Okuni, Kabuki Pioneer

It wasn't the most pleasant of settings- it was a temporarily dry riverbed. But in the 1600s, when the city of Kyoto was heavily regulated by the shogunate (military government), the basin of the Kamo River was an unsanctioned sanctuary for all kinds of unlicensed entertainers who set up shop when the water was low.

Among the riverbed entertainers was Izumo no Okuni, a blacksmith’s daughter. Okuni is believed to have been a Shinto priestess who danced to raise money to support the shrine of Izumo, near her home. Around 1603 she first performed her interpretation of a religious dance in the dry riverbed of Kyoto’s Kamo River. She allegedly helped female outcasts and prostitutes and founded a dance troupe that became very popular and inspired scores of imitators. Okuni was considered shocking or “offbeat” (kabuku) and her dances were called kabuki. Since some dancers continued to prostitute themselves, the government banned all female performers in 1629.

Kabuki theater remains a vibrant part of Japanese culture, becoming highly stylized over the centuries. Nevertheless, it retains many of the elements that made Okuni’s pioneering performances so shocking.

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