KABUKI.

Jon Lackman has a very interesting discussion at Slate of the history of the word kabuki in English; I did not know this background:

…the word didn’t appear in print in English until the late 19th-century, and then only rather infrequently. That changed when, following World War II, Japan’s government tried to shed its image as a global marauder by touring its best Kabuki troupes. … Although America’s urban theatergoers lauded Kabuki, their good opinion did nothing to improve ties between the United States and its one-time enemy. Indeed, relations worsened due to drawn-out treaty negotiations. When American official James C. Hagerty visited Tokyo in 1960, protesters surrounded his car, broke its windows, and nearly flipped it.
According to my research, it was in this hostile atmosphere that Kabuki acquired its modern derogatory meaning. Writing in 1961 about a State Department plan to revise its security measures, Los Angeles Times writer Henry J. Taylor declared, “[By] finally dismissing Chester Bowles as undersecretary of state at the moment he did, the President unhitched the plan’s kingpin in this shoddy piece of left-wing kabuki.” Six months later, Taylor struck again, “Agriculture Secretary Freeman announced he has discussed Billie Sol Estes’ political corruption kabuki with Robert F. Kennedy and ‘had mentioned it informally to the president.’ ” Writers have enlivened their prose with Kabuki ever since.

Unfortunately, Lackman spoils the effect of his historical research by insisting that current speakers of English should adjust their usage to reflect the Japanese cultural value of the institution. This would not matter so much except that Slate is billing him as a language columnist. Go to the back of the class until you master the concept of the loan word, sir.

Comments

  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    unhitched the plan’s kingpin in this shoddy piece of left-wing kabuki is a respectable entry in, what should it be called, the Farpatchket Metaphor Mille Miglia?

  2. Interesting for me as I didn’t know that kabuki had become a derogatory term.
    As for the attempt to resurrect kabuki as a respectable term, I’m in two minds. Recently there was a bit of a commotion in the States when a Japanese-American legislator protested against the derogatory usage of kamikaze in politics. It seemed ridiculous to me to complain that this was discrimination against the Japanese. If you want to outlaw kamikaze from political discourse, then you’d have to outlaw “Machiavellian” (offensive to Italians), “Procrustean” (offensive to Greeks) and “Russian roulette” (offensive to Russians), too.
    On the other hand, it seems to me unfair that Kabuki should suffer from a bad name merely because Americans use it as a slur when they haven’t got the faintest idea what Kabuki really is.

  3. I have been using the word for years, but I had no idea that was a derogatory term.
    Nor does the entry in the OED even suggest that.
    (Note: OED gets the etymology wrong. 歌舞伎 is ateji. It is the nominalized form of the verb 傾く [kabuk-].)

  4. I’m not sure I’d say that kabuki is derogatory in English, rather than in a common political metaphor. In many cases, I think theater would do almost as well and have much the same connotation. And I don’t know of thespians objecting to that.

  5. marie-lucie says:

    After more then four decades in North America, reading a variety of sources and topics, I don’t recall ever coming across kabuki as referring to anything other than a form of Japanese theatre. I am very surprised to find that the word was or is used in English not only with a metaphorical meaning but a derogatory one.

  6. It is synecdoche, synopsis, and metaphor rolled together—as when, in one Kabuki play, a gardener expecting a visit from the emperor cuts down all his chrysanthemums except one, the perfect one.
    I understand he’s excited, but that just sounds like a good metaphor to me.

  7. chemiazrit says:

    On the other hand, it seems to me unfair that Kabuki should suffer from a bad name merely because Americans use it as a slur when they haven’t got the faintest idea what Kabuki really is.
    I think it’s safe to say that any American with the word “kabuki” in her vocabulary at all is also aware of the literal meaning of the word. Also, the word “slur” overstates the negative connotation it generally has when used as political metaphor, where it implies an elaborately conceived but carefully scripted series of events where the outcome is perfectly known in advance. Confirmations of Supreme Court justices in the US are often described as kabuki.

  8. I’m surprised that I’m the only Language Hat reader so far familiar with the use of “kabuki” to mean something like “highly stylized political theater with no particular context.” I’m also apparently the only the only reader so far who’s familiar with Lloyd Kaufman’s Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD.
    You live and learn.

  9. mollymooly says:

    Not only have I never heard “kabuki” used as a derogatory political metaphor, I’ve never heard it used as a political metaphor at all.
    Cursory corpus checks suggest it’s well established in the US but unknown in the UK.
    In the relevant context, a lazy British journalist might use “pantomime”, another word with dialect difference of meaning.

  10. So kabuki = byzantine?

  11. “Charade” and “dog and pony show” are all used with about the same meaning (i.e., some elaborate political ritual leading to a foregone conclusion, possibly with the intent to deceive.) None are strictly attached to the original, i.e., it wouldn’t make sense for a dog and pony show expert or a charade expert to protest either. Always mildly to strongly pejorative.

