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A photo of an onnagata performer. The actor is onstage in full dress, hair, and make up, holding an umbrella to the side.

March – Week 2 – Onnagata Kabuki

This past week saw the celebration of International Women’s Day. Therefore, I decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to learn more about the gender dynamics of kabuki. Specially, I wanted to learn more about how women’s roles within kabuki have evolved over the centuries. And boy was there a lot to learn! From onnagata to wakashu, there was a lot to unpack. So let’s dive in.

As I mentioned last week, kabuki began in 1603 in Kyoto and was founded by a woman. Izumo no Okuni was a shrine maiden who began dancing in the dry Kamo riverbed. But she wasn’t dancing alone. She gathered together groups of social outcasts, all women, and directed them on how to dance together. Her performances became extremely popular, and she went on to found the first kabuki tropes. Unsurprisingly, they were composed of all women. Okuni later married a samurai by the name of Nagoya Sansburo, who encouraged her to broaden her storytelling horizons. Specifically, he convinced her to move past the religious themes of her early performances, and instead focus on stories that were more exciting and dramatic. Theatres soon sprang up all over Kyoto, and kabuki became wildly popular among all social classes.

During these early days, both men and women performed onstage. However, women were particularly popular. Their dances were often overtly erotic and sexual, and many performers also worked as prostitutes backstage. It was reported that fights would often break out among male audience members in their quest to curry favour with the performers. All of this came to an end in 1629 when the ruling shogunate officially banned women from performing onstage. They were replaced by effeminate teenage boys, but they didn’t last long either. They were banned in 1652. This ban was lifted in 1887, but to this day, kabuki is still an all-male profession. Why? Because of the onnagata.

Onnagata are male kabuki performers who specialize in playing female characters. These men spend their whole lives training to play women on stage, and they have always been highly regarded. Stars even. One famous onnagata, Yoshizawa Ayame I, even published a handbook on how to properly be a onnagata. What is fascinating is that in his opinion, in order to be a true onnagata, the actor must embody a woman at all times. Both onstage and off. According to Ayame, an onnagata must live as a woman in all ways. This meant adhering to the extremely rigid gender roles of the time. As a result, some historians have claimed that onnagata were the first public transgender representation in Japan.

As I mentioned above, the ban against women was lifted in 1887. But that didn’t mean that women were immediately welcomed back onstage. By this point, onnagata were firmly entrenched as an iconic part of kabuki. I read a lot of articles this week about why women still don’t perform kabuki, and it all comes back to the onnagata. Many people argue that because these men devote their lives to studying how to be a woman, they are in fact better at being women than actual women. Others explain that the whole purpose of onnagata is not to accurately portray women, but rather to present an idealized version of femininity. In other words, the perfect image of a woman but through the lens of a man. This has created an entirely different form of performance that would be impossible to replicate with women performers.

All fascinating points, for sure. But it’s also fascinating that none of these arguments mention women playing men’s roles. If men are better at playing women because it is a deliberate choice instead of just a state of being, surely women would then be better at playing men for the same reason. Apparently not, because according to the most up to date sources I could find online, there are still no women in any of the major kabuki theatre companies. I did hear rumours of women performing in independent theatres, but I couldn’t find any confirmation of this.

Needless to say, this week was a fascinating read all around. I love reading about gender dynamics in historical contexts, and kabuki sure has a lot of this to discover. So much so that I’m going to continue these lines of inquiry next week. But before I go, one last fun tidbit. Women were banned from performing kabuki because of the shogunate’s worry about their influence on social morales. The ruling class was particularly concerned about the fact that many of the performers were also sex workers. And yet, for centuries, onnagata held enormous sway over women’s fashion and style trends. So much so that sex workers began imitating the style of the onnagatas in order to appeal to male audience members who could no longer outright hire the performers. What a fascinating circle of life.

Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!