Kabuki - “Out of the Ordinary”
    The Rise of Kabuki Theatre in Tokugawa Society
Japan History

Research Report
Web Resources



         A look at the historical and societal issues that proved the catalyst for the formation of Kabuki theatre in Japan at the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate.  A general estimate of what it meant to the people that participated in it at the time and a final comparison between it and the Elizabethan theatre that was beginning at approximately the same period.

Historical Background

         Throughout the period from 1338-1600, the country of Japan was wracked with various civil wars.  The years 1338-1467, which saw relative stability, are known as the ‘Ashikaga Shogunate,’ named so after the great General Ashikaga who took control at the beginning of this period.  General Ashikaga accomplished many things, but first among those was his reunification of the leadership of the military and political government into one place, the city of Kyoto.  It was during this time that many art forms and cultural traditions were created; standouts among them being the formation of peaceful and artistic rock gardens as places of meditation, ink splash painting, the tea ceremony and Noh theatre - all of these things are reflective of Japanese society today.

         This was a time of great cultural, artistic and religious expression in Japan, but it was never a time of certain peace.  It is important to understand that Japan at this time, like their counterparts in Europe, was a feudal society, with a number of different Lords, or Shugo, controlling significant amounts of land and significant amounts of samurai warriors, who owed them their allegiance.  There is a constant power play always at work between them - especially in Japan, where the terrain and island geography allows for a certain amount of separation, but the amount of actual livable land represents only 1/5 of the entire island.  Ashikaga was able to act as Shogun, or military leader (which at this time meant he ran the country), basically by allowing all Shugo’s the right to control their particular areas of influence.  However, around the year 1467, there was a debate as to who the next successor in the Ashikaga line would be.  There was an appeal to the controlling Shugo’s through means of a vote, but the result was almost equally divided between two candidates, with no easy way of coming to a decision.  It sparked a great deal of controversy and, in a matter of no time, the country was enveloped in a devastating civil war
 that would come to be known as the Sengoku, or 100 years of warfare.

         The Sengoku was unfathomably destructive for Japan.  At one time there were over 250 different fiefdoms warring against each other with no particular cohesiveness.  The war destroyed the culture, the family life, and it left the
 country in ruins.  It was during this time too, that the Western seafaring nations began stumbling upon more and more nations in the Eastern Hemisphere.  In 1543, the Portuguese landed on the shores of Japan bringing with them firearms and Christianity.  These two things would come to have an immense effect upon the future of Japan.

        At first Japan welcomed the Portuguese, deeply thankful for the introduction of firearms into the civil war which was almost a century long by that point.  Because of this, Jesuit missionaries (who had come to the island just shortly
 after the first sailors in 1549) had been able to enjoy a good deal of success in beginning a strong Christian community.  It was during this time where the first of Japan’s three great unifiers began consolidating power in the country.  By the time Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu were finished, Japan would find itself at the beginning of 268 years of peace and prosperity, and the cusp of the age which would come to define its modern self.

         The Portuguese saw a good deal of prosperity under Nobunaga who, at that point, had yet to consolidate the majority of the countryside.  However, it was under Hideyoshi where their relationship began to change.  Hideyoshi, whose power was
 located in northern Japan, began to see that many southern feudal lords were converting to Christianity.  Fearing that this newfound faith might serve as a common bond between them and against him, Hideyoshi issued an edict in 1587
 stating that all missionaries were required to leave (he also issued an edict in 1590 that established the class structure in Japan that would come to wide recognition in the Tokugawa period).  The edict was not seriously enforced until 1597, however, when he became convinced that the missionaries were politically insidious and he had nine of them executed. (Ernst 3)

         Tokugawa Ieyasu, known as Japan’s ‘last great unifier’ because of his victory at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 which ended the long civil war, would greatly influence the formation of the time period that would later come to bear his name.  Ieyasu was responsible for the final moving of Japan’s capital, this time to Edo, known today as Tokyo.  There he would oversee the development of one of the greatest and largest cities in the world at that time.  And he would do it by following Hideyoshi’s strict philosophies concerning social structures and Christianity.  In 1624 all Spaniards were told to leave the island, and Japan began its 268 year period of almost complete isolationism.  In 1637 all Japanese were forbidden to leave and shortly thereafter Christianity was almost completely wiped off the island following the massacre at Shimabara which killed almost 37,000 converts.  These actions would set the tone for the centuries to come, greatly influencing every aspect of Japanese culture and society, not the least of which is the birth of Kabuki theatre. (Ernst 4)

Research Report

         The first performance is generally credited to a woman, O-Kuni, a ritual dancer attached to the great Shinto Shrine of Izumo (the Shinto religion represents the connection of the Emperor’s line to that of the Gods, based on their creation myth).  It is said that in 1596 O-Kuni danced the kabuki odori, or “kabuki dance,” on a temporary stage that was erected on the dry bed of the Kamo River in Kyoto (whose design was adapted from that of the common Noh stage that was the dominant performing art of the time).  She and her troupe sold tickets for the show during the day, then sold themselves as prostitutes at night. O-Kuni’s dance was very new, lively and sensuously appealing, and it began to attract great attention from the urban sectors of society. (Brandon 1, Kincaid 49)

