Izumo no Okuni


was a
Japanese Japanese may refer to: * Something from or related to Japan , image_flag = Flag of Japan.svg , alt_flag = Centered deep red circle on a white rectangle , image_coat = Imperial Seal of J ...

shrine maiden In Shinto, a is a Shinto shrine, shrine maidenGroemer, 28. or a supplementary priestess. were once likely seen as Shamanism, shamansPicken, 140. but are understood in modern Japanese culture to be an institutionalized role in daily shrine life, ...

shrine maiden
who is believed to have invented the theatrical art form of
kabuki is a classical form of Japanese dance-drama. 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 ...

. She is thought to have begun performing her new art style of (lit., "the art of singing and dancing") theatre in the dry riverbed 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 pathways running alongside the river on which one can wal ...

Kamo River
Kyoto Kyoto (; : , ''Kyōto'' ), officially , is the capital city of in . Located in the on the island of , Kyoto forms a part of the along with and . As of 2021, the city has a population of 1.45 million, making up 57% of the prefecture's total p ...

. Okuni's troupe quickly gained immense popularity, and were known for their performers, who were often lower-class women Okuni had recruited to act in her all-female theatre group. Few concrete details are known about her life; born near
Izumo Province Image:Provinces of Japan-Izumo.svg, 300px, Map of Japanese provinces (1868) with Izumo Province highlighted was an Old provinces of Japan, old province of Japan which today consists of the eastern part of Shimane Prefecture. It was sometimes calle ...
, Okuni worked as a (shrine maiden) for several years at the
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, Izumo, Shimane Prefecture, it is home to two major festivals. It is dedicated to ...
(the Grand Shrine of Izumo) until gaining popularity for her dramatised dance performances, which onlookers gave the name of . Okuni continued to perform kabuki with her troupe until her retirement and disappearance sometime around 1610. She is believed to have died sometime around 1613.


Early years

Born , Okuni grew up in the vicinity of the Izumo shrine, where her father, Nakamura Sanemon, worked as a
blacksmith A blacksmith is a metalsmith A metalsmith or simply smith is a craftsperson fashioning useful items (for example, tools, kitchenware, tableware, jewellery, and weapons) out of various metal A metal (from Ancient Greek, Greek μέτ ...

, and where several other family members served. Eventually Okuni joined as a (shrine maiden), where she was known for her skill in dancing and acting, as well as her beauty. As it was a custom of the time to send priests, and others to solicit contributions for the shrine, she was sent to Kyoto to perform sacred dances and songs. It was during her performances in Kyoto that she also became known for her performances of (or dance) in honor of the
Amida Buddha
Amida Buddha
. Though this dance traces its origins to Kūya, a 10th-century evangelist of
Pure Land Buddhism Pure Land Buddhism (; ja, 浄土仏教, translit=Jōdo bukkyō; ; vi, Tịnh Độ Tông), also referred to as Amidism in English, is a broad branch of Mahayana Buddhism in Shishoin Temple (Tokyo). A unique feature of Mahāyāna is the belie ...
, by Okuni's time it had become a largely secular
folk dance A folk dance is a dance Dance is a performing art art form, form consisting of sequences of movement, either improvised or purposefully selected. This movement has aesthetic and often symbolism (arts), symbolic value. Dance can be cate ...

folk dance
, and her particular adaptation tended to be known for its sultriness and
sexual innuendo An innuendo is a hint, wikt:insinuation, insinuation or wikt:intimation, intimation about a person or thing, especially of a denigrating or a derogatory nature. It can also be a remark or question, typically disparaging (also called insinuation), ...
. Other popular themes for Okuni's acts included humorous skits about lover's trysts at various public establishments and meetings between men and prostitutes. Between these and other dances and acts, she garnered much attention and began to draw large crowds wherever she performed. Eventually she was summoned to return to the shrine, a call she ignored, though she continued to send money back.

