An Introduction to Kabuki in Japan

By Yoko H.
Reading Time: 7 minutes
Storefront of the Kabukiza Theater for kabuki in Japan.

Kabuki is one of the great performing arts, with a long, rich history and origin that dates back over 400 years. Throughout history, kabuki in Japan has gone through a lot of transitions and reforms. Still, supported by many kabuki lovers and the extraordinary efforts of actors and producers continuing to play traditional plays and creating new plays, it holds a significant place in Japanese culture. 

In recent years, kabuki in Japan suffered a lot from the COVID-19 pandemic with many restrictions and decreasing audiences. But as the pandemic is coming to an end, the audience is coming back, and the beauty and the energy of kabuki are in full swing.

This article will give you an introduction to kabuki to experience the beauty of this traditional Japanese culture!

Intricate designed roof of the Kabukiza theater that hosts Kabuki in Japan.

Interestingly, women started kabuki, but nowadays, only men perform kabuki. 

The origin of kabuki in Japan dates back to the early 17th century in Kyoto when a woman who called herself a maiden of a shrine Izumo no okuni, started dancing in public. She was said to be mimicking a group of men called kabukimono who caught public attention by standing out with eye-catching appearance and odd movements. The dance by Izumo no okuni was called kabuki- odori (odori means dance) and became very popular. Affected by the popularity of kabuki-odori, many other women started to dance, which became even more famous (onnna-kabuki).

However, the officials at the time believed that the onna-kabuki could destroy public morals and banned it. At the time, the officials banned onna-kabuki. However, it was already so popular that people tried to preserve it somehow. That is when groups of young men started to take the role (wakashu -kabuki). However, as it gained popularity, the audiences began fighting over their favorite actors, and again, the official banned those young men from playing kabuki. However, kabuki in Japan did not end there. After the officials prohibited young men from playing kabuki, groups of older men started to play kabuki (yaro-kabuki). As yaro-kabuki developed, it became a more established performing art with various roles all performed by men, which continue to be one of the unique characteristics of kabuki.

To learn more, including information on where and how to experience kabuki in Japan or abroad, continue reading!

Kabuki plays

In Kabuki, there are traditional plays called koten and new plays called shinsaku

So, what kind of stories does Koten (the traditional) Kabuki play? 

There are three types of plays in Koten Kabuki:  jidaimono, sewamono, and shosagoto

Jidaimono is a historical play about events that happened in the past. 

Sewamono is a contemporary play that focuses on the lives of ordinary people, such as family drama, relationships, etc. 

Shosagoto is a dance play. 

Which one is easy to watch for the first-timer? 

Compared to jidaimono and sewamono, which include many cultural references and lines in traditional Japanese, shosagoto is mainly a dance. So, if you are a first-timer, I recommend watching shosagoto. You will be surprised by the delicacy of dance and enjoy traditional music and beautiful costumes. 

On the other hand, Shinsaku (new) kabuki can be anything! 

For example, kabuki adopted Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Final Fantasy X in recent years to invite more diverse audiences to the theater. Also, there is a kabuki in Japan called super kabuki which was created back in the Showa period by Ichikawa Ennosuke III, incorporating more modern techniques and styles, such as contemporary pop music and sound effects. His nephew, Ichikawa Ennosuke IV, succeeded and has been very successful in inviting younger audiences to the theater. The most famous super kabuki in recent years is One Piece kabuki adopted the popular manga series One Piece. 

How to enjoy kabuki?

There are many different ways to enjoy kabuki in Japan, and how to enjoy it depends on each audience. However, in general, several characteristics of kabuki fascinate the audience.

Music and Sound 

You can enjoy kabuki music, such as shamisen, taiko (drum), and nagauta (traditional songs accompanying shamisen music). Also, wood clappers called tsuke add sound effects to essential scenes such as actors entering, fighting, and leaving. The sound of tsuke is specific to kabuki in Japan and adds an excellent play dynamic. 

Performances 

Of course, the actors’ performances are spectacular. Many have been training since childhood, allowing them to perform complex performances successfully. Some examples of splendid techniques they use during the performances are Hayagawari (fast costume change) and Roppo (dramatic stylized walk). In some plays, actors fly over the audience doing chunori (midair performance)! It is worth watching kabuki in Japan at least once in your life. 

Sign advertisement of actors wearing makeup for kabuki in Japan.

