Nō Masks; From the Truman Warner Anthropological Collection
In the 8th century, a Chinese performance art called Nong (能 skill/craft) made its way to Japan. Nong often consisted of acrobats, jesters, and jugglers, and could rightly be described as a form of circus.
In Japan, this art was dubbed Sarugaku (猿楽 monkey music) and eventually absorbed a number of other traditional Japanese crafts, which were already popular with the peasants and nobles alike.
In the Muromachi period (1336-1573), Sarugaku became divided into two separate art forms, the one being Nō (能 skill/talent), and the other being Kyōgen (狂言 wild words). While Nō is characterized by an emotional gravity, Kyōgen is distinctly comedic in nature.
In the late 1300s, the actor, playwright, and musician Kan'ami, along with his son Zeami, are credited with having formalized Nō theater. They set down the stylistic, theoretical, and practical guidelines of the art; guidelines which have gone almost untouched for 700 years.