Kabuki Theater’s Queer Legacy Runs Contrary to Japan’s Lack of LGBTQ Acceptance

Kabuki Theater’s Queer Legacy Runs Contrary to Japan’s Lack of LGBTQ Acceptance

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Kabuki theater, known for its elaborate costumes and heavily stylized performances, is an interesting and noteworthy performance of gender. While Japan’s anti-discrimination laws for LGBTQ+ people are non-existent, the country “has a long, well-established tradition of genderbending for entertainment” and depicting somewhat ambiguous same-sex attraction in films and comics.

In the 1600s in Japan, an art form known as kabuki was started by female performers. The performers were often prostitutes dressed as young men, inspired by kabukimono, in plays and dances.

However, in 1629  women were banned from the theater when their performances were labeled too “erotic.” As a result, young men, many of them also prostitutes, began performing in their stead — dressing up as women and wearing makeup. They, too, were soon banned from this enterprise; and eventually adult male actors began to perform. It was here that kabuki changed, developing elaborate narratives and characters, into a more “proper” form of art.

These adult male actors who performed in female roles were known as onnagata; and, while kabuki performers were discriminated against prior to the Meiji Restoration, afterwards “the Meiji government thought Japan needed to improve its performing arts, so it started to consider kabuki as a high-quality form of art.”

Today, kabuki is incredibly popular — so much so that modern onnagata are often seen as celebrities, doing film and commercials as well.

There’s a clear distinction, then, between gender performance as a form of art and performing gender as a facet of our daily lives. It might seem as though acting queer is entertainment, but being queer is still seen as undesirable in Japan. While gay bars exist and are visible in modern-day Japan, and gays are largely accepted among younger generations, marriage equality is still not a reality. And while many onnagata are gay in their private lives, public figures and celebrities are rarely open about their sexuality.

How you ever experienced a traditional kabuki show?

Photos by Susann Schuster

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