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Japanese Kabuki Theatre and the Evolution of Women's Roles

LeShae is an online writer who is passionate about theatre. She lives in Kentucky.

Kabuki costume at Edo Tokyo Museum

Kabuki costume at Edo Tokyo Museum

History of Women in Theatre

A common theme throughout the two thousand years of theatre’s history has been the exclusion of women’s presence on stage in most, if not all regions of the world, at some point in time.

For example, in Athens, Greece, which is considered to be the birthplace of theatre, women were not even allowed to attend the community festivals celebrating their god of wine, vegetation and fertility Dionysus, let alone participate in the plays that were presented in competition during them.

Throughout the 16th century, Spain tried its best to keep women out of its theaters. Its legislature first banned women in total, having no right to be on stage. Men then began cross-dressing in order to fill the roles that the women had previously played, but this was seen by the Catholic church as being more immoral than just having women up there and so it was also banned.

After that, women were allowed back, but they tried to limit the women able to perform on stage to be part of actors’ families (Wilson and Goldfarb 247). This attempt, however, proved to be quite unsuccessful. Further on, women were not seen in English performances legally, and without having to wear masks, until the year 1660 (Wilson and Goldfarb 289).

Despite these struggles and legal restrictions, actresses still emerged in all the aforementioned locations and they remain present in the theatre there today. While the topic of women in theatre itself is a very in-depth, complex thing, it is in Japan where it proves most intriguing as the role of women within its most popular form of theatre, kabuki, still fluctuates today.

Although it actually began with the dancing performances of a single woman, it has since been taken over by all-male troupes. Due to this change in gender rule, women’s presence on stage has been, and continues to be, considered quite a controversial topic. Having faced governmental restrictions and traditional scorns just as the Greeks, Spanish and English, kabuki is still climbing the feminist ladder. Many believe that at this point kabuki with women is not kabuki at all. However, the knowledge surrounding the evolution of this female role is crucial to the effort of diligently understanding this Japanese art from its roots in religious ceremonial dances to where it stands in commercial theatre at modern times. A look into kabuki’s long and complicated history is necessary to receive this needed knowledge.


The exact date at which kabuki is believed to have made its appearance is well-debated. Scholars put it to have been anywhere from as early as the mid-16th century to not being made almost a decade into the 17th century. For this paper, it will be put roughly around the year 1596, right at the turn of the century. It was at the dry bed of the Kamo River in Kyoto, Japan, the capital of the country at the time, where a dancer named Okuni from Izumo set up a makeshift stage and began performing styles new to the audiences that gathered there (Kincaid 49). In that performance, kabuki was born.

The lore surrounding this woman states that she was attached to the Shinto Shrine of Izumo where she was a miko, or priestess. This shrine was made in honor and dedication to the Japanese kami, or deities, Ōkuninushi, ruler of the unseen world of spirits and magic, and Kotoamatsukami, the gods that were present at the world’s very beginning. Though this claim of her involvement with the shrine has not yet been proven, it is known that “late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century historical accounts provide firm evidence that a woman named ‘Okuni from Izumo’ lived and almost singlehandedly founded kabuki.” (Ariyoshi and Brandon 290)

This woman supposedly had a father who served the Izumo shrine in the capacity of an artisan (Kincaid 49) and it was he who sent her out on her performance journey. The legend has it that in an attempt to round up funds to repair damages that had been made to the shrine, she traveled on the behalf of her family, dancing all throughout Japan, asking for donations as she went. At Kyoto, she positioned herself among the market owners and tradesmen that sold goods there and performed the nembutsu odori, a Buddhist ceremony which she had adapted with her own moves (Scott 33). Although it would be odd and unbelievable today that a Shinto priestess would partake in a Buddhist dance of salvation-seeking, in this time the two religions lived in harmony without reinforced distinct separations in Japan (Kincaid 51). It is the knowledge of this harmony that adds some more context and likelihood of Okuni’s story.

Many critics look to this legend to bring them to the conclusion that the very core and basis of kabuki theatre lays in the realm of dance (Brockett 278). Instead of a distinction between what is dance and what is story, a blend of the two propels plot forward. It is this reliance on dance and stylized movement that makes kabuki unique to the Western eye. It was also this uniqueness that brought such attention to Okuni from Izumo there in the dry Kamo River bed in Kyoto.