         It is important to realize the very strict societal structure in place in Japan at that time.  Society was rigidly divided into four classes: the court nobility (kuge), the warrior class (bushi or samurai), the farmer, and the townsman (chonin).  The samurai were strongest both politically and economically at the beginning of the Tokugawa period.  Chonin were looked down upon by the samurai, who considered it beneath their dignity to associate with them.  The chonin were not allowed to participate in the activities or pastimes of the ruling classes.  It was this which was directly responsible for the development of Kabuki, the
 theatre of the chonin who, denied access to the privileges of the samurai, created their own cultural background in spite of the ruling classes. (Ernst 8, Scott 20)

         To the Tokugawa Shogunate the most disturbing result of the peace and prosperity brought upon Japan during the Edo period was the economic development of the townsman to greater financial importance than the warrior class. (Ernst 8)  This was primarily the result of the change from rice to money as a means of exchange and the shift from an agricultural to a monetary economy.  During this process the townsman became increasingly wealthy, while the samurai and farmer
 became increasingly poorer.  The story of the decline of the samurai, although it is paralleled by the rise of the lower classes to a higher stature in society, is a sad one indeed.  For years they were the defenders of the country and of the bushi code of honor.  For centuries the samurai was regarded as a noble in society, entrusted with what were thought of as the pinnacles of
 Japanese lifestyle: honesty, honor, frugality, loyalty.  During the time of the Tokugawa the samurai as warrior became useless - for 268 years there was peace.  And now they were being brought to the level of the lower classes in society, at
 times even being forced, for lack of money, to apply for a job from one of them.  It was sweet revenge for some, disgraceful for others.

         The rise of the Kabuki paralleled this rise of the lower classes.  The Noh theatre was familiar to some of the commoners, but the Kabuki was lustier stuff, more suitable to the tastes of this new important economic class.  The rise of Kabuki, this theatre whose name means “out of the ordinary,” was suspect from the beginning because it was a manifestation of the culture of that perplexing lower class who for some reason has now been able to ascend to a stature in society which is in no way congruent with the level of class structure the government prescribed to them.  A contemporary Confucian scholar Hayashi Razan remarked: “The men wear women’s clothing, the women wear men’s clothing... They sing base songs and dance vulgar dances; their lewd voices are clamorous, like the buzzing of flies and the crying of cicadas.  The men and women sing and
 dance together.  This is the kabuki of today.” (Brandon 6)  As one would expect, it was a matter of time before the government began engaging in oppressive measures aimed at containing the influence of this “vulgar” and “clamorous”

         On October 23, 1629, the first form of Kabuki, Women’s Kabuki, was prohibited.  In prohibiting Women’s Kabuki the government cited its immorality.  While it is true that many of the women actresses were prostitutes, it was the political and
 hierarchical threat posed by Kabuki female prostitution moreso than just the immorality of prostitution as a whole that the government was concerned about.  With the influx of the once upper class samurai population into lower class urban society, the government began to notice a larger and larger amount of samurai attending Kabuki theatre.  What more, a great deal of fights occurred between samurai over a females favor, and outstanding debts were being rung up by those samurai who could no longer afford to pay for their nightly visits.  These issues made it all the more crucial for the governments intervention into
 the affair.  Now, with the banishment of women from the stage their roles were taken on by young boys (who often doubled as prostitutes too), and with that women have never since appeared on the Kabuki stage in Japan.  Soon enough, however, even these young boys proved too attractive for some samurai, so much so that a public brawl broke out between two of them over the favors of an actor.  This led to the young boys being banned on July 27, 1652.

         Now an interesting dynamic had been brewing together for decades between the samurai who had been cast adrift, or cut off from their feudal lords (ronin), and the townsmen in the city.  The two were living almost inseparably now, with intermarriage becoming very common between the classes.  Wealthy townsmen were buying themselves into the nobility, and even farmers were selling their land and moving into the city.  What came about is a social fusion of supposed hierarchical class members that was completely at variance with the rules laid out by the Tokugawa Shogunate.  It was for these reasons that the Kabuki theatre became very suspicious in the eyes of the government, even though as far as political upheaval was concerned, the Tokugawa had little to worry about. (Ernst 12)

         The reason for this is because, although the Tokugawa did not succeed in preventing a mixture of their social class structures, they did succeed in spreading their system of ethical propaganda, which is one of the major factors this regime had such a long lifespan (a lifespan broken up only by Western intervention in 1868).  Tokugawa Ieyasu, aware that the civil wars preceding his coming to power were the result of excessive double-dealing between feudal lords, established the idea of feudal loyalty as the heart of his political theory.  And the Buke Hatto, or the Laws of the Military House, was designed to strengthen this concept.  It was wholly successful.  So, as a result, a curious fact concerning the rise of the townsmen and the creation of their own personal theatre style as well as other art forms, is that they did not create similarly distinctive political and ethical patterns of thought. (Ernst 14)  In effect, the townsmen accepted this code of ethics, internalized it, and then patterned their theatre upon it.  This point is evident in the fact that the play The 47 Ronin, based on the real life story of 47 ronin samurai who avenged the death of their lord, is considered a classic in Kabuki theatre and a favorite among its audiences.  Yet it is representative of the oldest traditions in hierarchical Japanese class structure.  So in essence, the ethical and moral climate of the Kabuki, therefore, is far from being a political protest, and in all actuality it helped reinforce many of the values the Tokugawa felt central to its political organization.

