• K.E. Berringer

Izumo no Okuni

Kabuki's Star

Izumo no Okuni (or Okuni of Izumo) was a Japanese actress, dancer and singer who created kabuki theatre in the 14th century. As kabukis creator, Okuni created not only a longstanding Japanese tradition but also an outrageous new type of performance that gave women a space to perform.

A traditional Japanese scroll painting of Izumo no Okuni during a performance.

Early Life

It is unclear exactly when Izumo no Okuni was born. It is believed that she was born in the early 1570s, likely between 1571 and 1573, in the city of Matsue. Very little is known about her family, and even less is known about her early life.

The Izumo-taisha shrine.

It can be assumed, though, that Okuni was heavily involved in religion. Matsue holds one of the oldest and most important Shinto temples in Japan, the Izumo Shinto Grand Shrine or the Izumo-taisha. Her father is believed to have worked as a blacksmith at the temple, and Okuni was likely a regular attendant.

This belief comes from the fact that Okuni would go on to serve as a Miko for the temple. Essentially, a Miko serves as a supplementary priestess for their temple. It was not uncommon at the time for priests, nuns and monks to be sent to the city to earn money on behalf of their temple. When they were unable to go, Mikos would be sent in their place.

As a Miko, Okuni would have been trained for the role at an early age. She would have had to learn various religious rituals, ceremonies and dances, which she could then perform and earn money in return. Usually, it was an easy task; the upper classes of Japan were usually the most interested in the performances of Mikos.

The role of a Miko was one that Okuni was expected to serve in for the rest of her life. It was also a role that Okuni seemed to enjoy serving in. She was described as being a perfect Miko. Not only was she beautiful, but also a talented performer.

Travelling to Kyoto

At the age of 16, Okuni was sent on a mission for her temple. She travelled to Kyoto, then the capital of Japan. There, she quickly gained attention, as expected it came mostly from the upper classes. However, she used it to her benefit, she likely would have known that the upper classes had some of the greatest control over the arts at the time, and they would be a useful audience to have.

Okuni wowed them with her signature dance, the Nambusu. Originally, it had been a sacred Buddhist dance that developed into a folk dance over time. Okuni developed it into her own style, and it took on a provocative tone. It fascinated her audiences. She only further captured attention when she started performing short scenes about scandalous topics, such as lovers and prostitutes, in which she often performed masculine roles. In time, Okuni drew more than the attention of the upper classes, instead, she began to gather crowds of citizens of all classes.

Okuni's travels to Kyoto were meant to be brief, and she was eventually called back to Matsue. However, Okuni decided not to return home. The exact reason as to why is unclear, but it could have been that she preferred to perform in Kyoto rather than live the humble life of a Miko in Matsue. She sent the money she had earned back to her temple and stayed in Kyoto, continuing her performances in the dry river beds of the city.

Developing Kabuki

Meanwhile, a new style of fashion was becoming popular in Kyoto. Kabukimono consisted of people dressing in odd clothing for feudal Japan. This included wearing European styles and wearing clothing of the opposite gender. Anyone who dressed in kabukimono were considered to be misfits, and they easily stood out from the rest of the population. This is likely why they were associated with the outcasts of society, like prostitutes, the homeless and the poor, all groups that happened to live and socialize around the river beds in which Okuni performed.

Okuni would see these outcasts on a usual basis. Their status as outcasts inspired her, as she was a bit of an outcast in her own right. She wished to give them a way of earning money, one that would not leave them feeling ashamed. Okuni had already earned her own money from her performances, and she had gained financial backing from a man named Nagoya Sanzaburo. Sanzaburo had quite the career himself, having served as a samurai for a brief time before becoming an actor, dancer, and scriptwriter. He supported Okuni, not only financially, but also as an artistic partner and he often wrote scripts for Okuni to perform. Even as she moved more towards song and dance over written performances, he continued to help her in her career. With Sanzaburo's backing, Okuni built her own theatre near the dried river beds. At this time, Okuni also gave a name to her style of performance, naming it after the kabukimono trends that had inspired it. It became kabuki.

A kabuki performer dressed as a samurai. There is debate as to if this is Okuni, although she does have several accessories Okuni was believed to often wear.

With her theatre built, Okuni was able to form her own troupe. She did so by gathering the local women of the river beds, who were primarily prostitutes. She trained them in how to act, sing, and dance. Under her guidance, they became an incredibly talented group. Because the group was made up entirely of women, it meant that all the roles - both male and female - were played by women. Performers also dressed in kabukimono styles, freely swapping the gendered clothing. Okuni herself would develop a particular style, often wearing a cross, carrying a sword, and wearing a man's hairstyle.

