Even if you’re not familiar with the details of Kabuki Japan performances, you most likely know it for its lavish costumes, heavy make-up, and captivating, overt style. The plays are usually derived from Japan’s rich folklore tales and history. The art of Kabuki incorporates dance, music, and mime, coupled with elaborate set designs and actor costumes. 

While Kabuki Japan has become a globally recognized spectacle, it has an unusual, modest, and to some extent, provocative background. Read on to discover all about this peculiar theater genre’s history, methods, and idiosyncrasies. 

What is Kabuki Japan Theater?

There are three traditional types of Japanese theater. 

Kabuki is one of the most well-known of the three internationally. 

In a nutshell, Kabuki is a form of traditional theater that focuses on appearance rather than on storyline and acting. Call it a visual spectacle, if you will. The theater elements such as the actor’s outfits, make-up and hair, the props, set design, and lighting are often bizarre and over the top. These production elements form the focus of the other performance elements like music, song, dance, stylized acting, and storytelling. 

Regarding duration, the performance dramas can be long. Some run for as long as four hours. Spectators can, however, select to watch for shorter periods by booking Single Act Seats. These can give you access to 30 minutes to two hours of performance.

Kabuki Meaning

Historians speculate that the initial meaning of Kabuki is connected to the verb “kabuku” (傾). In Japanese, this means to behave strangely, which makes sense given the strange Kabuki performances. It took many decades for the word to signify that the spectacle was a type of dramatic art. 

Translated literally from the kanji (Japanese characters or lettering), Kabuki means “the Art of Song and Dance.” There are three kanji that represent the Kabuki theater construct. The first character, ka (歌), means to sing, the second, bu (舞), represents dance, and ki (伎) implies skill. Put them together, and they spell Kabuki (歌舞伎). 

For anyone who has seen a Kabuki performance, it’s clear that the performances go far beyond song, dance, and the skill to perform them. 

Kabuki Japan Origins and History

Kabuki is steeped in Japanese tradition and history. It has a fascinating tale of inception. The first Kabuki performances were developed in the 1600s in the rich cultural area of Kyoto in the west of Japan. 

Read on for an overview of Kabuki Japan’s origin and history. We think you’ll find it just as interesting as we do!

How Kabuki Japan Began

While all Kabuki actors today are men, the performance art was initially developed by a woman. A Shinto shrine priestess named Izumo no Okuni put together an all-women troupe of singers, dancers, and actresses. They were unusual, comprising shrine maidens, local prostitutes, and misfits. By this time in Japanese history, shrine maidens had disintegrated into many prostitutes due to less financial support being offered by communities to the shrines.

Izumo guided her peculiar band on how to sing and dance, and they choreographed their shows. They performed shows based on Buddhist dances for prayer, yet several of their storylines were about romance. It’s said that Okuni and her group initially did the performances to raise money for their local shrine. 

The group of women started to put on performances throughout the Kyoto region. The group would perform wherever there was a space. They often went to shrines and performed in the Kamo riverbed when it was dry. It was only much later that official stages that separated the performers from the audience more formally were developed. 

Known as onna-kabuki, which essentially means women singers and dancers, the women would play both women and men in their performances. They typically developed comedic productions that satirized everyday life at the time. 

The performances were provocative and witty and not particularly formal, and so they quickly gained momentum in terms of popularity. They became so popular that other troupes began to imitate Izumo and her crew. These new troupes were established throughout Japan. They even reached Tokyo (then Edo), which is on the other end of the country. Izumo and her troupe were also eventually invited to perform at the imperial or Japanese royal court. 

Kabuki was also seen initially as entertainment for the common communities and audiences. Much like Shakespeare’s plays at the time, Kabuki performances could be peculiar, lewd, and suggestive, and the audiences could get somewhat disorderly. 

Association With Prostitution

In its early years, Kabuki was often connected with prostitution. The performances usually occurred in red light areas, and the actresses sometimes offered their escort services to audience members. This led to a moral outcry and a call for prohibiting women performers in 1629. 

