1603 – c.1629
Izumo no Okuni 出雲阿国
Country of Origin
Birth – Death
1572 – Unknown
Izumo no Okuni was an alternative performer who dressed as an outsider man (in Japanese : Kabuki mono / 傾奇者, the one leaning to the weird side). Okuni led her own troupe and traveled throughout the islands of Japan. All performers of her troupe were crossdressers (1). Despite political oppression, their Kabuki performance got massive grassroots popularity. Now she is believed to be the inventor of Kabuki (in Japanese : Kabuki / 歌舞伎, singing and dancing actor), a Japanese traditional art performance now performed exclusively by male actors.
Little is known about her real life. Okuni introduced herself as a shrine maiden of Izumo-taisha grand shrine, but no official document is found. The oldest documentation found is Tamon’in-nikki, a series of diaries written by Nara Kofuku-ji temple buddhists(2). It says that two girls named Kuni and Kaga from Izumo performed together at Kasuga taisha grand shrine in May 1582. If that “Kuni from Izumo” is her, she was 11 at that time, so she must have been born in 1572 considering that age count starts from 1 in Japan at that time.
About 20 years later, on March 25th, 1603, Okuni first performed Kabuki dancing at Kitano tenjin grand shrine (3). Okuni equipped two samurai swords, wore a flashy men’s kimono and made a travesty of a young samurai man who wanted to play with a prostitute woman who was a male performing dressed as a woman. Because of its anti-authoritative spirit and eroticism, her Kabuki dancing became popular. Besides Okuni and her troupe, lots of other troupes and prostitutes performed Kabuki dancing in Okuni style (4). Most samurai-class men were not happy about that. One of these samurai men wrote that Okuni is an ugly weird woman (5).
In October 1629, these samurai men slashed Kabuki not physically but politically (6). Believe it or not, Edo Shogunate prohibited all women from performing on stage. This prohibition continued for about 300 years. Now we see actresses on stage in Japan, but not on the Kabuki stage anymore. We might see some female performers on the stages of Ji-kabuki (地歌舞伎 / local kabuki) in various places, but not on the central Kabuki. Nobody knows where Okuni had gone after the prohibition. Just several legends and several tombstones were left.
Instead of female Kabuki performers, young boy actors began to perform on stage, but it was also prohibited in 1652 because their audience were attracted to these female-dressed boys sexually and prostitution became common among them. Nowadays, Kabuki has been performed exclusively by men who were born as a son of a Kabuki performer. If a woman is married to a Kabuki actor, she would be called 梨園の妻 (Rien no tsuma / a wife in a pear garden), and would be expected to support her husband as a housewife.
In 1965, the Japanese government proclaimed Kabuki as an important cultural property. In 2008, UNESCO had listed Kabuki on UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.
Okuni had no authoritative prize. Just her stage name remained.
(Submitted by: Asako Makimura aka Kinky Kabuky, Kanagawa, Japan)