History of Kabuki|A Brief History of Kabuki from its Birth to the Present: About 400 Years


Motenas Representative
Motenas Representative

Kabuki, as a classical theater, is a traditional art form that attracts attention not only in Japan but also from around the world.

In this issue, we will explain the history of Kabuki for about 400 years in an easy-to-understand manner.

It will definitely be useful for conversation and hospitality when entertaining foreigners at Kabuki, so please read to the end.

Beginning of the History of Kabuki [Edo Period

Beginning of the History of Kabuki [Edo Period

Kabuki is said to have begun about 400 years ago, in 1603 A.D., during the Edo period (1603-1868).

In fact, as a traditional Japanese art form, about 400 years is a relatively short history.

For example, Noh, another traditional art form, has a history of nearly 700 years, so you can see that Kabuki has a surprisingly modern origin.

Let’s take a look at how kabuki began and spread during the Edo period, and how it has been handed down to the present day, some 400 years later.

Emergence of “Kabuki-sha” who rebelled against the times

An essential part of the history of kabuki is the existence of “kabuki-sha” in the Edo period.

Kabuki players were what we would call “delinquents” today, and they paraded through the town in outlandish attire that would have been unthinkable in the Edo period, including gorgeous clothes, makeup, hairstyles, and accessories such as prayer beads.

Although they engaged in extravagant play and extravagant spending, and some of them even did evil, many of them must have found admiration and beauty in their behavior, which seemed to defy the common sense of the times.

As evidence of this, many ukiyoe prints and literature depicting kabuki-ja remain in existence today.

Then, a female entertainer named Izumo no Okuni (Izumo no Okuni) caught his attention with her kabuki-sha style.

This is where the history of the traditional Japanese performing art [Kabuki] begins.

Kabuki Dancing” became popular.

Kabuki is said to have originated from “Kabuki Odori” danced by a female performer named Izumo no Okuni.

Kabuki in modern times is performed by male performers only, but originally, female performers were the mainstay of the stage.

Izumoakuni imitated the style of “Kabuki dancers” popular in the Edo period (1603-1867), dressed in men’s clothing, wearing necklaces around their necks, and chanting and dancing to the accompaniment of flutes, drums, and shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese banjo).

This unconventional style must have been shocking to the people of the Edo period.

Furthermore, since “Kabuki Odori” was not just a dance but a story, the entertainment value of the dance was also a success, and it quickly became very popular in Kyoto.

Then, thinking that “doing the popular Kabuki dance would be good for business,” girls’ dance troupes and prostitutes from all over the country began to imitate them.

Thus, the popularity of Kabuki dancing spread nationwide.

Change to “Men’s Kabuki” due to prohibition.

Although the “Kabuki Dance” was a lively event, it was banned by the shogunate because it was considered “disturbing to public morals” for girls and prostitutes to perform the dance.

This changes Kabuki Odori into a performing art performed by men instead of women.

At first, kabuki performances by beautiful-looking boys appeared, but these were also banned for disturbing public morals.

Later, “yaro kabuki” was popularized by adult men, and this became the prototype for the men’s kabuki of today.

The problem for men in kabuki, however, was how to play female roles.

Since there were no such things as wigs in those days, women began to express themselves not only in their costumes but also in their detailed gestures.

This led to the maturation of the onnagata, a style of performance that has been handed down to the present day, in which men play the roles of women.

The Rapid Growth of Kabuki Culture in the Edo Period

The Rapid Growth of Kabuki Culture in the Edo Period

Kabuki grew rapidly during the Edo period (1603-1867).

Let us now look at how kabuki developed and spread among the Japanese people during the Edo period.

Edo Sanza and the Starification of Kabuki Actors

As mentioned earlier, kabuki is a performing art that originated in the Edo period (1603-1868), and its popularity spread quickly, leading to the opening of many theaters dedicated to kabuki.

It developed into such a major art form that the Edo Sanza, a theater officially recognized by the shogunate, was created.

