A History of Japan’s Kabuki Theater

by Megan Taylor Stephens

The History of Kabuki

Kabuki theater is a classical Japanese art form that has endured since the Edo period (1603-1867). A stylized display of dance and drama, kabuki has deep cultural significance in Japan. The kanji characters in kabuki (歌舞伎) literally mean “skill of song and dance,” and this skill was passed down in families over the generations.

The creator of kabuki was Izumo no Okuni, a Shinto temple maiden and dancer from Kyoto. She reportedly led a female dance troupe to perform dances and sketches that were provocative riffs on traditional tales and prayers. In 1629, women were banned from performing and the all-female troupes were replaced by all-male troupes. Even the female characters were played by men called onnagata.

Kabuki had humble beginnings as a form of entertainment and eventually enjoyed widespread popularity among regular citizens and lower class workers.

Kabuki Characteristics and Conventions

Kabuki performers wear heavy face paint, big and elaborate wigs, and flashy padded kimonos. The actors shout and sing and dance about, all while having rich interplay with the audience. Often times the actors walk amidst the audience and the audience members yell out to them in appreciation. The use of revolving platforms, trapdoors, and contraptions lets actors suddenly appear and disappear. Instruments such as the shamisen, a type of lute, accompany the production or make up part of a live orchestra. All these elements together give kabuki an intense and dramatic flair.

Kabuki themes often involve love stories with ethical dilemmas couched in historical events and supernatural references. Many of the stories are well known tales and help the audience connect to the plot. However, the actors speak in old-fashioned Japanese, so it’s not easy even for native speakers to understand. Sometimes there are headsets to use that translate Japanese to other languages. Luckily, the actors have very stylized movements with lots of body language and facial expression, making it easy to follow along. The performances are dynamic and mesmerizing regardless of whether or not you understand the words!

The three main types of kabuki are: jidai-mono, sewa-mono, and shosa-goto. The first is a play about a historical event, but many times nuanced commentary about current events were woven throughout. The second type is more Shakespeare-esque, involving something like the romance and tragedy of star-crossed lovers. The last kind, shosa-gota, is purely dance.

Differences Between Kabuki and Noh

Kabuki and noh are similar theatrical art forms. Bunraku is another classical theatrical genre, but it is quite different in that it involves puppetry and chanted narration. The most obvious difference between kabuki and noh is that in noh performances, actors wear masks, but in kabuki they wear make-up.

Noh was invented about 600 years ago and kabuki came about approximately 400 years ago. Even though both use archaic language, noh is considered more traditional than kabuki. Noh is the calmer, wiser sibling. Compared to noh, kabuki is more exaggerated, gaudy, and flirtatious. Noh is more somber, slow, and poetic. Noh was a form of entertainment meant for nobility and the upper class, while Kabuki was supposedly more accessible to the common folk.

Although the kanji characters in kabuki mean “skill of song and dance,” the word kabuki is thought to have an original Japanese connection to the verb “to lean” (傾く, kabuku). An alternate meaning of kabuki that derives from “to lean” is “to behave strangely.” Compared to noh, kabuki probably “leaned” toward the zany.

Where to Watch Kabuki­­­­­­­

Kabuki came from Kyoto, the former capital of Japan, but you can watch riveting kabuki in a number of cities across the country. Some of the best kabuki theaters in Japan are: Shijo Minamiza Theater in Kyoto, Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo, Shinbashi Enbujo Theater in Tokyo, Shochikuza Theater in Osaka, Misonoza in Nagoya, and Hakataza Theater in Fukuoka.­­

Kabuki Themed Products

You might not be able to easily get to a kabuki performance, but you can get in the kabuki spirit with these rejuvenating face masks! Isshindo Honpo Kabuki Sheet Mask is a facial mask meant to revitalize your skin. The added bonus is that it has a bright blue and black kabuki make up design so you can have a kabuki vibe while you pamper your skin.

Isshindo Honpo Kabuki Sheet Mask: Kotobuki has bold red and black colors that mimic a famous play called Kotobuki Soga. You and a friend can wear matching sheet masks while you treat your face to nourishing ingredients like collagen, camellia extract, and vitamin C.

Featured product

Author Bio

Megan Taylor Stephens interest in the Japanese language, culture, and food goes way back. She was a Japanese exchange student in high school. Then she studied Japanese and linguistics in college, returned to Japan to work through the JET program (Coordinator of International Relations), and was an interpreter and translator for a while. Megan taught English as a Foreign Language in Japan and other countries before getting a Master's degree in ESL and becoming an ESL teacher. She then pivoted to becoming a school-based speech-language pathologist, so still gets to be immersed in the field of applied linguistics and loves working with bilingual students. Megan enjoys writing on the side for companies like Bokksu. A love of language, culture, travel, food, and learning never dies, it only gets more intense--just like cravings for ramen and Pocky!