Joel of Far Outliers has an interesting post called “Political Shibai or Kabuki?”:

The Japanese word shibai ‘performance, drama’, as in Okinawa shibai or Ikari ningyo shibai ‘Ikari puppet theatre’, now seems well established in at least one regional dialect of English as a way to denote an empty political performance.
It has been used for a long time in Hawai‘i political talk, and someone recently (after 1999) submitted the following entry to the OED.
political shibai – (Hawaiian, from the Japanese) political shamming…
The more common synonym elsewhere seems to be kabuki

(See his post for citations and further explanations.) I have never heard either phrase, but kabuki is reasonably familiar and I would think “political kabuki” might catch on; shibai is unlikely to expand beyond the circles in which it is already used, but that restricted use may be enough to win the favor of the OED (which, after all, includes a fair number of nonce words).


  1. Don’t really think ”shibai” and ”kabuki” are interchangeable here. ”Shibai” has the nuance of forced drama put on for drama’s sake, in an attempt to deceive. Kabuki would have flavors of slow motion, little/no talk, and elaborate costuming, rather than deception.

  2. joe tomei says

    I think the most familiar use of shibai in everyday live is as in kami shibai, which is a series of cards with the story on the back which a teacher reads, though this may be a result of having a 5 year old going to youchien.
    Interestingly, shibai represents one corner of a triangle describing a typology of Japanese drama, because in Meiji, a number of plays under the rubric soshi shibai were popular. These dramas were overtly political. The third corner would be the term shimpa, which arose as presenting family drama in more realistic settings, with a number of Kabuki actors (including onnagata) performing in these plays. Outside this triangle would be Shingeki, which were translated Western plays.
    A google of soshi shibai turned up this page about Okinawan drama which I found quite interesting and I wonder if the use of the word shibai in Hawaii is related to the strength of the practice in Okinawa and the immigrant connection as well as the overt political content of soshi shibai.

  3. Bob,
    Your description of Kabuki sounds more like Noh, but I don’t think Japanese nuances are germane to these uses. The actual English examples I cite of how ‘political kabuki’ has come to be used are almost exactly parallel to the usage of ‘political shibai’ in Hawai‘i: an empty performance intended to mislead those not privy to what goes on (or doesn’t) behind the scenes. The major linguistic difference I notice in English political usage is that ‘kabuki’ is often followed by ‘theatre’, ‘dance’, or the like.
    I posted earlier about how kamishibai has died out on the streets, but has come back to life in classrooms around the world.
    I suspect the usage of ‘shibai’ in Hawai‘i political talk dates from the ascendancy of an AJA-dominated Democratic Party in the 1950s.

  4. joe tomei says

    Hi Joel,
    Thanks for the link, I should have remembered that.
    While I think you are right to link it to the increase of nisei going into politics, but I’m wondering (though I’m not sure how to go about finding a way to support it) if there is a linkage between the usage of shibai among Okinawans and the rise of this term. My nisei dad (from good ole uchinanchu stock) said that shibai in the form of plays done by issei were something he remembered and enjoyed (though he hated going to J-school on saturdays) though the nisei never put on plays like this. I’m now trying to find out if this was typical of all Japanese immigrants or if there was an Okinawan/naichi split.
    This doesn’t dismiss your idea, because in the 50’s, an influx of Okinawans entered the state legislature, and, for example, Robert Oshiro, who was instrumental in the election of both Burns (62) and Ariyoshi (74), had Okinawan roots.

  5. joe tomei says

    Thanks for the link, I should have remembered that.
    So I’m now at school and surfing (old Steve Martin joke from his routine, in the middle of it he sings ‘I get paid for doing this’) and I see that I couldn’t have read the kamishibai stuff from your blog (though I have dropped by there from time to time (impressive range of info btw) and come summer vacation, I’ll arrange my start up bookmarks to be a regular visitor)
    I’m now wondering if there was another post somewhere, or if I just imagined it. I recall that almost every kimi no na type drama has a kamishibai guy peddling through it and as I said, my daughter loves kamishibai and often comes home and demands that I sit while she does it (frightening thought, she’s on her way to being a teacher and will not be able to support her parents in their declining years)
    Anyway, I see that the library has a book entitled ?????? (kamishibai no rekishi) by Waji Chizuko and I’ll wander over there to find out some more.

  6. Joe,
    I apologize for facilely lumping Okinawans into the AJA category. I know that Okinawans were major participants in Hawai`i’s Democratic Revolution. Wasn’t Gov. Ariyoshi also Okinawan (at least in part)?
    Okinawans may well have used shibai more than naichi Japanese, but I can’t find any confirmation. I asked a colleague named Kaneshiro (Japanese speaking, sanshin-playing Okinawan sansei/yonsei) if he thought shibai was more widely used among Okinawans than ‘mainland’ Japanese, but he couldn’t say. Probably need to ask the old-timers.

  7. joe tomei says

    Hey Joel,
    No worries, I’ve read a lot about the Okinawan/naichi split, but my dad’s never complained about it, though he had island fever and went to the mainland as soon as he could. I’m guessing you are based in Hawai’i, so if you find anything, drop me a line.

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