It's time for pundits to stop using the word "kabuki."

Language and how we use it.
April 14 2010 7:03 AM

It's Time To Retire Kabuki

The word doesn't mean what pundits think it does.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Judging from op-ed pages and talk radio, American pundits know a lot about Kabuki, the 400-year-old Japanese stage tradition with the Lady Gaga get-ups. Health care reform recently brought Kabuki to mind for both Rush Limbaugh—"what you have here is 'Kabuki theater' "—and New York Times columnist Frank Rich: "[I]f I were to place an incautious bet on which political event will prove the most significant of February 2010, I wouldn't choose the kabuki health care summit." For The New Yorker's George Packer, all the capital's a Far Eastern stage, and all its men and women merely players. "I looked for answers outside the Kabuki theatre of Washington personalities."

Pundits use Kabuki as a synonym for "posturing." The New Republic's Michael Crowley, for example, has defined it as a "performance, in which nothing substantive is done." But there's nothing "kabuki" about the real Kabuki. Kabuki, I'll have you know,is one of UNESCO's Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity! And it's nothing like politics. It does indeed use stylized gestures, expressions, and intonations, but it's far from empty and monotonous. As the scholar A.C. Scott has written, a great Kabukiactor's performance will "contain an individuality beneath the unchanging conventions, his symbolism must be something more than imitative repetition." Unlike a Dick Durbin stemwinder, the quintessential Kabuki moment (known as a kata) is colorful and ruthlessly concise, packing meaning into a single gesture. It is synecdoche, synopsis, and metaphor rolled together—as when, in one Kabukiplay, a gardener expecting a visit from the emperor cuts down all his chrysanthemums except one, the perfect one. And in contrast with our own shortsighted politics, Kabukiconcerns not the present so much as a "dreamlike time shrouded in mist but ever present in the subconscious," to quote critic Shuichi Kato.

Of course, pundits don't care about the real thing. They use Kabuki precisely because they and everyone else have only a hazy idea of the word's true meaning, and they can use it purely on the level of insinuation. They deploy Kabuki because:

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1) It sounds funny.
2) It sounds childish.
3) It sounds foreign.
4) It sounds incomprehensible.

Kabuki succeeds chiefly because it makes your opponent sound silly and un-American. And finally kabuki works because:

5) It sounds Japanese.

Needless to say, it sounds Japanese because it is Japanese. Point is, the word can conjure certain stereotypes about Japanese politics. As the scholar Gerald Curtis has noted, we have "an image of Japanese politics in which bureaucrats dominate … and policy making is little more than a process of collusion." For Rush Limbaugh, what better image with which to tar health care reform?

But how did Kabuki, one of Japan's most revered arts, come to signify loathsome fakery? Kabuki escaped derision only so long as no one had heard of it. The Japanese initially considered it too difficult to export; indeed, seeing a Kabuki play cold is like tuning into Lost midseason. Consequently, the word didn't appear in print in English until the late 19th-century, and then only rather infrequently. That changed when, following World War II, Japan's government tried to shed its image as a global marauder by touring its best Kabuki troupes. As historian Barbara Thornbury has written, "spectacular, larger-than-life kabuki was seen as having the potential to reignite America's nearly hundred-year-old romance with exotic Japan." This concept, alas, failed miserably. Although America's urban theatergoers lauded Kabuki, their good opinion did nothing to improve ties between the United States and its one-time enemy. Indeed, relations worsened due to drawn-out treaty negotiations. When American official James C. Hagerty visited Tokyo in 1960, protesters surrounded his car, broke its windows, and nearly flipped it.

According to my research, it was in this hostile atmosphere that Kabukiacquired its modern derogatory meaning. Writing in 1961 about a State Department plan to revise its security measures, Los Angeles Times writer Henry J. Taylor declared, "[By] finally dismissing Chester Bowles as undersecretary of state at the moment he did, the President unhitched the plan's kingpin in this shoddy piece of left-wing kabuki." Six months later, Taylor struck again, "Agriculture Secretary Freeman announced he has discussed Billie Sol Estes' political corruption kabuki with Robert F. Kennedy and 'had mentioned it informally to the president.' "

Writers have enlivened their prose with Kabuki ever since. Usage increases whenever Japan is in the news for disingenuous behavior—as in the early 1990s, when it turned out that Japan's go-go economy was an elaborate sham. It's been cropping up most recently due to the Toyota recall, which has made some Americans question the Japanese car company's commitment to safety. "Toyoda Is Wary Star of Kabuki at Capitol," blared the Wall Street Journal. The word is also on the ascendant whenever fakery seems particularly rife in American politics. Kabuki loves itself a Senate nomination hearing.

It may seem P.C. or peevish to ask writers to resist kabuki. (Is Kabuki resistance itself Kabuki?) The request is impractical, I admit. If a former theater critic such as Frank Rich can't be trusted to use it properly, who can? This is one of those writerly words that is helpfully absent from ordinary conversation, that says, "Stand back, pundit here!" (Slate writers, by the way, have also abused Kabukirepeatedly!) But how would you feel if your favorite art form, ballet or truckers' quilts, say, became another nation's derogatory epithet? How many Americans today steer clear of actual Kabuki(it is regularly performed here) because of the word's reputation? And there's a final reason to ditch it: Posturing is far too tepid an indictment of contemporary American politics. I'd sooner opt for Grand-Guignol, which Wikipedia aptly defines as "graphic, amoral horror entertainment." It is seppukutime for Kabuki.

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Jon Lackman is writing a doctoral dissertation on the use of invective in art criticism.

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