Onami (音阿弥)

Onami (Onnami) (1398 - February 15, 1467) was a sarugakuno actor (actor for sarugaku (form of theatre popular in Japan during the 11th to 14th centuries) of Noh (traditional masked dance-drama)) of the Muromachi period. He was also called Saburo-motoshige KANZE. He was the grandson of Kanami and the nephew of Zeami. He was the third Kanze-dayu.


Under very strong support from Yoshinori ASHIKAGA, he became more powerful than Zeami and his child and became active as a head actor throughout almost the entire seventy years of his life. He worked along with Zenchiku KONPARU, who was the son-in-law of Zeami, and laid a path to ensure Sarugakuno as the main art form by pushing aside other art forms, and developed the Kanze school established by his grandfather Kanami and uncle Zeami.

His performance was highly regarded; 'Onami who could be said to be the best of the present day' described by a renga poet (linked-verse poet) Shinkei of the same period, and many manuscripts of that time called him 'skilled in his path' or 'a skilled performer unlike others'; Onami could be interpreted as the expert who surpassed Zeami.

Adoption by Zeami

His biological father was Shiro, who was the younger brother of Zeami. Little is known about the background of this Shiro, and there is a mismatch between the imina (personal name) of Kiyonobu claimed by the manuscript passed down generations, Motonaka claimed by the recent genealogy, and the theory that stated him to be Kyuji. There was a view that he was the 'existence that cannot be seen often' between geniuses Zeami and Onami, but it was known that he inherited "Fushikaden" (The Flowering Spirit) written by Zeami and in recent days it is believed that he served as an assistant who supported the older brother as waki no shite (beside-the-doer role) of Kanze-za (Kanze guild) similar to a standard of a dayu (master). After reaching maturity, his child also fulfilled his duties in the side-role.

Little is clear about the teenage days of Onami, but it could be interpreted that he was adopted by his uncle Zeami at a young age, since the alias he inherited, 'Saburo,' was also used by his grandfather Kanami and uncle Zeami. Soon after, Zeami sired a real son, Motomasa KANZE, but he gave the name 'Saburo' to Onami upon his Genpuku (Coming of Age Ceremony) and at this time Zeami considered Onami to be the successor to the Kanze guild.

Onami, who grew up under such expectations, had records of his activities when he was in his early twenties around 1413, and while young he started participating as the next-generation successor of the Kanze guild.

To Kanze-dayu (Kanze Master)

However, the one who inherited the position of Kanze-dayu in 1422 was his cousin, Motomasa. At this time, Zeami and Motomasa started to stray away from creative activities and were suppressed by Zoami of dengaku (a style of dancing and music performed in association with rice planting) and they began to lose favor from the shogunke (Shogun family). On the other hand, Onami was favored by Shoren-in Monzeki Gien (head priest of Shoren-in temple) and successfully performed kanjin (temple solicitation) sarugaku (a form of theatre popular in Japan during the 11th to 14th centuries) with the support of Gien in 1427.

This Gien returned to secular life to become the Shogun Yoshinori ASHIKAGA in 1429, at which point the destiny of the Kanze guild greatly changed. While Yoshinori strongly supported Onami, he turned a cold eye on Zeami and Motomasa; performances of Zeami and Motomasa at Sento Imperial Palace were cancelled in 1429 and Gakuto-shiki (the right to perform sarugaku) of Daigo-ji Temple, Kiyotaki-miya Shrine was taken away from Zeami to be given to Onami. In addition, Onami performed Takigi-noh (Noh theater performed at night by a fire) at Kofuku-ji Temple of that year as dayu (master) instead of Motomasa, who had served as dayu the previous year. Kofuku-ji Temple adjusted and extended the schedule according to his needs, and which showed how strong his political power was. As a result, activities of Onami started to be called 'Kanzedaiyuryoza' (troupe with Dayu KANZE as leading actor) (観世大夫両座), and he eventually assumed leadership of the Kanze guild.

Meanwhile, Motomasa passed away at Ise in 1432 (there was an assassination theory as well), and Zeami himself was exiled to Sado in 1434. Zeami and Motomasa were removed from the Kanze guild, and Onami officially gained the position of Kanze-dayu in 1433 to become a pioneer in the world of nogaku (the art of Noh).

As Official Actor

The kanjin sarugaku performance of Onami announcing his assignment to the post of dayu was held at Tadasu-gawara (Tadasu Riverbank), Kyoto in April 1433. As people went to pay a visit to Yoshinori celebrating this event, it could be observed that this activity was hosted by Yoshinori and Onami was accepted as the official actor of Shogunke. Feudal lords warmly welcomed Onami to show the will of Yoshinori, and the reception by shogun went without the noh of Onami.