In fact, her dancing gained such success that it was soon after her Buddhist performance that she decided to abandon her father’s wishes to restore their family’s shrine. She then took it upon herself to form kabuki troupes, to tutor young pupils in the way of her new art. These troupes were made of mostly women, but men also joined in pretty early on in kabuki’s history. In these troupes she expanded her dance to include music accompaniment and drama. Despite these two additions, her performances remained having a mostly religious nature and motive.

It was Okuni’s marriage that changed this attribute. Her husband was Nagoya Sansburo, a Japanese man in a high family who was considered to be the bravest and most handsome samurai of his age. Being in a life filled with luxury and military honor, he was well acquainted with the arts and literature that entertained upper-class society. It was therefore not surprising he was drawn to Okuni. Through his wife’s art, he became a widely renowned actor. Nagoya even improved kabuki when he had the idea of adding elements of the comedic kyogen Noh theatre acts that had been popular in Japan since the 15th century (Kincaid 51-53). He recognized that if Okuni wanted to make it big, she would have to lose her humble, but boring, religious ways and make kabuki more exciting.

It was perhaps after this dramatic element was added that the stages used for kabuki became more elaborate and had more direction than just the makeshift market grounds where Okuni and her students could dance. For the most part, the stages were similar to those used in Noh. Changes to the layout and structure of the stage have since been made, but the influence is obviously there.

Also, with this new link to kyogen, crossdressing was introduced to kabuki. And it was when Okuni dressed a man, wielding a sword on each hip, in her dances that her husband gave the new art a name. The word kabuki was not new itself, mostly used to signify something comedic, but it then became the distinction for her dance dramas (Kincaid 53). It’s original meaning was “to deviate from the normal manners and customs, to do something absurd.” ( Okuni had incorporated both meanings by creating something new that had an air of comedy wrapped in it: kabuki. It was also with her crossdressing that gained her art more attention and a wider audience.

Sadly, Okuni’s overall involvement within the art was short-lived as her death is usually put to have been around 1610 (Scott 34), less than two decades after kabuki was born. Once she passed, many changes came as genders began to separate into their own exclusive troupes and styles developed differently. Kabuki began branching in so many different ways that it was hard for each group to communicate, some even refusing to do plays that came from the others. For instance, plays had to start being categorized into historical, domestic, or just dance (Brockett 278).

Controlling Kabuki

It is likely that by this separation that the first step to remove women from kabuki was taken. Past this mark, however, kabuki continued to thrive in Japan. And by 1616, there were already seven licensed theaters for the program (Brockett 618). In 1617, another theater house was added on to the license that became known as the first all-male one for kabuki. Its founder was a man named Dansuke who was an enterprising engineer (Kincaid 64). Again, another step away from the all-female presence of kabuki’s beginnings can be observed.

Because of the popularity and mass consumption of this new art, Japan’s government naturally decided to take a closer look into the inner workings of the kabuki troupes. Unfortunately, it was found that a large side-business for many of the women was prostitution. Also, the erotic nature of the dancers’ movements on-stage was declared unhealthy for the public morale. In 1629 an official ban was released by the Shogunate rule that females were no longer allowed to perform on kabuki stages (Scott 34).

It must be marked here that this was only the end of women’s presence physically. Whatever was to come after the ban was still a direct effect of the art Okuni had created. Although women left the stage, they were still objectified and portrayed in kabuki. In a way, this ban sparked new traditions to develop through the opposite sex.

Women were to be first replaced by what is known as Wakashu, or Young Men’s Kabuki, but they too were determined to be an immoral danger because of their charms. The young boys had been mimicking what they had seen from women’s kabuki and therefore were putting off the same erotic aura that made the government feel uneasy. In 1652 another ban was put out to restrict them (Scott 34). Despite this loss, it is thought that the abolition of this theatre form may have in the long run been beneficial as it took the focus off the personal attractiveness aspect found in both Onna, women’s, and Wakashu kabuki and gave more experienced, older actors the limelight they deserved (Kincaid 72).

