07 September 2011

“It's Time to Retire 'Kabuki': The Word Doesn't Mean What Pundits Think It Does.”

By Jon Lackman

[A little over a year ago, a friend sent me a column from Slate, the on-line journal. At the time, the word Kabuki was making the rounds in political punditry as a term meaning ‘affectation’ or ‘pretense’ and the columnist, Jon Lackman, thought it was being overused by the chattering class. (The word Kabuki, though derived from three Chinese characters that mean song, dance, and acting skill, as a whole means ‘something abnormal or askew’ in the sense of deviating from the ordinary. Kabuki, therefore, actually means ‘off-beat performance,’ something deliberately outrageous.) I think my friend sent me the column in part because I’d studied about Kabuki and liked it as a theater form; I imagine he thought this particular article would amuse me. He was right. I’ve been waiting for a suitable slot in the ROT schedule so I can share it with the readers, and now that we’re about to lurch into another presidential campaign season, I suspect the word may have another burst of popularity among political commentators. Lackman’s original column appeared on Slate in “The Good Word: Language and How We Use It,” a regular column in the journal, on 14 April 2010 (http://www.slate.com/id/2250081/).]

Judging from op-ed pages and talk radio, American pundits know a lot about Kabuki, the 400-year-old Japanese stage tradition with the Lady Gaga get-ups. Health care reform recently brought Kabuki to mind for both Rush Limbaugh—"what you have here is 'Kabuki theater' "—and New York Times columnist Frank Rich: "[I]f I were to place an incautious bet on which political event will prove the most significant of February 2010, I wouldn't choose the kabuki health care summit." For The New Yorker's George Packer, all the capital's a Far Eastern stage, and all its men and women merely players. "I looked for answers outside the Kabuki theatre of Washington personalities."

Pundits use Kabuki as a synonym for "posturing." The New Republic's Michael Crowley, for example, has defined it as a "performance, in which nothing substantive is done." But there's nothing "kabuki" about the real Kabuki. Kabuki, I'll have you know, is one of UNESCO's Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity! And it's nothing like politics. It does indeed use stylized gestures, expressions, and intonations, but it's far from empty and monotonous. As the scholar A.C. Scott has written, a great Kabuki actor's performance will "contain an individuality beneath the unchanging conventions, his symbolism must be something more than imitative repetition." Unlike a Dick Durbin stemwinder, the quintessential Kabuki moment (known as a kata) is colorful and ruthlessly concise, packing meaning into a single gesture. It is synecdoche, synopsis, and metaphor rolled together—as when, in one Kabuki play, a gardener expecting a visit from the emperor cuts down all his chrysanthemums except one, the perfect one. And in contrast with our own shortsighted politics, Kabuki concerns not the present so much as a "dreamlike time shrouded in mist but ever present in the subconscious," to quote critic Shuichi Kato.

Of course, pundits don't care about the real thing. They use Kabuki precisely because they and everyone else have only a hazy idea of the word's true meaning, and they can use it purely on the level of insinuation. They deploy Kabuki because:

1) It sounds funny.
2) It sounds childish.
3) It sounds foreign.
4) It sounds incomprehensible.

Kabuki succeeds chiefly because it makes your opponent sound silly and un-American. And finally kabuki works because:

5) It sounds Japanese.

Needless to say, it sounds Japanese because it is Japanese. Point is, the word can conjure certain stereotypes about Japanese politics. As the scholar Gerald Curtis has noted, we have "an image of Japanese politics in which bureaucrats dominate . . . and policy making is little more than a process of collusion." For Rush Limbaugh, what better image with which to tar health care reform?

But how did Kabuki, one of Japan's most revered arts, come to signify loathsome fakery? Kabuki escaped derision only so long as no one had heard of it. The Japanese initially considered it too difficult to export; indeed, seeing a Kabuki play cold is like tuning into Lost midseason. Consequently, the word didn't appear in print in English until the late 19th-century, and then only rather infrequently. That changed when, following World War II, Japan's government tried to shed its image as a global marauder by touring its best Kabuki troupes. As historian Barbara Thornbury has written, "spectacular, larger-than-life kabuki was seen as having the potential to reignite America's nearly hundred-year-old romance with exotic Japan." This concept, alas, failed miserably. Although America's urban theatergoers lauded Kabuki, their good opinion did nothing to improve ties between the United States and its one-time enemy. Indeed, relations worsened due to drawn-out treaty negotiations. When American official James C. Hagerty visited Tokyo in 1960, protesters surrounded his car, broke its windows, and nearly flipped it.

