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Kabuki: The popular theatre of Japan - December 2010 Newsletter


Imagine yourself in a room full of the chattering of voices, the clattering of tea cups to the sound of shamisen, a traditional three-stringed Japanese instrument whose name literally means “three flavor strings”, as big drums begin to thunder.  In the background vendors selling hot tea, rice cakes, and oranges call out to the audience.  Then there breaks the sound of the clacking of hyoshigi, wooden clappers, that is a sign of the beginning of the show. 

The above was what kabuki playgoers would have experienced in Edo period Japan.  Kabuki play was an entertaining boisterous affair and is a far cry from the serious formal theatre that many imagine today. 

Noh, Ningyo-Shibai, and Kabuki

In general, there are three main kinds of traditional theatre in Japan:  Noh, Ningyo-Shibai, and Kabuki.  There are often confusions among the three for people unfamiliar with theatre art in Japan.  They are, in fact, three very different branches of theatre, each with its own history, aesthetics, tradition, and development.

Of the three Noh, is the oldest, originating in the fourteenth century as a form of art for warriors.  Even in the Edo period, during the height of kabuki and ningyo-shibai, noh continued to be an elite art form that kept commoners out.  Kabuki could be said to be a reaction to this exclusivity as common folks began to demand a form of theatre of their own.

Noh is famous for its formalized smooth dance movements known as Mai.  Mai originates from earlier folk traditions where many of its movements came from agricultural movements.  In general, the noh mai movements have heavier gravity and dancers almost never leaps into the air.  They are mostly grounded in their dance moves in smooth circular movements.   The musical ensemble of noh is also more complex, whereas kabuki music is more simple but lively. 

Ningyo-Shibai is the name of traditional Japan’s puppet theatre.  Both Ningyo-Shibai and Kabuki developed at around the same time in the Edo period.  The sole difference being that Ningyo-Shibai used marionettes, while kabuki used live actors.  Unlike Kabuki that is limited by the physical limitations of live actors, puppets in Ningyo-Shibai are able to defy the limitations of physics imposed on a human actor.

Kabuki, unlike Noh, was a form of art for the common folks who felt excluded from Noh performances that were reserved for the elites.  In fact, there may be more similarities between Kabuki and the puppet theatre, as both began at around the same time and both catered to the common people. 

In Kabuki theatre, the dance movement is known as odori.  Unlike the smooth, low-gravity mai movements in Noh, the odori movements in Kabuki uses exaggerated gestures.  The root word “odoru” from which odori is derived means to move with vigor, and Kabuki dancers often lift their legs off the floor and stamp out rhythms.  The music of Kabuki theatre is also simpler than in Noh.  Kabuki music ensembles usually play songs with simple melodies and rhythm in contrast to the more complicated music in Noh theatre.

Origins of Kabuki

Kabuki began in the early Edo period (1603-1868), and it is believed that it originated from a woman named Izumo Okuni who created a dance known as “Okuni kabuki” and performed on a dry riverbed of the Kamo River that runs through Kyoto.   Kabuki actors today still venerate Okuni as the creator of Kabuki and still visit a small inconspicuous marker by the Kamo River that marked the spot where Izumo Okuni’s dance theatre is believed to once have stood.

The word Kabuki is made up of three Chinese characters that are used today to write the word.  The three characters are “ka”, song, “bu”, dance, and “ki”, skill.  Although these three characters are very apt descriptions of the theatre art of kabuki, the word “kabuki” was actually derived from the word “kabuku”, which means “to lean”. 

This was because kabuki began as a fringe art form.  The word “kabuku” carries the meaning of off-beat or deviating from the main path.  Although this is contrary to what many would imagine, Kabuki in Edo period Japan was comparable to the outrageous fashionable young people of modern day Japan with wild hairdos and crazy fashion. 

