Category Archives: Kabuki Alert

Kabuki for lunch alert

You can always spot the undercover restaurant critics by their kabuki masks.

“Ms. Lemos, I presume,” I said with a mock flourish.

“Just call me Gael,” she said with a weary smile.

This weary smile will be familiar to anyone who has dined with a practicing restaurant critic and quizzed him or her on the strange, time-honored Kabuki dance that takes place between chefs and restaurateurs and the people whose job it is to cover them.

“Unbuttoning the uniform”

Over the years, this blog has had so many posts on the wretched “kabuki play” cliche that we gave them their own category, but we never mentioned a related pet peeve cliche of mine: “opening the kimono“. Well, in yesterday’s New York Times, the acerbic David Carr1 spun a new twist on it.









Let Them Open The Kimono

In his article on the intense secrecy of the Bradley Manning Wikileaks trial, “In Leak Case, State Secrecy in Plain Sight” and the difficulties that has so hindered  journalists and other citizens interested in the case, he has the following paragraph:

Finally, at the end of last month, in response to numerous Freedom of Information requests from news media organizations, the court agreed to release 84 of the roughly 400 documents filed in the case, suggesting it was finally unbuttoning the uniform a bit to make room for some public scrutiny.

As far as I can tell, Carr is the first writer to use this spin on the nasty cliche (although it has certainly been used before in reference to, say, soldiers undressing), which I honestly find pretty amusing. At least, unless it turns into a cliche.

  1. Incidentally, a resident of my home town, although we have never met. []

LDP presidential candidate Hayashi: “Let’s play kabuki”

This morning’s NHK Sunday political show contained a disturbing reimportation of the term political kabuki.

The candidates for LDP president were debating their stances on US base relocation, and one, Yoshimasa Hayashi, made the comment (if memory serves) that if Japan cannot deliver progress in negotiations then the bilateral talks would be nothing but political theater.

Specifically, he said they would turn into “let’s play kabuki” (レッツプレイカブキ) apparently referring to the tendency for the US media to refer to kabuki theater in this sense.

Ugh. My least favorite media cliche is now being adopted by the highest levels of Japan’s political establishment.

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I don’t even really like this show that much because it tends to be nothing but unsurprising political bromides, and whatever value they have is directed at the politicos in Nagatacho, not a general audience. I always end up watching though because it comes right after one of my favorite shows 小さな旅 (“Little Adventures” is how I prefer to translate it). It’s a fun travel show but I especially like it for its amazing theme music, written by Yuji Ohno of Lupin III fame. Here it is thanks to the magic of YouTube:

Re-importing kabuki

From a recent NYT article on how globalized Japanese people supposedly have trouble finding jobs in Japan:

“Shukatsu” refers to the system in which Japanese companies typically hire the bulk of their workers straight from college and expect them to stay until retirement. Not getting a job upon graduation is seen as a potential career killer.

So competition is fierce. In the last three years, the percentage of new graduates in Japan who found work was the lowest since the government started collecting comparable data in 1996. As of Feb. 1, with two months left in the recruiting season, a fifth of students in their final year at college had yet to find jobs.

“Shukatsu is like Kabuki theater,” said Takayuki Matsumoto, an Osaka-based career consultant. “It’s difficult when you don’t fit the template.”

His advice to returnees: don’t be too assertive or ask too many questions.


Something tells me that young people who study in the US and then spend most of their job hunt trying to land work with Japanese companies might have unrealistic expectations of potential employers. They might not realize that US employers also have similarly kabuki-like expectations of potential recruits. In a lot of ways, the experience of working at your first company might not be that different.

I feel like I must have read this same article like 5 times over the last decade, whether in the form of a primer in Japanese business practices or a feature like this one. The tone of this piece is at odds with my experience working at a US law firm and two Japanese companies so far. Internationally minded people with the right attitude can find a lot of success in Japan. There is such a limited population of truly proficient English speakers that opportunities abound.

I think there can definitely be a mismatch between employer and employee expectations, but overall I think Japanese firms are desperate for talent that’s proficient both with English and dealing with Western culture. It’s mostly sucked up by the foreign firms operating here, so they are hurting for it. That is to say, there may well be many companies that fit the stereotype outlined in the article, but I think there are plenty of others that will welcome the type of talent they describe. Instead of whining to the New York Times, you guys should have spent that time submitting a few more job applications.

Does your experience jibe with mine? Let me know in the comments.

(Thanks to regular reader Diana for sending this in!)

Kabuki alert gets married

As soon as Obama made his big announcement about officially endorsing gay marriage, the comparison was inevitable.

On some level everybody already knows that Obama doesn’t object to gay marriage, so why should he continue to pretend he has reservations or his position is “evolving”? It’s the kabuki charade that would have had a greater chance of dragging him down.

But it would be pretty sweet if Obama did his next speech in kabuki makeup.

Andrew Sullivan Kabuki alert

As you may infer from the title, the latest pundit to engage in this appropriate and worn-out cliche is Andrew Sullivan, a writer whom I generally like but does punch out copy with such rapidity that a certain amount of cliche becomes, perhaps, inevitable.

