Jo-Ha-Kyu & Story (Updated: 05/23/18)

“Every phenomenon in the universe develops itself through a certain progression. Even the cry of a bird and the noise of an insect follow this progression. It is called Jo-Ha-Kyu.” – Motokiyo Zeami (AD 1363 – 1443)¹

The soul of butoh is not really about form alone, but individual essence or story/plot, especially if pulled from the subconscious (subbody). Essentially, the Japanese words Jo-Ha-Kyu involve the three major parts of a story–beginning/opening (thesis), middle/development/thru-line (antithesis), and end/climax (synthesis).¹ For instance, in Tatsumi Hijikata’s Bugs Crawl, we begin with the simple awareness of the situation and a single bug (Jo), then bugs gradually infiltrate (Ha) till there is nothing left but bugs (Kyu), then there is a resurrection (Kyu/New Jo). Sometimes the line between Kyu and a New Jo may be difficult to see. Catharsis, for instance, may be viewed as the climax, but also a new beginning.

Jo is often small due to serving as a trigger, while Ha is quite often very involved, and Kyu also small. Small, however, does not mean less intense, just an initiation or wrap-up. Because of this, it is not unheard of to hear of Jo-Ha-Ha-Ha-…Kyu.

There can be a Jo-Ha-Kyu within the entire span of a piece or there can be a Jo-Ha-Kyu within one qualia, one among several Jo-Ha-Kyus. There can be a Jo-Ha-Kyu in the throwing of a rock. All shadow work especially contains the Jo-Ha-Kyu, and the Kyu is sustainability/catharsis/healing.

For clarity’s sake, let’s take Joseph Campbell’s story circle (The Hero’s Journey) as fit into Dan Harmon’s categories as an example, and identify the Jo-Ha-Kyu.²

  1. You (a character is in a zone of comfort) (Jo)
  2. Need (but they want something) (Jo)
  3. Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation) (Ha)
  4. Search (adapt to it) (Ha)
  5. Find (find what they wanted) (Ha/Kyu)
  6. Take (pay its price) (Kyu)
  7. Return (and go back to where they started) (Kyu/New Jo)
  8. Change (now capable of change) (New Jo)

(As you can see, sometimes the placements of the Jo, Ha, and Kyus are up for interpretation. Not to mention there are meta-Jo-Ha-Kyus within each Jo, Ha, or Kyu.)

Exercise 1: Throwing Jo-Ha-Kyus

As a Jumping Wild exercise, one person throws out various Jo-Ha-Kyus one at a time (first Jo, then Ha, then Kyu). Examples: question, thesis, conclusion / inadequate, adequate, too much / sensation, action, result / birth, life, death.

Exercise 2: Throwing Jo-Ha-Kyu Variations

This is a reduced/deterritorialized Jo-Ha-Kyu Jumping Wild exercise. One person can edit/remix the concept of Jo-Ha-Kyu and one at a time throw either Jo, Ha, or Kyu, but the order may shift. If for instance we throw a Jo followed by another Jo, then the story or scenery is constantly shifting and being felt. Or somebody may call out Jo then Ha, then decide Jo → Ha → Jo then Jo → Ha → Kyu → Jo followed by Jo → Kyu.

Jo as Conflict/Proflict

“Two dogs and one bone.” – Robert Peck

Something happens, a thesis, and this something provokes someone or something to do something. Here are five different types of conflict with examples taken from Tatsumi Hijikata’s butoh writing entitled Sick Dancing Princess, which were childhood memories.

1. Charater Versus Nature

Hijikata stated, “Often, I was about to be eaten by snow, and in the fall, by grasshoppers.”³

2. Character Versus Society/Culture

The princess in Sick Dancing Princess may be dedicated to Hijikata’s kidnapped sister. He mentions his sister under the title “My Sooty Princess.” According to Rhizome Lee, during the Second World War, the Japanese government kidnapped and made her a prostitute for the soldiers. This provoked unfinished business within Hijikata. He had questions. Why did his sister have to leave? Is she dead? Could he take vengeance? Hijikata had to resonate with this sick system did to his sister and him. He dressed in her garments, and did such in his last piece entitled Quiet House.³

3. Character Versus Character

Hijikata noted that he was caught looking at a woman inside a house trying on a kimono, and she looked at him with a “terrible face” and “tight eyes.” He then ran out the back door silently and began looking at a stick, and before he knew it, he had turned into the stick.4

4. Character Versus Self

Hijikata wrote, “The boy as me suddenly became stupid without any intention and kept like a strange brightness, and just barely alive. And yet, my eyes fell into something shady as if they were cursed. I had an excessive curiosity towards such nameless things as lead balls or string.”³

5. Character Versus Technology

Hijikata wrote, “The light bulb in the old days was shaking often. Under the shaking light, a crying woman was seen everywhere. […] I was worried if that crying woman might have been controlling the physical phenomenon.”

Myth & Primitive Narrative

To Geoffrey Galt Harpham (of On The Grotesque), myth is a form of primitive narrative, but is all the more liberated. He mentions, “What distinguishes the primitive narrative is a tendency to treat everything–even the gods, even the dead–as palpable and living presence.”6 Like with animism, everything is alive, so there are endless qualias to resonate with. The usual notion of logic then takes a back seat.

Harphan continues, “Myth is the infancy of narrative, and inhabits more advanced ways of knowing as our own infancies inhabit us. Speaking of . . . sacred time of the Beginnings, before history and profane time, it offers . . . a release from the tensions and alienations of abstraction, healing the self divorced from the raw material of life and providing a tonic affirmation of the wholeness of existence.”6 Hapharm here is speaking of none other than the subbody and how incorporating it into one’s life can be a means of reaching Kyu/New Jo catharsis/therapy/integration/synthesis.


Momiyose is a form of Jo-Ha-Kyu where the Kyu is a condensed culmination of the Jo and Ha. For instance, if it takes a minute or two to open and feel the Jo scenery/qualia, and another 8 to travel the journey of changes (Ha-Ha-Ha), then perhaps one chooses a 1 minute climax merging together (whether linearly or not), everything that occurred within the Jo and Ha.5

Several encounters of near-death experiences have the life review or life flashing before one’s eyes. This is very much like a Momiyose Kyu.


¹ Oida, Yoshi, and Lorna Marshall. The Invisible Actor. London: Methuen, 1997. Print.
² Harmon, Dan. Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details. Channel 101 Wiki.
³ Lee, Rhizome. The Butoh: Dedication to Tatsumi Hijikata. 2018. Page. 338, 340, 342.
Page 414, 415
Page 277
6 Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. On the Grotesque. New Jersey. 1982. Print. Page 54.