Don't Call It Kabuki

Friday, April 16, 2010


Ever notice that pundits like to label political posturing “Kabuki Theater.” Jon Lackman has and doesn’t like it. He explains.

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Comments [16]

John Lloyd from Chicago

Oh, and as for "kerfuffle", that means "clusterf*ck".

I do hear that one on here a bit.

May. 07 2010 09:59 PM
John Lloyd from Chicago

From "The Stuff of Thought", by Steven Pinker:

Poetic devices generally repeat one of the mental structures that organize words in our minds, such as onsets, rimes, and codas. Phonologists have also identified structures that are more abstract than these. The syllables making up a word are attached to a skeleton that defines the word's rhythmic meter and its decomposition into morphemes. When parts of a linguistic skeleton are repeated in poetry or rhetoric, we have the device called structural parallelism (as in the Twenty-third Psalm's "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures / He leadeth me beside the still waters"). In the realm of swearing, we see structural parallelism in the numerous euphemisms for bullshit that share only its metrical and morphological structure. Many terms for insincerity are compounds made of two stressed words, either monosyllables or trochees, with primary stress on the first one:

applesauce, balderdash, blatherskite, claptrap, codswallop, flapdoodle, hogwash, horsefeathers, humbug, moonshine, poppycock, tommyrot

Kabuki has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? Irrespective of what it means in Japan, it sounds just like what it means in English.

May. 07 2010 09:55 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

As I understand it, the most noted recent use of the word in national debate was a Republican in reference to a Summit arranged by the President. The same day, I used the term to refer to our local city council meeting cablecasts, where they learned to hide any debate by deciding things in heavily Democratic caucus meetings instead of at public meetings.

I later that day had to explain, in the New Haven Independent, that I had used the term independent of the national figure. As a one-time student of the then-foremost American authority on Japanese theater, I used it with some subtle understanding of that of which I wrote.

The most salient comparison of the theater form to American politics is that the actors; only women at first, then only men; usually doubled as prostitutes. It might be unfair to also point out that it developed from the theater on Noh,

Apr. 22 2010 02:08 AM
Rob S. from Edison, NJ

I think another part of the "kabuki" usage is that not only is it precise, traditional, and ritualized, but it's also true that most Americans haven't been exposed to it. (I've never seen it myself, although I've seen some plays with kabuki elements and stylizations.) I think not recognizing and understanding the origins of certain political rituals is part of what makes political kabuki, "kabuki" -- and as someone with the education and experience to understand kabuki better than most westerners, Jon might overlook what kabuki means to most others -- something incomprehensible and foreign.

Apr. 19 2010 03:15 PM
George from Winston-Salem, NC

Think Progress just used it today!

And now I'm going to be hyper-aware of it every time. Curse you for making me aware of what's going on around me, WNYC!

Apr. 19 2010 03:01 PM
steve novak from schenectqady, ny

Your guest discovered that there aren't any references to 'kabuki' in the media of France, Italy or Germany.
No surprise, since none of those countries ever occupioed Japan (there is the basis of a joke in there, but I'll let it pass).
We did, and to the extent that most Americans have any knowlege of kabuki, it is as a sstylized ritualistic performance that emphasizes style over substance. That may not be an accurate understanding, but it is tho 0ne that an American audience would have, and the usafge is reasonable. You have provided a platform for someone aiming a misguided protest.
If you want to go after strange termin0lology, how about the NPRism 'kerfuffle'? I have heard it nowhere else, and wghile I understand the meani8ng based on contexct, I wonder from wherwe your colleagues pulled that one.

Apr. 19 2010 01:01 PM
ahsilver from MN

One thing I found significant for its absence in this otherwise thorough piece was a description of what Kabuki theater actually *is*.

Apr. 19 2010 09:50 AM
Vic from !

I'm going...going kabuki
one more slice of fugu
my lips numb

Apr. 18 2010 11:33 PM
Vic from !

"At the end of the daaaee..."
please, where do I sign up?
& "kabuki"...
what these nudniks know about kabuki is just the catchy sound of the word itself...& whatever else they were able to pick up from a colorful poster on the bathroom wall of their favorite sushi bar.

