If you’re familiar with theater styles of the world, perhaps you are familiar with kabuki. If you’re familiar with kabuki, perhaps you’re already familiar with its founder, Izumo-no-Okuni (1571~??). Not only is she the mother of Japan’s first form of pop-culture drama, but she lead a fairly dramatic life herself.

A brief survey of popular culture in Japan reveals that although folk culture did exist and change throughout the ages, it was the high culture of the elites that defined the tastes of the ages. In the Warring States period when samurai had to mentally and spiritually prepare themselves for death at any moment, the ritualistic Noh plays were the height of theater. No one could really expect the common riffraff to appreciate such a refined art, though. Not that commoners’ opinions were worth much to begin with.

In that day and age, it was common for shrines and temples around the country to send priests, nuns, monks, and shrine maidens to the capital to solicit donations. With religious dance being the heart of performance culture at the time, a beautiful shrine maiden–the daughter of a local blacksmith–was chosen to leave her duties at Izumo Taisha to solicit donations in Kyoto.

It was supposed to be a brief trip, but for whatever reason, she decided to ignore the call to return home. Rebellious and pleased with the large crowds her dances drew, perhaps? Or maybe by that time she had already met her lover and emotional, creative, and financial partner, Ujisato Sanzaburo? (Please read Lafcadio Hearn’s account of her story if you want a more romantic retelling.)

Whatever the case, she shirked her shrine duties (though continued to send money, it seems) and remained in Kyoto, performing in the dry riverbeds and recruiting women–often social outcasts–to perform with her. Graceful though her religious dances were known to be, she introduced very flamboyant, exaggerated, and provocative dances to the populous, and she grew famous throughout the country. She was especially well known for her performance in male roles.

Her humorous and dramatic performances were both loved and loathed by common people and those of high status alike. Part of what makes Kabuki interesting as a form of theater is that it started as a low-class form of entertainment for the masses, and during the Edo period it was the common peoples’ tastes than had the most influence on the artistic movements of the era. This was the start of Japanese consumer culture! What’s more, it was frowned upon for the dignified warrior class to engage in these popular forms of entertainment, but they frequently became regular patrons of kabuki anyway.

She was so famous and her troupe had such an influence on the tastes of the masses that soon brothels wouldn’t hire just any pretty women–they had to be talented in outlandish singing, dancing, and acting, too! Following Izumo-no-Okuni’s retirement and disappearance from the public eye, the newly established Tokugawa government would no longer tolerate this crazed form of mass entertainment corroding public morals. Women putting themselves on such gaudy display was too scandalous! Thus, women were banned from the stage. Kabuki theater was already so well-established by that point that it didn’t disappear, it merely replaced the womens’ roles with young boys (similar to what Shakespeare was working with). That was also problematic in a moral sense, so eventually the stage was limited to grown men as actors specializing in specific characters types. Contrary–or quite similar to–Okuni’s popularity in her male roles, the onnagata (female role) performers are often among the most famous and most popular actors. (Remember good old Metora-san?)

Today, kabuki is considered a high form of art that is thought to require some amount of sophistication to appreciate (400 years ago, who would have expected that?), and quite some sum of money to view live. I still have yet to see more than video clips of it, but exposure to kabuki (and its founding story) a number of years ago was, in a sense, the first I had ever heard of the Izumo region. How much longer Izumo-no-Okuni lived after retiring is a mystery, but it seems she returned home to her old neighborhood. It may surprise people just how easy it is to pay their respects to her on a typical visit to the shrine, which I’ll explain in my next entry.

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