What does Kabuki mean? How is this term used in politics?

Kabuki theatre is a stylised Japanese dance-drama tradition. Its origins date back to the early 17th century, when it rapidly grew in popularity

Initially it was performed by both sexes, causing unease about public morals in official circles. The association between female actors and prostitution lead to a shogunate ruling in 1625. Since then the female parts are all played by males. 

Key characteristics of Kabuki include operatic plot lines, masks and heavy make-up. Shouting at other actors is encouraged, but though are common elements pantomime the tone is more delicate. As Louis Levene puts it:

a great onnagata (a male actor playing a female role) will transcend the conventions and carry you away to the floating world.

Modern versions

Kotohira kabuki theatre

The kabuki Bayreuth is the town of Kotohira, in Shikoku province. Local geisha funded the building of a kabuki theatre there in 1835 and fans pay £100 for tickets to the annual festival every spring. 

Leading actors are major cultural figures - Sakata Tojuro was widely described as a 'national treasure' when he died in 2020. There is even a Kabuki on Demand streaming service.

Kemp and Bowie

In the late 1960s Kabuki also became fashionable in avant-garde theatrical circles in the west, particularly in the UK. 

David Bowie was an early enthusiast, learning a form of Kabuki while working with mime artist, Lindsey Kemp. Bowie later borrowed heavily from the kabuki tradition in the creation of Ziggy Stardust.


More recently, Kabuki has entered general English as a synonym for theatrical. In the US, it is often used to describe politicians suspected of acting insincerely to please their supporters and/or attract maximum media attention.

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