Aspects of Japanese Puppetry and "Foundation Modern Puppet Centre"
by Fumiko Matsuzawa

Foundation Modern Puppet Centre was founded in 1968 by Puppet Theatre Hitomiza. We like to say that puppetry is thriving in Japan more than anywhere in the world. More than two and a half million theatregoers every year enjoy the puppetry of some eighty professional puppet companies. There are no associations, so we don't know exactly how many amateur puppet groups exist in Japan, but there could be as many as two or even three thousand. Led by Bunraku, there are also many traditional puppet shows—puppet show activity is lively in Japan. Though only Bunraku is well known among them, there are six or seven professional traditional puppet theatres and about 200 traditional puppet theatres are active overall.

According to the researchers, there are extant documents and puppets from some 770 troupes.

In these circumstances, we at the Foundation have been engaged with traditional puppetry as well as with modern puppet performances; we have introduced and invited puppet shows from Japan and other countries; we have produced original puppet shows, workshops, and exhibitions. The mission of the Centre is: to publicize the art of puppetry and its extreme attractiveness; to create puppet shows and pursue deeper artistry in the genre; and, to establish the role of puppetry in society.

Performance Activities

In our Foundation, we are doing the planning for two groups: Hitomi-za Otome Bunraku and Deaf Puppet Theatre Hitomi.

HITOMI-ZA Otome Bunraku

Hitomiza Otome Bunraku presents traditional Japanese puppet shows, Ningyo Joruri; the group has presented performances and workshops in Japan and other countries. While a bunraku puppet is manipulated by three male puppeteers, an otome-bunraku puppet is performed by a solo female puppeteer. In the sense of a young woman as "young girl," the term literally means "bunraku by women." In appearance it is similar to a bunraku puppet, but its mechanism has been restructured to fit the solo puppeteer. The three-puppeteer style enables rich and delicate expression that is highly recognized worldwide today; on the other hand, otome bunraku is the method by which a solo puppeteer can achieve the same effect.

Otome bunraku performances are performed by gidayu, just as with bunraku. And just as otome bunraku is performed by women, gidayu music is also played by women. A gorgeous stage setting is also a feature.

Past Performances Overseas 
2000 New York, USA (Jim Henson Festival)
2000 Quanzhou, CHINA
2001 Kaohsiung, CHINESE TAIPEI
2002 Bangkok, THAILAND
2005 New Delhi, INDIA
2007 Moscow, Omsk, Yekaterinburg, Tyumen, Tomsk, RUSSIA
2010 Tolosa, SPAIN
2010 Alacant, SPAIN
2012 Maribor, SLOVENIA
2013 Košice, SLOVAKIA
2013 Sibiu, ROMANIA
2013 Sarajevo, BOSNA and HERZEGOVINA
2014 Copenhagen DENMARK

Deaf Puppet Theatre 

Hitomi Founded in 1980, here deaf persons and the hearing collaborate on the art of puppetry. With the special abilities of deaf persons, who are not bound by spoken language, the company was established in order to seek new avenues for expression in puppetry. The project's goals are to have a positive impact on both social welfare and theatre arts. In our world, such a puppet group is a rarity, and it has received numerous awards. The quality of their shows improved, and it has performed in Japan and other countries.

Hitomi has created more than twenty productions since its founding, with more than fifty performances a year. These are enjoyed by the deaf as well as by hearing audiences of all ages. Many types of workshops are offered each year, and these are popular with both the deaf and hearing communities. Past subjects have included Experiencing Sound, Communicating Without Spoken Language, and Representing the Poem in Sign Language.

Past Performances Overseas 
1988 Oregon, USA
1991 Charleville-Mézières, FRANCE
1991 Poznan, POLAND
1994 Christchurch, Wellington, NEW ZEALAND
1996 Seoul, SOUTH KOREA 2002 Taipei, CHINESE TAIPEI
2004 Chuncheon, KOREA
2007 Phnom Penh, CAMBODIA
2008 Suwon, KOREA

Aspects of Inviting foreign theatre companies

Puppet theatre companies from Asia

Asia is a treasure trove of traditional puppetry. At present, marvelous traditional puppet shows are presented in many places. Since 1993, we had been inviting traditional puppet companies from throughout Asia and introducing their shows throughout Japan, every year, based on our Asian touring and cultural exchanginges.

In presenting foreign companies, we place a high value on creating performance conditions as close as possible to their native settings, so that these productions and activities create, in sum, a true Asian Puppetry Festival in Japan.