When this prohibition initially went ahead, young boys stepped in to fulfill the women’s acting roles. Unfortunately, the boys were also of interest to spectators for prostitution, which led to their being banned from acting on the stage as well. In the end, adult men took up the yoke and took on the roles of women and men in the Kabuki productions. 

The Golden Age

By the 1700s, Kabuki was more established as an acceptable performance art form. The performances became more structured, with the types of characters being more formalized. While the early connections to the common people and prostitution had faded away by this point, the avant-garde, over-the-top, bizarre visuals and performances stuck. 

The structure, techniques, and actors’ types have remained unchanged for many centuries. Many of the present Kabuki methods, and even the actors, are descended directly from these early techniques and performers. So, dramatic art has an incredible sense of tradition and continuity.

Since this period, Kabuki has firmly been established as one of Japan’s most quintessential types of theater. The dramatic art form is, in fact, on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Amateur Kabuki Performances

Besides the more formalized performances, some informal groups act out Kabuki dramas. These are known as “farming village” performances, or noson and jishibai in Japanese. The Western equivalent would be community theater groups. 

These less structured performance groups are mainly found in the Aichi and Gifu prefectures. The informal Kabuki theater group tradition goes back as far as 300 years. One example is the children’s Kabuki show in Gifu. It is an annual show that takes place at the Murakini Shrine’s festival every autumn. 

This shrine functions as the area’s and amateur Kabuki’s oldest Kabuki theater. It was established as a Kabuki theater, besides its other religious functions, in 1877. The theater was renovated entirely fairly recently – in 2007. The work took three years to complete. The shrine and theater have been recognized as significant national tangible folklore assets. 

Teachers of children’s Kabuki say it can be challenging for children to learn Kabuki-style acting skills. Their inexperience means they do not fully grasp the characters’ emotions and circumstances. However, doing the performances teaches them about adult emotions and scenarios, which can help guide them when they grow older. 

Kabuki Theaters

Kabuki didn’t have formal theaters and stages in its early days. As we mentioned earlier, they would often just take place at a shrine or on a riverbed or bank at the beginning. But the theaters were quite sophisticated by the dramatic art’s golden age. The stages have certain specialized characteristics. 

Known as nogakudo, Kabuki theaters have extensive stages. They extend along the front of the theater before the audience and around the sides of the theater. The side stages assist in bringing the audience and actors to experience more of a connection. 

The stages themselves have a lot of complex engineering. The main stage is often engineered so that it can revolve. The stage also has a section that can lift from beneath the stage surface, known as a suppon. This revolving stage is called mawaro butal in Japanese. 

Kabuki theaters have walkways that lead past the spectator seating to the theaters’ back end. This is called a hanamicho. The theaters often have trapdoors that actors can use to augment the performance of magic and supernatural characters. Some theaters have as many as 17 trap doors!

Kabuki Japan Themes

Kabuki Japan falls into three key categories. These include: 

  • Jidaimono: early legendary and historical stories
  • Sewamono: modern tales after 1600 
  • Shosagoto: dramas involving dance 

The themes of Kabuki Japan dramas follow a few typical storylines. One of the most common themes depicts scenarios where a character must decide between doing the right thing and following their emotions. Japanese culture esteems morality. Their ideals throughout history currently draw on Buddhist, Shinto, and Confucianist philosophies. These religions’ ideals heavily focus on being devoted to family, elders, and community. 

The tension between duty and emotion is often created by circumstances, both in life and in Kabuki dramas. Emotions such as rage, revenge, or love may conflict with family and community expectations. Kabuki dramas with these kinds of themes usually have tragic endings for one reason or another. 

Kabuki productions can also take an educational or didactic turn. They can show people how to approach certain life circumstances. The result may be strange and have a sense of the supernatural. However, reality is often not a key element in Kabuki theater. The art form is usually more focused on visual and audio aids. 

Key Components of Kabuki Japan Performances

As we have discussed, Kabuki focuses on creating a visual spectacle. There are a few elements that help to bring a performance to life. These components often work cohesively to form the overall impression of performance. 

