Kabuki and Society in Japan

Modern kabuki evolved from political, religious, and social influences which it influenced in return. This evolution can be tracked through three notable stages; the first Okuni kabuki which was lead by Okuni no Izumo which developed into onna kabuki – or women’s kabuki – and finally into yarō kabuki – or men’s kabuki (Tsubaki.) Folk tales, dance, Buddhism, Shinto, Confucianism, kyōgen, and a puppet-chanted performance known as ningyō jōruri (Tsubaki)  were all absorbed by kabuki to enrich its stories and create a style beloved by the general public and many bakufu. 

While kabuki has a basis in bugaku dance, much of its iconic style evolved from folk dances. The two main types of dance in Japan may be divided into mai; that consists of “gliding steps […] characterized by a subdued mood and is abstract and restrained. (Tsubaki.)” Odori has rhythmic movement of the limbs and is “freer, more realistic, and more colorful (Tsubaki.)” Between the Heian period and Muromachi period the most popular dance forms were ennen, dengaku, and sarugaku. The first is a presentation performed at Buddhist temples and is directly influenced by bugaku. Dengaku was evolved from Japanese indigenous ‘field dances.’ Sarugaku was imported from a style in T’ang China. absorbed most aspects of all of these dances, and from them, kabuki was also inspired. Tsubaki claims it is believed Okuni created kabuki directly from her experience with furyu – dramatic portions of an act – within the ennen style. Furyu also means to be “elegant, refined, and beautifully attired (Tsubaki.)” This concept fused with that of odori to create illustrations of beautiful costumes and large umbrellas to add to mystique and create the quintessential vision of a kabuki dancer. 

Okuni’s kabuki possessed the buka (dance and chant) but utilized naturalistic movements that more closely resembled life and the familiar folk dances than Nō. This world of kabuki was made of “softness and coquettishness that were completely foreign to the nō” according to Tetsurō Watsuji (Tsubaki.) Interestingly enough, women  and Okuni specifically would impersonate male characters in performance. Watsuji theorizes that this transposition influenced the emergence of onnagata even before the ban on women as performers. It is only the specialized form of onnagata that we see today which emerged during the period of wakashū kabuki (Tsubaki.) During these early performances with men dressed as women and women dressed as men, many of the scenarios mimicked the licentious nature of brothels. The dialogue too was filled with lewdness due to many of the performers advertising their other profession as prostitutes (Shively.) 

In 1603 the first performance of kabuki coincided with the Tokugawa bakufu emergence; a governing class of military shogun, feudal lords, and upper samurai (Shively.) The bakufu eliminated class mobility for common citizens and so they turned to kabuki and other ‘gross’ pleasures for entertainment. For the social elite, kabuki was anathema to social order. The Tokugawa government’s morals and principals revolved around Confucianism. Principals kabuki shirked and so for 250 years, they engaged in a social duel (Shively.) Kabuki refused to be snuffed out by restrictive laws and took ingenious steps to continue its existence. 

Early kabuki performances aimed to entertain the common people and their main audience were soldiers returned from war. Some performed in military bases and incited the rowdy crowds such that brawls easily broke out until Tokugawa Ieyasu banned them from Suruga (Shively.) The behavior of these actors and actresses was so popular even court ladies in the capital that they would emulate it. Unfortunately, in 1608 and 1609, several took this behavior too far and conducted themselves as would prostitutes with their fellow courtiers. They drank, had sex, and made merry in the night to the absolute fury of the emperor. He sent to Ieyasu and tasked him with their punishment – several of whom were executed – the rest banished (Shively.) This trend of behavior escalated until 1928 when the dancer Azuma was banned from Edo and women were banned from recitals. Although local areas attempted to restrict the performance practices of kabuki, this had limited success and so the Tokugawa government stepped in to ban women from the stage entirely. Between 1629 and 1645 the ban was not strictly enforced and was reissued numerous times (Shively.) 1656 marked the first legitimate enforcement of the ban when Kasaya Sankatsu was thrown in prison for allowing women on his theatre stage (Shively.) From here, young boys took the place of women with little improvement to bakufu opinion on the art. The Edo Meishoki reads:

“Youth’s kabuki began, with beautiful youths being made to sing and dance, whereupon droll fools again had their hearts captivated and their souls stolen. […] Even though the lineage of every one of the youths was extremely base, these beautiful youths were respected by the stupid; they flapped about like kites and owls and, going into the presence of the exalted, befouled the presence […]”

Edo Meishoki

From here, townsmen and young military men became so enamored of war and wakashu kabuki that the government banned even female impersonation on stage in 1642 – but relented in 1644 after repeated petitions. Then, to make their point of stringent morality, the Tokugawa banned homosexuality in 1648. Actors and actresses, particularly those of kabuki and kabuki itself was seen as a particular evil influence (Shively.) 

