Kabuki is NOT “white face”

We’re accused of doing whiteface […] If you’ve ever been to Japan, Kabuki art is done in whiteface and deliberately so, which is not racist.

Said Dave Ross of the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society who are currently showing their production of Mikado. Read all about it from Sharon Pian Chan, the Seattle Times editorial columnist and here is the Dave Ross interview with MYNorthwest.

But to the matter in hand the quote from Ross:

If you’ve ever been to Japan, Kabuki art is done in whiteface and deliberately so, which is not racist.

I have been to Japan. Many years ago now and was privileged to see not only Kabuki but also Noh. The following is my lay person’s basic understanding of an art form, that has been practised since the early 1600s.

Make-up, or keshou – Putting on the keshou is known as “kao o tsukuru” literally means “to make a face”

Kabuki art is done in whiteface – Dave Ross

In a word NO. Kabuki is not done in whiteface. The practise of using make up, Kumadori is, for want of a better explanation, the use of the face as the basis of a living, mobile mask. Unlike Noh where an external mask is used. Making it necessary for expression to be conveyed through the physicality of the body.

14th century example
In Japanese society a pale skin or “white” if you must, was a sign of high social status. Denoting the lack of need to exposes one’s skin to the harsh elements of nature. In other words, one was wealthy enough to be able to afford servants to carry out manual and menial labour. Artistic depictions of pale beauties  on silk screens (as seen above) have been around since the 14th century. Being pale skinned in Japanese society was not a desire to imitate the physical appearance of Westerners. Using white as a base in Kabuki,  for the character make up, was also practical and assisted in allowing the audience to more clearly see the faces on stage, in an era prior to artificial lighting. The specific use of make up, Kumadori (literally, “to follow lines”) was designed to work with the actor’s individual bone and facial structure, thus accentuating natural shadows and lines on the actors face.

It has absolutely nothing to do with the imitating the appearance of Caucasians. So Dave Ross and anyone else out there, thinking of using, or talking about other theatrical customs and traditions, stop imposing your own cultural sensibilities and understanding.
And for goodness sake if you’re going to be speaking in public or on the air make sure you have done at least some rudimentary research


7 thoughts on “Kabuki is NOT “white face”

    1. Hello Keiko thank you for taking the time to read my article and to respond. I have now gotten to the stage where I am so sick of all of this. I read one of the responses to his printed interview on line at MYNorthwest and frankly I am appalled. That in this day and age there is still such open hostility and prejudice towards East Asians


  1. Carrying on from this post you might be interested to hear the radio exchange between Sharon Pia Chan and David Ross it is in my opinion one of the worst (or maybe the best) examples of how not to conduct a radio “interview” at times I almost felt sorry for Ross. Out witted, out thought and out done by Chan’s patience, knowledge and obvious ability to communicate


  2. Aloha Ms. Sheen,
    I do have a question for you: How do you feel about Westerners, that is to say gaijin, performing Kabuki?

    At the University of Hawai’i we have a long tradition of staging Kabuki plays, both classics and new works (what are often called ‘fusion’ plays or, as the French term them ‘Kabuki Imaginare’ or imaginary kabuki) cast without regard to ethnicity or race.

    In 1978 Nakamura Matagoro II (National Living Treasure and acting instructor at the National Theatre’s Kabuki Training Program) spent an entire year at the UH teaching kabuki acting to the students and then directing these actors in a production of the Kabuki classic Chushingura.

    At a preliminary make-up class Matagoro sensei was asked if he wanted the actors to apply make-up so as to make their eyes appear more ‘Asian.’ He was appalled at this idea. That’s not what kabuki is about, he said. Brining the characters to life is all that matters. And so it was that we had woman playing the parts of men, and caucasians the roles of samurai.

    Now, there were those in the Kabuki world (Nakamura Utaemon for example) who believed Matagoro sensei was wasting his time and his talent teaching kabuki to gaijin, and there are many who feel that kabuki performed in any language other than Japanese is not real Kabuki. Matagoro was having none of that, and indeed he partnered with Dr. James Brandon and the UH for several productions of Kabuki in English.

    For me, that year spent immersed in the study of Kabuki was the best year of my theatrical life, and I would my life diminished, if it had been denied to me simply because I am not Japanese.

    In the same way I think it would be a shame if Denzil Washington could not play Mark Antony or Bando Tamasaburo play Lady MacBeth, both of which were outstanding performances, simply because they do not conform to ‘traditional’ casting

    I do realize this is a hot topic, and i intend no offense. I thought that perhaps my experience might add a different perspective to the conversation.




