is a classical form of
Japan Japan ( ja, 日本, or , and formally , ''Nihonkoku'') is an island country in East Asia. It is situated in the northwest Pacific Ocean, and is bordered on the west by the Sea of Japan, while extending from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north ...
ese dance-
drama Drama is the specific mode of fiction represented in performance: a play, opera, mime, ballet, etc., performed in a theatre, or on radio or television.Elam (1980, 98). Considered as a genre of poetry in general, the dramatic mode has been co ...
. Kabuki theatre is known for its heavily-stylised performances, the often-glamorous costumes worn by performers, and for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its performers. Kabuki is thought to have originated in the very early
Edo period The or is the period between 1603 and 1867 in the history of Japan, history of Japan, when Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and the country's 300 regional ''daimyo''. Emerging from the chaos of the Sengoku period, the Edo perio ...
, when founder Izumo no Okuni formed a female dance troupe who performed dances and light sketches in
Kyoto Kyoto (; Japanese: , ''Kyōto'' ), officially , is the capital city of Kyoto Prefecture in Japan. Located in the Kansai region on the island of Honshu, Kyoto forms a part of the Keihanshin metropolitan area along with Osaka and Kobe. , the cit ...
. The art form later developed into its present all-male theatrical form after women were banned from performing in kabuki theatre in 1629. Kabuki developed throughout the late 17th century and reached its zenith in the mid-18th century. In 2005, kabuki theatre was proclaimed by
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as an intangible heritage possessing outstanding universal value. In 2008, it was inscribed in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.


The individual
kanji are the logographic Chinese characters taken from the Chinese script and used in the writing of Japanese. They were made a major part of the Japanese writing system during the time of Old Japanese and are still used, along with the subseq ...
that make up the word ''kabuki'' can be read as , , and . ''Kabuki'' is therefore sometimes translated as "the art of singing and dancing". These are, however, characters which do not reflect actual
etymology Etymology ()The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) – p. 633 "Etymology /ˌɛtɪˈmɒlədʒi/ the study of the class in words and the way their meanings have changed throughout time". is the study of the history of the form of words a ...
. The kanji of "skill" generally refers to a performer in kabuki theatre. Since the word ''kabuki'' is believed to derive from the verb , meaning "to lean" or "to be out of the ordinary", the word ''kabuki'' can also be interpreted as "avant-garde" or "bizarre" theatre."Kabuki" in Frederic, Louis (2002). ''Japan Encyclopedia''. Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press Harvard University Press (HUP) is a publishing house established on January 13, 1913, as a division of Harvard University, and focused on academic publishing. It is a member of the Association of American University Presses. After the retir ...
The expression referred originally to those who were bizarrely dressed. It is often translated into English as "strange things" or "the crazy ones", and referred to the style of dress worn by gangs of
samurai were the hereditary military nobility and officer caste of History of Japan#Medieval Japan (1185–1573/1600), medieval and Edo period, early-modern Japan from the late 12th century until their abolition in 1876. They were the well-paid retai ...


