Kabuki is one of Japan’s three major classical theater arts and is often compared to Shakespearean works in terms of cultural significance. Sporting heavily stylized makeup and elaborate costumes, kabuki actors portray everything from historical events to Star Wars. If the actors’ appearance isn’t captivating enough, they use staging effects such as trap doors, wirework and revolving sets to tell their stories. A spectacle like this has maintained a love for this art form since its origin in the Edo Period (1603–1867).

Kabuki also resembles Shakespearean theater in that every role—regardless of a character’s gender—is usually played by a male actor. This has been the case since the 1600s, but the opposite used to be true. Kabuki was created by a woman called Izumo no Okuni (Okuni of Izumo), and she, along with troupes of female performers, propelled the art to popularity.

Founding kabuki

The 12th page of Kunijo Kabuki Ekotoba (1596—1615) depicts Izumo no Okuni onstage.

Near Kyoto’s Minamiza theater–a popular place to watch kabuki today—stands a statue of a woman holding a fan and a sword. A signboard posted by the statue explains that this is Izumo no Okuni, who 1603, brought kabuki into being when she performed dances along the Kamo River.

Her birthplace is unknown, and historical records concerning her are sparse. However, it is believed that she served Shimane Prefecture’s Izumo Taisha Shrine as a miko (a shrine maiden).

Okuni traveled to Kyoto with other dancers to earn money for Izumo Taisha’s senguu (the periodic renovation of a Shinto shrine’s main building). This was when she began performing by the Kamo River, creating a style of dancing that enthralled audiences of every social class and often cast female performers to play male characters. Eventually, this dancing became the distinct performing art, kabuki.

The mingling of the samurai and merchant class with the lower class in audiences enraged the shogunate.

So popular was Okuni’s kabuki that she performed at prominent Kyoto shrines and for the Imperial Court. Soon, other troupes of female dancers began imitating Okuni’s kabuki, and this spread the art form further. However, in 1629, the Tokugawa shogunate officially banned women from performing kabuki.

This was due to some performers engaging in prostitution, which was legal at the time but only in licensed pleasure districts, and kabuki typically happened outside these areas. Moreover, the mingling of the samurai and merchant class with the lower class in audiences enraged the shogunate. All-out brawls started after men got worked up in their admiration of performers. Thus, the banning was officially to counter “moral corruption.”

This edict established the current norm of male actors performing every role. However, since the ban was lifted some centuries later, women sometimes participate in kabuki performances today.

Life after Kyoto

Photo: iStock/ MasaoTairaIzumo Taisha Shrine is one of Japan’s most ancient and important Shinto shrines.

Near the entrance to Shinmondori—a shopping street that leads to Izumo Taisha Shrine—stands a statue of Okuni that is practically identical to the one in Kyoto. The signboard reads that later in her life, Okuni left Kyoto and returned to Izumo, where she became a Buddhist nun. Up the hill from this statue, between Izumo Taisha Shrine and Inasanohama Beach, multiple sites related to Okuni and her memory are open to visitors.

The temple where Okuni supposedly spent the latter part of her life currently exists in the modern temple buildings Anyo-ji and Renga-an (also called Okuni Temple). Renga-an is a small building reconstructed over the years due to damage, and it’s home to a carved portrait of Okuni. Anyo-ji has artifacts that Okuni is said to have owned, like a mirror and prayer beads.

Between these two temple buildings, situated in a local graveyard, is Okuni’s final resting place. Made of a large, natural stone surrounded by pillars, it stands out among the other gravesites. Nearby, a monument to Okuni was built in the 20th century with donations from multiple people, including some famous kabuki actors.

In addition to being known for the stone pagoda that displays Okuni’s portrait, this site offers a beautiful view of Inasanohama Beach and the city where Okuni is believed to have grown up.

Okuni today

Photo: iStock/ danieldepThe Izumo No Okuni statue in Kyoto.

Since her life was not extensively documented by history, mentions of Okuni can be difficult to find, especially in languages other than Japanese. English articles on kabuki often gloss over Okuni’s story or simply do not discuss her. Okuni’s legacy is remembered through monuments such as those in Kyoto and Izumo, literature and pop culture. In the late 1960s, author Sawako Ariyoshi published a fictional account of Okuni’s life that imagined her journey from Izumo to Kyoto.

Ariyoshi’s work was translated into English in the 1990s as a novel titled Kabuki Dancer. While we do not have historical records to enlighten us about Okuni, Ariyoshi’s novel helps us to wonder. Okuni also appears in pop culture, such as the Samurai Warriors video game series.

Although we may never know the full story of Okuni’s life, her legend lives on.

Have you heard of Izumo no Okuni? What do you think of kabuki? Let us know in the comments!

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