An explosive, shrill cry flies out of nowhere, filling the entire auditorium: “Matte imashita (I’ve been waiting for that)!”

I say, my man, but do you mind please? Some of us are trying to soak up a bit of high culture here!

A couple more shouts scorch the air: “Tennojiya!” “Koraiya!” Will this relentless assault on the ears ever end? Surely these hooligans should be manhandled off the premises — pronto.

This kind of noisy behavior may be the norm at sporting events, but one would expect better manners at the theater. Not just any theater, mind you, but the Kabuki-za in central Tokyo — the Mecca for kabuki, one of Japan’s oldest performance arts.

A little research, however, reveals that it is precisely because it is kabuki that these verbal exhibitionists are even allowed in through the door. Many, in fact, have passes that allow them free entrance any time. Known collectively as omuko, which literally means “over there,” these people — who traditionally do their thing from the seats furthest from the stage — are as much a part of the drama as the actors’ gorgeous kimono and distinctive makeup.

On a recent visit to the Kabuki-za I met up with Kaichi Tanaka, Japan’s most famous omuko. Dressed smartly in a beige cotton suit and dark-colored T-shirt, the pint-size Tanaka was not quite the raucous ruffian I had been expecting — though he did have a rather mischievous glint in his eye.

I just had to know: What made this mild-mannered 70-year-old with slicked-back hair, who used to work in the restaurant business, want to become an omuko?

“The words just come out of my mouth,” Tanaka said with a cheeky grin. “I get all worked up and can’t stop myself from voicing my appreciation of actors’ good performances. It’s a lot like how baseball fans cheer when their team hits a home run — a lot of fun.”

Tanaka sees about 10 performances a month at the Kabuki-za, and he has been around the art form since his childhood, when he cavorted around a theater near his parents’ home in Yokohama. As an adult, he started to watch kabuki after the end of World War II, when he says theaters were strangely devoid of the kakegoe (as the shouting is referred to in Japanese) he remembered from before. So he thought he might as well give it a go.

“I had been around kakegoe as I was growing up, so it was natural for me to do it,” he said. Apparently, kakegoe started early in the Edo Period (1603-1867). In those days performances were outside — like Shakespeare plays in the roofless Globe Theatre in London — and the often temporary theaters were small and cramped. Even if snootiness oozes around it now, in those days kabuki was an entertainment for the masses, where people would eat, drink and have a very merry time. Though they had gone to watch kabuki, their minds would not always be on the performances.

“The actors had to work really hard to get people to look toward the stage,” Tanaka explained. One technique they employed was to strike impressive mie poses at climatic moments in the dramas. These were accompanied by kakegoe and two tsuke (wooden boards) being loudly slapped against the stage floor.

Nowadays, kabuki actors hold a lofty and esteemed position in society, with many achieving celebrity status and some even being accorded the prestigious title of Living National Treasure. However, for much the Edo Period they did not even belong to any of the four rigid social classes of (in descending order) samurai, farmer, artisan and merchant. To overcome this outsider status, many actors adopted the names of merchants who were their patrons, so they could become proxy members of that class, too. Such patrons from the lowest class were the omuko pioneers.

All that changed following a performance before the Meiji Emperor on April 21, 1887 that catapulted the public’s perception of kabuki to a form of high art — a difference in approach that Tanaka describes as equivalent to “choosing to eat a meal with a knife and fork instead of chopsticks.”

But for Tanaka, whatever its current aura of snobbery, kabuki isn’t an inaccessible form of theater in which the audience is distanced from the action. “I feel that I’m creating a play together with the actors,” he says. Actors, too, have told him that they find the presence and contribution of omuko helps create an exciting atmosphere.

No willy-nilly

Nonetheless, just because you are moved by good acting, it doesn’t mean you have carte blanche to shout out willy-nilly. The key is to make sure that you time your kakegoe in a way that doesn’t interfere with actors’ lines. Tanaka’s reputation is such that actors have been known to wait for him to interject before finishing a line.

So what’s the secret of correct timing? “It’s all a matter of experience. The same plays are repeatedly performed, so when you’ve seen a play enough times you know when the crucial moments are,” he says. There were several other omuko in the theater the day I went, but none came close to matching Tanaka’s ability to throw his voice all the way from the third floor down to the stage. He confesses, however, to not having any particular technique — and modestly puts it down to being naturally gifted.

Standard kakegoe that are called out include the title of an actor’s guild (Nakamura-ya, Omodayaka-ya, to name a few); the generation of actor he represents (for example, Ichikawa Danjuro is 12th generation); or the area he lives in. In addition, lovers posing together are often showered with the word goryonin (oh, look at the both of you), which often makes quite a romantic statement. The number of shouts made during a play, or during an entire matinee or an evening performance which may consist of a few plays, depends entirely on the kind of works they are. “I keep quiet when it comes to plays that have serious plots, sometimes just shouting out once or twice. But if a play is lively and has lots of action — like sword-fighting scenes — I’ll call out as much as 10 times in 20 minutes,” Tanaka said.

The 30 or so people — all men — who are regular omuko at the Kabuki-za belong to one of three official omuko groups. These groups don’t compete with each other, and are on friendly terms, says Tanaka. Kotobukikai, the group he heads, has nine members, including a TV announcer and a civil servant. Its youngest member is in his mid-30s.

Yoshiaki Sakuma, a 44-year-old janitor, was asked by Tanaka to join his group because of his good timing. “I’d been watching kabuki for quite a while but was embarrassed to join in with the other omoku. Then one day when the theater was almost empty I gave it a go. I’ve never looked back,” says Sakuma, who has now been 10 years in the shouting racket.

He must have been quite vocal during the early days, as he once had another audience member turn around and tell him off for being noisy. “I think I was too excited and got a bit carried away,” he admits rather shyly.

But most audience members seem to enjoy the presence of omuko. Sixty-five-year-old advertising executive Masayuki Fujimoto said, “When I go to see kabuki, it feels good to hear the omuko shout. I don’t think they are disruptive.” Another fan of omuko is Tanaka’s wife, who is happy about her husband’s hobby. The management of the theater, too, must appreciate what omuko do, as, after a basic screening process, they issue one-year passes to group members.

Kotobukikai has no formal practices, so the only way to improve is to listen to and try to imitate Tanaka.

“The boss has never directly taught me a single thing,” Sakuma says. “I try my best, but I don’t take it that seriously. After all, it is just a hobby. But people give me funny looks when I tell them what I do.”

Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising, this is kabuki after all . . .

“The word kabuki comes from the verb kabuku, which means ‘to act strange,’ ” Tanaka says. “We omuko are basically kabukimono, or people who are just a little wacky.”

Now that was something I had been waiting for him to say — though of course I didn’t yell out my appreciation.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.