1603–1629: Female kabuki

The history of kabuki began in 1603 when Izumo no Okuni, possibly a of
Izumo-taisha , officially Izumo Ōyashiro, is one of the most ancient and important Shinto shrines in Japan. No record gives the date of establishment. Located in Izumo, Shimane Prefecture, it is home to two major festivals. It is dedicated to the god , ...
, began performing with a troupe of female dancers a new style of dance drama, on a makeshift stage in the dry bed of the
Kamo River The is located in Kyoto Prefecture, Japan. The riverbanks are popular walking spots for residents and tourists. In summer, restaurants open balconies looking out to the river. There are walkways running alongside the river, and some stepping ...
Kyoto Kyoto (; Japanese: , ''Kyōto'' ), officially , is the capital city of Kyoto Prefecture in Japan. Located in the Kansai region on the island of Honshu, Kyoto forms a part of the Keihanshin metropolitan area along with Osaka and Kobe. , the cit ...
, at the very beginning of the
Edo period The or is the period between 1603 and 1867 in the history of Japan, history of Japan, when Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and the country's 300 regional ''daimyo''. Emerging from the chaos of the Sengoku period, the Edo perio ...
, and Japan's rule by the
Tokugawa shogunate The Tokugawa shogunate (, Japanese 徳川幕府 ''Tokugawa bakufu''), also known as the , was the military government of Japan during the Edo period from 1603 to 1868. Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric. (2005)"''Tokugawa-jidai''"in ''Japan Encyclopedia ...
, enforced by Tokugawa Ieyasu. In the earliest forms of kabuki, female performers played both men and women in comic playlets about ordinary life. It didn't take long for the style to become popular, and Okuni was asked to perform before the Imperial Court. In the wake of such success, rival troupes quickly formed, and kabuki was born as ensemble dance and drama performed by women. Much of the appeal of kabuki in this era was due to the ribald, suggestive themes featured by many troupes; this appeal was further augmented by the fact that many performers were also involved in prostitution. For this reason, kabuki was also known as during this period. Kabuki became a common form of entertainment in the red-light districts of Japan, especially in Yoshiwara, the registered
red-light district A red-light district or pleasure district is a part of an urban area where a concentration of prostitution and sex-oriented businesses, such as sex shops, strip clubs, and adult theaters, are found. In most cases, red-light districts are partic ...
in Edo. The widespread appeal of kabuki often meant that a diverse crowd of different social classes gathered to watch performances, a unique occurrence that happened nowhere else in the city of Edo. Kabuki theatres became well known as a place to both see and be seen in terms of fashion and style, as the audience—commonly comprising a number of socially low but economically wealthy
merchants A merchant is a person who trades in commodities produced by other people, especially one who trades with foreign countries. Historically, a merchant is anyone who is involved in business or trade. Merchants have operated for as long as industry ...
—typically used a performance as a way to feature the fashion trends. As an art-form, kabuki also provided inventive new forms of entertainment, featuring new musical styles played on the , clothes and fashion often dramatic in appearance, famous actors and stories often intended to mirror current events. Performances typically lasted from morning until sunset, with surrounding teahouses providing meals, refreshments and place to socialise. The area surrounding kabuki theatres also featured a number of shops selling kabuki souvenirs. Despite its popularity, the ruling
shogunate , officially , was the title of the military dictators of Japan during most of the period spanning from 1185 to 1868. Nominally appointed by the Emperor, shoguns were usually the de facto rulers of the country, though during part of the Kamakura ...
held unfavorable views of kabuki performances. The crowd at a kabuki performance often mixed different social classes, and the social peacocking of the merchant classes, who controlled much of Japan's economy at the time, were perceived to have entrenched upon the standing of the samurai classes, both in appearance and often wealth. In an effort to clamp down on kabuki's popularity, women's kabuki, known as , was banned in 1629 for being too erotic. Following this ban, young boys began performing in , which was also soon banned. Kabuki switched to adult male actors, called , in the mid-1600s. Adult male actors, however, continued to play both female and male characters, and kabuki retained its popularity, remaining a key aspect of the Edo period urban life-style. Although kabuki was performed widely across Japan, the Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za and Kawarazaki-za theatres became the most widely known and popular kabuki theatres, where some of the most successful kabuki performances were and still are held.

1629–1673: Transition to

During the time period of 1628–1673, the modern version of all-male kabuki actors, a style of kabuki known as (lit., "young man kabuki"), was established, following the ban on women and young boys. Cross-dressing male actors, known as "" (lit., "woman role") or "" took over previously female- or -acted roles. Young (adolescent) men were still preferred for women's roles due to their less obviously masculine appearance and the higher pitch of their voices. The roles of adolescent men in kabuki, known as , were also played by young men, often selected for their attractiveness; this became a common practice, and were often presented in an erotic context. The focus of kabuki performances also increasingly began to emphasise drama alongside dance. However, the ribald nature of kabuki performances continued, with male actors also engaging in sex work for both female and male customers. Audiences frequently became rowdy, and brawls occasionally broke out, sometimes over the favors of a particularly popular or handsome actor, leading the shogunate to ban first and then roles for a short period of time; both bans were rescinded by 1652.

1673–1841: Genroku period kabuki

During the
Genroku was a after Jōkyō and before Hōei. The Genroku period spanned the years from the ninth month of 1688 to the third month of 1704. The reigning emperor was .Titsingh, Isaac. (1834). ''Annales des empereurs du japon'', p. 415. The period w ...
period, kabuki thrived, with the structure of kabuki plays formalising into the structure they are performed in today, alongside many other elements which eventually came to be recognised as a key aspect of kabuki tradition, such as conventional character tropes. Kabuki theater and , an elaborate form of puppet theater later known as , became closely associated with each other, mutually influencing the other's further development. The famous playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon, one of the first professional kabuki playwrights, produced several influential works during this time, though the piece usually acknowledged as his most significant, (''The Love Suicides at'' ), was originally written for . Like many plays, it was adapted for kabuki, eventually becoming popular enough to reportedly inspire a number of real-life "copycat" suicides, and leading to a government ban on (plays about love suicides) in 1723. Also during the Genroku period was the development of the style of posing, credited to kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjūrō I, alongside the development of the mask-like makeup worn by kabuki actors in some plays. Kincaid, Zoe (1925). ''Kabuki: The Popular Stage of Japan''. London: MacMillan and Co. pp21–22. In the mid-18th century, kabuki fell out of favor for a time, with taking its place as the premier form of stage entertainment among the lower social classes. This occurred partly because of the emergence of several skilled playwrights in that time. Little of note would occur in the further development of kabuki until the end of the century, when it began to reemerge in popularity.