During the early Edo period, these young fashionable people were called “kabuki mono”  (kabuki types).  They spent their time partying and having fun.  Their style was considered hip and hedonistic to the more somber conservative people. 

Kabuki, as popularized by Izumo Okuni, became copied by many imitators.  Many of these imitators were bathhouse girls, and kabuki became a form of exciting and licentious entertainment. 

Fearing for the moral safety of the people of Kyoto with the widespread popularity of such a decadent form of entertainment, a royal edict was issued in 1629, banning all women from acting on stage.  Women were not allowed to act, dance, or appear on the kabuki stage. 

The Kabuki Actor

In order to follow the new edict, theatres could only present with male actors.  At first, theatre companies used attractive young males to play the female roles.  This form of kabuki was known as “wakashu kabuki” (youth kabuki) but these youths became so popular among the Samurai class that it once again became a threat to public moral and was also banned. 

As a response, theatres then had young male actors shave off their forelocks so that they looked more like adults.  This developed into the “yaro kabuki” (male kabuki).  It was from here, that onnagata—the male actor specializing in female roles developed. 

A kabuki actor’s life is demanding and strenuous.  In general, kabuki is considered a sealed off world, where only those who dedicate their lives to the art ever truly understand the inner workings of this art form.  Most kabuki actors begin training at a very young age and will usually remain dedicated to the art for most of their lives.  This is because the demand of the art is such that kabuki actors must spend most of their waking hours practicing and perfecting their craft.

Interestingly, in Kabuki, unlike in the Western theatre, an actor is valued not for a versatility of roles and acting abilities, but the ability to specialize in a specific type of role. 

Types of Roles

Role types are also known as Yakugara, and there are three main types of yakugaras.  The role types can be divided into:  Onnagata, Tachiyaku, and Katakiyaku.  Each of these three divisions has, over time, developed further subgroups.

Onnagata roles are female character roles that are played by men because of the historical development of the art of kabuki.  Onnagata roles can be further divided into Okujochu (a high ranking lady-in-waiting role, usually from a Samurai family), Akahime (a princess role), Sewa-nyobo (the role of a diligent and dedicated wife), and Fukeoyama (old woman role).  

Tachiyaku is the name of male hero roles.  These include Aragoto and Aragotoshi (stirring and violent heroes), Wagoto and Wagotoshi (gentle and graceful male characters), Jitsugoto and Jitsugotoshi (male tragic characters), Dokegata (comic male character) and Wakashugata (boy role).

Katakiyaku is the name for villainous male characters.  These include:  Kugeaku (villainous nobleman), Iroaku (handsome bad men), Kunikuzushi (evil men with large schemes to take over a country), and Jitsuaku (realistic and coldhearted characters). 

All of these roles are often stereotyped characters that have set characteristics that audience would recognize immediately.  Each role type has its own distinctive make-up and costume that would allow audience to recognize who they are the moment they appear on stage. 

However, this does not mean that kabuki plays are simplistic.  There are often complex narratives, dance movements and music that make up the kabuki theater experience.  And actors spend their entire life mastering the acting technique for their role types, and learning the fine art of dance, music, makeup and costuming themselves for each and every performance.  Matazo Nakamura, a famous kabuki actor once said, “It is often said that it is not until the age of fifty that one really has a kabuki face.”

It is an art that requires a life-time of dedication and rigorous training.  In fact, it is more than a craft.  It is also a way of life for many Kabuki actors, and it is a world in itself.  Many traditions of the kabuki theatre have been preserved from the time of Edo period Japan, and the followers of this kabuki art continue to carry the tradition and push themselves to excel in the craft they have chosen. 

Here at Mrs Lin’s Kitchen, we too celebrate and honor the kabuki theatre art.  If you are a fan of the kabuki, you may also like our Kabuki Samurai Furoshiki.  You may also like our Japanese Kabuki Play Sake set and our Samurai Noren featuring the face of a kabuki Samurai wearing traditional stage makeup. 


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