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positions: east asia cultures critique 10.2 (2002) 245-284

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The Gender of Onnagata As the Imitating Imitated:
Its Historicity, Performativity, and Involvement in the Circulation of Femininity

Maki Morinaga

Beyond the studies of Japanese theater, onnagata, “female impersonators” of the kabuki theater, must be of acute interdisciplinary interest. Onnagata are regarded as having played the role of the “paragons” of womanhood in seventeenth- through nineteenth-century Japan, not only theatrically but also socially.1 For women's studies, therefore, onnagata can provide an intriguing case study in which their gender amounts to a specific element to help explain femininity. For gender studies, onnagata's gender dramatically visualizes some aspects of the current theoretical understanding of gender: performativity and contingency.2 Furthermore, the gender of onnagata is beneficial to gender studies because it can problematize some elements of gender that are customarily naturalized and made invisible. Gender is no doubt elusive for us to discuss, partially because the concept of gender has been posited as the pair of masculinity and femininity and as associated with sex in some way. (Although one recognizes gender to be divorced from the [End Page 245] biologically given sex, this is still effective, whatever association it may be.) The problem is twofold. First, the number of sexes has never been two. Intersexuality does exist, and Anne Fausto-Sterling, a developmental geneticist, once even proposed that there were five sexes.3 Second, femininity and masculinity have been conceptualized as a pair, making each the constitutive other of each other. The constitutive other is the concept to explain our perception that differentiation between A and B is always functional and not essential. (In other words, A and B are in the relation of différance.) We can distinguish A only with the help of B-as-non-A, and this B is the constitutive other of A. The relationship between masculinity and femininity entails this feature.4 We need to conceptualize gender under these circumstances, our inevitable historicity, and this makes gender an elusive agenda. The onnagata gender can help us perceive how undependable the doomed dualism of masculinity and femininity is in theory and yet formidably unflinching in practice.

It is especially significant that onnagata radically changed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that is, from the genesis to the establishment of their art. When they came into being in the seventeenth century, onnagata modeled themselves on wakashu in the relatively prestigious warrior class. Wakashu, literally “young people,” were the junior partners in male homosexual relationships, which had had a long tradition in the warrior class. Warrior wakashu, at least up to the time when onnagata came into existence during the seventeenth century, were characterized as robust and adolescent male homosexual practitioners who were diligently learning warrior manhood from their senior partners. Starting from this “military masculinity,” onnagata eventually reached artistic perfection in the eighteenth century, when they were considered a reification of ideal femininity. At that time women and onnagata, as the doers of femininity, began circulating femininity in the form of reciprocal imitation. (As long as gender is a doing, people have to do their gender, whence a doer.) At the risk of simplicity, hence, onnagata demonstrated radical transformation from “military masculinity” to “ideal femininity” within the short span of approximately a century (via “androgynous aesthetics”).

Kabuki historiography, albeit detailed and abundant, has failed to produce the sufficient analyses onnagata deserve. Simply put, kabuki historiography [End Page 246] has explained onnagata with what might be called the surrogate actress hypothesis and the metamorphosis hypothesis. The story usually begins with the actress ban in 1629. The ban targeted women's kabuki (onna kabuki), which was then a newly emerging hybrid entertainment form attributed to a woman called Okuni. Onna kabuki inherited various elements from antecedent performing arts and consisted mainly of song, dance, and de facto prostitution. The 1629 ban targeted the last aspect, and their popularity was taken over by kabuki performed by young boys (wakashu kabuki). This form of kabuki, needless to...


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