According to my research, it was in this hostile atmosphere that Kabuki acquired its modern derogatory meaning. Writing in 1961 about a State Department plan to revise its security measures, Los Angeles Times writer Henry J. Taylor declared, "[By] finally dismissing Chester Bowles as undersecretary of state at the moment he did, the President unhitched the plan's kingpin in this shoddy piece of left-wing kabuki." Six months later, Taylor struck again, "Agriculture Secretary Freeman announced he has discussed Billie Sol Estes' political corruption kabuki with Robert F. Kennedy and 'had mentioned it informally to the president.' "

Writers have enlivened their prose with Kabuki ever since. Usage increases whenever Japan is in the news for disingenuous behavior—as in the early 1990s, when it turned out that Japan's go-go economy was an elaborate sham. It's been cropping up most recently due to the Toyota recall, which has made some Americans question the Japanese car company's commitment to safety. "Toyoda Is Wary Star of Kabuki at Capitol," blared the Wall Street Journal. The word is also on the ascendant whenever fakery seems particularly rife in American politics. Kabuki loves itself a Senate nomination hearing.

It may seem P.C. or peevish to ask writers to resist kabuki. (Is Kabuki resistance itself Kabuki?) The request is impractical, I admit. If a former theater critic such as Frank Rich can't be trusted to use it properly, who can? This is one of those writerly words that is helpfully absent from ordinary conversation, that says, "Stand back, pundit here!" (Slate writers, by the way, have also abused Kabuki—repeatedly!) But how would you feel if your favorite art form, ballet or truckers’ quilts, say, became another nation's derogatory epithet? How many Americans today steer clear of actual Kabuki (it is regularly performed here) because of the word's reputation? And there's a final reason to ditch it: Posturing is far too tepid an indictment of contemporary American politics. I'd sooner opt for Grand-Guignol, which Wikipedia aptly defines as "graphic, amoral horror entertainment." It is seppuku time for Kabuki.
© 2011 The Slate Group, LLC

[Back in November 2010, I published a column on Kabuki theater, “Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams,” followed by the republication of an old review I’d written on the performances in New York City of the Grand Kabuki company in 1985 (1 and 6 November 2010 on ROT, respectively). In the first article, I said of the theater form: “Kabuki is a world of wonder—a world of poetry, color, spectacle, grace, energy, and artistry.” That’s a far cry from the implications about which Lackman is writing above. At the end of my 1985 review, I asserted, “Singing, ballet, acting, storytelling, music, poetry—even worship—are integral parts of most Eastern performances. Kabuki is an example, as the current tour of the Grand Kabuki demonstrates to incomparable pleasure.” I think, like Lackman—who seems to know Kabuki himself—that most Americans who toss around the word derisively have never marveled at an actual Kabuki performance. I’ve been in and around theater most of my life, perhaps as long as 55 years as spectator, actor, director, teacher, and writer. I was on my second grad school go-round when I first encountered Kabuki, so I was no novice to theater—and I fell madly in love with the performance form immediately. It is, in my opinion, one of the most astonishing and remarkable forms of art—not just performance—I have ever experienced. For those of us who know the art, misusing its name as dismissively as do the pundits Lackman deplores is more than unfortunate and misleading. It’s a mark of ignorance.]


  1. Superb blog post. I always like to read the post regarding theater. I want to collect my kabuki dance dress from PIJ because I am very glad to collect my theater mask from there. Now I am very glad to find this review here. Thanks for your nice post.

    1. Thanks for the compliments. (You do understand that I republished this essay but that I didn't write it myself.) I gather that you have also read my original article on Kabuki ("Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams," 1 Nov. 2010) which focuses on training and technique.

      If you're interested, there's also an article on Gigaku, an ancient and nearly lost Japanese performance form, posted on 26 July 2011.