Enter the world of Japanese Kabuki prints and you arrive at the floating world, a place of theatres, tea houses, and the pleasure quarters of geishas and courtesans in the great cities of Edo (Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto. It is a world of warriors and heroes, villains and ghosts, of kabuki actors and fashionable women wearing the latest styles, a world that celebrates the beauty of nature as well as the passions and sorrows of men and women.

An online exhibition from the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington DC explores this world through Japanese kabuki prints. These works play a starring role in the institution’s collection. Their craft at acting and the lavish costumes that were so important in the theatre were captured on woodblock prints for a thriving market driven by constant demand during the 18th and 19th centuries. Brimming with energy and artistic imagination, the prints are poetic and lyrical tributes to a vanished world. This theatre was meant to pull the audience in to another and very different world – the term kabuki is comprised of three characters, ka (sing), bu (dance), and ki (skill), but it was derived from the term kabuku, which means ‘to lean’ as in leaning away from the norm, or out of the ordinary.

Kabuki prints, or yakusha-e, literally ‘actor pictures’, have been sold to Kabuki enthusiasts since the Edo period (1603-1868). The most popular were woodblock prints in the ukiyo-e style. Kabuki was Japan’s popular dance-drama, and was perhaps the brightest expression of this ‘floating world’, captivating audiences since the early 1600s. The woodblock prints would often depict the actors striking an intense pose, eyes crossed and limbs held rigid.

The Floating World of Edo Japan Depicted in Japanese Prints

Edo Japan saw extended peace and increasing prosperity, which allowed a popular movement to gather momentum from rural to urban areas. A chonin, or ‘townspeople’, culture surfaced in the cities, where the merchant class played a central role. As creditors to the government and other sectors, they were condemned to the lowest strata in the Confucian social order. But merchants were a new source of affluence. It enabled them to seek earthly, if temporary, diversions in the pleasure quarters of the growing cities of Edo. Patrons of courtesans, and actors and artists, they were all part of a new phenomenon known as ukiyo, the ‘floating world’, a term derived from the novel, Ukiyo Monogatari (Tales of the Floating World) of 1661 by Asai Ryoi. Ukiyo nurtured a new urban art form as a taste for genre paintings, woodblock prints, illustrated books and calendars accompanied the demand for popular literature. The images depicted on them are the ukiyo-e, ‘pictures of the floating world’. At the same time, continued public hunger for relatively inexpensive prints fuelled an emerging print medium, which sustained a notable Japanese publishing industry by the 18th century.

Kabuki Theatre and Japanese Kabuki Prints

Kabuki theatre was one of the most dynamic art forms to emerge from this world, the extraordinary pleasure districts that thrived in major Japanese cities during the 18th and 19th centuries. With dramatic story lines, lavish costumes and celebrity actors, kabuki was the ideal subject for Japanese print designers. In an age of limited popular entertainment, the actors of the floating world aroused enormous interest. Portraits of them in full costume on stage were widely circulated. Intimidating kabuki male roles called aragoto, exerting a sinister presence in the Edo-style, had a particular pull. The theatre was an all-male preserve, and ‘female impersonators’, known as onnagata, were employed to play out highly stylised feminine roles.

There were three principal forms of theatre in Japan before kabuki: the courtly bugaku dances, which, of course, were seen by very few and largely unknown to the general population; Noh, which was founded and perfected during the 14th century by Kanami and Zeami and then adopted by the ningyo joruri puppet theatre, which was patronised by the peasants and urban inhabitants and which developed into the bunraku puppet theatre that is still popular today.

First Recorded Performance of Kabuki

The first recorded performance of kabuki occurred in 1603, given by a group of female entertainers. It is highly probably that dancing troupes were in operation before this date, and the 1604 performances featured a miko, a ‘shrine maiden’, who may have come from a shamanist background. All we know of her is that she was called Okuni, and is said to have come from the great shrine of Izumo. She and her troupe gave their performances on the dried-up Kamogawa riverbed in Kyoto, on almost the exact spot of the present-day Minami-za theatre. The dances appear to have been folk or quasi-religious, similar to the bon odori still performed all over Japan during the summer festival of the dead. Okuni’s theatre was extremely popular and was described as kabuku – an archaic term, unfamiliar to modern Japanese, meaning literally ‘tilted’, but implying that which is strange or outlandish, and perhaps somewhat risqué.