In 1651, Ietsuna replaced Iemitsu and enacted sweeping and rigorous reform to stamp out kabuki and its threat to moral society. Women and young boys were banned from the stage, kabuki and puppet theatres were shut down all over Edo, and pressure on the highly feminized onnagata. Here, another central change occurred in the visual aesthetic of kabuki. The men were required to shave and actors forelocks and dress their hair as men and not women (Shively.) This was to remove the image of the onnagata as actual women from audiences and – ideally – end the sexual relations. This was the beginning of yarō kabuki. To ensure this law was maintained, actors were occasionally required to submit to inspections by government offices. To bypass it however, they craftily utilized silk scarves and later copper-lined forelock wigs (Shively.) 

Despite their moral issues with kabuki, prostitution, and homosexuality they could not completely eliminate it from Edo. It would have tanked their economy and these outlier businesses would have only migrated to other areas. Controlling kabuki was a power balance to keep influence in Edo without allowing delinquency to take over. The result was a constant struggle whose laws were never as effective as the Tokugawa wished them to be, especially pertaining to homosexuality. The Tokugawa’s ordinances were known as Ofuregaki (Shively) and were read to citizens in simple language as officials considered them all stupid. Because of this arrogance, prosecution was never severe and warnings were more frequently issued than action taken. Unfortunately, Shively notes there is not a comprehensive collection of laws from this time to control theatre. We do have records of those laws the Tokugawa implemented to separate theatre from the rest of society and again those attempting to separate prostitution from theatre.  

Like prostitutes actors were confined to their own specific quarter. They were not allowed to leave, to visit or own property beyond their district, nor were they to impersonate residents of the general populace. These restrictions eventually lead to the creation of teahouse theatres which acted as a meeting point. Theatre could be watched, food and drink purchased, and business conducted. Kabuki dancers migrated from relying on visits to personal residences to meetings at teahouses. While the Tokugawa passed legislation to forbid this, they could not truly enforce it. They were also unwilling to shut own the teahouses due to their legitimate uses. When one thinks of Japan in the modern era, or is familiar with it at all, teahouses are generally a hallmark of foriegn impression. Teahouses and onsen are the cornerstone of our ideals for Japanese aesthetic. 

Bakufu restrictions kept the Japanese theatre from developing into a closed space until the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. Likewise, restrictions stood that forbade plays to touch upon politically or morally sensitive matters that may cause uprising or dissent from the current government. This censorship shifted to cover what became known as “love suicide”. In 1703 the kabuki playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon published Sonezaki Shinju which was based on the suicides of two lovers in Japan. The play was an absolute smash with commoners and bakufu women to the point that “love suicides” became a pop trend. Which, understandably led to a ban on “love suicide” plays ( New World Encyclopedia.) Many restrictions were set down by the bakufu in a document on the “ninth day of the third month”:

1. The boxes of the theatres have been made two and three stories in recent years. As formerly not more than one story will be permitted. 

2. It is prohibited to construct private passages from the boxes or to construct parlors for merry-making backstage, in the theatre manager’s residence, or in teahouses and such places. […]

3. In the boxes it is not permitted to hang bamboo blinds, curtains, or screens, and to enclose them in any way is prohibited. […]

4. In recent years the roofs of theatres have been made so that even on rainy days plays can be performed. […]

5. The costumes of actors in recent years have been sumptuous; this is prohibited. Hereafter silk, ponee, and cotton will be used. […]

Bakufu Versus Kabuki. Donald H. Shively.

On and on an ever-growing list of half-enforced standards thrust upon theatre and specifically kabuki. Despite it all – or because of it – the art grew and flourished. 

After the onset of yarō kabuki, different styles of character emerged. The most iconic being the onnagata. However, aragoto style characters dominated the heroic spectrum in stories. Famous samurai, for example, were traditionally played in this style. In the late 1600’s Sakata Tojurō began writing what became known as keisei kai or keisei gai plays which revolved around the love affairs of young men and courtesans seeking to redemption. One of the most popular actors between Edo and Kyoto was Nakamura Shichisaburō who performed in a style similar to Sakata’s writing. That of a romantic male character known as nimaime which was the basis for developing wagoto style (Blumner.) The main parts of wagoto were; nuregoto the love scenes; keiseigoto the scenes amidst courtesans, kuzetsugoto which were lovers’ quarrels, and yatsushigoto or scenes where a samurai is forced to take on guise as a commoner (Blumner.) The main components of this play style also created the basis of character portrayal in the wagoto which we now identify as a ‘soft style’ to compliment the aragoto rough style. Shichisaburō truly marked the character style when he elected to perform one of two famous samurai brothers as wagoto opposed to the traditional aragoto. Blumner relates the following passage from the Edo Shibai Nendaiki or Record of Edo Plays:

“Until now, the Soga brothers have both been played in the strong aragoto style. This time, Nakamura Schichisaburō, with a genpuku ( a special type of young men’s hairstyle), played Jurō in a gentle way that was excellently performed. From that time forward, Jurō has been played in the wagoto style.”

