chapter  3
27 Pages

Bakufu Versus Kabuki

WithDonald H. Shively 33

From 1629 to 1877, women were officially forbidden to act in Japan's kabuki theatre, which-under the leadership of a former shrine priestess named Okuni-they had founded in 1603. From 1629 on, male actors, the onnagata, played female characters. At the time, Japanese urban culture was largely under the influence of Confucian ethics and Buddhist religious practice, both of which-albeit with some degree of overstatement and inaccuracy-have been considered anti-female systems. The actual women of the Tokugawa period were the victims of a mighty patriarchy, which relegated them to a position of relative powerlessness. In the onnagata's early years, roles of such power went to male-role actors while dance was the onnagata's specialty. The early dances may have reflected folk beliefs in woman's fearsome sexual powers. Kabuki cross-dressing is mainly a matter of men dressing as women rather than the reverse. Jealous or not, princess or not, most young women in kabuki epitomize the purity of youthful beauty and innocence.