        A Kabuki play is not meant to be a literary work in itself... It is primarily visual in appeal everything else is subordinate to that.  Fact and fantasy are intermingled without reserve, realism and logic are ignored whenever necessary, human nature is painted with bold and vivid strokes, but there is no attempt to go beyond the conventional concepts of human behavior within a certain pattern of society.  The Kabuki is not concerned with any particular message, it is first and foremost entertainment, designed solely for the ordinary citizen. (Scott 31-32)

        Some Japanese scholars have attempted to show parallels between the development of the Elizabethan theatre and that of Kabuki.  The Kabuki had its beginnings in Kyoto at the same time that Shakespeare was writing his first plays.  The gender structures were similar as well, with women forbidden from acting on the stage and with young boys playing the roles of those women in their place.  Even the Kabuki stage showed certain spacial similarities to that of The Globe and other contemporary English stages.  Very striking is the fact that the rise of both was concurrent with the rise of a wealthy class of commoners and a new age that had just begun: In England, The Rennaissance; in Japan, a time of peace after centuries of war. (Ernst 16)

         These parallels are interesting, but the spirit of the age that both countries enjoyed were almost complete polar opposites.  The Elizabethan theatre was born out of an age of intellectual exploration of the mind and the growing emphasis
 of importance on individual liberty and dignity.  During the 268 years of the Tokugawa period the Kabuki existed solely inside the narrow geographical and intellectual confines imposed upon it by the Shogunate.  While the theatre of Shakespeare was exploring and inquiring about the whole of European culture, the Kabuki was confined and restricted to acceptance of the status quo.  Indeed, onetheatrical form seems to almost stand as complete antithesis of the other.

        Yet although Kabuki did not have much to say politically, what it desired to say artistically was expressed immediately and without possibility of misinterpretation.  Artistic innovation in Japan was measured by the evolution of technique and not intellectual concept.  Because the audience member perceived the world relatively identically to that of the playwright or performer, Kabuki was able to create a vocabulary of expression which was concise and free of the nonessential. Within these confines Kabuki found ways to express itself as its own unique perspective on society.  Kabuki was concerned
 with suffering and pain, love and triumph and desire and failure and disillusionment.  Greatest among their themes are the double suicide of lovers who cannot escape strict familial ties (sound familiar?), love between people representing too distinct of classes and the story of a great and powerful person whose life is brought down before their own eyes by webs of deceit and
 mistrust.  These are universal themes, ones any culture can understand.

         There are also plays which reflect the aspirations and fantasies of the drifters in society - masterless samurai, gangsters, gamblers, and above all, chivalrous commoners who defy their samurai superiors.  Of course, it must be restated that this audacity of playwright and actor would be misinterpreted if it were considered an expression of protest against the social and political system.  What it was, rather, was good box office to electrify an audience with bold passages and parodies which spoke to the experience of the commoner. (Brandon, Malm, Shively 2)

         In the end, what is most important to recognize are the distinct differences between both the theatre and ideological structures of the West and those of its counterpart in the East.   The different levels of emphasis that both have placed historically on the notions of past and future as well as tradition and change in society are invaluable for both cultures and mutually beneficial.  There is a great deal of respect that all philosophies and art forms deserve, and a great wealth of knowledge and wisdom that all possess.  For the future of theatre as well as society in general, encouragement of humble and eager cultural exchange holds the greatest potential for mutual benefit.  Thankfully, it is a process that has already begun.


Brandon, James R. Kabuki: Five Classic Plays. University of Hawaii Press,  1992.

Brandon, James R.; Malm, William P.; Shively, Donald H.  Studies in Kabuki: Its Acting, Music, and Historical Context.  University of Hawaii Press, 1978.

Ernst, Earle.  The Kabuki Theatre. University of Hawaii Press, 1974.

Gerhart, Karen M.  The Eyes of Power: Art and Early Tokugawa Authority.  University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

Kincaid, Zoe.  Kabuki. Arno Press, 1977.

Scott, A.C.  The Kabuki Theatre of Japan. Collier Books, 1966.

Totman, Conrad D.  Politics in the Tokugawa Bakufu. Harvard University Press, 1967.

Web Resources

www.fix.co.jp/kabuki/kabuki.html   (excellent, a thorough review of all aspects of kabuki theatre)

www.lightbrigade.demon.co.uk/Breakdown?Theatre%20Design.htm  (the evolution of the kabuki stage)

www.jinjapan.org/today/culture/culture12.html   (brief descriptions of japanese theatre styles)

asnic.utexas.edu/asnic/countries/japan/kabuki.html  (fairly comprehensive review of all aspects of Kabuki theatre)

Site Created by: Nick D'Agosto