Okuni Stages the First Kabuki Dance Dramas Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Okuni created a new theatrical genre called Kabuki, combining music, dance, and drama in a unique fashion. These first performances reflected the tastes of Japan’s emerging middle class and were highly influential in the development of several major performance genres during the Edo period.

Summary of Event

Kabuki began with the dances and songs of wandering female performers in Japan. It is likely that some of these performers had been displaced by the devastating civil wars in the years immediately preceding the victory of Tokugawa Ieyasu Tokugawa Ieyasu in the Battle of Sekigahara (1600) Sekigahara, Battle of (1600) , which enabled him to consolidate his power and become the first shogun of the Edo period. To earn a living, these displaced women alternated between prostitution and performing vernacular songs and dances of the day. Some of them were former Shinto shrine maidens or Buddhist nuns who had been separated from their communities. Religious sentiment generally prohibited women from performing on stage on a regular basis, but after the war ended, an air of celebration and relief led to the relaxation of some of these restrictions. Also, the travel restrictions and military obligations imposed by the new shogun created an environment in which bored samurai and unmarried merchants, forced by decree or economic necessity to stay in the capital, were in need of recreation. Women;Japanese performers [kw]Okuni Stages the First Kabuki Dance Dramas (1603-1629) [kw]Dance Dramas, Okuni Stages the First Kabuki (1603-1629) [kw]Kabuki Dance Dramas, Okuni Stages the First (1603-1629) Theater;1603-1629: Okuni Stages the First Kabuki Dance Dramas[0310] Music;1603-1629: Okuni Stages the First Kabuki Dance Dramas[0310] Japan;1603-1629: Okuni Stages the First Kabuki Dance Dramas[0310] Kabuki Izumo no Okuni

Izumo no Okuni, the most well known of the wandering female performers, was a prostitute and dancer. Her name indicated that she was from the well-known Izumo shrine, although this may have been her own assumed title. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, tradition holds that she danced on the dry riverbed of the Kamogawa River in Kyōto while her audience sat on the grass. Later, the government referred to Kabuki actors as “riverbank beggars.” She sometimes danced on kagura stages (rectangular platforms used for sacred dances at Shinto shrines), and also on stages designed for Nō performances.

Okuni’s repertoire included yayako odori (children’s dance) and other popular genres. In 1603, she danced in Kyōto and toured throughout Japan. She became extremely popular, and in 1607 she danced in Edo. She wore very colorful costumes. Although a group of missionaries had been crucified in the preceding decade, and the current shogun was in the process of ridding Japan of foreign influence, Okuni often wore a cross and large golden rosary as a kind of ornament as she danced, and sometimes dressed completely in imitation of foreign clerics. In other dances included in her act, she dressed as a Shinto or Buddhist priest, ringing a bell with a small hammer as she danced. She created her own suggestive version of Nenbutsu, a popular dance genre that had evolved from Buddhist devotional practices.

Her dances were interspersed with skits that celebrated the hedonistic pursuits of the townspeople. In some of the skits, Okuni would dress up in an animal skin jacket and brocade trousers, playing the part of a man flirting with women in the teahouses, procuring a partner for the evening, and other variations on the theme of courtship. Her troupe included men playing the parts of the women, presaging a trend that would eventually, through legislation and enforcement by the government, lead to Kabuki becoming an exclusively male tradition.

In her skits, Okuni employed stylized gestures that exaggerated, glamorized, and even idealized the conventions of sexual etiquette among cultured pleasure seekers in the capital. Her choreography became influential in the emergence of the geisha tradition. Okuni’s performances formalized the elements and details of these conventions through costume and gesture, and (because she portrayed both men and women) they separated the performance of sexual gender roles from actual, physical gender. Okuni thereby personified and stimulated the fantasies of the many idle samurai who were kept in the area and of the community of merchants and prostitutes who served them. Because the cultural environment did not discourage homosexuality, sophisticated femininity could be viewed as a matter of cultivation and training rather than biological sex. It was something that could be learned and perfected as a skill by Kabuki female impersonators (onnagata) as easily as by actual female geisha.

The idea of creating and living in a fantasy world was a key element of Okuni’s aesthetic and influenced the culture of Japan’s pleasure districts in subsequent decades, especially the “floating world,” that is, the Yoshiwara district Floating World district (Japan) Yoshiwara of Edo. Okuni’s song texts invited audiences to lose themselves in a dreamlike present. Her introduction of drama in conjunction with popular dance and music was eventually continued by her male counterparts, as subsequent generations of Kabuki actors and playwrights greatly expanded its plots and subject matter, while retaining the colorful essence of the tradition.