Women in Japanese Kabuki Prints

In 1629, however, the shogunate banned women from the stage. The reason for this is generally given as immorality – the prostitution having become more unacceptable. It seems, however, more likely this was simply a convenient excuse, and that the real reason behind the ban was the perceived threat the reputation of actresses presented to public order, on account of their popularity not simply with the commoners – who made up the majority of the audience – but also with the samurai class which, the government thought, should be above such vulgar public display. Kabuki continued, however, to be performed by young boys who had yet to reach maturity and shave their heads in the universal samurai hairstyle of the day. This become the so-called wakashu kabuki ‘young boy kabuki’, and in 1652, by order of the shogunate, the boys suffered the same fate as the women and for exactly the same reasons. Surprisingly, kabuki performances were allowed to continue provided the actors were mature males – with shaven heads. This became known as yaro kabuki and, although the term is no longer used, developed into the kabuki we know today.

Family Clans in Kabuki

Three examples of Japanese Kabuki prints from this online exhibition show the range of acting roles performed by the artists. The Inherited Glory of the Ichikawa Clan by Utagawa Kunisada shows the generation of this famous clan. The name Ichikawa Danjuro is currently held by the twelfth generation member of a distinguished family of kabuki actors founded by Danjuro I, who invented the ‘bravura aragoto’ acting style that became the family specialty. The talent and creativity of the actors who have held this famous name for more than 300 years is so admired that it is a major news event when an actor is granted the right to change his name to Danjuro. This print by Kunisada celebrates eight generations of the Danjuro line and depicts earlier actors in appropriately archaic artistic styles. The title provides only the poetry name Sanjo, which was used by all these actors, because of a government ban in 1842 that inhibited the publication of actor prints and the specification of their names for several years. The eight Danjuro generations and their roles are shown here from right to left: I (1660-1704) as Kumakura Gongoro, II (1689-1758) as Kumedera Danjo, III (1721-1742) as Agemaki no Sukeroku, IV (1712-1778) as the outcast Keikiyo, V (1741-1806) as Yanone no Goro, VI (1778-1799) as Nagasaki Jiro, VII (1791-1859) as Fuwa Banzaemon, and VIII (1823-1854) as Shinotsuka Iganokami.

Kabuki in Osaka

Another distinctive Japanese Kabuki print, The Actor Nakamura Utaemon III as Ichikawa Goemon Disguised as the Farmer Gosaku is by Hokushu. The artist was the leading designer of yakusha-e (actor prints) in Osaka for two decades. Kabuki actors in Osaka fostered a realistic style of performance that was distinct from that of Edo, and the prints published in Osaka also developed a unique style. A versatile and talented star of the Osaka theatre, Nakamura Utaemon III plays the role of Ishikawa Goemon, a ronin, or masterless samurai – a bandit and rebel whose exploits were the subject of many kabuki dramas. In the premier performance of Keisei setsugekka, a play that Utaemon wrote under his pen name, he wears the disguise of a farmer and calls upon the arts employed by ninja (secret agents) to elude the warriors who pursue him. The warriors are visible behind the fine, black gauze stage curtain that represents smoke in this outstanding print by Hokushu, whose collaboration with the master block engraver, Kasuke, produced some of the finest Osaka prints.

Aragoto Style in Japanese Kabuki Prints

Also including in the exhibition is a print showing Ichikawa Omezo I and Segawa Kikunojo III on stage. The powerful aragoto style of kabuki performance associated with Edo actors is brilliantly expressed in this print by Toyokuni, who was famous for his portraits of actors. Wearing a large, black costume emblazoned with the distinctive square family crest of the Ichikawa lineage of actors and with calligraphic characters for his character’s family name, Murakami, the actor Ichikawa Omezo I (1769-1833) strikes a menacing pose. He confronts the lady-in-waiting played by Segawa Kikunojo III (1751-1810), a star actor who played both male and female roles (onnagata). Aragoto is characterised by large, dramatic costumes, and a stylised stage.

These kabuki prints were collected by theatre-goers as souvenirs of performances and favourite stars – in the same way film posters are collected today. This exhibition allows us to revisit these prints and keep the power of performance alive today.

A catalogue is available Masterful Illusions: Japanese Prints from the Anne van Biema Collection by Ann Yonemura, et al

See the full exhibition online at