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Kabuki, a classic Japanese theatrical form using common or comic themes, with fantastical costumes, stylized gestures, music and dance, and with all-male casts, is still popular today. Initially, it was a showcase for female and boy prostitutes.

Boy-love was a given in ancient Japan. The love of chigo (a boy aged 10 to 17) by Buddhist priests was a tradition, as, in the mode of ancient Greece, was the love of wakashu (a youth aged 13 to 20) by samurai warriors. Shudo, the love of young men, became a staple feature of Kabuki literature.

By the early seventeenth century, at the end of a long civil war, the power of the samurai declined and a merchant class emerged. For the merchants' pleasure, dances and dramatic routines, often performed by female prostitutes, began to be performed in Kyoto, Edo, and Osaka. Samurai and court aristocrats were forbidden to attend, but they donned disguises to join the fervid audiences.

This illegal mingling of classes and the deadly violence caused by jealousy over prostitutes disturbed the peace. The response of the alarmed Tokugawa authorities was to ban women from the kabuki stage in 1629.

This began the era of the Grand Kabuki, or wakashu kabuki, where adolescent boys played both the wakashugata (male roles) and onnagata (female roles).

The authorities inadvertently created an ideal vehicle for showcasing the physical charms of beautiful, sexually available youths. These pretty boys, gracefully bending to the dance in long sleeved kimonos, evoked great enthusiasm. They became the highly sought trophies of their nouveaux riches admirers, who were thrilled by the idea that shudo, formerly reserved for the upper classes, was now within their reach.

Many of the merchants were so swept away with passion that they bankrupted themselves over the boys. Thus, the social problems created by the carnal nature of the Kabuki had not been solved, but exacerbated by the decree of 1629. And to the chagrin of the moralistic censors, the situation could be addressed no further, because Iemitsu, the Shogun, was himself a connoisseur of boys.

After the death of Iemitsu in 1651, boys were banned from the stage, but not for long. Kabuki was a large and profitable enterprise and the owners negotiated to reopen their theaters. They agreed to certain conditions, including the reduction of the repertoire's erotic content.

Moreover, in an attempt to end prostitution, the boy actors were forced to shave their most distinguishing feature, their long forelocks, leaving only sidelocks, in the style of yaro (adult men), as men were disqualified from prostitution. This had, however, the effect of extending the age for prostitutes.

As a character in The Great Mirror of Male Love (1687) explains: "It used to be that no matter how splendid the boy, it was impossible for him to keep his forelocks and take patrons beyond the age of twenty. Now, since everyone wore the hairstyle of adult men, it was still possible at age 34 or 35 for youthful actors to get under a man's robe." The new theater form was called yaro kabuki.

From 1868 onward, the process of westernization in Japan meant the rapid decline of shudo. By 1910 homosexuality in any form had disappeared from social visibility. Although the all-male Kabuki theater survives, all the shudo plays are excised from its repertoire and long forgotten.

Today, Kabuki presents non-erotic, spectacular musical entertainment. In the mid-twentieth century, novelist Yukio Mishima wrote and directed several Kabuki plays. His involvement with Kabuki reflected his fascination with sadomasochism, but his plays had no lasting effect on the form.

A special fascination for contemporary audiences is to see a man expertly performing as a woman, assuming the onnagata role. Even geisha, women trained to please men, attend Kabuki performances to learn from these actors the essence of femininity.

A famous contemporary onnagata, the wildly popular Bando Tamasaburo, has also played such western characters as Ophelia and Camille. Also popular in Japan today are the "male stars" of the all-girl Takarazuka operettas.

As Shakespeare knew, audiences love gender confusion, and in such confusion many gay men, lesbians, and people have found refuge.

Douglas Blair Turnbaugh


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An adaptation of The Actor Matsumoto Shigumaki as a Woman (circa 1715) by Torii Kiyumasu.
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arts >> Overview:  Dance

Artistic dance has proven to be a haven for glbtq people, who have made significant contributions in almost every area, including as choreographers, performers, and teachers.

social sciences >> Overview:  Japan

Blending elements from indigenous traditions and recently imported Western discourses of sexual identity, Japan is home to one of the most diverse and dynamic queer cultures in Asia.

arts >> Overview:  Japanese Art

Japanese art, from the prehistoric period onward, features images that can be given queer readings as well as a wide range of representations that contemporary viewers would understand to be homosexual.

arts >> Overview:  Japanese Film

Offering visions of sexual transgression divorced from Western political correctness and assimilationist civil rights ideals, Japanese queer cinema is unique.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Sex Workers

Although art historians have given very little attention to representations of sex workers, images of same-sex prostitution extend far back into history.

social sciences >> Overview:  Tokyo

Tokyo is home to a vast entertainment world that supports hundreds of venues for individuals with diverse sexual and gender identities and interests.

arts >> Kemp, Lindsay

Mime artist, renegade, and magnetic stage performer, Lindsay Kemp has long had a cult status in alternative theater.

literature >> Mishima, Yukio

In his quest for masculinity, Yukio Mishima mythologized himself both in his life and his writings, culminating in his ritual suicide.

arts >> Sondheim, Stephen

One of the most innovative talents of the musical theater in the second half of the twentieth century, Stephen Sondheim has only indirectly reflected his homosexuality in his work.

arts >> Takarazuka (All-Female Revues in Japan)

Takarazuka, all-female musical and theater companies, are popular entertainment in Japan, but they tellingly illustrate the construction of gender roles and inspire intense--often homoerotic--fan response.


Gunji, Masakatsu. Kabuki. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1969.

McLelland, Mark J. Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan. Richmond, U.K.: Curzon Press, 2000.

Saikaku, Ihara. The Great Mirror of Male Love. Paul Gordon Schalow, trans. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Watanabe, Tsuneo, and Jun'ichi Iwata. The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality. London: GMP Publishers, 1989.


    Citation Information
    Author: Turnbaugh, Douglas Blair  
    Entry Title: Kabuki  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated December 29, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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