often arranged into five acts according to the same rationales. Takemoto Gidayû, the great jôruri chanter, was the first to describe the patterns or logic behind the five acts, which parallel as well the five categories of Noh which would be performed across a day.[5]

He described the first act as "Love"; the play opens auspiciously, using gentle themes and pleasant music to draw in the attention of the audience. The second act is described as "Warriors and Battles" (shura). Though it need not contain actual battle, it is generally typified by heightened tempo and intensity of plot. The third act, the climax of the entire play, is typified by pathos and tragedy. The plot achieves its dramatic climax. Takemoto describes the fourth act as a michiyuki (journey), which eases out of the intense drama of the climactic act, and often consists primarily of song and dance rather than dialogue and plot. The fifth act, then, is a rapid conclusion. All loose ends are tied up, and the play returns to an auspicious setting. [6]

Other disciplines


  • Shelley Fenno Quinn, Developing Zeami, University of Hawaii Press (2005), 129-130.
  1. Zeami. "Teachings on Style and the Flower (Fūshikaden)." from Rimer & Yamazaki. On the Art of the Nō Drama. p20.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Quinn, Developing Zeami.
  3. Quinn, Shelley Fenno. "How to write a Noh play - Zeami's Sandō." Monumenta Nipponica, vol 48, issue 1 (Spring 1993). pp58-62
  4. That is, a play with a female leading (shite) role.
  5. Gerstle, Drew (2001). Chikamatsu: Five Late Plays. New York: Columbia University Press. pp16-17.
  6. Gerstle. Ibid.