Here are the key components you’ll see in a Kabuki Japan performance:

Music and Song

Musical compositions by instruments and singers, known in Japanese as utakata, are used in Kabuki to set the tone of the performance. These aids are also used to define a scene’s pace. 

One or more singers may perform the songs. These performers are often accompanied by someone playing the shamisen (Japanese lute). The performers may use other instruments to make percussive sound effects and to function as stage cues for other performers waiting in the wings. 

In some performances, the musicians and singers are visible to the audience as part or accessories to the play. In others, some may be off-stage. Sometimes actors may also be positioned to the side of the stage. 


Dance performances heavily characterize Kabuki Japan performances. As the Kabuki way of acting is often very stylized, it can be difficult to distinguish if a performer is engaged or a dance or an acting segment. The dances are also not always accompanied by music. 

The actors use dance-like movements to express themselves on stage. This makes dance and dance-like movements a key component of Kabuki productions. The male and female characters also are trained to move differently from each other. Women characters move daintily, while men use more vigorous, definitive motions. The plays feature comic acting as well. These actors move with spry, cheeky actions.

The Kabuki performances often end with a segment of energetic song and dance in which the entire cast participates. 


Kabuki Japan performance artists also make use of a few kinds of stylized gestures and movements. These fall into a few different categories as per the following:

  • Roppo: this technique is a movement that mimics running and walking. Roppo is typically supported by buoyant drumming.  
  • Tachimawari: this method is a combat gesture. This staged fight act may show a weaponless struggle or use swordplay. 
  • Hikinuki: this particular performance method implicates changing costumes while onstage. It is usually done in time for the music. 
  • Ningyoburi: this technique is where one actor seems to control another performer’s movements as if they are puppet and puppeteer. This method was borrowed from Bunraku (Japanese puppet theater). 


As Kabuki productions usually depict historical Japanese stories, myths, and legends, the actors typically wear traditional costumes. The costumes are generally various forms of traditional kimonos. Sometimes these garments are pretty practical, and sometimes excessive and unwieldy. 

Kabuki Japan performers need to train to be able to master their costumes. They must learn how to perform even with the garments’ constricting characteristics. Kabuki actors’ costumes are handmade by highly skilled handicraft workers, as are the Kabuki wigs. They are often interwoven with expensive gold or silver thread. 


Kabuki Japan make-up, or kesho, is an art form on its own. Kabuki make-up is highly dramatized and over-the-top, similar to a cabaret or drag performer. The make-up is put on so that it expresses the characters’ personalities. 

The performer’s faces are covered with white powder to make them noticeable and more dramatic. Lines of color are added to define features and express the character’s personality and emotions. The colors used also represent something of the character’s nature. I.e., blue depicts sadness or wickedness, and red shows anger and passion. 

The use of lines is done according to a character’s gender. 

Make-up application is a dramatic skill that also must be learned. The most dramatic make-up of all is used to show fantastic beings represented in the play. Actors typically put on their own make-up to get into character. Sometimes masks may be worn, but this is a more common attribute of Noh theater. 

Props and Sets 

Like the costumes, set design and props are also done grandly in Kabuki. The sets often include more complex apparatus than just loud décor. They can consist of trap doors, lifts, and curtains so that the actors can undertake highly dynamic performances. For example, an actor may disappear from one part of the stage and pop up unexpectedly in another part. Or, a background may revolve to show something completely different on its other side. 

Supernatural characters may also be suspended on wires (chunori). When actors change their costumes on stage, a performer known as a koken will appear, dressed all in black, to help them. Being dressed in black helps to maintain the willing suspension of disbelief. 

Audience Participation 

Another aspect that has remained with Kabuki through its transformation from its early, rowdy days is audience input and participation. Even today, it is not uncommon for spectators to cheer and shout when their favorite characters and actors come onstage or when the action becomes exciting. Sometimes, actors will even speak to a member of the audience directly. 