Although these three Edo troupes are no longer extant due to family affairs and earthquakes, some of them remained in existence until the early Showa period (1926-1989).

  • Nakamura-za Theater (1624-1893)
    …survived four relocations, but was destroyed by fire in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) and closed down.

  • Ichimura-za (1634-1932)
    …survived two relocations, but was destroyed by fire in the early Showa period and closed down.

  • Morita-za (1660-1923)
    …survived two relocations, but was damaged by the Great Kanto Earthquake in the Taisho Era (1912-1926) and closed down.

    (Reference: Edo Sanza – Edo Tokyo Shitamachi Bunka Kenkyukai (edoshitamachi.com ))

The position of the actors also changed as the Kabuki world gained momentum, including the venues of the Edo Sanza.

Kabuki actors became increasingly popular and grew to become stars of Edo.

One example of their popularity is the “Yakusha-e” (portrayals of actors).

Yakusha-e (portrayals of actors) were painted by ukiyoe artists in the Edo period, when photography did not exist.

Numerous actor paintings remain, which are like pictures and goods of idols in modern times.

Kabuki actors wore costumes with specific crests and patterns, but it was also fashionable to wear kimonos with the same crests and patterns as those of your favorite actors.

It has something in common with today’s “guess-the-actress” culture, and the culture of enjoying the performing arts by rooting for one’s favorite actors may not have changed since the Edo period.

Ningyo joruri turned into kabuki?

In fact, at the same time that kabuki was becoming popular, there was another art form that was gaining popularity.

That is “ningyo joruri” (puppet drama).

At one time, ningyo joruri was so popular that it surpassed kabuki.

This is where the Kabuki community came up with the idea of adapting ningyo joruri works to Kabuki.

This has resulted in the creation of many kabuki masterpieces.

  • Kokusenya Kassen
    …by Monzaemon Chikamatsu, a writer of ningyo joruri (puppet drama), which was later made into a kabuki play.
  • Natsu Matsuri Naniwakagami
    …by the puppet playwright Namiki Senryu, which was later made into a Kabuki play.
  • Ichinotani Futabagunki
    …by the puppet playwrights Namiki Sosuke and Asada Ittori, which was later made into a Kabuki play.

Many of the ningyo joruri works created during this period that have been adapted into kabuki have been handed down to the present.

Summer “ghost stories” are very popular.

With the growing popularity of kabuki, “ghost stories” became the standard summer play.

For example, even people who have never seen kabuki have heard of “Tokaido Yotsuya Ghost Story,” famous for “Oiwa-san.

The use of water and other innovations in the production, which were different from those used in regular Kabuki, made it popular.

In this way, kabuki established an unshakeable position as a popular pastime during the 260 years of the Edo period.

In the Meiji Era, the style was further transformed into a new style.

Meiji Era-|Evolution into New Kabuki

Meiji Era-|Evolution into New Kabuki

In the Meiji period (1868-1912), Western culture quickly entered Japan.

This also led to Kabuki being influenced by Western plays and novels.

Kabuki productions from around the middle of the Meiji period to the early Showa period are called “new kabuki” and represent a new era in kabuki.

Birth of the first “Kabuki-za

The first Kabuki-za opened in 1889.

As the name suggests, a Kabuki-za is “a theater for Kabuki performances,” but until the first Kabuki-za was created, it was common to name the theater after a zamoto or place, such as “Nakamura-za,” “Ichimura-za,” or “Morita-za,” like the three Edo zas.

Even with just one name, the Kabuki-za must have been a cutting-edge theater of its time.

▼ Pictures of the first Kabuki-za Theater

The theater also seems to reflect the Meiji era in that the exterior was built in a Western style and the interior in a Japanese style.

Kabuki in danger of decline after the war

Kabuki remained a popular pastime after the Meiji era, but immediately after World War II it was subject to restrictions by GHQ.

The restrictions imposed by GHQ were not lifted until 1947, two years after the end of the war.

From this point on, Kabuki came back to life and became popular again.

