Just eight years after establishing a powerful military regime that would last 26 decades, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu became so disturbed by a troupe of itinerate actors that he expelled them from his Suruga military base. The group performed in a popular new style known as “kabuki.” To critical observers such as Ieyasu and his coterie of military strong-men, kabuki dancing consisted of women of ill-repute showing themselves off to potential customers. While an overly simplistic characterization, early kabuki performance seemed to many to be primarily about selling sex. Ieyasu himself became increasingly disturbed by the general drunkenness, insubordination and licentiousness that accompanied kabuki performances. Shortly after expelling the actors from Suruga, Ieyasu became enraged when courtesans and courtiers associated with his household caroused and publically engaged in sex acts while strolling around Edo (now Tokyo). The miscreants paid a heavy price – execution and banishment. Such scandals continued until imperial authorities lost patience and banned women from performing on the kabuki stage altogether in 1629. They would not be allowed back on the stage until 1877.
Young boys took up where the women had been forced to stop. They created a new type of actor — males who specialized in female roles, distinguishing a new “young men’s kabuki” from anything that had come before. Kabuki audiences continued to grow, especially among the increasingly prosperous townspeople of Osaka and the young samurai in Edo. Authorities came to see Kabuki performances as threatening the public order, with homoerotic suggestiveness replacing heterosexual lasciviousness. Officials banned the new art form yet again in 1652 after two samurai fought publicly over the favor of one of the boy actors. While Shogunal authorities gave in and lifted the ban the following year, they restricted theaters to only a few areas in Edo, Kyoto, and in Osaka where they remain today.