1842–1868: kabuki

In the 1840s, repeated periods of drought led to a series of fires affecting Edo, with kabuki theatres—traditionally made of wood—frequently burning down, forcing many to relocate. When the area that housed the Nakamura-za was completely destroyed in 1841, the refused to allow the theatre to be rebuilt, saying that it was against fire code. The shogunate, mostly disapproving of the socialisation and trade that occurred in kabuki theatres between merchants, actors and prostitutes, took advantage of the fire crisis in the following year, forcing the Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za and Kawarazaki-za out of the city limits and into
Asakusa is a district in Taitō, Tokyo, Japan. It is known as the location of the Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon. There are several other temples in Asakusa, as well as various festivals, such as the . History The ...
, a northern suburb of Edo. This was part of the larger Tenpō Reforms that the shogunate instituted starting in 1842 to restrict the overindulgence of pleasures. Actors, stagehands, and others associated with the performances were also forced to move in lieu of the death of their livelihood; despite the move of everyone involved in kabuki performance, and many in the surrounding areas, to the new location of the theatres, the inconvenience of the distance led to a reduction in attendance. These factors, along with strict regulations, pushed much of kabuki "underground" in Edo, with performances changing locations to avoid the authorities. The theatres' new location was called Saruwaka-chō, or Saruwaka-machi; the last thirty years of the Tokugawa shogunate's rule is often referred to as the "Saruwaka-machi period", and is well known for having produced some of the most exaggerated kabuki in Japanese history. Saruwaka-machi became the new theatre district for the Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za and Kawarazaki-za theatres. The district was located on the main street of Asakusa, which ran through the middle of the small city. The street was renamed after Saruwaka Kanzaburo, who initiated Edo kabuki in the Nakamura-za in 1624. European artists began noticing Japanese theatrical performances and artwork, and many artists, such as
Claude Monet Oscar-Claude Monet (, , ; 14 November 1840 – 5 December 1926) was a French painter and founder of impressionist painting who is seen as a key precursor to modernism, especially in his attempts to paint nature as he perceived it. During ...
, were inspired by Japanese woodblock prints. This Western interest prompted Japanese artists to increase their depictions of daily life, including the depiction of theatres, brothels, main streets and so on. One artist, Utagawa Hiroshige, produced a series of prints based on Saruwaka from the Saruwaka-machi period in Asakusa. Despite the revival of kabuki in another location, the relocation diminished the tradition's most abundant inspirations for costuming, make-up, and storylines. Ichikawa KodanjiIV was considered one of the most active and successful actors during the Saruwaka-machi period. Deemed unattractive, he mainly performed , or dancing, in dramas written by Kawatake Mokuami, who also wrote during the Meiji era to follow. Kawatake Mokuami commonly wrote plays that depicted the common lives of the people of Edo. He introduced (seven-and-five syllable meter) dialogue and music such as . His kabuki performances became quite popular once the Saruwaka-machi period ended and theatre returned to Edo; many of his works are still performed. In 1868, the Tokugawa ceased to exist, with the restoration of the Emperor. Emperor Meiji was restored to power and moved from Kyoto to the new capital of Edo, or Tokyo, beginning the Meiji period. Kabuki once again returned to the pleasure quarters of Edo, and throughout the Meiji period became increasingly more radical, as modern styles of kabuki plays and performances emerged. Playwrights experimented with the introduction of new
genre Genre () is any form or type of communication in any mode (written, spoken, digital, artistic, etc.) with socially-agreed-upon conventions developed over time. In popular usage, it normally describes a category of literature, music, or other f ...
s to kabuki, and introduced twists on traditional stories.

Post-Meiji period kabuki

Beginning in 1868, enormous cultural changes, such as the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, the elimination of the
samurai were the hereditary military nobility and officer caste of History of Japan#Medieval Japan (1185–1573/1600), medieval and Edo period, early-modern Japan from the late 12th century until their abolition in 1876. They were the well-paid retai ...
class, and the opening of Japan to the West, helped to spark kabuki's re-emergence. Both actors and playwrights strove to improve the reputation of kabuki in the face of new foreign influence and amongst the upper classes, partially through adapting traditional styles to modern tastes. This endeavour would prove successful, with the Emperor sponsoring a kabuki performance on 21 April 1887. After
World War II World War II or the Second World War, often abbreviated as WWII or WW2, was a world war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. It involved the vast majority of the world's countries—including all of the great powers—forming two opposin ...
, the occupying forces briefly banned kabuki, which had formed a strong base of support for Japan's war efforts since 1931. This ban was in conjunction with broader restrictions on media and art forms that the American military occupation instituted after WWII. However, by 1947 the ban on kabuki was rescinded, but censorship rules lingered.

