Kabuki (歌舞伎) is one of the primary forms of Japanese theatre, allegedly created by a dancer by the name of Izumo no Okuni (出雲の阿国) of the Izumo Grand Shrine (出雲大社 Izumo-Taisha) around 1603, when she gathered a troupe of dancers and singers to perform in the dry riverbed of the Kamogawa in Kyōto. The kanji in kabuki mean "sing" (歌), "dance" (舞), and "skill" (伎), but the meaning can more likely be attributed to the verb "kabuku" (傾く, "to lean", "to incline") in the sense of being "off the wall", as these dancers were often called "strange" and "unusual".

Kabuki derived from sensual folk dances called furyū-ō odori (風流踊り) or nembu odori, performed only by women. Nagoya Sanzaburō codified the actresses' performance, and kabuki reached Edo in 1607. As many of the actresses in the genre were harlots, the shogunate banned women from performing on stage in 1629. They were replaced by young men called wakashū (若衆, lit. "young person", only used for males), commonly under 15 years of age and therefore often subject to scandals. Consequently, in 1652, they, too, were banned from the stage. The shogunate ordered that kabuki plays be based on the Nō (能) theatre's kyōgen (狂言, lit. "mad words" or "wild speech"; a form of traditional Japanese comic theatre) and be played by men (野郎 yarō) only. It thus became a true professional theatre form engaged in the arts of singing, dancing and skills.

The female roles (onnagata 女形 or oyama 女方, "woman-role") were filled by men, who specialised in playing women. Theatres were built in Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto for kabuki performances, and changes were made to the stage with the invention of hanamichi (花道, "flower path") an extra stage section, and the curtain, allowing actors to change costumes and sets to be changed after every act. The plays became more extended and were specially written for this new type of theatre. Some famous actors like Ichikawa Danjurō I created new styles of plays, aragoto (荒事 "rough style"), featuring heroes wearing bold red or blue makeup (隈取 kumadori), and having costumes that are padded and enlarged.

During the genroku era (元禄, 1688-1704) kabuki plays diversified: in addition to aragoto, jidaimono (時代物, historical plays), sewamono (世話物, contemporary plays), shosagoto (所作事, danced theatre), jitsugoto (実事) and wagoto (和事, "gentle style"), both realistic plays, emerged. Furthermore, plays from puppet theatre were adapted for kabuki, called maruhonmomo (丸本物).

Namiki Shōzō (並木正三, 1730–1773) and Namiki Gohei I (並木五瓶初代, 1747–1808) were famous shosogato actors, while Tsuruya Namboku IV shone in kizewamono (生世話物, "realistic" plays). Kawatake Mokuami (河竹黙阿弥, real name Yoshimura Yoshisaburō 吉村芳三郎; 1816–1893) created the shiranamimono (白浪物) genre featuring thieves and depraved people. He also tried to modernise kabuki during the Meiji era by dressing actors in Western clothes (散切物 zangirimono, "Cropped Hair Plays"), a genre of sewamono dramas, but aragoto remained the most popular genre. Many famous actors (Ichikawa Danjūrō 市川 團十郎, Onoe Kikugorō VII 七代目尾上菊五郎, Matsumoto Kōshirō 松本幸四郎, Nakamura Kichiemon 中村吉右衛門, etc.) performed in plays written by Okamoto Kidō (岡本 綺堂, 1872-1939), Mayama Seika, Hasegawa Shin, and Kubota Mantarō, to name just a few protagonists of the shinkabuki, the "New Kabuki".

After a slow decline, kabuki became more popular after World War II, and performances are now given throughout the year in theatres explicitly designed for this type of show. The plays are generally extended (four to five hours, including intermissions). Often, just the most famous scenes are shown on stage. The actors' performance is strictly codified (形 kata, "forms") and often very stylised. The lead actors often hold immobile poses (見得 mie) to be admired by the audience and make a "dramatic exit" (六法 roppō) over the hanamichi or simulate a danced fight with characteristic poses. Their makeup is symbolic, with particular colours representing a specific character, and often they wear wigs. The costumes are elaborate, while the sets are typically simple and suggestive.

The kabuki stage is vast and has been modified extensively. The hanamichi, introduced in 1640, was refined in 1740. Also, rising and descending platforms were introduced in 1753, as were rotating stages in 1785. Stage music is common, as well as naga-uta (長唄), long epic songs accompanied by shamisen music, varying according to the school. Recently, playwright-actors, such as Ichikawa Ennosuke III (三代目 市川 猿之助) have tried to revive kabuki by introducing modern techniques inspired by Western theatre.


  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005




Nakamura Shikan IV as the fisherman Fukashichi in the play, 'A Girl Sacrificed at Imoseyama'
by Toyohara Kunichika (1869); colour woodblock print on paper