Why Kabuki is An Important Japanese Heritage

Every country has its own rich history and culture that it is proud to have. Through the course of history, there were several events that have transpired that made what every country is today. Because of this history and culture, the environment and the way the citizens of each country speak, act, and interact with other people have been developed. Among the many countries in the world that brims with history and cultural heritage is Japan. The country is famous for a lot of things with its culture being among the top. Tourists from all over the world visit Japan just to be able to experience and be immersed in the Japanese culture. Among the various aspects that compose the Japanese heritage is the kabuki; watching a kabuki is definitely among the top recommendations for tourists who wish to experience and somehow understand the theatre experience in Japan.

The History Behind Kabuki

Kabuki is a traditional drama involving singing and dancing in theaters in Japan. The word “kabuki” is composed of three kanji characters, namely, 歌 that translates to sing, 舞 that translates to dance, and 伎 that translates to skill, specifically of a performer in a kabuki play. Hence, kabuki is often explained as “the art of singing and dancing.” Some believe that the word “kabuki” was also derived from the word “kabuku,” which means either “to lean” or “to be out of the ordinary.” Hence, kabuki can be seen as “avant-garde” or “bizarre” in a theatrical sense.

The idea of kabuki was founded in the year 1603 by Izumo no Okuni. This new style of dance drama was first performed in the dry riverbeds of Kyoto in the 17th century. During this time, the country was under the power of Tokugawa Ieyasu of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Tokugawa regime later on relocated from Kyoto to the city of Edo, also known as Tokyo of today, which marked the beginning of the Edo period. During the popularization of this theatrical style in this era, female actors played both the parts of male and female characters in comic storylines that was based on ordinary life. Because of the growing popularity of this style, Okuni was asked to perform kabuki before the Imperial Court.


Soon after, several rival troupes were formed just to perform this style of dance drama and they even created suggestive themes for the audience to enjoy. Another reason why kabuki was so popular during this century was also because the performers of these dramas were also sometimes available for prostitution. Hence, kabuki was also known as “遊女歌舞妓” or prostitute-singing and dancing performer during this time. The popularity further grew until kabuki became a normal type of entertainment in registered red-light districts in Japan such as Yoshiwara. Not only did kabuki provide entertainment and great performances, but it was also a source of the latest fashion trends. Kabuki was so famous during the Edo period that performances were made from morning until the sun went down.

On the other hand, these kabuki performances, also called onna-kabuki or women’s kabuki, were later on banned by the government in the year 1629 due to them being too erotic. What followed the onna-kabuki was the wakashü-kabuki, which were kabuki performances featuring young boys as the actors. However, these, too, were banned due to the young boys also being available for prostitution. Following this event, kabuki was then performed by adult male actors instead, which was called yaro-kabuki or young man kabuki. Performances were present all over Japan with the Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za, and Kawarazaki-za theatres among the most popular theatres in ukiyo.

Come the Genroku period, kabuki flourished. Formalization of the structures and elements of style of kabuki was established during this time. Orthodox characters and extravagant forms of puppet theatre known as bunraku were also established during this era. Bunraku was closely connected to kabuki and played a role in its development. Among the first professional kabuki playwrights famous for his works was Chikamatsu Monzaemon, who had made a name for himself and produced multiple kabuki works with the most popular being Sonezaki Shinjū or The Love Suicides at Sonezaki. This was originally written for bunraku but was adapted for kabuki.

However, drought struck during the Edo period in the 1840s. Because theatres then were made of wood, many theatres burned down due to the constant fires. Due to the fire crisis in the year 1842, the shogunate forced kabuki performances and actors out of the city. Kabuki performers, however, were not deterred. They began performing in kabuki “underground,” constantly changing locations so as to hide from the authorities. The new location of the theatres was called Saruwaka-chō or Sarukawa-machi, in reference to the last thirty years of the Tokugawa regime. This location became the new district for Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za, and Kawarazaki-za theatres. It was later on renamed after the person who introduced Edo kabuki in the Nakamura theatre in the year 1924 known as Saruwaka Kanzaburo.

The Tokugawa regime fell apart in the year 1868 and Emperor Meiji restored his place in power. Known as the Meiji period, this era marked a new beginning for Kabuki. After returning to the ukiyo of Edo, kabuki grew radical and developed during this time. Modern styles of kabuki emerged while several new playwrights with radical themes and twists on conventional stories developed. On April 21 of the year 1887, the Meiji Emperor sponsored a kabuki performance, which proved the success of kabuki performers of transitioning from conventional to modern styles and of increasing its reputation in the eyes of locals and foreigners. While kabuki was briefly banned by colonials after the Second World War because of its unwavering support for Japan’s war since the year 1931, this ban was lifted in the year 1947.