The Most Well-known Kabuki Productions

Like opera, ballet, and other forms of dramatic arts, some classic performances define the genre. Some of the most notable performances are: 

  • Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy): This play is based on everyday life in the Heian era (794-1185). A scholar, Sugawara no Michizane, is banished from Kyoto. Several catastrophes happen to all his enemies when he dies. To mollify his angry spirit, these enemies then exalt the scholar. 
  • Kanadahon Chushingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers): This play is a jidaimono production inspired by the well-known story of the 47 Ronin. It is a factual story about a group of samurai. The samurai’s master is murdered, and they work to avenge him before they commit ritual suicide (seppuku). 
  • Bancho Sarayashiki (The Dish Mansion at Bancho): This production is based on a well-known Japanese folklore tale. A young man employed by a shogun falls in love with a girl servant. One day the lord makes advances on the servant girl, which she refuses. The lord hurls her down the well and is haunted by the servant girl’s ghost. The story, which is now notorious, well inspired the horror novel and subsequent film entitled The Ring. The story has made its way into modern culture as well.  
  • Sonezaki Shinju (The Love Suicide at Sonezaki): This play is a sewamono play concerning forbidden love. The love interest is between a parentless merchant, Tokubei, and his love, Ohatsu, who is a courtesan. Finding themselves star-crossed, the lovers kill themselves together at a shrine devoted to Sugawara no Michizane. 
  • Yotsuya Kaidan (The Ghost Story of Yotsuya): ­this play is a revenge story. The five-act production includes all the most dramatic themes: devious scheming, betrayal, forbidden love, madness, and revenge (from the afterlife, one might add). Imagine experiencing all that via the spectacle of Kabuki theater to boot.  

The Most Celebrated Kabuki Playwrights and Actors 

There have been many important performers and creatives who have helped to make Kabuki what it is today. Besides the performance art’s founder, Izumo no Okuni, there are several other people with whom the art of Kabuki is synonymous. 

Even though the storyline is not as important as the special effects in Kabuki, the genre’s playwrights have still celebrated figures in Japan. One of the most well-known and illustrious figures in Kabuki Japan is the playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon. The writer lived from the early 1650s until 1725. Chikamatsu Monzaemon wrote so much that he is frequently compared with Shakespeare. He wrote many plays, one of the most well-known of which is The Love Suicide at Sonezaki. Monzaemon wrote a lot of scripts that featured suicides. He is also revered for his role in helping to develop many of the features that define Kabuki today. 

Another key name when it comes to Kabuki Japan is Sakata Tojuro I. He was an actor who lived from the late 1640s until 1709. Tojuro collaborated with playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon. He also became known for his acting style. He had a more tender, realistic way of performing that captured the hearts and imaginations of his audiences. His way of acting suited the more romantic Kabuki productions. 

One of Tojuro’s peers, Ichikawa Danjuro I (1660-1704), also rose to fame. However, he was known for his extravert, flamboyant style of acting. 

Stage Names are Handed Down

These actors’ names have been handed down to other actors that have mimicked their methods over the generations. This is known as yago, or stage names, in Japanese culture. It’s a remarkable practice and an excellent way to keep great performers alive in methodological form. 

Each new actor following a master’s method will add a numeral to the name. For example, the contemporary Sakata Tojuro IV and Ichikawa Danjuro XII have kept these actors’ legacy. However, the Tojuro and Danjuro lines were broken for more than 200 years. They have more recently experienced a renewal.

Several other stage names are derived from historical actors that have lived on for many generations of performers. Some of the most noteworthy include Matsumoto Koshiro, Ichikawa Ebizo, and Nakamura Kenzaburo. 

Another noteworthy actor is Bando Tamasaburo V. He is arguably the most celebrated actor who played female roles. The actor is known for his elegant figure and feminine characteristics. Tamasaburo V is now in his 70s, and he is still acting. He has been gracing the stage for more than 60 years now. The actor took over the yago from his father Bando Tamasaburo IV. Tamasaburo V was once asked by the author Alex Kerr why he wanted to be a Kabuki performer. He had responded that he was yearning for a “world of beauty.” Perhaps this same longing inspires aspiring actors today to become Kabuki performers. 