  12. The comparable very well-established term in Hawaiian English (adapted by AJAs, Americans of Japanese Ancestry, BTW) for empty political play-acting is ‘shibai’, about which I blogged many years back.
    Now I’m waiting for some clever headline writer to coin “the party of Noh” for whichever political party in whichever deliberative body happens to have a working majority, in contrast with “the party of No” for whichever party happens to be in the minority at that moment.

  13. I too have never before seen the word used as a political putdown. From a global perspective, it would appear to be a very restricted regionalism.

  14. I’ve heard the word used in a political context, but, like HP, I took it as a convenient shorthand term for “a kind of highly stylized theatrical performance”, which is meant to be derogatory in reference to the political events it is describing. I never thought it was meant to be insulting to the Japanese theatre genre too.
    I speculate that since theatre in the US has generally prized realism throughout most of the 20th century, just calling something “political theatre” lacks the extra zing you get by saying “political kabuki”.

  15. I have a slightly different take on kabuki dance: it isn’t necessarily empty, but it is something that has to be done exactly right or it falls flat on its face.

  16. caffeind says:

    I’ve seen it several times recently and have always thought that Nō would be the more appropriate theater metaphor, with extra pun potential.

  17. I took it as a convenient shorthand term for “a kind of highly stylized theatrical performance”, which is meant to be derogatory in reference to the political events it is describing. I never thought it was meant to be insulting to the Japanese theatre genre too.
    You’re quite correct, and I don’t think the author is really claiming it’s insulting to the Japanese genre, just taking offense at its “misuse.”

  18. J. Del Col says:

    I’d like to know exactly who these other folks are who’ve supposedly enlivened their prose with this term. I’ve only heard it or read it in connection with Japanese theater, and certainly never in a derogatory sense.

  19. It’s Washington DC insider talk. DC insiders pride themselves on their sophisticated cynicism. Someone or another introduced this “kabuki” usage and everyone thought it was witty, and now everyone uses it.

  20. Here is the oldest I could find, 1996, on an obscure but funny website.
    Here is a major media appearance in 1998.
    Here is a website titled “political kabuki”, 1993.

  21. The “political kabuki” website is 2003.

  22. “and I don’t think the author is really claiming it’s insulting to the Japanese genre, just taking offense at its “misuse.”
    Yeah, right – like the Japanese would never, ever misuse a loan word.

  23. j. del col says:

    So, in effect, this is a highly restricted bit of inside the beltway political jargon of no real significance beyond that ambit?

  24. No one has to use it if they don’t want to. Anyone reading American political journalism would end up learning it. It’s a useful term for the frequent occasions when various politicians go through the motions when everyone in the bix knows, for example, that a deal has already been made and that their speeches are pointless.

  25. You may be on to something with this word or usage “bix”, John. I had to google it, before I realised that X is next to Z on the keyboard.

  26. The way John explains it in is last comment is how I’ve seen it used as well, usually in the form of “kabuki theatre” rather than just kabuki. It’s different from mere political theatre which is doen to bamboozle, instead it’s an empty, ritualised piece of showmanship that all parties knows means nothing but pretend otherwise.

  27. j. del col says:

    I began reading James Merrill’s– Collected Prose– yesterday and soon came across this line “Nearby a little incandesence crab, Kabuki-faced, pulses.”
    (I think he meant ‘incandescent,’ but that’s the way it’s printed.)
    Now I suspect ‘kabuki’ will crop up everywhere in the next few days.

  28. I admit that I am probably not as well read as the author, or as many of the commenters, I just wanted to add something I came across while reading (I was reading about a horror short I liked, which led me to the director and then somehow to organized crime in Japan, or the Yazuka. There are disagreements as to where the yazuka originated; they often claim to be “Robin Hood” types who defended their towns from roving bandits, some claim they are descendants of Ronin, the samurai in 17th century Japan who found themselves without a leader after political upheaval (if you already know what everything means I’m sorry, I didn’t know any of this until about 15 minutes ago so I’m explaining in my comment what I would look up after reading in someone else’s). But some claim they are just “kabuki mono,” or “the crazy ones,” wildly dressed hoodlums carrying large swords.” Because I knew the term kabuki meant theatre (learned that from a chipmunks episode I saw once when I was little and never forgot) so I was interested to know how kabuki (and I know mono usually means one or alone) could translate into crazy. So I looked it up, and apparently the real meaning of kabuki is “bizarre theatre,” rather than just “theatre.” Anyway, to finally get to my point, I think using the term kabuki as derogatorily is understandable when considering it means “bizarre.”

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