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In the podcast BBC newshour, episode 08 Aug 2023, they talk about the recent coup in Niger, starting at around 30:00. The context is that the apparently strong reactions by Ecowas, such as the mentions for possible military interventions against Niger, are not proving effective. From 32:16, the interviewee says: (transript by me, so there are possible mistakes)

Unfortunately they've taken on the profile of Kabuki theatre, that you know, you have the coup... there's a snit fit by Ecowas and other, you know, multinational organisations... and they issue ultimatums, nothing happens.. and then they switch from trying to reverse the coup to, then, putting forward a [***] road map to return to democracy.

Both from the context and my knowledge of Kabuki, I can judge that this means something along the line that they are making exaggerated moves but they are fruitless. I'm not sure whether the phrase implies the ineffectiveness is by design (Ecowas itself is not expecting it to be effective: it's merely for showing off) or not (Ecowas is seriously hoping it'll make a difference).

No dictionary that I have mentions this figurative meaning. Searching on the internet yields one article on vocaburary.com, which reads 'Kabuki's melodramatic movements led to the word being used figuratively to mean "political posturing" or "political theater."' and one article on slate.com that argues its use should be discouraged. The trustworthiness of them (especially the latter) is not clear for me.

Sorry for the long read: my questions are

  • What is the meaning of the phrase? Is my reading above correct?
  • Is the figurative usage widespread, or more of a creative writing? Is it casual? Derogatory/slangy? Or, perhaps pedantic? Does that sound old-fashioned?
  • Is there any specific nuance? Because many of the English speakers are probably not so familiar with Kabuki, I'm guessing it isn't used just because it can give readers a vivid image. Additionally, is there any clear difference from theatrical, which seem to bear similar meaning (of course they do because essentially they share the same art)?
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    Your reading is correct. The figurative use is almost never seen in British English (which I read extensively), but seems to have some traction in American political reporting. Here, at least, the speaker has explained what they mean by “like Kabuki theatre” immediately afterwards, but even knowing little about Kabuki, I don’t think it’s a good metaphor. I would avoid using it unless I knew enough about the genre to see a clear parallel with a particular play or character in the Kabuki repertoire - and then I’d have to explain that parallel to the reader.
    – KrisW
    Aug 9, 2023 at 14:58

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I worked for a long time in international affairs, where this meaning is quite common. I will, therefore, draw largely from my experience in that field.

What is the meaning of the phrase? Is my reading above correct?

People often describe activities as "kabuki theater" when what occurs on the surface is rather stylized or formulaic, presented for show to an external audience, while the real activity, which occurs behind the scenes, is very different.

In your example, foreign actors (Ecowas and other multinational organisations) go through the same ritual that they go through during every coup (the "snit fit", which inludes issuing ultimatums), whereas everyone knows that this is really all for show and that little will come of it ("nothing happens" and "they switch from trying to reverse the coup" to putting forward a road map).

Another example is Vladimir Putin's prime ministership of Russia (2008-2012). Many Kremlinologists believed that Putin had a secret agreement with Dmitri Medvedev to revert to their former positions as soon as possible. Thus, alternating positions with Medvedev was merely a piece of kabuki theater, done to satisfy external observers and Russian legal obligations while the real activity took place behind the scenes.

Is the figurative usage widespread, or more of a creative writing? Is it casual? Derogatory/slangy? Or, perhaps pedantic? Does that sound old-fashioned?

Yes, this figurative usage is widespread. It occurs in casual contexts; it could be used in formal contexts, too, though quotation marks (or something similar) might be appropriate, since it's not a very standard phrase. It is not necessarily derogatory, slangy, or pedantic. It is not old-fashioned at all; on the contrary, it is very much in active use.

Is there any specific nuance? Because many of the English speakers are probably not so familiar with Kabuki, I'm guessing it isn't used just because it can give readers a vivid image. Additionally, is there any clear difference from theatrical, which seem to bear similar meaning (of course they do because essentially they share the same art)?

I'm not sure what you mean by "specific nuance". It is different from "theatrical", though. Saying that an action is "theatrical" often means that it is done in a very demonstrative way, often veering into melodrama. There is some overlap, as kabuki is also presented to an external audience, but kabuki does not have to be especially demonstrative.

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  • Interesting! Considering @KrisW 's comment, I'd guess that the frequency of its usage varies among genres. Thank you! (I'm a Japanese and slightly puzzled as to what part of Kabuki captured people's interest this way, but interesting anyway)
    – Yosh
    Aug 11, 2023 at 12:39
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    @Yosh I'm not sure, either, but I suspect that it's related to the idea that Japanese culture is especially inscrutable to Westerners. I think that this goes back to the Meiji restoration, when Westerners got some of their first peeks into Japan, but continued long afterward, for example in the late 20th century when books and movies like "Rising Sun" and "Gung Ho" portrayed Japanese culture as something alien and nearly incomprehensible to Westerners. This is mostly speculation, though. Aug 12, 2023 at 0:42
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This isn't based on a detailed knowledge of Kabuki, nor does it reference a particular play or theme.

Rather it refers in a very generic to "melodrama" or "unreal events being treated as real". The idea seems to be that in Kabuki, the actors wear masks and the performance is highly stylized. But the characters on stage don't know they are in a play, there is no breaking of the fourth wall. Even as strange events unfold, the characters continue to be in character.

Hence the analogy: the responses of the international community to coup are formulaic. The character involved act as if their decisions were logical. in fact they follow pathways and the same words are used over and over again. It is rare for osombone to enter this inner clique.

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