Post-war to modern day kabuki

The ensuing period of occupation following
World War II World War II or the Second World War, often abbreviated as WWII or WW2, was a world war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. It involved the vast majority of the world's countries—including all of the great powers—forming two opposin ...
posited a difficult time for kabuki; besides the war's physical impact and devastation upon the country, some schools of thought chose to reject both the styles and artforms of pre-war Japan, kabuki amongst them. Director Tetsuji Takechi's popular and innovative productions of kabuki classics at this time are credited with sparking new interest in kabuki in the
Kansai The or the , lies in the southern-central region of Japan's main island Honshū. The region includes the prefectures of Nara, Wakayama, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyōgo and Shiga, often also Mie, sometimes Fukui, Tokushima and Tottori. The metropo ...
region. Of the many popular young stars who performed with the Takechi Kabuki, Nakamura Ganjiro III (b. 1931) was the leading figure, first known as Nakamura Senjaku before taking his current name. It was this period of kabuki in
Osaka is a designated city in the Kansai region of Honshu in Japan. It is the capital of and most populous city in Osaka Prefecture, and the third most populous city in Japan, following Special wards of Tokyo and Yokohama. With a population of 2 ...
that became known as the "Age of Senjaku" in his honor. Today, kabuki is the most popular of the traditional styles of Japanese drama, with its star actors often appearing in television or film roles. Well-known actor Bandō Tamasaburō V has appeared in several non-kabuki plays and movies, often in the role of a woman. Kabuki also appears in works of
Japanese popular culture Japanese popular culture includes Japanese cinema, cuisine, television programs, anime, manga, video games, music, and doujinshi, all of which retain older artistic and literary traditions; many of their themes and styles of presentation can be tr ...
such as anime. In addition to the handful of major theatres in Tokyo and Kyoto, there are many smaller theatres in Osaka and throughout the countryside. The troupe, based in Ōshika,
Nagano Nagano may refer to: Places * Nagano Prefecture, a prefecture in Japan ** Nagano (city), the capital city of the same prefecture *** Nagano 1998, the 1998 Winter Olympics *** Nagano Olympic Stadium, a baseball stadium in Nagano *** Nagano Univer ...
Prefecture, is one example. Some local kabuki troupes today use female actors in roles. The Ichikawa Shōjo Kabuki Gekidan, an all-female troupe, debuted in 1953 to significant acclaim, though the majority of kabuki troupes have remained entirely-male. The introduction of earphone guides in 1975,Martin, Alex,
Kabuki going strong, 400 years on
, ''
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'', 28 December 2010, p. 3,
including an English version in 1982, helped broaden the artform's appeal. As a result, in 1991 the Kabuki-za, one of Tokyo's best known kabuki theaters, began year-round performances and, in 2005, began marketing kabuki cinema films. Kabuki troupes regularly tour Asia, Europe and America, and there have been several kabuki-themed productions of Western plays such as those of
Shakespeare William Shakespeare ( 26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) was an English playwright, poet and actor. He is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's nation ...
. Western playwrights and novelists have also experimented with kabuki themes, an example of which is
Gerald Vizenor Gerald is a male Germanic given name meaning "rule of the spear" from the prefix ''ger-'' ("spear") and suffix ''-wald'' ("rule"). Variants include the English given name Jerrold, the feminine nickname Jeri and the Welsh language Gerallt and I ...
's (2004). Writer
Yukio Mishima , born , was a Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor, model, Shintoist, nationalist, and founder of the , an unarmed civilian militia. Mishima is considered one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century. He was considered f ...
pioneered and popularised the use of kabuki in modern settings and revived other traditional arts, such as Noh, adapting them to modern contexts. There have even been kabuki troupes established in countries outside Japan. For instance, in Australia, the Za Kabuki troupe at the
Australian National University The Australian National University (ANU) is a public research university located in Canberra, the capital of Australia. Its main campus in Acton encompasses seven teaching and research colleges, in addition to several national academies and ...
has performed a kabuki drama each year since 1976, the longest regular kabuki performance outside Japan. In November 2002, a statue was erected in honor of kabuki's founder, Izumo no Okuni and to commemorate 400 years of kabuki's existence.Sign (in English) for Izumo no Okuni's statue in Kyoto Diagonally across from the Minami-za,Lonely Planet Kyoto, 2012, page 169 the last remaining kabuki theater in Kyoto, it stands at the east end of a bridge (Shijō Ōhashi) crossing the Kamo River in Kyoto. Kabuki was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists in 2005.

Super Kabuki

While still maintaining most of the historical practices of kabuki, aimed to broaden its appeal by creating a new genre of kabuki productions called . With as the first Super Kabuki production to premiere in 1986, remakes of traditional plays and new contemporary creations have been brought to local theaters throughout the country, including anime-based productions such as ''Naruto'' or ''One Piece'' starting from 2014. Super Kabuki has sparked controversy within the Japanese population regarding the extent of modification of the traditional art form. Some say that it has lost its 400-year history, while others consider the adaptations necessary for contemporary relevance. Regardless, since incorporating more advanced technology in the new stage sets, costumes, and lighting, Super Kabuki has regained interest from the young demographic.