The birth of “Super Kabuki” has renewed its popularity.

Super Kabuki” was born at the end of the Showa period.

Super Kabuki” is a style of kabuki that follows the structure and direction of traditional kabuki, but combines modern dialogue, costumes, and music.

And the greatest feature of Super Kabuki is its “sense of speed.

Another attraction is that instead of the leisurely pace of the original kabuki, the dialogue and scene transitions are faster, similar to the speed of today’s theater, making it easier for people today to watch.

My first Super Kabuki was a production of “Yamatotakeru” by Ennosuke Ichikawa III (at that time) in 1986.

This production was a stage adaptation of the legend of Yamatotakeru from Japanese mythology, and became a huge hit because of its innovative style, which had never been seen in the Kabuki world before, including a script written by a philosopher.

Since then, Super Kabuki has continued to evolve in unprecedented ways, releasing innovative ideas such as the Kabuki adaptation of the popular manga “ONE PIECE.

Modern Kabuki|Evolution into a World Classical Theatre

Modern Kabuki|Evolution into a World Classical Theatre

Modern kabuki has grown to the point where it is regarded not only in Japan but also [as] classical theater in the world.

Let us now look at modern kabuki.

Inoue Kabuki” for a new era is popular among young people.

Inoue Kabuki” is an indispensable part of Kabuki since the Heisei era.

Inoue Kabuki is a period drama work by Hidenori Inoue, who runs a theater company called “Gekidan☆Shinkansen.

Inoue kabuki is a completely new style, including costumes, lighting, and flamboyant staging, and is popular among young people for its innovative style, which includes rock-like modern music and flamboyant sword fighting scenes, with a scene in which a Kabuki figure is cut off in a flash.

Although it is a period drama, it has a strong contemporary entertainment style, but it also features many top kabuki actors such as Koshiro Matsumoto and Kankuro Nakamura, who are part of the pioneering new era of kabuki.

Actively expanding overseas

Kabuki is also actively expanding overseas.

Kabuki performances in the U.S., Australia, France, England, and other countries have been highly acclaimed for the beauty of their costumes, unique Kabuki movements, and other artistic qualities, and have been a great success.

And even as it tours overseas, Kabuki never forgets to make changes to suit the locality.

For example, when performing in the United States, Kabuki actor Ichikawa Somegoro devised a Kabuki technique.

In the famous “haya-gawari,” a Kabuki performance, he says, “It is meaningless if the same actor comes out of the aisle in a different role immediately after pulling out from the upper part of the stage, unless the audience recognizes that the same actor is performing the same role. In order to surprise American audiences who are seeing Somegoro Ichikawa for the first time, the roles are switched onstage in such a way that it is obvious that the actor has been replaced (quoted by Somegoro Ichikawa in “Kabuki overseas performances and new works: ‘Toward a path where the result is difficult to see'” – Nihon Keizai Shimbun ). (Source: Kabuki overseas performances, new productions: “Toward a path where the results are difficult to see.

In a positive sense, this attitude of not sticking too closely to the old patterns and being flexible to change may be what makes Kabuki so exciting today.



Kabuki has a history of about 400 years.

When viewed in the context of traditional Japanese performing arts, it has a short history.

However, in its short history, the theater has grown to be popular not only in Japan but also overseas, probably because it has continued to change with the times, introducing innovative staging while preserving tradition.

The polished performances of the actors are also the reason why they continue to be appreciated by many people across the country, and are a traditional art form that has been handed down since the Edo period and is a source of pride for Japan.

Kabuki can be seen at the Kabuki-za Theater and the National Theater in Tokyo and the Osaka Shochikuza Theater in Osaka.

There are also other old playhouses throughout Japan that retain the atmosphere of the Edo period, so it may be fun to visit them after learning about their history.

[Reference site

Kabuki Dance: A Dictionary of Japanese History / Home Page (touken-world.jp)

Introduction to Kabuki from Zero Knowledge (Published July 20, 2022 (Gentosha), supervised by Koshiro Matsumoto)