Kabuki as Art: Demon Masks, Makeup, and Dolls

Kabuki is best known for its very elaborate masks and makeup styles worn by the actors. Demon masks in kabuki were often painted in either red or blue. These masks also often had one, two, or three eyes and a mouth with fangs. Because these were supposedly demons, then, of course, they also had horns. A modern example of these demons is the Namahage Demon of the Akita Prefecture. These demon masks are worn by young men during the traditional Lunar New Year celebration to scare the children to listen to their parents. While these masks look scary in appearance, they are believed to bring good fortune when appeased.

Now, one of the most important aspects of kabuki performances is the makeup. Kabuki performers apply makeup on their own as the process allows the performer to personify the character that will be played. Oils and waxes are first applied on the skin for adherence then a thick layer of white makeup made of rice powder known as oshiroi is layered on top to cover the whole face. Different shades of oshiroi are applied on the face of the performer depending on the age, class, and gender of the character to be played. Then, red and black lines are drawn to outline the eyes and the mouth of the performer with styles and shapes varying depending on the gender of the character. As for special characters like the supernatural heroes and villains of the play, a special style of makeup called kumadori is applied on their faces, with dramatic lines and different colors with their own meanings. There are also portrait dolls of well-known kabuki actors dressed in silk court costumes that can be collected by avid fans of the play.

Embodying Kabuki: Actors, Music, and Dance

Kabuki actors were initially female during the Edo period then later on transitioned to young male actors. However, after both were banned by the government after some time, kabuki transitioned to adult male actors performing both male and female characters. Male actors performing as female characters were known as onnagata or oyama. Back then, young adolescent males were preferred for the role as they were less masculine in appearance and had a higher pitch voice. Furthermore, wakashū or adolescent male roles were also played by males who were seen as attractive as these characters were played in an erotic context. The first well-known onnagata was Yoshizawa Ayame.

The important characters of the play are usually placed on the left side of the stage or the kamite while the supporting characters are placed on the right side of the stage of the shimote. These actors also perform kata or forms, which have been executed through the history of kabuki, such as mie or striking an attitude. This is demonstrated by crossing one’s eyes and having an exaggerated expression on one’s face to give that dramatic effect. Actors may also incorporate aragoto or the rough style of acting as it exaggerates the performance of the actors.

As for the music, it is performed live by shamisen players and the hayashi, a group of musical performers specifically for the accompaniment for kabuki theatre or Noh. Kabuki music is divided into three categories, namely, geza, shosa-ongaku, and ki and tsuke. Geza is composed of music and other sound effects that are played on the right side of the stage just behind a black bamboo curtain known as a kuromisu. On the other hand, shosa-ongaku is not just about the music but the dance as well. It is composed of Takemoto, Nagauta, Tokiwazu, and Kiyomoto styles of music. The first style is accompanied by acting while the last three are accompanied by dancing in kabuki. Last but certainly not the least are the ki and tsuke. These two are basically distinct sounds created by two square oak boards. The ki sound is produced by striking the two oak boards together while the tsuke sound is produced by striking both oak boards against a hardwood board. Along with the music, at least a single shosagoto dance number is to be expected. Dance scenes in the play are usually accompanied by significant and dramatic musical pieces.

Kabuki in the Present Times

After the Second World War, many rejected anything that had to do with the past. However, Director Tetsuji Takechi produced innovations relating to the kabuki classics and reintroduced these performances in the Kansai region. These performances were also called Takechi Kabuki. Among the leading performers in his productions was Nakamura Ganjiro III, also known as Nakamura Senjaku in his first few performances, who was highly popular at the time. Due to this, the kabuki in Osaka during this period was also called the “Age of Senjaku.”

At present, kabuki is still highly popular with the masses. Centering on the conventional styles of Japanese drama, actors in kabuki also perform not just on stage but also as star actors in television and film roles. An example of this is the famous onnagata Bandō Tamasaburō. Kabuki is not only performed in theatres but is also portrayed in Japanese pop culture such as anime. There are several major theatres in Tokyo and Kyoto and small ones in Osaka and in other parts of the country that showcase the arts and performances of kabuki. Unlike in yaro-kabuki, kabuki performances today may also include female actors to play the onnagata roles. In fact, there is an all-female troupe known as the Ichikawa Shōjo Kabuki Gekidan that debuted in the year 1953 in kabuki performances.

The appeal of kabuki further developed in the year 1975 with the introduction of earphone guides and an English version in the year 1982. Due to the increasing popularity and demand for kabuki performances, the Kabuki-za, one of the most famous kabuki theatres in Tokyo, began kabuki performances shown all year round starting in the year 1991. Kabuki cinema films were also marketed in the year 2005. Now, several kabuki troupes tour all over Asia, Europe, and America. Japanese writer Yuko Mishima initiated the practice of kabuki in the modern context and also reintroduced other Japanese traditional arts like Noh. Kabuki troupes were also established outside Japan such as the Za Kabuki from Australia.

The significance of kabuki is known worldwide. Hence, it is not surprising that it was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in the year 2005. Being able to watch a kabuki performance live should definitely be on one’s list when visiting the Land of the Sun. The kabuki experience is most certainly unlike any other and the opportunity to watch and enjoy the performance should not be passed up.