Connect with us


Kabuki Comes to Hawaii: Serendipitous Ties Between a University and Professional Actor

Artistic director and kabuki actor Monnosuke Ichikawa VIII gives us the backstory on the kabuki play premiering in English in Hawaii on April 19.



Students practice kabuki at the Kennedy Theatre Manoa Campus at the University of Hawaii in February 2024 (© Sankei Shimbun by Koji Tsuchiya).

In February 2024, a Sankei Shimbun reporter saw a curious sight: students of the University of Hawaii practicing a Japanese kabuki play.

He learned that 2024 marks 100 years since kabuki was performed in English in Hawaii. To mark the occasion, "The Maiden Benten and the Bandits of the White Waves" is being performed from April 19-20 and April 26-28 at the university's Kennedy Theatre on the Manoa Campus. Notably, the play will be completely in English.

Going back in time, it's believed that the first Japanese settled in Hawaii about 150 years ago. Historical archives suggest that in 1924 a second-generation Japanese student began performing kabuki in English at the university. It seems he had watched these plays as a child when visiting Japan.

To celebrate this history, Julie Iezzi has taken a leading role by overseeing this year's production. She is a theatre professor at the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Hawaii. In an interview with The Sankei Shimbun in February, she explains the significance of the department's legacy. "Some places in the United States have seen Japanese kabuki, but Hawaii is the only place with a 100-year history of performing in English," she says. 

To bring this project to life, Iezzi is collaborating with the well-established Japanese kabuki actor Monnosuke VIII Ichikawa VIII, who serves as the play's artistic director. 

JAPAN Forward and The Sankei Shimbun sat down with Monnosuke VIII to find out more about the Hawaii performance and the importance of spreading this traditional artform to the world. Excerpts follow.

Monnosuke Ichikawa VIII speaks in an interview with JAPAN Forward and Sankei Shimbun in March 2024 (© Sankei Shimbun by Koji Tsuchiya).

New Beginnings 

The University of Hawaii Department of Theatre and Dance has an established reputation for teaching traditional performance art from around the world. The school's latest work comes from a whimsical tie-up between Iezzi and Monnosuke Ichikawa VIII.

When Monnosuke VIII was tapped for the collaboration, he recalls visiting the campus. "I knew that some of my predecessors had worked together with the University of Hawaii in the past, but not much beyond that," he explains.


He was particularly impacted by watching DVDs of a previous kabuki performance in English.

"The lines were in English, but the performance really had a kabuki feeling. It was moving and that prompted my collaboration with this project," he extolls. 

Julie Iezzi from University of Hawaii department of theatre and dance (© Sankei Shimbun by Koji Tsuchiya).

Gradual Collaboration

Monnosuke VIII began working with the university in 2019. However, the performance was stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In November 2023, Monnosuke VIII's two apprentices went to Hawaii to teach the students the movements and lines of the play. Later, the actor joined and proceeded to guide the students through auditions.

"Kabuki is something you perform. Therefore, the best people to teach it are the people who act in it," he emphasizes, noting the difference between teaching plays for performance or just as works of literature.

It is also a new experience for the kabuki actors. They are familiar with singular acting roles, but rarely with teaching one whole play. "It's a learning experience for me and my apprentices as well," says Monnosuke VIII.

Learning Theater Through Japanese Language

A key teaching aspect is that, regardless of their language ability, all performers learn the play in the original Japanese. Only then do the students begin learning the lines in English. 

Monnosuke VIII explains that the idea is to familiarize the students with the musicality of the Japanese words. "Kabuki's kanji characters have 'song' in them. It's similar to opera in many ways. Therefore, to learn the essence of the art, it's necessary to learn some of it in Japanese."

Students practice at the Kennedy Theatre in February 2024 (© Sankei Shimbun by Koji Tsuchiya).

The kabuki actor appraises the process."It's really rewarding to see students that initially looked skeptically at the script getting progressively more used to the words and the movements." He concludes, "It's something that makes me very happy." 

In addition, Monnosuke VIII describes Professor Iezzi's translation process as a labor of love. 


"She seems to have such joy, for example, when she finds exactly the right translation and rhythm for a Japanese play."

Photos from the Exhibition at the University East-West Center, called "Kabuki in Hawai‘i: Connections through Time and Space" (© Sankei Shimbun by Koji Tsuchiya).

Bringing Kabuki to Life

This has all happened since the beginning of 2024. The play has been translated and musicians have been brought in. When the Sankei reporter visited in February, the venue already featured a hanamichi. This is the runway stretching down the theater hall, typically used in kabuki performances.

Monnosuke VIII expresses his appreciation for the preparations underway. "These kabuki performances become an opportunity for local artisans to learn how to make the various tools necessary for the play," he adds. 

At the same time, the kabuki actor says he receives updates on the practices through video calls. "These days, it's so convenient, isn't it?" he says smiling.

He adds, "There are many places that feature the play. But in terms of universities that really teach Japanese theater in such a deep way, I think there is only the University of Hawaii."

The Kennedy Theatre at the University of Hawaii Manoa Campus in February 2024 had already the hanamichi, a runway typically used in kabuki performances (© Sankei Shimbun by Koji Tsuchiya).

Building Bridges Internationally

From our conversation, it's clear that Monnosuke VIII sees this collaboration as a unique opportunity for international exchange.

"Today's students one day might become teachers and scatter all over the world. For us, it creates new pathways to follow and teach. That way, hopefully, as kabuki spreads around the world. It can become a first step to more people understanding Japanese culture," says Monnosuke VIII. "We are only going to Hawaii, but we see it as our door to the whole world," adds the smiling actor. 

On top of the performance in Hawaii, the students will also travel to Japan for a local performance in Gifu prefecture in June

The Future of Kabuki

Monnosuke VIII says he wants people to know the Japanese traditional art is not afraid of renewing itself. "Kabuki has 400 years of history but we constantly try new things in our performances. We'd be thrilled if people came to see our performance," he says. 

Students practice kabuki at the Kennedy Theatre Manoa Campust at the University of Hawaii in February 2024 (© Sankei Shimbun photo by Koji Tsuchiya).
Photos from the Exhibition at the University East-West Center, called "Kabuki in Hawai‘i: Connections through Time and Space" (© Sankei Shimbun by Koji Tsuchiya).

In fact, the Ichikawa family was a proponent of Super Kabuki in the 1980s under Ennosuke III, debuting new works such as Yamato Takeru. Fans also enjoyed "Super Kabuki II" under Ennosuke IV in the 2010s, with blockbuster hits such as One Piece, based on an anime by the same name. 

Looking forward, Monnosuke VIII hopes this project can be an opportunity for both Japanese and foreigners to discover kabuki — for the first time or in a new light. 


"For Japanese people, it's a chance to see how people abroad see and feel our culture, and an opportunity to reflect on Japan's roots." 

He continues, "And for foreigners, they can find out about this unique performance style and enjoy it in English. We'd be delighted if you came to see us!"

For those wanting to find out more, the Gallery Exhibition at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii called "Kabuki in Hawai‘i: Connections through Time and Space" will be open until May 5.


Author: Arielle Busetto 

(Read the related article in Japanese.)