The term “kabuki” was first applied to Okuni’s performances. At the time, the word was used as an adjective to describe something outlandish and scandalous. Part of Okuni’s innovation was the juxtaposition of elements taken from elite culture with those taken from popular culture. By blending the stage and musical instruments (flute and drums) of Nō drama Nō drama[No drama] with the humor and brevity of her bawdy plays and dances, she appealed to a strengthening merchant class. Theater;Japan

It is likely that the male roles in Okuni’s shows were first performed by actors trained in the kyōgen Kyōgen[Kyogen] genre, which favored concise, sometimes humorous plays that contrasted with the reserved formality of Nō drama. As Kabuki matured, this tension of coexisting elements continued, extending into musical style, creating a multilayered approach that deeply influenced musical structure in later genres such as nagauta. Whereas Okuni’s earliest dances had used a more limited set of instruments, Kabuki productions quickly adopted the shamisen, a three-stringed, fretless plucked lute that became popular in all the major musical genres associated with the floating world district in the early 1600’. Music;Japan

The first Kabuki performances were a source of serious cultural conflict. The early Tokugawa shoguns promoted the restoration of Confucianism, a philosophy that emphasized social stability and family loyalty, yet the same rulers created the Yoshiwara district to satisfy the needs of the many samurai who were forced to live in the capital. Kabuki actresses and actors continued to serve as prostitutes, and as they grew in popularity, jealousies developed among their customers, and riots occasionally broke out during performances.

Seeking to curtail these disturbances, in 1629, the government under Tokugawa Iemitsu Tokugawa Iemitsu banned women from performing on the stage (although there were occasional reports of subsequent violations of this law). The official banishment of women from the stage led to a demand from audiences that young male actors personify their female predecessors with great accuracy. It soon became evident, however, that young men could arouse the same sorts of jealousies as female performers: The same kind of violent disturbances continued to be reported until 1652, when the government decreed that only mature male actors could appear on stage.


Kabuki emerged as a genre of drama, dance, and music that combined elements of elite and vernacular culture that were previously separate. This allowed its audiences and performers at least temporarily (and sometimes permanently) to step out of conventional social and gender roles. Although it was created by people who lived at the margins of respectability and was initially suppressed by the Tokugawa government, Kabuki continued to be very popular, and it developed quickly into one of Japan’s major performance genres. From the time of Okuni, Kabuki’s focus has been on the actor, first as an object of desire but eventually as an artist able to evoke and personify familiar characters with great skill and presence.

Okuni’s influence extended to other Edo performance traditions besides Kabuki. Closely related genres that draw upon the same colorful, dreamlike aesthetic include bunraku (puppet theater with music), kouta (self-accompanied song played by accomplished geisha), and nagauta (the larger musical ensembles). It is also likely that her gestures, colorful style of dress, and other performance elements influenced the practices of the geisha, the highly cultured courtesans of the floating world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Downer, Lesley. Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha. New York: Broadway Books, 2001. Explains the shared roots of the Kabuki and geisha traditions. Glossary, index, illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ernst, Earle. The Kabuki Theatre. Reprint. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1974. New preface. Includes discussions of Okuni, history of Kabuki, theater designs, performance, and actors. List of plays, glossary, fifty-eight illustrations, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leiter, Samuel L., ed. A Kabuki Reader: History and Performance. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2002. Essays by specialists in various aspects of Kabuki. Connects Kabuki to earlier dramatic genres. Includes Okuni’s performances. Detailed notes at ends of essays. Illustrated, selected bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seigle, Cecilia Segawa. Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan. Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 1993. Background, history of the Yosiwara district as a social environment. Includes Okuni. Glossary with kanji, extensive notes, illustrations, tables.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swinton, Elizabeth de Sabato. The Women of the Pleasure Quarter: Japanese Paintings and Prints of the Floating World. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1995. Includes history of Kabuki, with Okuni. Illustrated, mostly color plates. Glossary, checklist of prints, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Toita, Yasuji. Kabuki: The Popular Theater. Translated by Don Kenny. New York: Weatherhill/Tankosha, 1970. Kabuki from its origins through 1966. Illustrated, including photos. Chronology and detailed commentary on illustrations.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Hishikawa Moronobu; Izumo no Okuni; Tokugawa Ieyasu. Kabuki Izumo no Okuni

Categories: History