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Asian Theatre Journal 18.2 (2001) 249-256

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Androgyny and Otherness: Exploring the West Through the Japanese Performative Body

Erica Stevens Abbitt

The way of the Western practitioner or scholar wishing to analyze contemporary Japanese theatre in terms of gender and culture is fraught with peril. How is it possible to apply critical theory without imposing Western perceptions or using master narratives that reduce and conquer the "foreign"? This essay focuses on a recurring figure in Japanese literature and drama--a hero of ambivalent sexuality and gender who uses a cloak of invisibility to pass through boundaries--and considers its use in three contemporary Japanese theatrical productions set in a historically distant, even "mythologized," West.

This mysterious, caped man/woman character, whose antecedents can be traced to Heian-period literature (794-1185), is reflected in current Japanese pop art as well as in theatre, suggesting that gender slippage (the oscillation between received ideas of male and female within an individual body) can be used as a strategy to explore issues of cultural otherness. Such a strategy reverses the process of Western colonization of the East through representation (so vividly described in Edward Said's Orientalism). But it also provides a nondoctrinaire point of entry for the Western scholar to explore issues of gender and culture in the contemporary Japanese theatrical arena. [End Page 249]

The Cloak of Invisibility

Partings at Dawn, an anthology of gay Japanese literature published in 1996, takes its title from the twelfth-century courtly love story Ariake no Wakare. This tale concerns Ariake, a handsome young captain of the guards, who uses a cloak of invisibility to walk through the walls of the court residences. Ariake's secretive manner and mysterious charm attract both men and women. Indeed the emperor himself takes the captain as a lover. As their affair progresses, Ariake (who is actually a woman) feigns his own death, resurfaces as a "younger sister," is established as an imperial concubine, gives birth to the emperor's son and heir, and eventually becomes empress (Kahn 1996, 21).

The androgynous figure at the center of Partings at Dawn reappears with slight variations in Japanese fiction and drama of a later era. From kabuki and no to present-day animated cartoons, a phenomenon sometimes described as "veiled gender performance" (Ridgeway 1999, 1) has been featured in theatrical performance, film, television, fashion, printed media, and contemporary drama, often through a charismatic central character who crosses boundaries of gender and geography to embody a sexual or foreign other. The tradition of a performer embodying both male and female characteristics is said to derive from indigenous religious practice as well as Buddhist observance (Leupp 1995, 174). In the seventeenth century, the new theatrical form called kabuki was initiated by the priestess Okuni, who performed a mixture of Buddhist rites and erotic comedy wearing Portuguese pants and a Christian cross. When women performers were banished from this performance art, the onnagata--men who took over the female roles--won an extraordinary degree of popularity due in no small part to the slippage between their biological gender and the roles they enacted.

In The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality, Watanabe and Iwata (1989) suggest that onstage androgyny in kabuki and no was a reflection of a society where sexual preference (at least for men) was not a matter of fixed polarity. The concept of sexual desire as a continuum rather than an opposition declined with the waning of samurai tradition, the dawning of the Meiji era (1868-1912), and the importation of European theories on sex and gender. At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, a new form of androgyny was exhibited in the fashion, visual, and performance art of Japan. This is a period described by Donald Roden as a "transition from a civilization of character to a culture of personality" (1990, 54-55), a period reflecting many of the social changes of the gender-bending Weimar era in the West (p. 39).

Today androgyny plays a central role in at least...