Stage design

The kabuki stage features a projection called a , a walkway which extends into the audience and via which dramatic entrances and exits are made. Okuni also performed on a stage with her entourage. The stage is used not only as a walkway or path to get to and from the main stage, but important scenes are also played on the stage. Kabuki stages and theaters have steadily become more technologically sophisticated, and innovations including revolving stages and trap doors were introduced during the 18th century. A driving force has been the desire to manifest one frequent theme of kabuki theater, that of the sudden, dramatic revelation or transformation. A number of stage tricks, including actors' rapid appearance and disappearance, employ these innovations. The term , often translated as "playing to the gallery", is sometimes used as a catch-all for these tricks. The , and several innovations including revolving stage, and have all contributed to kabuki. The creates depth and both and provide a vertical dimension. (revolving stage) developed in the Kyōhō era (1716–1735). The trick was originally accomplished by the on-stage pushing of a round, wheeled platform. Later a circular platform was embedded in the stage with wheels beneath it facilitating movement. The ("darkened revolve") technique involves lowering the stage lights during this transition. More commonly the lights are left on for ("lighted revolve"), sometimes simultaneously performing the transitioning scenes for dramatic effect. This stage was first built in Japan in the early 18th century. refers to the stage "traps" that have been commonly employed in kabuki since the middle of the 18th century. These traps raise and lower actors or sets to the stage. or refers to trap(s) moving upward and or to traps descending. This technique is often used to lift an entire scene at once. (riding in mid-air) is a technique, which appeared toward the middle of the 19th century, by which an actor's costume is attached to wires and he is made to "fly" over the stage or certain parts of the auditorium. This is similar to the wire trick in the stage musical ''
Peter Pan Peter Pan is a fictional character created by Scottish novelist and playwright J. M. Barrie. A free-spirited and mischievous young boy who can fly and never grows up, Peter Pan spends his never-ending childhood having adventures on the mythi ...
'', in which Peter launches himself into the air. It is still one of the most popular (visual tricks) in kabuki today; major kabuki theaters, such as the National Theatre, Kabuki-za and Minami-za, are all equipped with installations. Scenery changes are sometimes made mid-scene, while the actors remain on stage and the curtain stays open. This is sometimes accomplished by using a , or "small wagon stage". This technique originated at the beginning of the 18th century, where scenery or actors move on or off stage on a wheeled platform. Also common are stagehands rushing onto the stage adding and removing props, backdrops and other scenery; these are always dressed entirely in black and are traditionally considered invisible. Stagehands also assist in a variety of quick costume changes known as ("quick change technique"). When a character's true nature is suddenly revealed, the devices of and are often used. This involves layering one costume over another and having a stagehand pull the outer one off in front of the audience. The curtain that shields the stage before the performance and during the breaks is in the traditional colours of black, red and green, in various order, or white instead of green, vertical stripes. The curtain consists of one piece and is pulled back to one side by a staff member by hand. An additional outer curtain called was not introduced until the Meiji era following the introduction of western influence. These are more ornate in their appearance and are woven. They depict the season in which the performance is taking place, often designed by renowned artists.


Since feudal laws in 17th century Japan prohibited replicating the looks of samurai or nobility and the use of luxurious fabrics, the kabuki costumes were groundbreaking new designs to the general public, even setting trends that still exist today. Although the earliest kabuki costumes have not been preserved, separate and kabuki costumes today are made based on written records called and in collaboration with those whose families have been in the kabuki industry for generations. The kimono the actors wear for their costumes are typically made with vibrant colors and multiple layers. Both and wear - pleated trousers – in some plays, and both use padding underneath their costumes to create the correct body shape for the outfit. Kabuki
makeup The asterisk ( ), from Late Latin , from Ancient Greek , ''asteriskos'', "little star", is a typographical symbol. It is so called because it resembles a conventional image of a heraldic star. Computer scientists and mathematicians often vo ...
provides an element of style easily recognizable even by those unfamiliar with the art form.
Rice powder Rice is the seed of the grass species ''Oryza sativa'' (Asian rice) or less commonly ''Oryza glaberrima'' (African rice). The name wild rice is usually used for species of the genera ''Zizania'' and ''Porteresia'', both wild and domesticated, ...
is used to create the white base for the characteristic stage makeup, and enhances or exaggerates facial lines to produce dramatic animal or supernatural
mask A mask is an object normally worn on the face, typically for protection, disguise, performance, or entertainment and often they have been employed for rituals and rights. Masks have been used since antiquity for both ceremonial and practi ...
s. The color of the is an expression of the character's nature: red lines are used to indicate passion, heroism, righteousness, and other positive traits; blue or black, villainy, jealousy, and other negative traits; green, the supernatural; and purple, nobility. Another special feature of kabuki costumes is the , or the wig. Each actor has a different wig made for every role, constructed from a thin base of hand-beaten copper custom-made to fit the actor perfectly, and each wig is usually styled in a traditional manner. The hair used in the wigs is typically real human hair hand-sewn onto a habotai base, though some styles of wig require yak hair or horse hair.