Apr. 18 2010 11:13 PM
raul from san francisco

While it's true the expression is over used and imprecise...who cares.

Considering that Kabuki, unlike Noh, theater was created as a racous entertainment and not particularly obscure or dissembling, using the expression "like some sort of kabuki theater" is more of an xenophobic use of culture by the west.

I think the "media" have bigger problems.

For instance, this obsessive need to prove how impartial the media is has created all sorts of catchphrases and expression that make you want to run for your meat cleaver.

Listen people, if you want to join a crusade to stop the use of meaningless expressions I have something we can all rally around.

Join me now in a pledge to stop using the loathsome expression, "At the end of the day."

The world will be a better place for our campaign.

Join me PLEASE!

Apr. 18 2010 07:21 PM
Vic from !

Getting back to the KABUKI reference, (Edo Period)
it's not the actors skill, and the highly stylized and dramatic stage productions that draws my attention to the current American political and economic scene. It's more the bizarre nature of the actors themselves swaggering through the floating world of night town.
Here, perhaps, was the beginning of pop culture as we know it today.

Apr. 18 2010 01:52 PM
Gary Salter from Northfield, VT

Well my my inspiration from this NPR's "OnThe Media" sunday talk about "kabuki" has inspired me to get out those "Liberty's Kids" episodes we have around the house. Maybe watching these will get me back to a simpler view of what is important. Simple in presentation, though not necessarily in content. I can be re-inspired by Walter Wronkite as he plays the part of Benjamin Franklin. Hey, my kids will willingly turn of their phones and laptops and watch with me (if I make pancakes from scratch) Cheers

Apr. 18 2010 11:25 AM
Vic from !

Under our current political and economic circumstances, and in keeping with the Japanese theme, I believe the more correct analogy is with BUNRAKU...Japanese puppet theater.
Check it out.
And after the play begins, you hardly even notice the cloaked and hooded puppet handlers gracefully moving and manipulating the life-like figures on stages.
As I recall, at the end of a performance, the puppet handlers will remove their hoods to the audience and take a bow. Perhaps, here is where the analogy begins to fall apart.

Apr. 18 2010 11:23 AM
chuck thompson from Anchorage AK

By the way:
I once actually tried using the Balanese shadow puppetry word "wayang" as a substitute for farcical political theater but each time ended up having to explain the tradition of Indonesian shadow puppetry so often, it ruined the effect.
Nobody knows "wayang" but everyone understands "kabuki." For that, Jon should actually be grateful for the abundant use of the term.

Apr. 17 2010 09:07 PM
chuck thompson from Anchorage AK

Sorry Jon.
If we stopped using every euphemism or metaphor that someone found objectionable somewhere along the line, ours would be a language of only "the's, if's, and's, and but's."

On reflection, strike the "but's" from that list .... because even I might object to using that one, since it's a homophone of a body part I find so alluring.

Clarence and I are on the same page, here. The term kabuki may have had its origin in Japanese ritual theater but, as with so many things in culture -- foreign and domestic -- the marvelous English language has borrowed the expression and expanded the definition to include any elaborate staging that lacks seriousness or even the air of credibility, in much the same way Japenese kubuki make-up, dance and dress was never intended to represent real life.

In that capacity, actually, the word serves us well. We've seen so many eloquent kabuki performances on Fox News lately, that I'm sure many younger Americans now think we invented it.

Apr. 17 2010 09:03 PM
Clarence Ewing from Chicago, IL

I don't think Mr. Lackman is getting the term "Kabuki" quite right in its American political context.

It's been my observation that when someone mentions an event being like a Kabuki, they are not referring to it as a ritual. Rituals have meanings and significance beyond mere actions.

Many political meetings, however, especially those of high-ranking officials in public view, often look like stock characters reading their lines from a script to which everyone already knows the ending. The thoroughly planned-out and highly formalized nature of these interactions suggests no real activity taking place, but theater, specifically a kind of theater that's known for its precision and formality, such as Kabuki.

Apr. 17 2010 04:19 PM

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