A Window Into Kabuki, Japan’s 400-Year-Old Drag Show

Though queerness is hush hush in Japan, the country openly revels in this gendered performance.

At AiSOTOPE Lounge in the Shinjuku neighborhood of Tokyo, a Kim Chi-inspired drag queen puts on an intricately choreographed dance routine to a Lady Gaga song. The crowd cheers and claps as the lights dim and her dress blinks with LED lights. While just a few train stops away, Japan’s original drag queens put on their white face paint and wigs for a more traditional kind of show called kabuki.

According to Takayo Malone, an event organizer specializing in Japanese culture and director of TAKAYO, the ancient art of kabuki started in the Edo period around 1603 by female performers. Alan Cummings, senior teaching fellow in Japanese at SOAS University of London, says these women were often prostitutes who dressed as kabukimono, or young, urban men in plays and dances. But in 1629, these performances were considered too wild and disorderly, so women were banned from the art form.

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Japanese Kabuki actor Kankuro Nakamura (left) and Tsurumatsu Nakamura (right) of Heisei Nakamura company performs “Renjishi” at Canal Theater in Madrid, Spain.

Subsequently, adolescent boys began playing the roles of females by dressing up as women in head-to-toe costume and makeup while performing with high-pitched voices. Cummings says that many of these young men were also prostitutes. Malone adds, “They were often bisexual and the apprentice kabuki actors used their beauty to become big stars by binding a relationship with the higher ranked samurai.”

But in 1652, the government banned adolescent boys from performing due to impropriety, and kabuki began to transform into “proper” theatre with elaborate plots and developed characters. “It was also from this point onwards that audiences began to see adult male actors performing in female roles,” says Cummings. “Actors who specialized in playing female roles were known as onnagata.”

During this time, many kabuki actors, not just those playing women, faced discrimination from the government. “The authorities viewed the theater as socially dangerous and looked askance at the celebrity of the actors,” says Cummings. So they started to regulate kabuki in an attempt to control the theatre and the actor’s salaries, costumes, and lifestyles.

According to Malone, in the 1800s, after the restoration, the Meiji government thought Japan needed to improve its performing arts, so it started to consider kabuki as a high-quality form of art. Cummings reports that today kabuki is extremely popular with over 1.4 million yearly visitors at the famed Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo alone. The onnagata are considered to be highly-skilled artists, even appearing in movies, TV and commercials. Cummings says two contemporary onnagata, Bandō Tamasaburō V and Sakata Tôjûrô IV, have been officially recognized as living national treasures.

Cummings notes that Japan has quite a surprising tolerance for this kind of gendered performance. But sexuality in Japan is more complicated: Gay marriage, for instance, is not legal, though gay bars are visible and accepted, particularly by the younger generation. Cummings adds that many onnagata are gay in their private lives, but in Japan it is still rare for any public figures or celebrities to be open about their sexuality. Unfortunately, no kabuki onnagata are openly gay.

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Japanese Kabuki actor Kankuro Nakamura (righ) and Shichinosuke Nakamura (left).

As for the drag queen comparison, Cummings thinks, “They would probably perceive it as a very different type of art—the art of the onnagata is to create an emotional reaction in theatre audiences, and to embody the drama faced by the female characters in the plays, rather than simply to entertain with the gendered performance itself. But I think they would be very interested in the techniques used by Western drag performers.”

The best place to see a traditional kabuki show in Japan is the Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo or the National Theatre. Both run multiple shows per day and visitors can often walk in and purchase a ticket for a same-day showing. In Kyoto, head to the Minamiza Theatre, and in Osaka, try the Shochikuza Theatre. More popular nighttime shows may require planning in advance. Lastly, if you’re not a Japanese-speaker, make sure to pay for an English translator in order to fully experience the great art of kabuki.

Katie Lockhart is an Asia-based travel and food journalist writing for Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine, and Harper's Bazaar.