Origin of kabuki
Words nearby kabuki
What does Kabuki mean?
Where did Kabuki come from?
The word kabuki combines the Japanese words ka (“song”), bu (“dance”), and ki (“skill”). However, The Japan Times reports that kabuki comes from the verb kabuku, meaning “to slant or to sway” and is used to describe “people who were out of the ordinary and preferred to dress in extravagant attire.” As an art form, Kabuki is characterized by colorful costumes, music, stylized performances, and broad dramatic postures and gestures called kata. With plots often derived from historic warriors and scholars, common themes include honor, justice, and order.
Westerners encountered Kabuki in the 19th century and early 20th century. In 1867, James Curtis Hepburn’s Japanese-English dictionary defined Kabuki as “a kind of opera.” In 1938, Japan’s Board of Tourist Industry produced a pamphlet to explain Kabuki to visitors.
American political pundits began to describe political showmanship and posturing as Kabuki in the early 1960s, with one early instance in 1962 characterizing President Kennedy’s New Frontier policy as “financial kabuki” making for a “colorful, carefree sight.”
In 1966, Ben Anderson, a scholar of Indonesian culture, explicitly compared the Japanese occupation of Indonesia to Kabuki. Anderson argued that the Japanese government used the elements of Kabuki, including, “mysterious silences, lightening changes of mood, terrifying grimaces, spectacular acrobatics and sumptuous pageantry” to control the Indonesians. That characterized Japanese foreign relations of the time as more theatrical than substantial. Since then, kabuki has been used to describe political drama and pageantry in the United States, Japan, and elsewhere.
How to use the term Kabuki
Kabuki theater is still commonly used by Western political pundits across the political spectrum. Kabuki, Kabuki theater, and Kabuki dance are used interchangeably in punditry. Some have argued that this use of Kabuki is a misunderstanding of the artform, contrasting the form’s subtleties and nuances with the political meaning of “empty show.” However, some commentators do use Kabuki to indicate the complexities of political performance as opposed to a shorthand for “style over substance.”
Of course, Kabuki and Kabuki theater are still used to talk about the theatrical form, as well.
More examples of Kabuki:
“Thus are the U.S. politics of the Iraq war a Kabuki performance, punctuated by occasional moments of Democratic jujitsu“
—Kurt Andersen, New York, June 2007
“Over the years, Winfrey’s resistance to booking politicians softened, and not because of a sudden willingness to perform the conversational kabuki of the traditional stump-speech interview …”
—Derek Robertson, Politico, January 2018
This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.
How to use kabuki in a sentence
Their righteous outbursts represent an ancient and unctuous form of Kabuki theater.Forget the Wife Beating—Are You Ready for Some Football?|Steve Almond|September 11, 2014|DAILY BEAST
All the moralizing and gravitas that accompanies a star player being arrested should be viewed as a form of Kabuki theater.Hey NFL Fans: Ray Rice Isn’t the Problem. You Are.|Steve Almond|July 24, 2014|DAILY BEAST
Lunch with Peter Kaplan—a ritual as stylized as Kabuki, minus the face paint.
But the first step in this potentially constructive kabuki is positional bargaining.The Budget Wars Begin, With Paul Ryan Firing the First Volley|John Avlon|March 13, 2013|DAILY BEAST
But in our time of hyperpartisan political kabuki, Paul deserves respect for advancing a serious, principled, substantive debate.Rand Paul Kicks It Old School in Filibuster Marathon Over Drones|John Avlon|March 7, 2013|DAILY BEAST
But the Kabuki-za and its yakusha (actors) remained always a plebeian institution.