Shoguns and other rulers were interested in shaping the behavior of their subjects in order to retain the power they wielded, and if possible, win more of the same for themselves. Religious practices included a cycle of Shintoism, Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism, and back again. The evolution of the kabuki theatre as an art form is a suitable background on which to analyze the mores and values of the Japanese ruling class over a period of two centuries.
Even though its presentation had not changed for hundreds of years (with the exception of make-up and special effects developments) As a centerpiece of Japanese culture, the Kabuki is entertainment and education presented in a colorful and dynamic package. In the middle of the sixteenth century, a Jesuit missionary by the name of Francis Xavier attempted to convert the Japanese to Christianity.
He spent most of his ministry in the Far East with a mission to bring his beliefs to those whose customs and beliefs were extremely foreign to his own, After some initial missteps, the missions founding father Francis Xavier came to appreciate that his religious endeavor would not prosper in Japan unless it gained the favor of the secular lords (p. 130). For several years, his presence along with his brethren was tolerated. Japan was no stranger to outside religious influences.
Confucianism and Zen Buddhism blended with the old Shinto beliefs to form a uniquely Japanese syncretism. It was not long before Christianity had gained a large following. As it turned out, Christians had become a thorn in the side of powerful officials. Because Christianity did not recognize the legitimacy of other spiritual practices and challenged the earthly authority of the feudal lords, Anti-Christian decrees began to be issued by the regime of unifiers in 1587, under Hideyoshi.
At first, they were not vigorously or universally enforced. In 1614, however, the Tokugawa shogunate started a general persecution of Christianity(De Bary et al, p. 130). Many publicly recanted their beliefs to avoid further persecution and maintained their practice in secret. Thousands of others became martyrs. By the middle of the seventeenth century, Christianity was eliminated in Japan. The rulers were certainly paying attention to trends around the world: wherever the Christians colonized, chaos and loss of political autonomy followed.
However, the Japanese had their own moral issues to deal with, especially in the performing arts sector. Before the time of active persecution, the first kabuki dances were performed. Kabuki was one of the most libertine art forms in seventeenth century Japan. At first, the only performers of kabuki were female. Women played both the male and female roles and danced in a sexually suggestive manner to incite the audience. It only added to the excitement when the audience learned that the dancers were available as prostitutes as well.
Distressed by the decline of morality in many of the cultural centers, the shogunate soon banned the participation of women in kabuki”a ban that would remain in effect until after the Second World War. When young men began usurped the role of the women on the stage, the audience had suffered even greater lapses of morality because the young men prostituted themselves to both men and women. The powers that be figured out that this was not going to work either. In light of the sexual indiscretion surrounding the theatre, only mature males were allowed to perform in the kabuki and that is the way it remains even today.
Although women can now participate in the shows, kabuki still remains a male-dominated field. In the late Tokugawa Era, kabuki was a medium for political expression, The kabuki dramatized the same issue of samurai loyalty versus the claim to public authority questionably asserted by the shogunate. Both the scholarly debate and the popular dramatization reflect the uneasy co-existence of Neo-Confucian civil culture with many feudal values persisting not only in the samurai class but in the popular mind as well (p. 354).