The three main categories of kabuki play are , , and . , or history plays, are set within the context of major events in Japanese history. Strict censorship laws during the Edo period prohibited the representation of contemporary events and particularly prohibited criticising the shogunate or casting it in a bad light, although enforcement varied greatly over the years. Many shows were set in the context of the
Genpei War The was a national civil war between the Taira and Minamoto clans during the late Heian period of Japan. It resulted in the downfall of the Taira and the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate under Minamoto no Yoritomo, who appointed himse ...
of the 1180s, the Nanboku-chō Wars of the 1330s, or other historical events. Frustrating the censors, many shows used these historical settings as metaphors for contemporary events. , one of the most famous plays in the kabuki repertoire, serves as an excellent example; it is ostensibly set in the 1330s, though it actually depicts the contemporary (18th century) affair of the revenge of the 47 ''rōnin''. Unlike , which generally focused upon the samurai class, focused primarily upon commoners, namely townspeople and peasants. Often referred to as "domestic plays" in English, generally related to themes of family drama and romance. Some of the most famous are the love suicide plays, adapted from works by the playwright Chikamatsu; these center on romantic couples who cannot be together in life due to various circumstances and who therefore decide to be together in death instead. Many if not most contain significant elements of this theme of societal pressures and limitations. pieces place their emphasis on dance, which may be performed with or without dialogue, where dance can be used to convey emotion, character and plot. Quick costume change techniques may sometimes be employed in such pieces. Notable examples include and . musicians may be seated in rows on stepped platforms behind the dancers. Important elements of kabuki include the , in which the actor holds a picturesque pose to establish his character. At this point his house name () is sometimes heard in loud shout () from an expert audience member, serving both to express and enhance the audience's appreciation of the actor's achievement. An even greater compliment can be paid by shouting the name of the actor's father. The main actor has to convey a wide variety of emotions between a fallen, drunkard person and someone who in reality is quite different since he is only faking his weakness, such as the character of Yuranosuke in . This is called or "belly acting", which means he has to perform from within to change characters. It is technically difficult to perform and takes a long time to learn, but once mastered the audience takes up on the actor's emotion. Emotions are also expressed through the colours of the costumes, a key element in kabuki. Gaudy and strong colours can convey foolish or joyful emotions, whereas severe or muted colours convey seriousness and focus.

Play structure and performance style

Kabuki, like other forms of drama traditionally performed in Japan, was—and sometimes still is—performed in full-day programmes, with one play comprising a number of acts spanning the entire day. However, these plays—particularly —were commonly sequenced with acts from other plays in order to produce a full-day programme, as the individual acts in a kabuki play commonly functioned as stand-alone performances in and of themselves. plays, in contrast, were generally not sequenced with acts from other plays, and genuinely would take the entire day to perform. The structure of a full-day performance was derived largely from the conventions of both and Noh theatre. Chief amongst these was the concept of , a pacing convention in theatre stating that the action of a play should start slow, speed up, and end quickly. The concept, elaborated on at length by master Noh playwright Zeami, governs not only the actions of the actors, but also the structure of the play, as well as the structure of scenes and plays within a day-long programme. Nearly every full-length play occupies five acts. The first corresponds to , an auspicious and slow opening which introduces the audience to the characters and the plot. The next three acts correspond to , where events speed up, culminating almost always in a great moment of drama or tragedy in the third act, and possibly a battle in the second or fourth acts. The final act, corresponding to , is almost always short, providing a quick and satisfying conclusion.Quinn, Shelley Fenno. "How to write a Noh play—Zeami's ''
Sandō A in Japanese architecture is the road approaching either a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple.Iwanami Japanese dictionary, 6th Edition (2008), DVD version. Its point of origin is usually straddled in the first case by a Shinto ''torii'', in t ...
''. ''
Monumenta Nipponica ''Monumenta Nipponica'' is a semi-annual academic journal of Japanese studies. Published by Sophia University (Tokyo), it is one of the oldest English-language academic journals in the field of Asian studies, being founded in 1938. Although the jou ...
'', vol 48, issue 1 (Spring 1993). pp53–88.
While many plays were written solely for kabuki, many others were taken from plays, Noh plays, folklore, or other performing traditions such as the oral tradition of the '' Tale of the Heike''. While plays tend to have serious, emotionally dramatic, and organised plots, plays written specifically for kabuki generally have looser, more humorous plots.Toita, Yasuji (1970). Kabuki: The Popular Theater. New York: Weatherhill. pp 6–8. One crucial difference between and kabuki is a difference in storytelling focus; whereas focuses on the story and on the chanter who recites it, kabuki has a greater focus on the actors themselves. A play may sacrifice the details of sets, puppets, or action in favor of the chanter, while kabuki is known to sacrifice drama and even the plot to highlight an actor's talents. It was not uncommon in kabuki to insert or remove individual scenes from a day's schedule in order to cater to an individual actor—either scenes he was famed for, or that featured him, would be inserted into a program without regard to plot continuity. Certain plays were also performed uncommonly as they required an actor to be proficient in a number of instruments, which would be played live onstage, a skill that few actors possessed. Kabuki traditions in Edo and the Kyoto-Osaka region (Kamigata) differed; throughout the Edo period, Edo kabuki was defined by its extravagance, both in the appearance of its actors, their costumes, stage tricks and bold poses. In contrast, Kamigata kabuki focused on natural and realistic styles of acting. Only towards the end of the Edo period did the two styles begin to merge to any significant degree.Thornbury, Barbara E. "Sukeroku's Double Identity: The Dramatic Structure of Edo Kabuki". ''Japanese Studies'' 6 (1982). Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan. 13 Before this time, actors from different regions often failed to adjust their acting styles when performing elsewhere, leading to unsuccessful performance tours outside of their usual region of performance.