Holly Blumner from Edo Shibai Nendaiki

The wagato style was born between Edo and Kyoto, however the aragoto style was considered the essence of Edo kabuki. Aragoto itself was considered to be a defiance toward samurai in that the actor looks at his audience as samurai (Gerstle.) 

Kabuki grew not only in style, but in importance. Gerstle says that kabuki was a pillar of social and cultural life in Tokugawa era Edo. In Edo, there was specifically a kabuki calendar with festivals in which commoners participated enthusiastically. Plays were coincided with the beginnings of festivals such as New Year, Dolls’ in third month, Boys’ in fifth month, All Souls’ or Obon in seventh month, and Autumn the ninth month (Gerstle.) A special kaomise performance was given in the eleventh month (Gerstle.) Kabuki was so integral to Edo life that even general bakufu opinion did not keep daimyo and educated men from patronizing the theatre. It was not only the court ladies enamored of kabuki plays. With their separation and distinction as a social class below merchants and barely above the parish (Gerstle), early kabuki actors could be quite humble. This was an attitude that did not last to the end of the 18th century when their popularity reached celebrity heights regardless of bakufu opinion. 

While Edo was the hub of kabuki it was not the only city in which the style was prevalent. Sakusha Shihō Kezairoku compared the three cities styles as: 

“[…] the kokoro or heart of Kyoto kabuki is a “beautiful woman”, Osaka a “dandy”, and Edo, a “samurai”.

Shihō Kezairoku

In Edo particularly, kabuki actors were regarded in a godlike, hero fashion and Ichikawa Danjurō or whoever bore the title, was considered a “king of the world” (Gerstle.) Actor faces and names were used to sell merchandise. They would appear on beauty products, hair brushes, combs, trends in clothing, or food. A sort of early version of the modern social influencer and commercial marketing using celebrity persona. The lives these actors lived on stage were idolised by their fans and viewers. This went so far in the 18th century that bakufu official Moriyama Takamori noted samurai would imitate the speech and manners of kabuki actors – going so far as to even don their skirts. Kabuki was rampant on a daily level. Theatrical singing known as bungobushi and gidayu also became popular among samurai (Gerstle.) No matter how grand, however, this era too came to an end. The 1790 Kansei Reforms brought society once more to a sense of ‘normalcy’. 

Before the reforms, patrons of kabuki and its actors lived and spent lavishly on their entertainments. So much so that these hatamoto – powerful bakufu patrons – were indebted to fudasashi which were official merchants and brokers. Gerstle argues that this extravagance could be seen in two perspectives. One as depravity that infected a stringent Confucian society through kabuki, the other as an attempt to escape that overbearing society. 

Early kabuki developed from the local, indigenous practices of Japan. Many of its myths, dance styles, and visual aesthetics grew from those prevalent in Shinto and Buddhism. However, it was most impacted by its quiet war with the Confucian Tokugawa. This elaborate, 250 year back-and-forth had more layers of give and take than possibly any other style development. The takeaway, was that kabuki did endure, and endured so well as to become one of the most recognizable facets of Japanese culture to foreigners. 

Works Cited

  1. Bakufu Versus Kabuki. Donald H. Shively. A Kabuki Reader. Pg. 33 Samuel L. Leiter 
  2. Chikamatsu Monzaemon. New World Encyclopedia. Web. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Chikamatsu_Monzaemon
  3. Flowers of Edo: Eighteenth Century Kabuki and its Patrons. C. Andrews Gerstle. A Kabuki Reader. Pg. 88. Samuel L. Leiter
  4. Nakamura Shichisaburo I and the Creation of Edo-Style Wagoto. Holly A. Blumner. A Kabuki Reader. Pg. 60. Samuel L. Leiter
  5. The Performing Arts of Sixteenth-Century Japan: A Prelude to Kabuki. Andrew T. Tsubaki. A Kabuki Reader. Pg. 3. Samuel L. Leiter

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