In the heyday of his time, Onami suddenly lost the favor of Yoshinori in 1437. This incident reached even the ears of Imperial Prince Sadafusa, who started '不定之世毎事如此' with surprise, but Onami was forgiven within approximately ten days due to the help of Mitsusuke AKAMATSU.

However, this Mitsusuke AKAMATSU schemed to assassinate Yoshinori in his own palace in 1441 (Kakitsu War). It was in a midst of the noh performance, 'U no ha' (Cormorant plumes) of Onami invited for the party.

Being Disconnected from His Own Path

Onami, who lost his greatest supporter, temporarily fell into poverty and performed Kanjin noh (performances held to raise subscriptions for the construction of shrines or temples) in order to get himself out from that difficult situation. During the Kanjin noh of 1444, he made efforts such as lowering the price of audience seats. On the other hand, he made a claim to the bakufu (government by feudal lord) along with Konparu-za to prevent other za (trade-guilds) from performing sarugaku in Kyo (Kyoto).

However, from around 1452 he began to receive a warm welcome from the child of Yoshinori, Yoshimasa ASHIKAGA. Yoshimasa, who loved and watched noh even during the Onin War, greatly valued Onami and pulled him up to the front stage once again.

Onami passed the position of master to his child, Masamori KANZE, in 1458 when he became sixty years old, and entered priesthood with the homyo (Buddhist name) of 'Onami.'
This name probably represented his self-conceitedness as the successor of Kanami and Zeami (when the first letters of the names are aligned together, they become 'Kanzeon Bosatsu' (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy)). Similar to Zeami, he performed even after entering priesthood, and kanjin sarugaku on Tadasu-gawara was performed by Masamori with the support of Yoshimasa as the Shite (main performer) in twelve out of twenty-nine plays, including 'Kantan' (The Pillow of Kantan, Noh play), 'Koi no Omoni' (The Burden of Love), 'Futari Shizuka' (a couple of the young ladies named Shizuka), and 'Yoro' (Longevity springs, Noh play) in 1464. This performance was viewed by the couple Yoshimasa and Tomiko HINO, Mochimichi NIJO, who held the title of Kanpaku (chief adviser to the Emperor), and powerful Shugo daimyo (Japanese territorial lord serving as provincial constable), showing off the authority of the Kanze guild.
He performed noh in front of Emperor Gohanazono, and made Yoshimasa struck with admiration, as he said, 'he becomes better as he ages.'

However, Onami seemed to worry about the political situation, and his life style was not easy, for it was stated in the records that he visited the Inryoken Household of Sokoku-ji Temple in 1466 and forcefully performed a short song accompanied with shamisen and komai (short dances in Noh farce).

He passed away in the following year of 1467. It was stated in "Yoza yakusha mokuroku" (Catalog of Actors of the Four Noh Troupes) that he became a believer of Sojun IKKYU and received a requiem from him, but this is doubtful. His grave is located at Shuon-an Temple.


Starting from his legitimate child Masamori MATASABURO (Matsumori) who succeeded to the fourth dayu position, his children were Matashiro, Koshiro (or pronounced Shoshiro) (Shirozaemon), Yoshiro (Sokan), Hachiro, Koreshige KANZE (Sukekata), who became the fifth dayu, and KANZE Kojiro Nobumitsu. It was considered for a long time that the fifth generation Koreshige was the child of Masamori, but it is most likely that he was the sixth child of Onami, as written in "Jinsonki" (Diary of Jinson). Except for two brothers who became the Dayu, the rest of the brothers took the roles of attendants, hayashikata (people who play hayashi, or musical accompaniment), or sakuno (noh writers) and supported the successor. Nobumitsu, who was the seventh child of Onami, took the central role of the guild as the Gon no kami (provisional governor).

Influence to Future Generations

The connection between the Kanze guild and bakufu power became definite during his time, and the Kanze school took the opportunity to suppress other schools and take the central part of the world of nogaku.

On the other hand, none of the noh composed by him remained, unlike Kanami, Zeami, and Motomasa who excelled as noh writers (there is a piece of music supposedly composed by 伝音阿弥 but not publicly confirmed), and no densho (books handed down from ancestors) are present (Noyusuchi (能優須知) claimed that he was the author of "Kabuzuinoki" (The Essence of Dance and Song), but this was written by people of current days). Instead, he rose within the Kanze guild as an actor and left his name as the greatest actor even to the present day.

His child KANZE Kojiro Nobumitsu and the child after him, Nagatoshi KANZE, inheriting the flamboyant style of Onami, were active as noh writers and created many pieces of colorful music unlike the mysterious atmosphere of the way of Zeami.

After Masamori, the Kanze-dayu position was succeeded by the descendants of Onami, leading to the current twenty-sixth Kiyokazu KANZE.