The Tradition of the Onnagata

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The Tradition of the Onnagata:
Cross-dressed Actors and Their Roles on the Classical Japanese Stage

Theatre History I
Dr. Kevin Browne
December 7, 2011

Japan, like most cultures, has a long history of men playing the stage roles of women. This paper, The Tradition of the Onnagata: Cross-dressed Actors and Their Roles on the Classical Japanese Stage, will explore the representation of male and female gender in Japan’s highly stylized classical kabuki theatre. I will look at the history of gender roles in Pre-modern Japan and how they influenced the development of the Onnagata, as well as the elaborate techniques and details by which a male transforms himself into the man’s dream of the “perfect woman.” 1. Gender Roles in Pre-Modern Japan

To fully understand the allure of the Onnagata is to look at the attitude of women in Japanese Society. The Japanese have always had strict social traditions that men and women are expected to fulfill. Most of the gender codes were strong and conservative, which resulted in the gender oppression of women. Interestingly, this was not always the case. In fact, in the early days of Japanese history, women had significant authority and power as shamans, chieftains, and empresses. Like many ancient cultures, there were a number of real and mythical female figures in Japanese mythology. Women were also respected in many aspects of life, some of which included politics, religion, and the arts (Henshall). However, women started to notably loose their power towards the end of the eighth century.

Like most pre-modern societies, Japan developed through the years with the help of many outside influences. These influences led to the decline of female status and the introduction of Chinese-style Confucianism, Buddhism, and Samurai based feudalism played the most important roles in doing so (Hamilton). The two new male-oriented religions, Chinese-style Buddhism and Confucianism, were introduced to Japan in the sixth century. These religions weakened the focus on fertility, which is something the Japanese once held in high regard. This caused the ideals towards women to become more inclined to negativity because of their strong association with fertility (Henshall). Both religions also emphasized the supreme position of men over women. On one hand, they had the right to inherit property, but on the other hand, they were subject to their husband’s authority.

Of course, religion was not the only thing that determined the social position of women. The rise of the Samurai in the 12th century drastically changed how society viewed women, also. This warrior era commenced the change of marital residence from a matriarchal pattern to a patriarchal pattern, meaning that wives had to join their husbands’ families. During this time, Japan was also fighting in a series of civil wars. The consolidation of territory became a priority within society and women lost their inheritance rights over property (Henshall).

Japan finally entered a peaceful state at the beginning of the 17th century. In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu was named the shogun, which marked the beginning of an era where military-style government ruled Japan. Since fighting was no longer a priority, many samurai turned into bureaucrats and administrators. This led the current regime to adapt a four-part hierarchy where the samurai functioned as the ruling class, followed by peasants (farmers and artisans), and then merchants. This societal division mainly served to keep the power within the samurai. The groups of people that did not fit into this, like performers and prostitutes, were considered outcasts. Each class also adhered to a strict patriarchal gender hierarchy, which meant that women, regardless of the class they belonged to, were basically considered second-class citizens (Kano). Very few women of accomplishment are known from this period. One of these women just so happens to be the...
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