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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Sashigane / 差し金

Sometimes props are manipulated using a long black bamboo pole called a sashigane. This is used for birds and butterflies. In the old days, whale baleen was used for the tip of the pole to make it very sensitive to vibrations and make it possible to make butterflies flutter, but now new synthetic materials are used for the tip. Sashigane are also used any time props are manipulated from a distance and this has given rise to use of the term in political discourse to describe someone who manipulates events from a distance while remaining hidden.

Koken and Kurogo / 後見、黒子

Actors are helped on stage by koken stage assistants. These are not members of the stage staff and are actors, usually actors very closely associated with the star on stage. They hand the actor props or take them away and manipulate props using the sashigane. In some very stylized plays the koken wear formal kimono, but often they are in the all black costume called kurogo – black being a convention meaning that the person is invisible.

Katana /

From ancient times, swords have been an important part of Japanese culture. They are usually referred to collectively as katana, but there are a great variety of swords with a great variety of names. In the Edo Period, swords were particularly important because only members of the samurai class could wear a set of two swords, slipping them into their obi sash. In kabuki, often jidaimono period plays use an older sword called a tachi, which is tied on and the bend in the sword goes the opposite way. Shibaraku uses an extra long sword to show the power of the hero and Umeomaru in Kurumabiki has three swords. Naturalistic sewamono plays usually have swords that would have been close to what were actually used by the samurai of the time.

Kiseru / キセル

Pipes and tobacco were very common in the Edo Period and so, in kabuki there are many pipes, not only for sewamono domestic plays which realistically show life in the Edo Period, but for plays supposedly set in periods long before the introduction of tobacco in the late 16th century.

Pipes were the long pipes based on the pipes of Europeans and usually had a small bowl and mouthpiece made of metal with a length of hollow bamboo in between. Tobacco was finely chopped kizami tobacco. People usually carried their own pipes and tobacco in special carrying cases, a tube for the pipe and a pouch for the tobacco. There were ornamental toggles or netsuke to hang the pipe and tobacco pouch. Many of these netsuke have elaborate carvings in wood or ivory and are considered works of art. There were also tabako bon "tobacco trays" when receiving visitors with some charcoal for lighting the pipe and a container for the ashes. There are a wide variety of pipes in kabuki and they are another way of expressing character.

Hatsu Gatsuo / 初鰹

In the Edo Period, the first bonito fish of the season (hatsu gatsuo) was considered a great delicacy, but was so fabulously expensive that only samurai lords and extremely wealthy commoners could afford it. In the play featured in the program, Kamiyui Shinza, Shinza is happy that he can get a fish for 3 bu in silver, about 100,000 yen in today's money. There is even a comic poem about someone wanting to pawn his wife to get the money to buy hatsu gatsuo.

In Kamiyui Shinza, a fishmonger brings the fish and cleans and dresses it on stage. The fish is a model in different parts so the fishmonger can cut off the head (pulling out the guts) and splits it. The different parts are held together by a kind of sticky wax called "binzuke abura." This was used as a pomade to set hair in the elaborate styles of the Edo Period for both men and women. It is used this way in the wigs for kabuki, of course. But binzuke abura is also used in all kinds of ways in kabuki, especially make-up. It is used to prepare the skin so the make-up sticks on. It is used to stick on the straps of the cap that covers the actor's real hair. It is used to cover up an actor's real eyebrows.

On stage in sewamono domestic plays, there is often food that is eaten. This can be the actual food, as with soba noodles, but in the case of the hatsu gatsuo, which is eaten as sashimi sliced raw fish, instead of fish, actually the actors eat slices of yokan sweet bean jelly.

Nakamura-za / 中村座

For most of the Edo Period, there were three big kabuki theaters in the city of Edo. Each was in the center of a block surrounded by teahouses, smaller theaters for puppets and the residences of theater people. The shogunate only licensed three theaters and the theaters showed this with a ceremonial turret with the decorated spears seen in the procession of a samurai lord. The three theaters were the Nakamura-za, the Ichimura-za and the Morita-za and the Nakamura-za was the oldest and most prestigious.

The front of the theater was decorated with banners dedicated to star actors and sign boards with scenes of the play. There were barkers who would attract audiences by doing imitations of the play within. After buying a ticket, the audience would enter by squeezing through a little opening called the "nezumi kido" "the mousehole." This was mostly so that it was very difficult for people to slip into the theater without paying, but for the more impressionable, it seemed like being born into a fabulous new world.

Yakusha-e / 役者絵

During the Edo Period, one of the most vigorous form of popular culture were Ukiyo-e woodblock prints and now many of these prints are considered to be great art. One of the most popular subjects for Ukiyo-e kabuki stars. At first these pictures just focused on just one or two stars as stylized figures without a background, but gradually they became more realistic so that you can identify actors by their faces and included the stage setting and props as well. These prints were like photographs and videos today and served to remind people of their experience in the kabuki theater or even as a substitute experience for people who could not actually go to the theater.