08 January 2010

Political Kabuki

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Some semantic musings….

While watching an interview with Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein on the Colbert Report, I was surprised to hear him use ‘kabuki’ as an adjective to describe the theatrics of live C-SPAN senate debate in the United States. The quote is about 4 minutes into the video clip above, where Klein says:

‘If you got to see the reconciliation [of the two bills],
what you would be seeing is a kabuki reconciliation’


I had never heard the term ‘kabuki’ used in a non-Japanese context before, and my first reaction was one of dismay. Why say ‘kabuki’ when the more commonly used term ‘theatrical’ would certainly suffice? Or another commonly used idiom like ‘smoke and mirrors.’ Are they suggesting that kabuki is all stylization with no substance to an American audience?

The usage seems to be relatively new, as noted by Semantic Compositions back in 2004. All the examples that Semantic Compositions give seem to suggest the term ‘kabuki’ being used in the Shakespearean sense of being “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (Macbeth, V.v.). The website Political Kabuki suggests with its subheading ‘Politics in a Culture of Deceit’ also uses the term in a rather negative context.

A user named Dante at one party state; however, gives a definition that demonstrates a more profound understanding of classical kabuki:

An extremely stylized political show where the roles of the actors
(for example, Senators) are as predefined as the outcome,
the result being, even under the most extreme circumstances,
only barely (if at all) recognizable as what can be considered
reasonable discourse amongst educated men
and women interested in the public good. (posted March 2006)


A google search of ‘political kabuki’ today brought up only 50,900 hits for me (my Google search is limited to 4 languages), which suggests that the term hasn’t become much more popular than when Semantic Compositions googled it back in 2004. Yet it is certainly fascinating to see a Japanese term creep into American English.

I would be interested in hearing other opinions on the subject. Has the term ‘kabuki’ in relation to politics or other non-Japanese contexts been making any headway in other English speaking contexts, or is this an American phenomenon? Are there other Japanese terms making their way into English or other languages? ‘Manga’ has become Germanized at many bookstores, where they erroneously pluralize it as ‘Mangas’. I have also seen the ‘s’ added in French publications . But 'Manga' is, of course, being used in a specifically Japanese context - just like sushi, haiku, and karate are now commonly used in English but in a Japanese context. Are there any other Japanese loanwords creeping their way into English in surprising ways?

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