Kabuki dance: Political posturing; a performance that’s all style, no substance. Sometimes seen as Kabuki theater. “Kabuki” may be capitalized or lower case.
This sense of kabuki dance is found primarily in the U.S. It’s come up in coverage of the Congressional budget impasse (aka the fiscal cliff); the image of “dancing on a cliff” seems to be irresistible to reporters and pundits:
There will be a Kabuki dance when everyone comes to the White House next week for a meeting on the fiscal cliff. – Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post, November 9, 2012
“Bloomberg’s Al Hunt discusses the dangerous fiscal-cliff kabuki dance.” (Video, November 14, 2012)
“We go through this little kabuki dance every time the debt ceiling comes around,” [Bill] Frezza said. – Newsmax, November 30, 2012
The Japanese popular-theater form Kabuki literally means “art of song and dance”; the word Kabuki was adopted into English in the late 19th century during a flurry of Western interest in Japanese culture. (See, for example, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.) It became more widespread in English-speaking countries after World War II, when Japanese theater companies toured the West.
To a culturally aware Japanese audience, traditional Kabuki is anything but empty posturing: every gesture is, on the contrary, packed with significance. “The quintessential Kabuki moment (known as a kata) is colorful and ruthlessly concise, packing meaning into a single gesture,” wrote Jon Lackman in an April 2010 article for Slate, “It’s Time to Retire Kabuki”:
It is synecdoche, synopsis, and metaphor rolled together—as when, in one Kabuki play, a gardener expecting a visit from the emperor cuts down all his chrysanthemums except one, the perfect one. And in contrast with our own shortsighted politics, Kabuki concerns not the present so much as a “dreamlike time shrouded in mist but ever present in the subconscious,” to quote critic Shuichi Kato.
But in American political jargon, the opposite holds true: Kabuki is always derogatory and condescending, connoting a lot of huffing and puffing without results. Lackman traces this meaning back to a 1961 article in the Los Angeles Times about a State Department plan to revise its security measures. “[By] finally dismissing Chester Bowles as undersecretary of state at the moment he did, the President unhitched the plan’s kingpin in this shoddy piece of left-wing kabuki,” wrote Henry J. Taylor.
(Lackman doesn’t mention it, but Taylor had served as US ambassador to Switzerland in the Eisenhower administration; in 1961 he was beginning a 20-year stint as columnist for the United Feature Syndicate.)
“Six months later, Taylor struck again,” Lackman writes. The quote: “Agriculture Secretary Freeman announced he has discussed Billie Sol Estes’ political corruption kabuki with Robert F. Kennedy and ‘had mentioned it informally to the president’.”
(Did you know that Billie Sol Estes is still alive and a free man?)
Lackman notes that kabuki usage increases “whenever Japan is in the news for disingenuous behavior” and “whenever fakery seems particularly rife in American politics.” He cites a July 2009 Wall Street Journal article headlined “The Supreme Court Kabuki Dance.”
Why do reporters and pundits relish kabuki? Lackman suggests it’s because “they and everyone else have only a hazy idea of the word’s true meaning.” Moreover:
1) It sounds funny.
2) It sounds childish.
3) It sounds foreign.
4) It sounds incomprehensible. …
5) It sounds Japanese.
And for a 400-year-old word, it also sounds trendy. As baby-name maven Laura Wattenberg has observed: “If any letter defines modern American name style, K is it."
Hat tip: MJF