    1. Dear David
      Thanks for getting in touch. You have not offended at all. I’m only too happy to enter in to constructive and frankly enjoyable debates. They can be lively people can disagree but we can also by exchange of views and correspondence learn and gain better understanding of ourselves as human beings. I only wish that more people would actually enter into some form of communication rather battening down the hatches and going into siege mode.
      WOW what an amazing thing to have the honour of being involved with. I’m not a purist. Or should I say I’m not a historical purist. Where art forms should be kept in aspic or behind the glass in a museum.
      Art is a living breathing entity that evolves, that grows and that should be shared. Oh, lord the world over we are so set in keeping to our “tribes.” Matagoro sensei truly is a “grand master” in more ways than one. He seeks to pass on his knowledge to all those that he deems worthy. Matagoro is not wasting his time and more than Peter Brook was wasting his time when he moved to Paris and set up shop there.
      Let me make one thing clear I do not say that Kabuki, Peking Opera, or Kathakali cannot be performed by non-native performers, for want of a better expression. The only caveat that I would place upon the practitioners, is that they have learnt from those that truly are the best in that field (as for example you have and are doing). The art form is not something that stands alone, it is intertwined with the culture, the history, the politics of the country from which it came from. To truly understand and appreciate any art form, you have to understand where it has come from, why the conventions and how the conventions came about.
      Yellowface, Brownface and Blacking up all come from a point of racism and undervaluation of the people that these practices seek to ridicule and demean. So too would whiteface, but both you and I know that Kabuki is most definitely not Whiteface.
      I found Dave Ross’ remarks offensive and frankly condescending in that he obviously thought he could get away with countering the accusations levelled at his production of the Mikado using Yellowface that because Japanese people use white make up in Kabuki, what he was doing was justified.
      What we are discussing as far beyond Ross’ petty and petulant colonial and yes racist arguments. What we are discussing is the nature of art and form and whether in order to be successful can on take the art form beyond it point of origin. I say yes, yes you can and you should.
      I wish you all the best and hope one day to be able to see one of your productions live
      Kind regards


      1. Aloha Lucy!

        Thank you for your most generous response. In looking at your blog site I had a feeling you would understand my position and indeed I should have mentioned in the original post that I quite agree that Kabuki is not ‘whiteface’ by any stretch of the imagination. Those comments by Mr. Ross display a surprising level of ignorance of Japan in general and of Kabuki in particular.

        I also appreciate your remarks about the importance of historical context, for I made the same point in a lecture I gave a couple of years ago, to theatre majors at UCLA. Although context is important to all art, it seems particularly so for Japanese classical theatre. The vast majority of plays in the Kabuki repertoire, and too a lesser extent those of the No and puppet theaters, deal either directly or tangentially with the events of the Gempei Wars (1180-85). Like the American Civil War, it was one of the seminal events in Japanese history, the reverberations for which were felt deep into the 20th century. The Kabuki theatre is wrapped up very tightly with the history of the samurai.

        Not to sail under false colors, I should note that it has been some years since I last had the privilege to perform in a Kabuki play (or any theatre at all). I actually came to study Kabuki quite by accident while at the Claremont Graduate school where i had enrolled to study pre-Modern Japanese History. That particular year no one was teaching any pre-modern courses, but there were two experts there on Japanese theatre (one on Kabuki and the other on the puppets). I took their courses and become so enamored with Japanese theatre that I never looked back.

        The first time I watched a play (on a Betamax tape recorded in Japan from the NHK) I was instantly smitten. I had never seen theatre like his. Its frank and indeed enthusiastic theatricality was not only refreshing but invigorating in a way that theatre had never before made me feel This was theatre that was alive with fire and blood.

        Right now, there is not a lot of Kabuki being staged here in the US. There is some up at the University of Oregon, and of course the UH remains the strongest source for Asian theatre in America. To my mind the best American born Kabuki actor working today is David Furumoto who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison. For Chinese Jingju (what we call Beijing Opera) then it is Elizabeth Wichmann at the University of Hawai’i.

        My apologies for waxing over long — my passions run deep on this topic, but I would be remiss if I did not also thank you for your comments about Matagoro sensei. When the UH program was first announced our theatre professor at Claremont advised that if any of us were truly serious about this art form we would head to Hawai’i. Even if we spent years in Japan we would never have the opportunity to work with these artists and for such an extended time. It was an opportunity I was fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of.

        Once again, thank you.



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