The Life and Work of Izumo no Okuni

Izumo no Okuni Biography

Early life and Family

Also generally known as Okuni, Izumo no Okuni is a young woman is known to be the creator and originator of the traditional form of art, dance, and drama known as Kabuki. She was not a person of great influence and it was only by chance that the art form called Kabuki gained great popularity in Japan.

Okuni was born in the early 1500s and was the daughter of a blacksmith that worked near the Izumo Grand Shrine (Izumo Taisha) of the Shimane prefecture. She grew up loving to serve this beloved temple that she eventually became a Miko for the Izumo shrine.

A Miko is a supplementary priestess of the shrine, they were believed to be shamans as they usually lead sacred rites, rituals, and ceremonies. They are also well known for performing sacred dances for the temple. What is special about these priestesses is that they enter the temple young, gain their training, and serve the temple until the end of their life. They tend to remain virgins as they are believed to be ‘married’ to the god, spirit, or kami that they serve. However, in earlier days Shinto priests were believed to be incarnations of gods and spirits and it is a common ritual to have Miko ‘marry’ these Shinto priests.

What is special about Okuni is the fact that she is widely known to be a beautiful young woman who has impressive skill in dancing and performing. As it is common custom for a Miko to dance during rituals and many people are in awe of her talents, Kyoto became quite popular for her performances. Among the crowd, favorites would be the nembutsu odori which is a dance performed in honor of Buddha.

It is widely known in history books that it is during her service as a Miko that she created what is now known as kabuki. It is well known as well that she did not easily flourish with her dreams and many things have hindered her.

Later Years

Okuni found financial and artistic support from a man named Nagoya Sansaburo during the time that she was developing the Kabuki. However, it is unknown whether they formed a romantic relationship with each other or not. During the death of Sansaburo, she continued to pursue her dreams of making the Kabuki known nationally.

After almost a decade of forming her dance troupe and perfecting the beginnings of the Kabuki, she finally realized her dream of spreading the influence of Kabuki throughout Japan. This was how she knew that she needed to finally retire. In the midst of fame, Okuni suddenly disappeared and no one can really tell what happened to her, how and when she died.

Izumo no Kuni and the Kabuki

What is the Kabuki?

This is one of the most impressive forms of art in Japan. It is a traditional performance of singing, dancing, and acting with elaborate costumes and masks. It is also one of the oldest forms of Japanese theatre and has a rich and cultural blend of music and singing.

Many of the skits performed are considered in Japan as performed literature. Although they are not written, the lyrical plays are regarded as noteworthy pieces.

When was it founded?

Being a Miko, she has goals in her life that exceeded many people’s expectations. She was able to travel far and wide to solicit money for the shrine in the form of performances and the like. She loved the crowd and equally, the crowd loved her. She reached a point where she started to perform more than what the rituals and ceremonies needed from her. Her love for acting and dancing has encouraged her to create humorous skits about different topics and themes. Some of the most popular themes include sensitive topics (like prostitution and sultriness); these topics are indecent enough for the shrine’s reputation. She even had skits that parodied Buddhist prayers. Despite ignoring the call of the temple for her return, she still makes sure that she sends back all the money she has solicited.

Later on, in the early 1600s, she has gathered up women from different places in Kyoto. She had invited outcasts and misfits to join her cause. She particularly saved women from prostitution. She introduced them to a decent way of earning money without losing face or dignity – through acting and dancing.

The troupe soon developed impressive skills and styles in singing, dancing, and performing. They have formed dance performances and dramas which covered daring topics. This immediately wowed the crowds letting them gain popularity in the entire region. Both roles for men and women were performed by women in her troupe and a clear sign that they can surpass society’s barriers to gender equality.  Soon they gained popularity in all of Japan.

Okuni’s All-Female Kabuki

What is special about Okuni’s Kabuki troupe is the fact that it is made completely of a long list of women. These women are not just those that came from wealthy and famous families. These are women who are known to be ‘misguided’ as they are usually wanderers on the streets, street performers, prostitutes, and the like. Although indirectly, Okuni might as well be one of the most influential feminists of her time. She showed these women that there is hope and a second chance in life despite one’s past.

During this time, both male and female characters were played by the women. They adorned men’s clothing that the government is not necessarily fond of. Admittedly, the style of their performances was not something that was considered conventional at the time. But this was where the popularity of the original kabuki was founded on.

Based on historical records, she started her ‘stage’ on the dry riverbeds of Kyoto. They were gypsies, wanderers, and street performers. They did not originally have a theatre of their own. Soon, the women started to perform in small stages like brothels, inns, and shops. When their popularity suddenly rose, they were invited to theaters and stages they never thought they would perform in. Impressively, they were even invited to perform before the Imperial court.

