Key Kabuki Words Key Kabuki Words
Kabuki is spectacular and you don’t have to know anything to enjoy it. But a little bit of information about a few of the terms and the plays makes it even better.
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Onnagata / 女方

From the second half of the 17th century to the present, all roles in kabuki were played by male actors. Female roles were played by actors called onnagata. For most of the Edo period onnagata never played male roles and even today, most actors who specialize in onnagata roles rarely play male roles. In order for male actors of varying ages to play women from young girls, a wide range of acting techniques were developed, including wig, costume and make-up and ways of speaking and moving.

Isho / 衣装

"Stage costumes"
Although usually they are based on ordinary kimono, even for seemingly realistic plays, usually the costumes are different, using different materials and having bold colors and patterns that will show up on stage. With more stylized plays, often the designs on the costume are related to the setting or the name of the character wearing it.

Furi-sode / 振袖

"Kimono with long hanging sleeves."
Sleeves on a kimono for a woman can come in several shapes. Long hanging sleeves indicate an unmarried woman. This extravagant use of material also suggests the wealth of a family. A married woman wears shorter sleeves without loose openings (tome-sode). Also with age the colors change. Younger women wear bright colors and older women are supposed to wear more subdued colors.

Uchikake / 打掛

Originally the uchikake was an additional kimono that was draped over the normal kimono that was tied with an obi sash. Eventually special kimonos were made with the measurements to go over a regular kimono. Having an uchikake is usually an indication of high social position. In kabuki, when a female character takes off her uchikake, this suggests that she is acting in her private capacity and expressing her true feelings.

Aka Hime / 赤姫

"Red Princess."
Princesses in kabuki are actual princesses or the daughters of high-ranking samurai and samurai lords. The kimono these princesses wear are usually bright red and are decorated with lavish embroidered patterns of clouds and flowers or rivers and flowers. The red color suggests the standard character of the princess in kabuki. A princess is very sheltered, but once awaked to passion, is unstoppable.

Princess Tachibana in "Imoseyama" is an archetypical red princess.

Juroku Musashi / 十六むさし

"Sixteen Musashi"
is a kind of board game and this is the pattern for the kimono for Omiwa. Her kimono is the green color called "moegi" and this color is often used in stylized plays for women from the commoner class.

Yuki Mochi Sasa / 雪持笹

"Bamboo bending under the snow."
This is the pattern of the uchikake that Masaoka wears in "Meiboku Sendai Hagi." There are two explanations for this design. One is that this is based on the actual crest of the Date clan. The other is that it represents the situation of Masaoka, enduring this very difficult situation.

This is similar to the yuki-mochi matsu (snow bearing pine) design for Matsuomaru’s costume in Terakoya. This is a male character, but Matsuomaru also is in a very difficult position. You can see this in the program "Kabuki’s Leading Male Roles" and on the site in the "Haruka Visits the Kabuki World" there is the actual segment showing this costume, "Bold Costumes for Male Roles.

Mama-taki / まま炊き

"Cooking rice."
In kabuki, this means the scene in "Meiboku Sendai Hagi" where Masaoka cooks rice herself for the young lord using her tea ceremony implements because she is desperately afraid that any food that is brought in might be poisoned by plotters against the clan.

Sado / 茶道

"The way of tea" or "tea ceremony."
In Japan, there are many schools of tea ceremony which has a strict etiquette for appreciating green tea and other artistic beauties. It was considered a requirement for women serving in high-class situations to know how to perform the tea ceremony and it was a part of their job. In kabuki this can be seen in Masaoka having tea implements which she uses instead to cook rice, and in "Kagami Jishi" because the girl Yayoi serves in the shogun's palace, some of her movements use the small handcloth which is used in the tea ceremony.

Kaishi / 懐紙

In "Kuruwa Bunsho," in many of Yugiri's movements, she uses a wad of paper called kaishi. Kaishi are used by men and women, although the paper is a different size. They are a bit like tissues today, but the way they are used is a bit more formal. For example, kaishi is used as a plate for sweets in the tea ceremony, or when a man examines a sword, to avoid breathing on it and defiling it, often he puts a sheet of kaishi in his mouth, in which case it is more like a facemask.

Date Hyogo / 伊達兵庫

This is the hairstyle for the very highest rank of courtesan. Like the most common female hairstyles, the front hair is held out roundly by inserting a framework inside. But the distinguishing feature of the Date Hyogo is that the bun is also held out roundly so that it is even larger than the front hair. Then it is decorated with an elaborate assortment of pins and combs and sometimes brightly colored cloth.

Yamai Hachimaki / 病鉢巻

"Sickness headband."
When a character in kabuki is ill, this is often indicated with a purple headband with the knot on the character's left. There are a variety of explanations for the origin of this, such as the plant used to dye it purple being useful medically, or that purple is a noble color that will ward away evil spirits.

Tabi / 足袋

The divided socks that are used with Japanese footwear, they are divided between the big toe and the rest of the toes to allow the thong of zori slippers or geta clogs to go in. Originally tabi were made of leather and they came to be made of cotton in the Edo Period. For most of the Edo Period, they were fastened with cords, but in the late Edo period, flat metal hooks called kohaze were developed and now white tabi with either four or five kohaze are standard. For formal occasions white tabi are worn, but in daily life, men usually wear black tabi. In kabuki there are also tabi in different colors for different role types and occupations.