Political Shibai or Kabuki?

The Japanese word shibai ‘performance, drama’, as in Okinawa shibai or Ikari ningyo shibai ‘Ikari puppet theatre’, now seems well established in at least one regional dialect of English as a way to denote an empty political performance.

It has been used for a long time in Hawai‘i political talk, and someone recently (after 1999) submitted the following entry to the OED.

political shibai – (Hawaiian, from the Japanese) political shamming

Here’s an example of its usage in a column by David Shapiro in the 5 May 2004 Honolulu Advertiser headlined “What reform? It’s all shibai” about typical political sleight-of-hand by the Hawai‘i State Legislature.

With great fanfare, the 2002 Legislature voted to make Hawai’i the only state in the nation to impose price caps on gasoline.

Senators and representatives ballyhooed the new law in that year’s election, congratulating themselves for bold action to reduce the crushing burden of high fuel prices on Hawai’i’s consumers.

The problem was that the law was an illusion, a political sleight-of-hand that did absolutely nothing to regulate gasoline prices–not in 2002 or 2003 or now, it seems, even 2004.

That’s because the Legislature, while saying consumers needed relief “now,” delayed implementation of the caps for two years to study how to enforce lower prices.

Key agencies couldn’t make the deadline, partly because the Legislature’s misguided capping formula could have increased local gasoline prices by 10 cents a gallon.

So the Legislature is now delaying implementation again, from July 2004 to September 2005. The 2005 Legislature will have yet another chance to tinker or delay before the law takes effect.

HawaiiAnswers.com cites more examples from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (attesting usage dating back to the 1960s) and Linkmeister titled a 7 January 2003 blogpost “Shibai, crap and nonsense” but I haven’t been able to turn up any convincing examples of political shibai used by people without Hawai‘i connections.

The more common synonym elsewhere seems to be kabuki, as in:

  • Outrage Kabuki: When bloggers attack” by Julian Sanchez in reasononline on 5 April 2004 (“That means ritual outrage isn’t just fun; it can be politically efficacious.”)
  • The Elephants in the Kabuki Theater” on Brad DeLong’s Semi-Daily Journal on 22 April 2004 (“the elephants in the kabuki theater: … long-time Republican hawk Richard Clarke and … bipartisan long-time security hawk Rand Beers”)
  • Energy Kabuki: House to repass energy bill to vex Democrats” by Amanda Griscom in Grist Magazine on 15 June 2004. (“The whole thing is a sham,” said Jim Waltman, director of refuge and wildlife programs for the Wilderness Society. “It’s just an elaborate Beltway blame game.”)

The earliest online usage I turned up in a quick Google search is by AP reporter Ron Fournier quoting John McCain in an article in the Abilene (Texas) Reporter-News on 1 September 1999.

[McCain] called the congressional tax-cut plan an “exercise in political kabuki,” criticizing GOP leaders for a bill that gives immediate tax cuts to special interests and delays reductions to taxpayers.

On 10 November 2000, during the legal maneuverings in the wake of the U.S. presidential elections in 2000, Bill Baker of Election Watch accused Al Gore of allowing “this outrageous and bizarre political kabuki theatre to continue.”

On 10 August 2001, Jake Tapper writing in Salon slathers Kerry with the same face paint.

Kerry clearly is taking nothing for granted, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t recognize what essentially right now is political kabuki theater. I cannot even hint that I want anything other than my Senate seat, lest they resent me for it.

In a retrospective published by the Japan Times on 23 September 2003, Japan-resident foreign correspondent David McNeill applied the same term in an imaginary story he wished he could have filed in 2001.

Koizumi wins political kabuki show

Bumbling Yoshio Mori has finally been replaced by the more media-friendly Junichiro Koizumi in a contest for leadership of the LDP that nevertheless leaves Japan’s sclerotic political structure intact. Politicians in Japan have, in any case, very little power to influence policy in comparison to the bureaucrats who write it.

By now, political kabuki seems well entrenched, not just as a twisted borrowing from Japanese, but as a hackneyed meme, like most political reporting itself.

UPDATE: Semantic Compositions assembles some googlestats on (political) kabuki.

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