Men's Kabuki

For around a two-year period, there was no life in the theatre, but soon came the Yaro, or men’s kabuki. It was with this change that the significance of the onnagata, the cross-dressing role with a man portraying a woman, was developed. Though there was this desire to portray femininity, performers were still expected to keep their bodily charms to a minimum in order to discourage more immoral thoughts and corruption. It is this form of kabuki that is known today.

Not only did kabuki change to become gender-specific, it got a new look. Elaborate costumes and wigs were put in place to help emphasize character and put forth a larger-than-life appearance. Unlike the Noh theatre in which kabuki has many roots, exaggerated makeup covered actors’ faces instead of masks (Brockett 311). Each character type had its own look, with the onnagata simply just rouging the corners of their eyes, leaving the rest of their face a blank canvas, and the male roles patterning thick, bold paint marks to symbolize masculinity. (Brockett 279).

These actors had their work cut out for them as training for the kabuki stage usually began during childhood. Traditionally nichibu, the dance style used in kabuki, training began specifically on the sixth day of the sixth month of the sixth year of a child’s life (Klens 231, 232). Because of Japan’s hereditary nature in theatre, most of these actors came from few, selective families that had trained for generations and mastered such aforementioned arts. Despite this early start, a kabuki performer is not considered to be “mature” until middle age (Brockett 278).

They have to put in years of practice and experience, especially for the onnagata who have to learn how to portray femininity with utmost care and how to paint themselves in a way that personifies a womanly, but not erotic, aura. Through this refinement in kabuki, the male actors are able to capture a symbolic portrayal of femininity that has been developed to a high degree. And it is worthy to note that many of kabuki’s greatest famous and idolized stars throughout history have been those who took on the onnagata role (Powell 140).

For almost three centuries, the only form of kabuki that existed was that of the Yaro. And in those centuries, it flourished magnificently. Empires of those select theatre families were built up as actors. Each of them had specific stage names to carry on through time in order to distinguish their bloodline. They used Roman numerals to represent what generation they were in their family. In the late 19th century when the world seen the end of Japan’s isolation and fall of Shogunate, the titles of such mentioned families were stripped, leaving them with just names having no meaning or power. While people still look to the family lines, they are not as entitled or exclusive as they were prior to this happening.

The Ban Is Lifted

However, something good came about as at this very same time the restrictions on women’s stage presence were lifted (Brockett 623). They were once again allowed to act and also permitted to become entrepreneurs and open new theaters. Now that Japan no longer had its metaphorical walls up to the rest of the globe, Western influence began to seep in. This influence was not able to run far though.

It would seem that such changes, an introduction to countries which had allowed women on-stage for centuries now, would pave a nice and clear path for women to follow back into kabuki, but traditional onnagata actors and many theater-goers howled against the idea. By this time, no one who had seen women perform kabuki was still alive, and the thought of it baffled those involved with the art. The role of women had seemed to have died to them, just as those who were around during Okuni’s time had died. Although women still did make their way to the stages in smaller theaters, the larger, more prominent and professional theaters refused to allow them in. Even today “traditional” kabuki remains a male-only designation. Reasons as to why have been given but they can be easily debunked as they are highly irrational.

Why Women Shouldn't Be in Kabuki

The first claim was that only a man can portray the true essence of a woman. A man spends his whole life seeking after women in some way or form, always examining them, so he can put on the image of femininity better than the woman herself; he knows her better than she does. A female walks out on stage knowing that she is female, but the onnagata makes this choice consciously and acts accordingly. He puts out an effort to become womanly.

With this logic, could it not be reversed that an actress could better portray the character of a man? Besides, it is often said that “strong male roles in kabuki should be shadowed with softness.” (Brandon 125) Although when speaking of technique, the onnagata does appear more versed in delicate stature due to their training, a woman could learn the moves just the same. It is all about knowledge. As stated before, the man playing a woman makes this choice consciously, but a woman could too also make the decision in her mind to become a smaller, more fragile version of herself in order to fulfill her stage requirements.

Also brought up to turn women away from kabuki was the idea that they were physically not strong enough for it. The kimonos worn by actors are very heavy, sometimes being over fifty pounds, and they also have to put on wigs weighing a significant amount. If women were raised with the training for kabuki, they could easily become used to the weight of the dress. Better yet, they wouldn’t even need the large wigs as they could just grow out their hair and style it to the way a wig would have been placed on the head. Because a woman would not have to disfigure herself as much to play the role of a woman, the costume, hair and makeup would all become much simpler in terms of effort.