In a recent post (fairly) criticizing Senator Harry Reid for spineless political triangulation and misdirection over the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Sullivan said:

If I lived in Arizona Nevada and had the vote, even though Sharron Angle is beyond nuts, I’d vote for her. Better nuts than this disgusting, cynical, partisan Washington kabuki dance, when people’s lives and dignity are at stake.

“Kabuki dance” is an old stand-by (Kabuki is of course a genre of drama, not a dance) and “Washington kabuki” with or without “dance” is also tried-and true, but Sullivan does stick more adjectives on the front than most. However, what he misses is the irony of insulting Harry Reid for his anti-gay political positions by calling him a performer in kabuki, a dramatic form in which transvestism is not just institutionalized, but considered a high art, and which for centuries had been strongly associated with homosexual prostitution.

I will reproduce the first paragraph of the relevant Wikipedia article here, followed by a very interesting video featuring Onnagata actor Bando Tamasaburo, which includes an interview and some actual kabuki footage. I recommend watching it twice, the second time imagining the part is being played by Harry Reid, and considering what that would mean for Andrew Sullivan’s clumsy metaphor.

Onnagata or oyama (Japanese: 女形・女方, “woman-role”), are male actors who impersonate women in Japanese kabuki theatre. The modern all-male kabuki was originally known as yarō kabuki (man kabuki) to distinguish it from earlier forms. In the early 17th century, shortly after the emergence of the genre, many kabuki theaters had an all-female cast (onna kabuki), with women playing men’s roles as necessary. Wakashū kabuki (adolescent-boy kabuki), with a cast composed entirely of attractive young men playing both male and female roles, and frequently dealing in erotic themes, originated circa 1612.[1](p90)

Most Congressional hearings are now “kabuki”

Click here to watch some wrinkled political blowhard casually dismiss an entire branch of government with our favorite tired cliche:

(The BP hearings are) not a forum where we can expect answers. It’s kind of a “kabuki drama” if you will, like most congressional hearings.

You can leave comments on the BP oil spill under this post. Bill Maher said that even he is too depressed to read the news these days, and I agree. It seems like such devastation for so much of the gulf I am tempted to block it out of my mind, which is the kind of tactic I usually reserve for the suffering in third world countries.

(Borrowed the fun image from Google. Bloomberg’s Youtube channel doesn’t allow embedding)

Another Obama appointment, another kabuki metaphor

This time it’s Elena Kagan, this time the culprit is Colorado Law professor Paul Campos speaking on NPR, this time it’s a “ritual,” and as always we are here to call them on it.

I think that to the extent that it’s possible to eventually support this nomination, it has to be based on her answering real substantive questions in the confirmation process instead of going through this kind of kabuki ritual of dodging those kinds of questions, which is what nominees have so successfully done for the past 20 years.

This is, of course, the same metaphor that Joe Biden used in the context of the Sotomayor confirmation hearings, as blogged about on MFT before.

And so I will say it again: if you’re going to compare Washington to any sort of Japanese theater, you’re probably best off comparing it to bunraku.

Kabuki backlash?

After what feels like a very long time, some prominent publications are starting to notice that “kabuki” is being overused when talking about American politics:

First we have Slate, which has triggered our Kabuki Alert before:


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.
...
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:

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?

Then there’s NPR radio show/podcast On The Media, reporting on the Slate article. They are guilty too—listen at the end for an entertaining retrospective of their (many) transgressions.

Many thanks to author Jon Lackman for bringing it up! Good luck on that “doctoral dissertation on the use of invective in art criticism.” Funnily enough, your piece is about something different – the use of art in political invective.

At Mutant Frog, we have long been aware of this painfully cliched metaphor. But maybe we won’t have to worry about it so much anymore. That’s at least two publications that will probably become more self-conscious about trotting out the kabuki cliche from now on. Will others follow?

(Thanks to the reader who sent this in!)

Even more kabuki on Capitol Hill

This month’s American Bar Association Journal features a cover story on the Supreme Court nomination process called “No More Kabuki Confirmations,” complete with a backdrop of paper lanterns, cherry blossoms and ukiyo-e figures.

It’s a “Kabuki dance,” said Joe Biden when he was a senator on the Judiciary Committee. U.S. Supreme Court nominees give the illusion of responding to senators’ questions, but say little of importance.

... Biden’s successor, Sen. Ted Kaufman, told the National Law Journal that the process resembled the Super Bowl—with press coverage all around.

It’s “a subtle minuet,” said Sen. Arlen Specter during the hearing for Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., “with the nominee answering as many questions as he thinks are necessary in order to be confirmed.”

For his part, Justice Felix Frankfurter, plagued during his confirmation hearing with suggestions that he was partial to communists, favored the athletic comparison. “I thought that it would just be a little room where we would sit around,” he said of the Judiciary Commit­tee hearing. “I found that this was Madison Square Garden.”

Whether likened to theater, dance or a sporting event, the confirmation process for the Supreme Court has become a set piece of punch and counterpunch, with enough irritation left from one process to undermine the next.

A kabuki minuet in Madison Square Garden would be pretty awesome, but probably not all that similar to the Sotomayor hearings.