Kabuki in Popular Culture

While Kabuki may no longer be in its golden age, the art form still has relevance in contemporary Japanese culture. Bookings still flow consistently for Kabuki performances around the land of the rising sun, especially by tourists, and the dramatic art has also influenced other modern media. 

Kabuki has certainly influenced Japanese anime, the animated films with a serial cult following worldwide. Anime characters are often depicted with highly stylized features, gestures, vocals, and personalities. These anime films also use vibrant backgrounds and visuals to capture the viewer’s imagination and help illustrate the story. 

These features are undoubtedly imitative of Kabuki’s overt style. To be fair, there is not a lot of research to back up this claim, but it does come across as consistent with Japanese entertainment culture. 

Kabuki may also have impacted Western theater. Western travelers were exposed to performance art at its height in the 1800s. The abstractionism arts movement soon followed this milestone, it appears. Western storytelling until this time had been based more on reality. 

The dialogue in plays like In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel became less faithful to the real. This movement away from the portrayal of the real may be seen in some of the latter plays by Tennessee Williams. As depicting reality had become a trademark for the playwright, he was criticized for this latter eschewal of the technique. 

The abstractionist movement defined the literature and film of the 20th century, which may well be attributed partly to Kabuki. Some Kabuki plays were even reconstructed and imagined for the silver screen. Consider, The Ring, as mentioned, The 47 RoninShin Heike Monogatari, and The Ghost Story of Yotsuya

Where Can You Watch a Kabuki Performance?

The best place to find authentic Kabuki performances is in its country of origin: Japan. There are theater productions all over the country. Some of the most famous shows are in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Fukuoka. You can also find performances abroad. 

One of the best ways to get access to authentic Kabuki Japan theater is to book to see a production by a traveling troupe. One of the best troupes is the Shochiku Theatre. The group was developed in the 19th century and performed across Europe, Asia, and North America. The troupe has been traveling this circuit since the 1920s. 

You will learn more about their overseas tours and when they may visit close to you by visiting their website. Tours are currently being resumed. 

There is also an Australia National University theater group called Za Kabuki making waves. The troupe is changing tradition and working towards making Kabuki performance more inclusive. The cast has male and female performers. The group made live productions across the continent and took private bookings. 

You can also view quality Kabuki performances at the Portland Japanese Garden. You only need to visit their online portals to find out what is on and how to book. 

These days, you can also skip travel and find performances online. There are many opportunities to see Kabuki segments on YouTube that are free to watch. 

If you’re more interested in the history of Kabuki, there are many museums and websites thereof that feature Kabuki. Have a look at the Hinoemata Kabuki Tradition Museum, the Kabukiza Gallery theater museum, and the Mino Kabuki Museum Aioiza. You’ll be able to see some of the oldest Kabuki costumes and mock-ups of earlier set designs. There are loads of others, too. 

You’ll find more on the fascinating craft of Kabuki Japan on Kabuki Web. 

Great Books About Kabuki

Some interesting books explore Kabuki’s history, methods, and overall background. Some of these include:

  • “Kabuki Today: The Art and Tradition” (Kodansha International, 2000).
  • “Kabuki Handbook” by Aubrey and Giovanna Halford (Tuttle, 1979).

You can also get highly informative pamphlets, guides, and hand booklets from institutions such as the Japanese National Tourist Office (JNTO) and the local Tourist Information Centres (TIC).

Some Closing Thoughts on Kabuki Japan

Kabuki Japan is an odd but fascinating form of dramatic art. Its extravagant use of costume, make-up, props, and set design set it apart from many other forms of international theater. Kabuki’s interesting and long-established history makes it even more intriguing. 

It’s worth looking into if you have never watched a performance before. Just be warned that it is better to book single-act seats, as Kabuki productions can go on for hours! You may also be able to try Kabuki yourself by becoming part of an amateur Kabuki performance group. It would surely be a highly educational and fascinating experience.