Why Women Should Be in Kabuki

With these two myths of why women should not be involved dispelled, reasons as to why they should be can be looked at. To start, it must be realized that “there exists no single, unified art form called kabuki.” (Brandon 123) Therefore, there’s no reason as to why the addition of women to a stage would automatically make something “not-kabuki.” It would be like comparing a single actor to a specific character in a Broadway performance; if we change the actor who fills a role, is it not still the same play? Of course it is.

Another reason kabuki would benefit from having women back into the acting ranks would be the added diversity. It would give a chance to put a new flavor on kabuki and rejuvenate it. Theatre is something the world shares, but how can it be shared with the world if that world does not allow all to receive it? Women would spark a cultural revolution in Japan after being oppressed since the 17th century. It would bring people back to the theaters because they would get the chance for something exciting and new.

Perhaps the most important and significant call for women to come back into kabuki is the lack of actors for the stage. World War II (WWII) dealt a severe blow as it destroyed many of the theater houses in Japan and took the lives of those who should have become actors. The heavy reliance on a multitude of youthful talent was completely disrupted. Kabuki would have to start looking to a different way of acquiring actors other than by hereditary duty.

To make things worse, four of the most distinguished kabuki teachers of the time- Nakamura Utaemon V, Onoe Kikugoro VI, Ichimura Uzaemon XV, and Matsumoto Koshiro VII- all died within a few years of each other, ranging from 1940 to 1949 (Scott 159). These tragedies combined put kabuki into a depression that the art is still partially trying to recover from today. With less people to teach and even less people to perform, women would only help pull kabuki back up in the world. It still remains a popular theatre form, but even better improvement could be made if there were more people being involved to help nurse it back to a completely clean bill of health.

Shortly past the end of WWII, America was introduced to kabuki in order to separate the Japan they had been at war with from the Japan the country could look to for art and culture and also an ally against the backdrop of the Cold War (Thornbury 190). Kabuki was up for sell as this “aggressively capitalistic, inherently democratic, brilliantly theatrical form.” (Wetmore Jr. 78) With this introduction, a more Western-style kabuki was formed. Of course, cries to preserve the art as strictly Japanese and not American rang out from the traditional participants. Adding women back could have done just that, bringing kabuki back closer to its roots rather than drift farther apart through the 1950s and 60s that saw much mixing of culture.

Kabuki Today and Final Thoughts

And now having the arguments from either side, a look must be taken into the actual conditions surrounding kabuki in modern times. As mentioned, many smaller theaters have opened their arms to women, but the bigger stages have remained shut. This is not just because of gender specifics but also the desire to keep stages having clean, distinct blood ties to kabuki. As mentioned before, heredity is such an important element in so much of Japan’s culture that taking that aspect away from it would be more devastating than that of re-allowing women to perform; therefore, it makes an understandable excuse, unlike the myths dispelled earlier on in this paper.

All-women troupes, or at least troupes having a female leader, are becoming more common in Japan. However, they are still looked down upon. They will never be able to reach the same status as that of an all-male cast if the tradition of the onnagata is to strictly continue. The doors of big theatre in Japan, especially on the National stage, are barred and locked to women.

Hopefully conditions will improve with time, as Japan has still yet to constructively organize unions in modern times (Scott 160). Actors’ problems mostly lay in this situation as there is no representative for them and for what is right versus wrong. When more effort to speak up for rights is put forth, it is then that fairness and modern feminist views will break the traditional code of kabuki to fully present itself on a main stage. However, until then it is likely that conditions for women will stay the same. This though is more a shame for the art and what it is missing out on rather than for the actress herself. Keeping women out of kabuki is only going to keep it behind the times and cause it to lose opportunities at rejuvenation and cultural revolution.

In conclusion, although women are not held in the same status as they were held when kabuki was first born, they still play an important part. From being the cause of a long tradition of the onnagata to slowly trying to ease their way back onto the stage, feminine presence never really left. The story of kabuki must continue on, and women may just have to be the ones to pick the torches back up and carry it. They are still evolving.


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© 2018 LeShae Smiddy