Founding of kabuki

Around 1603, Okuni began performing on the dry riverbed of the Shijōgawara (Fourth Street Dry Riverbed) of the Kamo River and at Kitano Shrine. Okuni also performed for the ladies of the
Imperial courtAn imperial court is the royal court of an empire. Imperial Court may also refer to: *Imperial court (Holy Roman Empire) *Imperial Court in Kyoto, pre-Meiji period in Japan *Imperial Court System, a non-profit organization in North America *Imperial ...
. Gathering up the female outcasts and misfits of the region, particularly those involved in prostitution, Okuni gave them direction, teaching them acting, dancing and singing skills in order to form her troupe. Several theories exist as to the etymology of the word ''kabuki'', one being that it is derived from those who, oddly dressed and swaggering on the street, had been dubbed (from , "to lean in a certain direction", and , "people"). Another possible origin is , which means "slanted" or "strongly-inclined." In either case, others labelled Okuni's troupe performances "kabuki" due to their eccentricity and social daring. The earliest performances of kabuki were dancing and song with no significant plot, often disdained as overly sexual and cacophonous, but equally lauded as colourful and beautiful. Okuni's troupe was exclusively female. Thus, she required her actresses to play both male and female roles. As her troupe gained fame, she was emulated by many others, particularly
brothel Image:Pascha Köln.jpg, 250px, The former Pascha (brothel), Pascha brothel in Cologne, Germany was the largest brothel in Europe.prostitutes Prostitution is the business or practice of engaging in sexual activity in exchange for payment. Prostitution is sometimes described as sexual services, commercial sex or, colloquially, hooking. It is sometimes referred to euphemistically ...
who had marketable acting and singing skills. This new style of exclusively female troupes became known by the alternative names of and ,"Okuni." ''Japan Encyclopedia.'' Ed. Louis Frédéric. Trans. Käthe Roth. Harvard University Press. (from , the Japanese word for "woman" or "girl") and .

Later years

One of Okuni's most popular performances featured the romantic character of Nagoya Sansaburō, a real-life samurai who had died in 1603. Onstage, Okuni's beautiful voice lured Sansaburō's spirit back into the world of the living to dance with her. Despite historical speculation about the possible links between Okuni and Sansaburō, it remains uncertain whether the pair had ever been lovers during his lifetime, or whether she had simply incorporated him into her storytelling. Okuni retired around 1610, and after that time she disappeared. In 1629, due to outcry for moral reform and concern about fights breaking out between men trying to win the attention of the actresses,
Tokugawa Iemitsu Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川 家光, August 12, 1604 – June 8, 1651) was the third ''shōgun , officially , was the title of the military dictatorship, military dictators of Japan during most of the period spanning from 1185 to 1868. Nominally ap ...
= forbade women from performing in kabuki. They were quickly replaced by young men as actors and "actresses", though this was soon banned as well due to some of the same issues of prostitution and corruption of morals, restricting the performances to those by older men, which is a standing practice in the official theatres even today. There are several conflicting theories of Okuni's year of death; some say she died in 1610, others in 1613, or in 1640.

Cultural impact and legacy

In addition to her founding of kabuki, Okuni contributed to Japanese theatre as a whole. She is said to have introduced the forerunner of the (path of flowers), a runway leading from the rear of the theatre and crossing between the audience to the stage. This has been incorporated in several Japanese theatre arts beyond that of kabuki. In addition, she has also influenced modern musical theatre. published her novel in the late 1960s, crafting a fictional biography of the dancer. The story was first printed as a
serial Serial may refer to: Arts, entertainment, and media The presentation of works in sequential segments * Serial (literature), serialised fiction in print * Serial (publishing), periodical publications and newspapers * Serial (radio and television), ...
in from 1967 to 1969. A commemorative statue of Izumo no Okuni is located in Kyoto by 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 pathways running alongside the river on which one can wal ...

Kamo River
, not far from the
Minami-za is the primary kabuki is a classical form of Japanese dance-drama. 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 theatre.



* * * * *

External links

Izumo no Okuni
at Distinguished Women

Japanese Art and Architecture Net Users System

at Drama Archives {{DEFAULTSORT:Izumo, Okuni 1570s births 1610s deaths
Year of death uncertain Category, plural categories, may refer to: Philosophy and general uses *Categorization, categories in cognitive science, information science and generally *Category of being *Categories (Aristotle), ''Categories'' (Aristotle) *Category (Kant) * ...
16th-century clergy 17th-century clergy 16th-century Japanese writers 16th-century Japanese women writers 17th-century Japanese actresses 17th-century Japanese writers 16th-century Japanese dramatists and playwrights 17th-century Japanese dramatists and playwrights 17th-century Japanese women writers People from Shimane Prefecture Japanese entertainers History of theatre Japanese dramatists and playwrights Kabuki playwrights Miko Kabuki People of Sengoku-period Japan Women dramatists and playwrights