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"Parody of the Four Accomplishments" (detail), by Shibata Zeshin; based on the Hikone Screen, an image often used to represent the attitude and fashion of the kabukimono.
  • Japanese: 傾奇者 or 歌舞伎者 (kabukimono)

Kabukimono gangs were groups of flamboyant rogues or flaneurs prominent during the late Sengoku period and early Edo period. The term translates roughly to "eccentric," as the characters that comprise it mean, essentially, one (者) who leans (傾) [away from normal, or away from the norm] and is unusual (奇).

Kabukimono were noted for wearing loud, gaudy kimono and otherwise violating fashion norms (some wore women's kimono) and engaging in wild behavior, including loud conversation, and singing, dancing, and brawling in the streets. An early 17th century painting known as The Hikone Screen (due to its location in the collection of Hikone castle) is a particularly famous and oft-cited visual example of the appearance of the kabukimono; it serves as a particularly convenient example because the central figure is not only dressed unusually, but is actually bending or leaning in an eccentric manner. Some of the stylistic features associated with kabukimono include long hair not held up in a topknot, swords of a longer than normal length and unusually large tsuba (handguards), and elements of European clothing.[1]

Most of their members were made up of young men on the fringes of the samurai class. Many were younger sons who were not in line to inherit, while others were low-ranking samurai, manservants, or ronin. Some were members of court aristocrat families.[2] Often these groups were known to bully townspeople and others of lower classes, indulge in protection rackets, become gangs of thieves, or even kill innocent civilians. Fuwa Kazuemon of the 47 Ronin was said to be a member of a kabukimono gang.

The theatrical form Kabuki is often said to have its origins among these kabukimono; Izumo no Okuni, who is usually credited with originating the form, is often described as one. In particular, just as many kabukimono wore women's clothing, so Okuni is said to have worn men's garments, to have carried swords and daggers, and to have acted as a man sometimes, e.g. jokingly flirting with other women.[3] The word for the drama form has, however, come to be written with different characters - namely, 『歌舞伎』, meaning, literally, "song," "dance," and "technique." These characters were then retroactively applied to the word for the kabukimono, which is now written either of two ways.

The shogunate explicitly banned a number of behaviors and modes of dress in 1615, in an effort to crack down on the kabukimono, who were perceived as disruptive. In addition to the disruption they presented through their loud activities on the streets, the kabukimono represented a disruption of societal norms in that they often demonstrated stronger loyalty to one another than to their actual samurai masters or families.

Though some daimyô, such as the lords of Kaga han, cracked down on kabukimono, arresting, for example, 63 kabukimono in Kanazawa and Takaoka in 1612 and executing them, many daimyô in the early decades of the Edo period encouraged, or at least supported, their retainers in showing off and dressing boldly. Further edicts in 1617 and 1632 sought to put an end to the phenomenon by forbidding higher-ranking samurai from being seen in public alongside (people dressed as) kabukimono, but the very fact that such edicts were issued repeatedly indicates that they were not particularly effective.[4]

One kabukimono leader whose name is known was Ôtori Ichibei. When he was arrested in 1612, he was believed to be associated with a network or gang of hoodlums numbering in the hundreds and responsible for countless acts of street violence. One member of Ichibei's gang killed a hatamoto, a direct retainer to the shogun, in retribution for the hatamoto having killed a member of the gang; it was this action for which Ichibei was arrested. He is described as having been neither samurai nor commoner, and thus representing, purely through his failure or refusal to fit into the standard social categories, a threat to the social norms. But he is also described as having been a man of honor, who insisted that he was "the same kind of person" as all the great daimyô, and who claimed to live by a valiant code of honor, his long sword inscribed with the phrase "twenty-five is too long to live!"[5]

The kabukimono phenomenon likely died out around the end of the 17th century. A roundup of two hundred members of a gang known as the "Greater and Lesser Gods," and execution of eleven of its leaders, in 1686, is described as being the last major action against the kabukimono.[6]


  • Ambaras, David Richard. Bad Youth: Juvenile Delinquency and the Politics of Everyday Life in Modern Japan. University of California Press, 2006. pp11-14ff.
  • Ikegami Eiko. Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2005. pp261ff.
  • Rankin, Andrew. Seppuku. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 2011.
  1. Ikegami. p261.
  2. Morgan Pitelka, Spectacular Accumulation, University of Hawaii Press (2016), 128.
  3. Ikegami. p264.
  4. Ikegami. p263.
  5. Ikegami. p262.
  6. Ambaras. p14.
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