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  • Japanese: 女形 (onnagata)

Onnagata (lit. "female form") are male kabuki actors who specialize in playing female roles. As professional kabuki is restricted to male performers, all female roles are played by such men.


The practice of having men play women was a part of the earliest kabuki, as founded by Izumo no Okuni in the first years of the 17th century. At that time, men and women played the reverse gender roles onstage, chiefly for comedic and erotic effect. Women were banned from appearing onstage, however, in 1629, as a result of the ties between kabuki and prostitution, marking the beginning of all-male casts playing roles of both genders.

Kabuki performances in the 1630s continued to be strongly erotic in character and closely tied to prostitution activities, and in 1642 the shogunate banned actors from dressing as women onstage. In the face of protest from actors, however, the authorities relented, allowing female characters to appear onstage once again in 1644; however, from this time forward, they were forbidden from hiding their shaved pates (the sign of being an adult male) under a wig. This policy was reinforced by another similar edict in 1664, and sometime shortly afterwards it became standard and traditional for onnagata to wear purple or persimmon-dyed scarves called murasaki bôshi to cover this part of their heads. While the intent of these policies was to reduce or eliminate the ability of the onnagata to be erotically appealing, the murasaki bôshi themselves, or their appearance on the head, came to be eroticized by kabuki fans who eagerly longed after their favorite onnagata.

Yoshizawa Ayame I, an actor active in the Genroku period, is often cited as the first great onnagata, the chief great pioneer of the form at a time when Ichikawa Danjûrô I and Sakata Tôjûrô I, among others, were pioneering other aspects of what would come to form the core or foundation of kabuki's "mature" form. Much of Ayame's advice on how to cultivate one's persona as an onnagata, and how to approach moving and acting in a female role, is preserved in the Yakusha rongo, a collection of sayings and teachings of Genroku actors. He is known for advising living one's life as a woman not only onstage, but off-stage in everyday life as well; most scholars today believe that Ayame was an exception, however, and not the rule, as to how onnagata behaved themselves off-stage. In fact, even Ayame himself was married with children. Considering these actors who devote their entire lives, often from a very early age, to cultivating in themselves an onstage presence characterized by feminine beauty, grace, comportment, and so forth, it can be tempting to imagine them to possess some sort of genderqueer identity offstage. However, onnagata are not known traditionally to have lived as women off-stage, or to have necessarily engaged in romantic or sexual relationships with women less, or with males more, than other kabuki actors, or other members of society.

In the Meiji period, attempts were made to introduce female performers onto the kabuki stage, ending the male-only tradition. However, the onnagata tradition had evolved into such a particular aesthetic and form that women simply portraying women did not look right; their movements seemed too natural, not stylized enough, and not stylized in the right way - after all, how could a woman understand or appreciate what /men/ seek or enjoy in femininity? Still today, when women dance Nihon buyô or perform amateur kabuki, they are not imitating women so much as imitating onnagata conventions.[1]


  1. Donald Shively, "Bakufu Versus Kabuki," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 18, no. 3/4 (1955), 354-355.