What is Kabuki? : Learn About Japan’s Traditional Performing Art

Every country has its traditional dance, music, fashion, and drama—Japan too, has a variety of performing arts that have been passed down. Kabuki(歌舞伎) is just one of them.

Representative of Japanese Performing Arts

In Japanese, traditional theater arts are called dento geino(伝統芸能). Kabuki falls under this category, and is a type of theater. It focuses on storytelling, dance, and music to entertain the audience.

The spirit of Kabuki holds that in order to entertain the audience, popular trends should be incorporated, and one should not confine to existing ways and manners. In the past, various types of Kabuki plays were produced with a focus on what was trending or popular among the audience in Edo (current Tokyo), Kyoto, and Nara. Today, there are Kabuki plays that are based on popular manga or anime.

Kabukiza Theater(歌舞伎座)

The term Kabuki originates from the Japanese word “kabu-ku”, which literally means “to tilt”. In the past, people wore flashy, trendy outfits—this was called “kabuki odori” (歌舞伎踊り: kabuki dance), and it is believed that this stemmed into what Kabuki is today.

Currently, there are over 700 Kabuki repertoires, and performances are typically available throughout the year. Actors and backstage staff all work together to create a massive Kabuki production.

Over 400 Years of History


Kabuki traces its history to 1603, when a woman named Izumo-no-Okuni(出雲阿国) dressed up as an eccentric man and danced a kabuki-odori at a teahouse.

Kabuki odori” became popular, and many other female performers imitated the dance and began to form actor groups. The dances were called “Onna Kabuki” (女歌舞伎: Women’s Kabuki), and it became popular not only in Kyoto but across Japan. They danced along with shamisen (三味線: a relatively new instrument at the time).

"Sansei Otanioniji no Yakkoedobe", Toshusai Sharaku, 1794

However, Onna Kabuki was banned by the Japanese bakufu government around 1629. To this day, male actors perform every part, regardless of gender, in Kabuki plays. Actors who play a female role are called “onna gata(女方)”—these actors have to learn to express feminine gestures and movements to show woman-like features.

In the past, Kabuki plays were short scenes performed along with music, but it eventually developed into longer plays with a focus on storytelling.

Gaining Worldwide Attention

One Piece Kabuki

Along with washoku (和食: Japanese cuisine) and Noh(能), Kabuki is listed under UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage and has gained worldwide acclaim.

Kabuki is constantly changing—it mixes traditional elements with present-day trends. It’s what makes it unique and attractive to the audience. Do go see a live Kabuki performance during your stay in Japan!