Big changes after years of Noh “women”


Photo by Daniel R. Burke


When Ayako Kano was an undergraduate in Japan, she became fascinated with traditional Japanese Noh theater and its Western adaptations.

In her research, Kano said, she realized half of the human race was nearly absent from her subject matter. “I started wondering, Where are the women in Japanese theater?”

She had good reason to wonder. For more than two centuries, there weren’t any.

In 1629, the Japanese government had banned women from performing because many actresses were involved in prostitution. Ironically, the men who took over the women’s roles became prostitutes themselves, but actresses did not return to the Japanese stage until the 1890s.

Kano, assistant professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, has completed a book about this first generation of modern Japanese actresses, entitled “Acting Like a Woman in Modern Japan: Theater, Gender, Nationalism.” It is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press later this year.

Japan reopened its stages to women as it became more open to Western cultural influences. Using men to portray women’s roles started to seem archaic and unnatural.

“Back in the 17th century, femininity was something you achieved by acting a certain way. So someone who’s biologically a man could achieve it just as well, or even better. In the modern period femininity was seen as something that the body naturally exudes, so you needed a biological woman to portray a woman.”

Kano’s book focuses on Kawakami Sadayakko and Matsui Sumako, two of the most celebrated actresses from the turn of the 20th century. A famous competition between them highlights Kano’s point about the importance of the body in Japanese ideas about theater and gender.

Kawakami and Matsui competed in Oscar Wilde’s “Salomé.” The play’s famous dance of the seven veils would have been almost impossible for a male actor to perform. “In traditional theater, femininity was all about what kind of kimono to wear and how to hide parts of the body,” said Kano. “And here was a play that was about showing as much of the body as possible.”

The younger actress, Matsui, won the contest – because, according to critics, she showed more skin.

“It’s very symbolic of a double bind that actresses were in,” said Kano. “They were trying to show that they could portray female roles better than men, but in doing so they were reducing themselves to just a body.”

National identity and politics also showed up in the Japanese theater of the era, Kano said. Kawakami’s troupe, for example, performed a play based on the Sino-Japanese War of 1894. The play included a slew of extras punching each other onstage. Sometimes audience members, mistaking the extras for actual Chinese people, joined in the punching.

As Kano waits for “Acting Like a Woman” to return from the printer, she is finishing up a second book, a history of Japanese feminist debates from the 1890s to the present.

“And then it’s on to book number three,” she says, smiling. What’s that one on? I ask.

“I don’t know yet. I have ideas for the next 57 books, but I don’t know which will be number three.”

Originally published on April 19, 2001