Famous plays

While there are many famous plays known today, many of the most famous were written in the mid-Edo period, and were originally written for theatre. * (''Treasury of Loyal Retainers'') is the famous story of the forty-seven , led by Oishi Kuranosuke, who exact revenge on their enemy before committing suicide upon the death of their master, Lord Takuminokami of the Asano clan.Miyake, Shutarō (1971). "Kabuki Drama". Tokyo: Japan Travel Bureau. This story is one of the most popular traditional tales in Japan, and is based on a famous episode in 18th century Japanese history. * ( ''and the Thousand Cherry Trees'') follows
Minamoto no Yoshitsune was a military commander of the Minamoto clan of Japan in the late Heian and early Kamakura periods. During the Genpei War, he led a series of battles which toppled the Ise-Heishi branch of the Taira clan, helping his half-brother Yoritomo ...
as he flees from agents of his brother Yoritomo. Three Taira clan generals supposedly killed in the
Genpei War The was a national civil war between the Taira and Minamoto clans during the late Heian period of Japan. It resulted in the downfall of the Taira and the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate under Minamoto no Yoritomo, who appointed himse ...
figure prominently, as their deaths ensure a complete end to the war and the arrival of peace, as does a named Genkurō.Jones, Stanleigh H. Jr. (trans.)(1993). "Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees." New York: Columbia University Press. * ( ''and the Secrets of Calligraphy'') is based on the life of famed scholar Sugawara no Michizane (845–903), who is exiled from Kyoto, and upon his death causes a number of calamities in the capital. He is then deified, as ("divine spirit") of scholarship, and worshipped in order to propitiate his angry spirit.


Every kabuki actor has a stage name, which is different from the name they were born with. These stage names, most often those of the actor's father, grandfather, or teacher, are passed down between generations of actors' lineages, and hold great honor and importance. Many names are associated with certain roles or acting styles, and the new possessor of each name must live up to these expectations; there is the feeling almost of the actor not only taking a name, but embodying the spirit, style, or skill of each actor to previously hold that name. Many actors will go through at least three names over the course of their career. are grand naming ceremonies held in kabuki theatres in front of the audience. Most often, a number of actors will participate in a single ceremony, taking on new stage-names. Their participation in a represents their passage into a new chapter of their performing careers. Kabuki actors are typically part of a school of acting, or are associated with a particular theatre.

Major theatres

* Akita ** Kosaka * Tokyo ** Kabuki-za ** Meiji-za ** Shinbashi Enbujō ** National Theater *
Kyoto Kyoto (; Japanese: , ''Kyōto'' ), officially , is the capital city of Kyoto Prefecture in Japan. Located in the Kansai region on the island of Honshu, Kyoto forms a part of the Keihanshin metropolitan area along with Osaka and Kobe. , the cit ...
** Minami-za *
Osaka is a designated city in the Kansai region of Honshu in Japan. It is the capital of and most populous city in Osaka Prefecture, and the third most populous city in Japan, following Special wards of Tokyo and Yokohama. With a population of 2 ...
** ** *
Nagoya is the largest city in the Chūbu region, the fourth-most populous city and third most populous urban area in Japan, with a population of 2.3million in 2020. Located on the Pacific coast in central Honshu, it is the capital and the most pop ...
** Misono-za ** Suehiro-za * Fukuoka ** Hakata-za * Kagawa ** Kotohira Kanamaru-za

