Kabuki is renowned worldwide as a Japanese performing art. During the Edo Period (17th century to the mid-19th century), kabuki developed into one of the largest forms of public entertainment in urban areas. For all its fame in the modern day, however, where exactly did kabuki come from?
It is widely known that kabuki is performed only by men. The quintessentially Japanese trait of paying special attention to the smallest of details is concentrated within the gestures and movements of the kabuki performers when they act out the roles of women. Although the world of kabuki is a male-dominated one, did you know that its roots, a style of dancing called kabuki-odori, were established by a woman?
Her name was Okuni. She served as a shrine maiden at Izumo Grand Shrine, which is similar to being a nun at a church. She traveled around to different areas of Japan to collect donations for the shrine, and in an effort to get as many people to gather as possible, she organized shows with kagura dances. These performances grew in popularity, leading to the formation of a performance group that made its way to Edo (modern-day Tokyo). There are examples of traditional dances like kagura done as offerings to the deities throughout Japan, but Okuni is the first person to successfully organize performances of traditional art as a way to get monetary donations.
Not long after this, however, the shogunate banned women from dancing on stage, and Okuni had to return to Izumo. In order to maintain the popularity of kabuki among audiences, the male performers in other kabuki groups that remained in Edo began polishing their movements and expressions so that they would look more like women when playing female roles. Okuni and the other performers in her group, having fulfilled their role of gathering donations for the shrine, brought back home the dances and performances they had learned traveling the country, and began performing them as offerings to their local deities. The unrestricted, free-flowing expressions can still be seen today.
In many areas throughout Japan, dances are only performed once or twice a year at very special events, but here’s what’s really interesting: kagura is still performed somewhere every week throughout SAN-IN, charming all who gather to watch it. Who knows? This may even be due to the influence of Okuni organizing kagura performances as a way to serve the gods.