His head bobs up and down like a cork floating on the ocean. Shoulders hunched, arms vibrating, Kisaku Katada mimics a jazz percussionist performing in a Los Angeles nightclub. Katada, a Japanese virtuoso percussionist, breaks into laughter as he recalls witnessing such an expressive performance.

"I was quite envious," Katada says through an interpreter, explaining that Japanese classical arts have a tradition of nonexpression. "If I performed classical music in that spontaneous way, I would lose my reputation in an instant. Even wiping the sweat off your brow is something that a Japanese musician would never do in front of an audience."

Katada and four other masters of Japanese classical arts are touring America for six weeks with The Classical Performing Arts Friendship Mission of Japan, under the auspices of the University of California at Los Angeles. The National Endowment for the Arts arranged lecture-demonstrations in Los Angeles and New York.

The 23-member troupe will perform Noh (dramatic theater), Nihon Buyo (classical dance), Hayashi (drum and flute ensemble), Kyogen (comic plays) and shamisen (three-stringed lute) tonight and tomorrow at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.

The five mission leaders, highly celebrated artists in Japan, talk enthusiastically about their art forms. Nagayo Kita, master of Noh theater, is wearing traditional summer garb -- what looks like billowy, pleated culottes and a kimono-style jacket.

Noh -- traditionally a one-hour, ceremonious drama -- often bores foreigners, Kita says. "But my composition, 'Omote,' is avant-garde and might even seem shocking," he says. "It's 30 minutes and there are four costume and mask changes in front of everybody's eyes."

Noh actors avoid facial expressions and wear masks that symbolize the character's personality, Kita says. "A really good artist shows emotion through his whole existence, his whole body. The actor becomes the mask and his own personality disappears. It's easier to laugh to show joy. But without laughter, it takes skill to convey joyfulness."

In Japan, actors traditionally inherit their career. "My family was established 400 years ago, about the time of the story 'Shogun,' " says Kita. "I am a direct descendant through 16 generations of Noh performers."

Mansaku Nomura, master of Kyogen, says he finds that Americans react more appreciatively than Japanese to comedy, long considered undignified by the stoic, disciplined samurai class.

"During the Edo period 1603-1867 of samurai rule, it wasn't good behavior to laugh," Nomura says. "There was a saying that you should laugh with only one cheek every three years. Aristocrats and women were not supposed to laugh."

Applause, as well as laughter, is more restrained in Japan, says Nomura. "Americans express their feelings much more freely, so when they applaud heartily, the performer feels that he is becoming one with the audience. The Japanese are more restrained, and they do not do curtain calls. I very much enjoy the American habit of giving applause."

Nomura also comes from an acting family. His father is the sixth of his line to be designated a National Living Treasure, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the Japanese government.

Dancer Chiyo Hanayagi, a self-made master without a family heritage in Nihon Buyo, says, "American classical dance tends to fly heavenward -- up off the ground -- but in Japanese classical dance, you drop your backbone toward the floor, stressing your weight and substance."

Hirokazu Sugiura, master of the three-stringed, long-necked shamisen, composed the music for Hanayagi's solo dance, "Ryojin Hisho." "I tried to compose music that would bring her out best," Sugiura says.

For years, Japanese young people were infatuated with Western music, Sugiura says. But for the past 15 years, there has been a resurgence in popularity of the classical arts, which are being promoted by the government in a "discover Japan" campaign.

"Many contemporary Japanese musicians are now incorporating the classical sound into the contemporary sound," Sugiura says. In the troupe's performances, he says, music is used both for its narrative value and its appeal to the emotions.

All the artists say that American audiences shouldn't be too conscious of the Japanese-ness of the performances, that an understanding of the various arts will come naturally.

"We just want the American people to know that there is another aspect of Japanese culture that contributes to their society other than exporting cars."