Costumes  

It is fascinating to see a variety of costumes in Kabuki play. Designers make costumes specific to each story with incredible details that add beauty to the story. Depending on the season of a play, you can observe different patterns and flowers on their gorgeous Kimonos! 

Makeup

The unique Kabuki makeup is called Kumadori, and depending on the color and the pattern of Kumadori, you can tell if that person is a hero, a villain, noble, or non-human! 

Red expresses power, a sense of justice, youth, or anger.

Blue expresses villains or vengeful ghosts.

Brown expresses demons and ghosts (non-human).

The actors originally painted their faces white because they used candle lights in the Edo period when kabuki started. However, they are still keeping that part of the tradition today as a unique aspect of kabuki in Japan. 

Stage 

The Kabuki Stage is unique and uses many different stage mechanisms that allow actors to pop up, disappear, and suddenly appear from above the stage. Also, very detailed handmade stage settings create a great atmosphere specific to a play, and it is enjoyable to see those arts and crafts made by specialists. The most notable difference between the Kabuki stage and a regular stage is that on the Kabuki stage, there is a path that connects the stage and the back of the stage called hanamichi, where actors can come and go. This Hanamichi connects the actors and the audience, making the actors and the audience feel very close, which is unique to Kabuki. Sometimes, actors give away small props they use in a play, such as newspapers, to the audience who are sitting right next to Hanamichi! 

Where to experience Kabuki in Japan

Various theaters play Kabuki in Japan. The major ones are the following:

Kabukiza Theatre is in Higashiginza, Tokyo 

Shinbashi Enbujo Theatre is within walking distance of Kabukiza Theatre 

Kyoto Minamiza Theatre is in Kyoto City. 

Osaka Shochikuza Theatre is in Osaka City 

There are more theatres across Japan, such as the Hakataza Theatre in Fukuoka and the Misonoza Theatre in Nagoya. Also, Kabuki actors frequently go on tours across Japan to show kabuki to people outside the big cities. So it is worth checking to see if any play is coming near your home! 

Display of tickets and performances of kabuki in Japan outside the Kabukiza theater in Ginza, Tokyo.

How to buy tickets to Kabuki?

Here, we will introduce how to experience kabuki in Japan at the most convenient theater, Kabukiza Theater in Higashiginza, Tokyo. 

Each day, there are two parts of plays at the theatre, the matinee and the evening show. 

Each part is about four hours long, with a few breaks in between. The price varies depending on the class of seats, but it ranges from ¥4,000 to ¥20,000. 

You can buy tickets online, by calling the ticket office or visiting the box office located in the 2nd level basement of the theatre. 

If you cannot commit to a four-hour-long play, here’s the good news!

At Kabukiza Theater, makumi seats, which allow you to watch one act of an extended play at a lower price, have been revived since June 2023. The price depends on the length of the act you are watching, but the range is typically from ¥700 to ¥1500 per act. You can either book tickets online starting at noon a day before or get tickets on-site at the makumi ticket booth on the theater’s left side on the day you watch. Makumi seats were unavailable during the pandemic, and are finally back after almost three and a half years! I recommend you take advantage of this great opportunity. If you decide to experience this beautiful, traditional, and historic performing art while you are in Japan, visit this website to get tickets! 

Are translations available? 

Kabukiza Theater used to offer an English supporting guide that you could rent at a lower cost, but it has been suspended since the COVID-19 pandemic. The only option they offer now is to purchase the Japanese program with English synopses on the back page, which you can purchase after entering the theater or look up stories and histories online before watching.

National Theater of Japan, on the other hand, offers an English headphone guide whenever they play Kabuki. However, the theater will be closed for renovation from October 2023 to the fall of 2029.

As discussed previously, some plays, such as dance plays are easy to understand since actors focus on dance and do not speak so they are still enjoyable to watch without knowing Japanese. Those theaters are trying their best to accommodate foreign guests so let’s hope there will be more options available in the future! 

How to watch Kabuki outside of Japan

A streaming service called Kabuki On-Demand streams some popular Kabuki. It is available in ten countries and regions at a lower price. If you want to experience kabuki at home, please check out this link to see what’s available! 

If you’re interested in immersing yourself more in traditional culture, why not live and study in Japan? Visit our website for more information. Or, if you cannot commit to a more extended period, we also run short 2 to 4-week Study Trips, which combine language lessons with fun, cultural activities, and you try catching some kabuki in your off time. Learn more here

Interested in Japanese traditions, culture, and what every day is like? Read more on the Go! Go! Nihon blog.

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