Enough with Kabuki Politics!

Kabuki actors are known for stylized gestures and expressions that all mean something to those who follow the theater. But during the Cold War, when relations between Japan and the United States were at a low point, the phrase “kabuki theater” came to mean empty posturing—all style and no substance. It’s an insult that completely misunderstands the essence of kabuki theater.

During the golden age of kabuki, in the 1700s and 1800s, actors were celebrities, commemorated in affordable woodblock prints collected by their fans. The art is now considered classical theater: there are a traditional set of plays and a conventional way of performing them. Yet great kabuki actors today reinterpret these traditional roles with unmistakable individuality—in genuine kabuki, every gesture adds to the performance, there is no empty posturing.

Genuine kabuki theater was far from “empty gesture” in the eyes of the Japanese shogunate authorities. They issued several edicts during kabuki’s formative years trying to control both the costume and content of kabuki performances. Nothing they did kept samurai from attending the popular shows.

Some contemporary kabuki stars, like the recently deceased Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII, have revived the renegade spirit that gave kabuki its name—derived from a word suggesting “off-kilter,” strange and new. That’s a far cry from the fakery our political pundits describe.

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