What Okuni and her troupe did was provocative, but their unique dancing and style became popular. One of the reasons for this was because they were one of the very few forms of entertainment that were widely available to the general public, both rich and poor.

Kabuki captured the attention of citizens throughout Kyoto and began to spread further in Japan, and Okuni was at the centre of it all. Her troupe's performances drew large crowds, and her influence was widely felt.

A six panel screen depicting a kabuki performance. Okuni can be seen in the third panel. Likely created in 1603, it is the oldest depiction of Okuni.

However, a rise in popularity also brought a rise in imposters. Many tried to compete with Okuni's troupe. Even brothels began to only hire women who could act, sing, and dance. It was Okuni's belief that many of these theatres and troupes did not follow the standards Okuni had set for kabuki. She had always brought with her a respect for the form. Her performances could be provocative and she pushed the boundaries, but she never took it beyond that. For Okuni, it was always about the art of it, a way to express herself.

Her distaste for these imitations changed her view of kabuki. Not finding the same love or enjoyment for the theatre she had created, Okuni retired around 1609. After that, she disappears from the records. No one knows how she spent the last few years of her life, but it is believed she died sometime between 1613 and 1615.

Kabuki without Okuni

Kabuki continued on even without its creator. That is, until 1629. By then, the highly suggestive nature of kabuki had attracted the attention of the Tokugawa shogunate. They declared that the performances were immoral, at least when performed by women. So, women were banned from performing kabuki and replaced with young men and boys. By 1653, only older men could perform in the roles. At the start of the 15th century, kabuki had been one of Japan's most popular forms of entertainment. By the midpoint of the century, it had begun to fade.

Two modern kabuki performers,

It would not be until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 that kabuki's popularity returned, although it was primarily within the upper class and still, no women could perform. However, the popularity of kabuki would again be stifled in World War II when, under occupation, kabuki was outright banned. This ban would not be lifted until 1947. The lifting of the ban did see, though, the forming of the Ichikawa Kabuki-za, the first all-female kabuki troupe in centuries.

In the time since many troupes have begun to allow women to perform. Okuni's original theatre still stands, and performances are still regularly held there for people who come from all over the world to see performances.

Kabuki now is not the same as what Okuni performed. It has become more conservative, focusing more on story over spectacle. Although, it still holds much of what Okuni created. The costumes are traditional to what Okuni would have worn, and the song and dance are similar.

The statue dedicated to Okuni.

To celebrate Okuni's contribution to the Japanese stage, in 2003 a statue of Okuni was erected in the Kyoto Pontocho District, right on the edge of the Kamo river.

Conclusion

Izumo no Okuni lived what could be considered an unconventional life. Beginning as a priestess that was expected to remain reserved her entire life, she instead followed the path of an artist. Her art, as art often is, was unconventional, built on many aspects of life that her largely wealthy audience never would have seen. Although, it gave an opportunity for the forgotten and unwanted of society to gain a new reputation, all while creating a new art style that has become a cultural landmark of Japan.

Without Okuni, a space for women on the Japanese stage might not have been possible. Her devotion to her craft made it possible for that, and while she may not be a commonly known name, she still lives on in each performance.


References:
Izumo no Okuni. Okuni no Kabuki. http://okunikabuki.blogspot.com/2007/06/kabuki.html
Izumo no Okuni Founder of Kabuki. Japan All Over. https://www.japanallover.com/2013/09/izumo-no-okuni-founder-of-kabuki/
Izumo no Okuni 出雲の阿国 (1572 – ?1613) performer. A Gender Variance Who's Who. https://zagria.blogspot.com/2011/05/izumo-no-okuni-1572-1613-performer.html#.YUa_T7hKjIV
Kabuki. New World Encyclopedia. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Kabuki
Okuni. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Okuni
Sanzaburo Nagoya. Prabook. https://prabook.com/web/sanzaburo.nagoya/3720481
The Life and Work of Izumo no Okuni. Yabai. http://yabai.com/p/4170
Photos:
Okuni as a samurai, from the Tokugawa Art Museum, https://bunka.nii.ac.jp/heritages/detail/90610/1.
The Izuma-taisha Shrine, from Tokyo Weekender, https://www.tokyoweekender.com/2020/06/japan-travel-guide-three-days-in-shimane/
Okuni Kabuki Screen, from the Kyoto National Museum, https://www.kyohaku.go.jp/eng/syuzou/meihin/kinsei/item05.html
Modern kabuki actors, from Shutterstock, https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/las-vegas-aug-16-traditional-japanese-307479872
Izumo no Okuni statue, from Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/rekishinotabi/4378370669/in/photostream