chapter  12
19 Pages

From Gay to Gei: The Onnagata and the Creation of Kabuki's Female Characters

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 women's roles. The reasons for the banning of actresses have been frequently recounted elsewhere and need not be reexamined here in detail. [See, for example, Shively's essay, chapter 3. Ed.]

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. Whereas, despite endemic misogyny, ancient and medieval Japan had had many women of accomplishment, such women were exceed­ ingly rare during the Tokugawa period (also called the Edo period, 16031868). For example, Chieko Irie Mulhern's anthology, Heroic with Grace: Legendary Women of Japan, jumps from the death ofHojo Masako in 1225 to the birth of Hani Motoko in 1873. Mulhern insists on "the absence of women accorded a legendary stature in the positive sense" during these years, although she admits that a very few women did stand out in one way or another. 1 One such woman, in fact, was Okuni, kabuki's founder. Women of the time may have been more socially and corn.rpercially active than is com­ monly supposed,2 but it is clear that Tokugawa women were, by and large, second-class citizens. People were to behave in this world according to their

given place in it. When the dictatorial military government, the bakufu, de­ termined that kabuki's women had overstepped their bounds, it banned them from the stage.