The History of Kabuki and its Spread to the Regions

The term kabuki odori (kabuki dance) first appeared in 1603. The actress Izumo-no-Okuni adapted dances that were originally performed to console the souls of the dead. It is said that in 1603, she turned to the culture and customs of the kabuki mono (kabuki people; down-and-outs who wore outlandish costumes) of the time to create the kabuki odori. This became a big hit in Kyoto, being received with enthusiastic praise. A series of troupes were formed to carry the new dance to the regions, while in the regions themselves a large number of theatre groups sprung up to perform the new kabuki, which became popular all over the country.


However, the shogunate issued frequent bans against the performances for the reason of “offending public morals,” and as a result, by the mid-17th century the kabuki dances had evolved from a format that attracted audiences through sexual charm to one called monomane kyougen zukushi, in which all the performers were men, who acted out a play in a similar form to that of present-day kabuki. This evolution from skits that depicted the culture and customs of the times to theatrical works that embodied a sound narrative also quickly spread to the regions. In the castle town of Mito, kabuki performances were officially permitted as early as 1678.


In later years, the impact of the constrictive Kyoho reforms in the second decade of the 18th century, and the appearance of the gifted playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon caused kabuki to be overshadowed by ningyo joruri (bunraku, puppet drama), and for a while the popularity of kabuki faltered. Kabuki, however, evolved again by incorporating the plays and the production methods of ningyo joruri, and by introducing stage devices such as the revolving stage.


During the 18th century, farming people, who were tired of waiting for ningyo joruri and kabuki performances to come round to their villages began to set up their own stages and perform plays. The unusual atmosphere they created by lighting up the stage with lanterns so that it appeared to float in the midst of the pitch black night, the sumptuous costumes, known as kira, worn by the actors, who performed both comedies and tragedies, provoked a strong sense of the surreal, and was truly worthy of the shrine festivals they commemorated. It is not hard for us today to understand why kabuki spread throughout the whole of Japan in a very short time.

A brief chronological table
Year Event
1603 Izumo-no-Okuni performs kabuki odori on the river bank at Kyoto Shijo
1629 Ban on kabuki performed by women
1652 Ban on kabuki performed by young men
1653 Revival of kabuki permitted providing the (male) actors perform monomane kyogen zukushi and shave the front part of their heads in the form of the yarogashira hairstyle.
1667 Odori first performed at the Tenno Sai festival in Karasuyama, Tochigi Prefecture
1678 Mito clan officially permits kabuki performances in Mito castle town.
Masakado, a Tokiwazu genre play, being performed as a sideshow on a mobile stage during the Gion Sai festival in Omiya around 1950.
Masakado, a Tokiwazu genre play, being performed as a sideshow on a mobile stage during the Gion Sai festival in Omiya around 1950.