Kabuki as a Religious Ritual: Izumo no Okuni’s Dance Drama

The part of her life where she was a Miko is actually unproven until today. There were no historical records to specifically pinpoint what she did before she set up her first Kabuki troupe. However, there is evidence to show that she was a religious person at the time.

Most of her performances were greatly influenced by religion. Her earlier works resembled religious rituals and ceremonies which is why many historians claim that she was a temple servant or a priestess beforehand.

However, the latter popularity of Kabuki has completely changed. She started performing parodies of religious performances. She also started to tell stories using famous historical events. She depicted the everyday life of a Japanese individual. Unknowingly, she has covered some very sensitive topics about societal status, gender equality, and more. Many people actually claim that her work was criticisms of Japan’s politics, government, and society. It still remains unproven if these claims are actually true.

Kabuki as a form of Art

All Kabuki performances were largely historical plays. This means that they are performed as a reflection of what is happening or has happened in Japan’s society. It focuses on many of the major events of Japan’s history whether or not it is religious. This is probably the reason why there were major revisions to plays and performances during the Edo period due to the censorship laws. This is in hopes of creating a nicer image for the shogunate and hindering any criticism towards the shogun.

It is considered as a form of art because of the combination of well-performed music, colorful costumes, and more. Their props are complete with umbrellas, to warrior swords. it was so popular that it was originally considered as the ‘art f singing and dancing’.

Even European artists like Claude Monet were inspired by these performances. This was a good avenue for foreign cultures to learn about the life of the Japanese as the Kabuki depicted domestic life. It featured an image of everyday Japan and showed foreign cultures of the greatness of age-old dynasties. It showed both the power of Imperial and Feudal Japan.

Kabuki Performances then vs. later years

Sadly, during the latter years of Okun’s Kabuki troupe, many groups started forming and rivaling her. The even more disappointing fact is that these groups made their women available for prostitution. Because of that, her vision of elevating the status of women in art started to plummet. It may, perhaps, be this precise reason that she chose to suddenly disappear. The fate of the Kabuki was out of her hands.

With the end of the Sengoku period and the onset of the Tokugawa period and very conservative view on the role of women in society, all kabuki groups removed their female performers. There was strict legislation in allowing women to perform on stage and soon the Kabuki became an all-male performance. It was only at a much later time that women were welcomed back to performing arts. Many people think that Kabuki did not use to be like that and the name of Okuni started to fade from the limelight until she eventually was forgotten.

Kabuki performances continued on as one of the most exceptional theatrical forms in Japan for the next 400 years. It has impressively remained unchanged through that time with only minor revisions on themes to make it relatable to the audience. The Kabuki was passed on from generation to generation without fail and people took pride in being a part of this wonderful chunk of Japan’s history.

Her Importance to Japanese Culture

Many people are in awe of what Okuni was able to achieve in her life, considering all the limitations that society had for her during her time. Women were not considered as equals in that society. They held a special, conservative place in the home and should be responsible for taking care of the household and the house’s leader. This was considered as an important role at the time and was considered as essential to the success of the family or clan.

On the other hand, the life she leads was not what a typical Japanese woman was expected of. The respectable work of a Japanese woman during this time was significantly far-fetched from the daring performances that Okuni and her troupe performed.

Being in a dance group and performing in public did not necessarily harbor respect for women. There was a time in Japan when performers were considered as peddlers and could barely scrape for a living. However, she was able to surpass all of that and give direction to these ‘misguided’ women. Together, they were able to change the face of Japan’s theatre performances. Despite their image, they surely gained a wide following and became quite popular not only in Japan but all over the world.

Looking back at her life, she may as well be one of the most incredible women in Japan’s history especially when it comes to art and drama. She was able to maximize her abilities and skills and use it for good. Although the end of her life remains unknown, her life’s legacies remain to forever change the face of Japan’s performing arts.

Izumo no Okuni Movie

There was no movie that depicted the life and works of Izumo no Okuni but there was an NHK TV series that started in 2006. This drama was a live-action adaptation of Izumo no Okuni’s and how she greatly influenced Japanese art and theatre. The show only had a total of six episodes before it was discontinued.


The miniseries was written by Arayoshi Sawako and Moriwaki Kyoko. It was originally directed by Watanabe Yoshio. Main characters included Kikukawa Rei as Okuni and Sakai Masato as Sankuro (the love interest). The original goal of this movie was to portray the life of Okuni and the kind of influence she made towards Japan’s performing arts.