What does Kabuki mean?

Kieran McGovern
The English Language: FAQ
3 min readMar 15, 2021

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Traditional Japanese dance has contemporary resonance.

Stylized Japanese dance drama

Kabuki theatre is a stylized Japanese dance-drama tradition that dates back to the early 17th century . It is characterised by melodramatic plot lines, masks and heavy make-up. Shouting at other actors is encouraged.

The word Kabuku derives word of katamuku (傾く), which means to lean. By the end of the Sengoku period to the start of the Edo period, people who dressed loudly and did unthinkable things were called kabukimono (かぶき者). The kabukimono people invented a dance with ‘flashy and loud movements and outfits’ called kabuki odori (かぶき踊り).

Originally, Kabuki had an unsavoury reputation in polite Japanese society, especially youjyo kabuki (遊女歌舞伎) which was performed by prostitutes.

Youjyo would go on stage covering themselves with furs of tigers or panthers. source

すじにくシチュー/Wikimedia Commons

Though popular with audiences it was frowned upon by the authorities, who saw it as ‘actor prostitution’. In 1629 they banned female participation but the form that then emerged was associated with homo-erotic themes. That didn’t go down a storm with the Japanese Court either.

Modern Kabuki

Today kabuki actors can breathe more easily. Modern Japan celebrates the tradition, which has become an important cultural export. In 2005, UNESCO announced kabuki as one of the 43 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” Whatever that means, it is clearly intended as as an official international seal of approval.

Kotohira Kabuki Theatre rebuilt in 1976

The kabuki Bayreuth is the town of Kotohira, in Shikoku province. Local geisha funded the building of a kabuki theatre there in 1835 and fans pay £100 for tickets to the annual festival every spring. Leading actors are major cultural figures — Sakata Tojuro was widely described as a ‘national treasure’ when he died in 2020. There is even a Kabuki on Demand streaming service.

In the west kabuki became fashionable in avant-garde theatrical circles during the late 1960s. David Bowie learned about it from mime artist, Lindsey Kemp later borrowed heavily from the kabuki tradition in the creation of Ziggy Stardust.

Kemp was not overly impressed with Bowie’s efforts, but they in turn influenced countless other rock acts, Kiss being an obvious example.

Parliamentary kabuki

More recently, the term kabuki has been used as a synonym for theatrical.

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Kieran McGovern
The English Language: FAQ

Author of Love by Design (Macmillan) & adaptations including Washington Square (OUP). Write about growing up in a Irish family in west London, music, all sorts