Japan's Kabuki tradition

Kabuki actor Kankuro Nakamura (center) performs "Renjishi" (lion dance) with his sons Shichinosuke (left) and Kantaro. Phto by The Associated Press
Kabuki actor Kankuro Nakamura (center) performs "Renjishi" (lion dance) with his sons Shichinosuke (left) and Kantaro. Phto by The Associated Press

Japan's Kabuki tradition

by: Takahiro Takiguchi | .
Stripes Okinawa | .
published: August 03, 2013

What springs to mind when you think of Kabuki theater? Many know this traditional Japanese art form combines music, dance and mime in highly stylized performances. Some may even be able to picture an all-male cast in elaborate costumes and striking mask-like makeup.

You may also think Kabuki is incomprehensible, expensive and boring – quite different from today’s fast-pace movies or Broadway musicals. (If so, you are not alone. Only 5.3 percent of 3,000 Japanese surveyed by the National Diet Office in 2001 had ever seen a Kabuki show.) But why miss this rare opportunity while you are in Japan? It’s easier to experience than you may think, and you just might be pleasantly surprised.

So why not start by visiting the newly renovated Kabukiza theater. It is the flagship of this 410-year-old tradition and a Tokyo landmark in the Ginza district worthy of a tour even if you don’t take in a performance.  Just stepping onto the scarlet carpet of its grand lobby can make you feel as if you are transported back to Edo, the Tokyo of old.

Fortunately, you don’t need tickets to enter some of Kabukiza’s other facilities, such as its rooftop garden, theater gallery, various souvenir shops and restaurants. A wide variety of gifts and souvenirs are also available at many different stalls within the theater. This includes beautiful textiles and brightly printed hand cloths, as well as a selection of cards and notepaper.

Theater restaurants offer traditional Japanese meals ranging from soba noodles to elaborate bento-box meals. The exhibits on display at the theater gallery offer insights to the unique performing art of Kabuki.

After soaking in the traditional atmosphere of Kabukiza, you just decide to get a glimpse of a live Kabuki performance. The best way to do this in a relatively short period of time is to use the “makumi-seki,” an economy seats and standing-only space for single-act viewing, along with an English-language “earphone-guide.”

Kabuki usually consists of three or four individual segments that take over four hours combined. Since each segment, which is about 60 to 90 minutes long, is a stand-alone story, dance or performance, viewing one segment can be sufficient. Viewing a single segment at the makumi-seki only cost 1,000 to 2,000 yen ($10-$20) depending on the duration, although the seats are on the fourth floor and a bit far to see every detail onstage.

Tickets go on sale one hour prior to the performance. Since the makumi-seki accommodates up to 156 spectators (96 seated and 60 standing), you should have no trouble getting a ticket if you don’t mind standing to view the performance.

Before going to your seat, be sure to rent the English earphone-guide at the entrance of the makumi-seki. It will provide translations of the dialogues and lyrics in the performance, as well as explain the stories, music, dance, actors and other aspects of Kabuki. Comments are carefully timed to coincide with the action on stage. The rental fee for one segment is 500 yen, and there’s a refundable deposit of 1,000 yen.

During performances don’t be surprised by shouts of “Mattemashita!” (which literally means, “This is what we’ve been waiting for!”)  from the audience.   This is similar to “bravo” in Italian Opera, encouraging the actors and adding to the live-show experience.

Since Kabukiza just reopened in April after the three-year construction of the new facility, it has been offering special “kokeraotoshi” (theater grand reopening) programs with popular works and actors to celebrate, making this is an ideal time to experience this unique traditional art. So, don’t miss this great opportunity, and take a quick look at Kabuki.

The house that Kabuki built 
Tokyo’s Ginza has been rebuilt five times. It had been plagued by such fates as fire and World War II air raids since it was originally established in 1889. Today, it is an architectural mix of tradition and modernity built in homage to Japan’s performing arts.

This latest incarnation is four-story traditional Momoyama-style building with anti-quake and barrier-free technology. It is connected to a modern 470-foot, 29-floor office building called Kabukiza Tower. Combined, the two buildings have been dubbed Ginza Kabukiza.

The new theater entrance can be approached from a subway station by escalators or elevators.  Slopes in the building allow wheelchair users easy access to seats. The theater’s ergonomic chairs allow audience to see long performances more comfortably. The 73,000-square-foot facility has 1,808 seats.

Address: 4-12-15, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Access: No. 2 or No.4 exit of Higashi Ginza Station (Hibiya and Asakusa lines).
(No. 2 Exit – you can access directly to the inside of theater, No.4 Exit - you can see whole the theater building from outside.)

For more information or to book tickets call 0570-000-489, 03-3541-3131 or visit: www.kabuki-bito.jp/eng/top.html

(Note: Economy “makumi-seki” tickets are only available the day of the show at the box office, left of the Main Entrance.

U.S. officer saved Kabuki
If you’re an American who likes Kabuki you’re not the first to be charmed by this art form. U.S. Army Maj. Faubion Bowers (1917 - 1999) was so enthralled with kabuki that he earned the moniker of “The Man Who Saved Kabuki in Japan.”

Bowers discovered Kabuki on his travels through Asia prior to World War II and decided to stay in Japan to study the art. During World War II he was a Japanese language interpreter in the Army and rose to major.  After the war, he returned and stayed in Japan as a military secretary and interpreter of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers during the Occupation (1945-52).

When Japanese tried to rebuild Kabukiza, which was totally destroyed by the Allied air raids during the World War II, MacArthur held the view that it should be banned due to its portrayal of feudal values that had raised Japanese militarism. Bowers strongly disagreed, arguing that Kabuki is not only Japanese, but world culture, and advocated for its preservation and its postwar renaissance both as military aide and later as a civilian censor under MacArthur’s administration.

Bowers persuaded high-ranking officers to support Kabuki, promoted actual Kabuki performances at Tokyo Army College in 1946-47 and garnered support for the rebuilding of Kabukiza in 1950. During the opening ceremony for Kabukiza, MacArthur who was once strongly against Kabuki, celebrated the grand opening and said, “May this splendid new edifice not solely preserve the best of the past, but stimulate further contributions to the world’s drama,” according to Stars and Stripes, Jan 4, 1951.

That original Kabukiza building was widely recognized as a symbol of Ginza for 60 years until it was demolished to make way for its replacement.