Invited theatre companies
South India: Tolpava Koothu
Indonesia: Wayang Golek Cepak
South India: Tolu Bommalata
Chinese Taipei: Po-teihi
Cambodia: Sbek Thom
China: Quanzhou Marionette
Cambodia: Sbek Thom
South India: Kathakali
Japan: Kuroda Ningyo Myanmar: Youk-the Pwe
Laos: Kabong Lao
Chinese Taipei: Legend of the sacred stone
India: Yakshagana Gombeyata
Japan: Higashifutakuchi Bunya Ningyo

Puppet theatre companies from Western countries 

We have been inviting theatre companies from Western countries since 1987—fifty-six theatre companies from twenty countries. The purpose of producing these tours was to introduce excellent puppet shows for children and to create enjoyable experiences for them. These presentations were held throughout Japan, and had great significance to children who have had no opportunity to see the puppet theatre of foreign countries.

Invited theatre companies and independent artists: 
Europe and America
USA:The Huber Marionettes
USA:Pink Inc
UK:Glyn Edwards
Italy:Teatro Gioco Vita
Netherlands:Stuffed Puppet
Netherlands:Sofie Krog Teatre
Spain:Titiritero de Binefar
Czech Republic:Pavel Vangeli
Germany: Raphael Mürle
France:Amoros et Augustin
France:La Compagnie à 
Bulgaria:Plovdiv Puppet Theatre
Peru:Gaia Teatro
Poland:Teatr Animacji


Puppet festivals are held annually in forty to fifty cities in Japan. They differ one to another; In some cities, the local government plans the puppet festival, while in other cases, a volunteer committee in the community organizes the festival. All of them are open to performers and visitors alike, making the art of puppetry familiar to Japanese society with their unique local heritage and energy. The Centre has contributed to the realization of many of those festivals, supporting the organizers in the community. The biggest puppetry festival, called "IIDA PUPPET FESTA" (which just celebrated its 36th anniversary) was started and proposed by our Foundation in 1979. Furthermore, we have been involved in the Osaka International Puppetry Festival, The National Cultural Festival (every year), and many others.

Karakuri-Ningyo : Automaton

The Centre has produced the exhibition of Japanese traditional Karakuri Ningyo. Karakuri Ningyo are puppets with sophisticated mechanisms, that might have been recognized as robots in the old days. Their history can be traced back 300 years, and even today they are performed in traditional festivals all over Japan. The Centre noticed this valuable tradition, and researched the art through field work in local venues. The exhibits are qualified replicas; there are approximately 40 of them available. Each of them may be exhibited any time, accompanied by performances and lectures by experts. Recently, Karakuri Ningyo has been evaluated as one of the roots of Japanese scientific technology, and exhibitions have taken place in various countries in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

Past Exhibitions Overseas 
1991 London, UK
1997 Charleville-Mézières, FRANCE
2002 Abu Dhabi, UAE
2002 Kwangju, KOREA
2005 Kaohsiung, CHINESE TAIPEI
2005 Muscat, OMAN 

Workshop and Open Lecture 

Since 2007 in Japan, the Centre has organized International Exchange Workshops among Asian puppet companies. The goal of the project is; to encourage the puppeteers to learn unique culture and techniques from each other, and to form a humane network for the future. Four sessions of the project have been completed thus far. In addition, the Centre has been doing various workshops in Japan. 

The Centre also periodically organizes an extension program. In Asia, puppet shows developed with a connection to physical performances such as dance or theatre. All of these traditions are included within the major theme of our seminars, symposia, and lecture-demonstrations.


One of the main projects of the Centre is research of puppetry in Japan and overseas. Its results are available to the public through performances, exhibitions and publications. Traditional puppetry is superb in Japan, and many of its practitioners are active in their local communities. The Centre researches the status of Japanese traditional puppetry and how its cultural heritage is maintained. In the other twenty-seven countries in Asia, Europe and America, the Centre researches both traditional and modern puppetry. The Publication project has produced more than forty publications, such as the translation of qualified books on foreign puppetry, journals of traditional puppetry, research reports, etc. Unfortunately, this is the only such publication in the Japanese language. 

Construction and Repairing

The Centre is in charge of rebuilding, repairing and construction of Japanese traditional puppets. Recently, modern artists and contemporary dancers have requested puppets for their creations. The Centre meets various requests, and takes care of puppets through the methods gained through years of study. 

Fumiko Matsuzawa is the director of The Modern Puppet Centre, and has served as the General Secretary of Nihon UNIMA.