Influence of kabuki on other art forms

Since its beginning, kabuki has remained a significant piece of Japanese culture. The stories and actors have been recreated in many different art forms, including woodblock prints, books, magazines, oral storytelling, photography in later years, and others. Additionally, kabuki was and continues to be influenced by the books and stories circulating in Japan. In one such instance, the widely popular book , or Eight Dogs, was acted out in various episodes on the kabuki stage. One important way the laboring class was able to enjoy kabuki performances outside of the stage was through home-brewed shows called . Also referred to as "amateur kabuki", these performances took place at the local level across Japan, but were most commonly held in the Gifu and Aichi prefectures. In
Gifu Prefecture is a prefecture of Japan located in the Chūbu region of Honshu. Gifu Prefecture has a population of 1,991,390 () and has a geographic area of . Gifu Prefecture borders Toyama Prefecture to the north; Ishikawa Prefecture to the northwest, Fu ...
specifically, kabuki was a prominent feature of the annual autumn festival, with children's reenactments of kabuki performances taking place at Murakuni shrine for over 300 years. Closer to the cultural epicenter of kabuki in Edo (later Tokyo), commoners had other methods to enjoy performances without attending the shows. was type of performance in Tokyo, but unlike kabuki, it was shorter in length and more affordable to the common class. performances were often based on plots used in kabuki, and the two styles shared common themes. was another popular medium for kabuki consumption among commoners and elites alike. During the course of its publication, this magazine allowed those unable to attend performances to enjoy the liveliness of kabuki culture.

See also

* Theatre of Japan * , a lettering style invented to advertise kabuki and other theatrical performances * , a traditional form of Japanese comic theatre that influenced the development of kabuki * , an imprint of the face make-up of kabuki actors, as artwork and souvenir * Noh, a traditional form of Japanese theatre * , a traditional Japanese puppet theatre from whose scripts many kabuki plays were adapted * Famous kabuki actor lineages, such as: ** Ichikawa Danjūrō ** Ichikawa Ebizō ** Matsumoto Kōshirō ** Nakamura Kanzaburō * , a Japanese magazine on kabuki that ran 1879–1897. *'' Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD'', a 1991 comedic superhero film directed by
Lloyd Kaufman Stanley Lloyd Kaufman Jr. (born December 30, 1945) is an American film director, screenwriter, producer and actor. Alongside producer Michael Herz, he is the co-founder of Troma Entertainment film studio, and the director of many of their featu ...
and Michael Herz and distributed by
Troma Entertainment Troma Entertainment is an American independent film production and distribution company founded by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz in 1974. The company produces low-budget independent films, primarily of the horror comedy genre. Many of them p ...
. * , a light novel, manga, and anime series about a boy who loves kabuki * * * * Balinese dance



* * Ronald Cavaye (1993). ''Kabuki: A Pocket Guide''. USA and Japan: Charles E. Tuttle, * Ronald Cavaye, Paul Griffith and Akihiko Senda (2004). ''A Guide to the Japanese Stage''. Japan: Kodansha International. * * * Senelick, L. (2000). ''The Changing Room: Sex, Drag, and Theatre''. London: Routledge. * Facts JPN-kabuki. 25 November 2007
facts JPN-kabuki
. * Japanese Culture. 25 November 2007
Japanese Culture - Entertainment - Kabuki Theater
. * Kabuki. 25 November 2007

* Kabuki. Ed. Shoriya Aragoro. 9 September 1999. 25 November 2007
* * *

Further reading

* *

External links

Kabuki Web
Shochiku Official Kabuki Website in English

—The English language Earphone Guide
Kabuki 21
All about Japan's traditional Theatre Art of Kabuki: The art, the plays, the great stars of today, the legends of the past, the theaters, the history, the glossary, the traditions, the heroes and the derivatives. *
National Diet Library The is the national library of Japan and among the largest libraries in the world. It was established in 1948 for the purpose of assisting members of the in researching matters of public policy. The library is similar in purpose and scope to ...

photograph of Kabuki-za in Kyobashi-ku, Kobiki-cho, Tokyo (1900)

Japan Mint The is an Independent Administrative Institution of the Japanese government, responsible for producing and circulating the coins of Japan. The agency has its head office in Osaka with branches in Saitama and Hiroshima. The Japan Mint does not p ...

Kabuki Coin Set

Audio recording of the kabuki play Narukami
by Ichikawa Danjūrō I at LostPlays.com
1969 'Camera Three' program on Kabuki
(audio only; with Faubion Bowers et al.)
Collection: "Kabuki Images"
from the
University of Michigan Museum of Art The University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor, Michigan with is one of the largest university art museums in the United States. Built as a war memorial in 1909 for the university's fallen alumni from the Civil War, Alumni Memorial Hall or ...

"Kabuki Performance and Expression in Japanese Prints" exhibition
at the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri {{Authority control History of theatre Japanese art terminology Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity Theatre in Japan