An Imperial Retainer (waki) and his Followers (waki-tsure) are on their way back to the Capital after a New Year pilgrimage at the Kumano temple-shrine complex (present-day Wakayama prefecture). The traditional Japanese New Year (according to the lunar calendar) is called ‘shinshun’ or ‘new spring’, and occurred in February, with the first month of the year extending between February and March. The Retainer to take a detour to Naniwa (present-day Osaka prefecture), where they meet an Old Man (shite in the first act) and a Young Man (tsure in the first act) sweeping under a plum tree, praising the peace in the realm. As the Retainer questions the men about the plum tree, they explain how Wani, a Korean literate who served under the Emperor Nintoku, read a poem celebrating the plum of Naniwa. The men also praise Emperor Nintoku’s peaceful and prosperous reign, and its capital Naniwa. Finally, the Old Man reveals to be the Spirit of Wani, while the Young Man is the spirit of the plum tree. They promise to appear again and show him an auspicious dance, then they leave.
A Local Man (ai-kyōgen, in other versions of the play Spirit of the Plum, or the God of a Subsidiary Shrine) appears and relates stories about Emperor Nintoku, or the plums of Naniwa.
As the night draws near, music is heard coming from the plum branches. The Spirit of Wani (shite in the second act) and the Goddess Konohanasakuya-hime (tsure in the second act) appear and dance auspiciously, praying for everlasting peace across the realm.
“Naniwa” is a First Category play (Deity Noh) praising the reign of Emperor Nintoku, a legendary figure who is conventionally thought to have lived between 313 and 399. The capital of Nintoku’s realm was Naniwa. The original manuscript of the play signed by Zeami Motokiyo (the actor and dramaturg who perfected the art of noh in the late 14th century) has been transmitted until today. Scholars think that the play was written in order to praise the govern of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimochi.
The famous poem “At Naniwa Bay / the trees are dressed in blossoms / the winter-shrouded / trees are now dressed in blossoms / to tell the world spring has come” (tr. H. McCollough Kokinshū. 1985, 27) mentioned by the Retainer thematically characterize the play. This poem is thought to have been recited by the Korean scholar Wani on the occasion of Nintoku’s enthronement. The poem is part of the imperial collection of poems “Kokinwakashū”, in which the late enthronement of the Naniwa Prince (Nintoku) is compared to the buds on the plum trees in winter. After his enthronement, Nintoku brought peace and prosperity, which is compared with the fragrance of plum blossoms spreading across the realm.
Historically, the plum tree was brought from the continent during the Nara period (710-794), during which it was considered a refined and exotic plant. The Naniwa harbor was an entry-point for Chinese and Korean culture toward Japan, as well as the port from which boats carrying envoys to the continent left. To Zeami’s contemporaries, the play “Naniwa”, and its protagonist, the Korean scholar Wani, represented an exotic world between fantasy and reality.
In addition, in the second half of the play the Goddess Konohasakuya-hime appears and dances. After her, the Spirit of Wani, dances the ‘kami-mai’, a vigorous dance accompanied by auspicious words. In schools other than Kanze, the dance performed by the Spirit of Wani is the ‘gaku’, associated with non-Japanese characters. However, in the Kanze school performance variant ‘kakko-dashi-no-den’, Wani dances the ‘gaku’.