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Kabuki facts for kids

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Odori Keiyō Edo-e no sakae by Toyokuni III
Kabuki performance in 1858
Shibai Ukie by Masanobu Okumura
Kabuki theater showing the hanamichi

Kabuki is the traditional Japanese classical drama which started about 400 years ago. It is known for its very stylized acting and the elaborate makeup worn by the actors. The word kabuki means "singing and dancing". It also means strange and different, to be outside what is normal. Kabuki is not meant to look like real life. People from around the world are now interested in Kabuki. It was recognized by UNESCO in 2006 as an important part of Japan's cultural history.


Tokyo Kabukiza 1889–1911

Kabuki theater started during the Edo period (1603—1868). It developed into what we now know as kabuki during the Genroku (1688—1704). Kabuki was started by a woman, Izumo no Okuni in Kyoto in 1603. It was very popular. Women were banned from performing in Kabuki plays in 1629 because it was thought to disturb discipline. They were replaced by beautiful young men to play the female roles, but in 1652 they were banned for the same reasons as the women. Kabuki was allowed to continue with adult men playing all the roles, Yaro kabuki, the style that has became famous.

Kabuki became popular in Japanese cities, growing rapidly as proper theater with great authors and actors. Ningyo Jyoruri (the puppet theater) also influenced the stories, directions, content and style. Ballet and theater music were also influences on the development of kabuki. After the restoration of the Emperor in 1888, kabuki was influenced by foreign culture.

From 1926 to 1989, performances began in other countries. The Empire Theater was reconstructed, and called the National Theater. In 1954, East Side Theater was made, and Kabuki stage shown on TV. In 1965, Kabuki was seen as an important cultural heritage. After World War II, the Japanese came to see that Kabuki as an important part of their culture. Many actors became famous people in Japan.

The most famous theatre in Japan is the Kabuki-za. It was built in Tokyo in 1889. It was built as western-style theater. The interior decorations were Japanese style but the outside was brick walls and it was a three-storied theater at first. The interior decorations and outside changed many time. Kabuki theaters have long histories and these were so unique.


Kōshirō Matsumoto VII as Benkei
Kōshirō Matsumoto VII (1870—1949) as Benkei

Woman kabuki actors are rare though there were onnakabuki (women actors). Now the men play both male and female roles.

Actors form schools or are associated with a particular theatre. Every actor has a stage name, which is different from the name they were born with. These stage names, most often those of the actor's father, grandfather, or teacher, are passed down between generations and hold great honor and importance. Many names are associated with certain roles or acting styles, and the new owner of each name must live up to these expectations, there is the feeling almost of the actor not only taking a name, but also the spirit, style, or skill of each actor to previously hold that name. Many actors will go through at least three names over the course of their career.


Kabuki plays can be put into three main groups:

  • Jidaimono - plays which show the world of samurais or court nobles before the Edo period
  • Sewamono - plays about the lives of the town people in the Edo period
  • Shosagoto - plays that feature dance

Gidayu kyogen or Maruhonmono are kabuki plays that were first written as puppet plays. They were turned into kabuki plays when they became famous.


Daisekijinja 1
Audience enjoying a kabuki play

Now Kabuki actors often perform for foreign audiences. The group Heisei Nakamuraza directed by Nakamura Kanzaburou have become famous for their performances in foreign countries. They were the first traditional style kabuki group to perform in New York City in 2004. Using a tent as a playhouse with the audience seated on tatami (Japanese mats), they performed "The Summer Festival: A Mirror of Osaka" with Japanese actors. In July 2008, Heisei Nakamuraza again performed in New York and they played in English. It was a historical and splendid achievement.

In Australia, the Za Kabuki group at the Australian National University has been performing a kabuki drama each year since 1976; the single longest regular kabuki performance outside of Japan.

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