Who were the onnagata?
Onnagata (女方 or 女形), a commonly encountered term in discussions of kabuki and ukiyo-e prints, means "woman's manner" (onna + kata).
Onnagata were male kabuki actors who performed the roles of women. Some actors specialized exclusively in women's roles, while others
played both men's and women's parts. The onnagata wears a cloth called a murasaki-bôshi ("purple cap"), a silk
headcloth used to cover the shaved forelock. It was used both during performances in female roles and off-stage on formal occasions
(the color of the cloth was not, however, always purple). The forelocks were shaved because apparently, in early kabuki, the shogunate
required onnagata to shave their heads in an effort to make them less attractive and thus less prone to illicit sexual commerce.
Regardless of the shogunate's intentions, wearing the murasaki-bôshi soon became a conventionalized part of the onnagata's persona and had no diminishing effect on his attractiveness. ©1999-2001 by John Fiorillo
What was the history of onnagata?
Kabuki supposedly arose in 1603 (possibly as early as 1596) when Okuni, thought to be a Shinto priestess of doubtful character, appeared
in Kyoto and performed in innovative theatrical farces based on outlines of Nô (the classical Japanese theater) and kyôgen (the classical Japanese comic theater). As more kabuki troupes were formed, many used men for women's roles and women for men's roles, often
providing lewd entertainment that was little more than an advertisement for the profession of prostitution practiced by actors of both
genders. The earliest skits were known as keiseikai ("hiring a prostitute") and chaya asobi ("playing in a teahouse
brothel"). There were also theater troupes composed almost entirely of women, called onna kabuki ("women's kabuki": 女歌舞伎), and an all-male theater called wakashû kabuki ("young men's kabuki": 若衆歌舞伎).
Both groups also served in part as loosely knit organizations for prostitution.
The shogun's government (bakufu, literally "tent government," thus suggesting its military origins) did not approve of the
immorality of the kabuki and began issuing proscriptions against it as early as 1608. In 1629 a ban was imposed on women in kabuki because
women impersonating men was considered detrimental to public morality. Occasionally the bakufu also banned wakashû kabuki, as in
1642. However, after 1652 more reforms were put in place and the kabuki theater took its present form, an all-male theater called yarô
kabuki ("men's or fellow's kabuki"). Nevertheless, until the 1680s, prostitution and the physical attractiveness of the younger
male actors often continued to take precedence over acting skill. There were, for example, yarô hyôbanki, which were critical
guidebooks that rated young male actors more for their sexual appeal than their acting talents. The enormous popularity of actors continued
well after the 1680s and may have initially inhibited the development of the art form, for there is evidence that actors confined themselves
to the sorts of roles most advantageous to them, often ignored written text when it did not suit their abilities, and even altered plots to
provide themselves with tailor-made vehicles for their specific skills. As a result, playwrights were sometimes restricted in how they could
develop character and plot in the early kabuki theater. In fact, Japan's most important playwright, Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), is said
to have turned more and more toward writing for the puppet theater to remove himself from the demands of actors and to better express his
The actor Yoshizawa Ayame (1673-1719) was one of the greatest onnagata who ever lived and surely one of the most influential, for it was he
who defined, for generations of female impersonators, the essence of the onnagata style, both on and off the stage. Onnagata eventually
became, ironically, the arbiters of female style among the urban population, and their skill at onnarashisa ("female likeness")
represented a model for feminine expression and behavior that women found compelling, and which they sometimes emulated. Onnagata excelled at
performing as keisei ("castle topplers," courtesans of the highest ranks, although the term was not used to designate any specific
grade of prostitute). There were many plays with keisei in the title (particularly plays performed in Osaka), although often it did not
designate that a courtesan occupied an important role in the play. In the kabuki theater from the late 17th century, the keisei represented
a most important and demanding role for the onnagata, who had to concern himself with the portrayal of beauty, experience, elegance, fidelity,
and innocence in combinations that made the keisei an expressive character on the stage. Another specialty of the onnagata were the roles
played during the michiyuki-mono ("road-going piece," a stylized kabuki dance). Initially, this dance involved scenic descriptions
and portrayals of incidents as the characters journeyed between famous places. Later, the term became more frequently used for the tragic
journeys of lovers in Chikamatsu's double-suicide plays. In addition, the dramatic dance form called shosagoto were pieces developed first
in the performances of the onnagata.
©1999-2001 by John Fiorillo
Return to FAQ