Death of an Onnagata

Nakamura Jakuemon IV

The world of traditional kabuki theater yesterday lost one of its great veterans. Nakamura Jakuemon IV, the oldest onnagata in kabuki, died of pneumonia. He was 91. Born in the 9th year of the Taisho era the eldest son of Ohtani Tomoemon VI, he took to the stage for the first time at the age of six using the name Ohtani Keitaro. He enlisted in the army in 1942 but soon after he reached the front line he was informed that his father had died when a regional theater collapsed during an earthquake.

After the war, he became an onnagata – an actor who specializes in female roles – and succeeded to his father’s stage name in 1948. But a couple of years later he switched to the big screen and as Ohtani Tomoemon VII became a major star until 1955. That year he returned to kabuki and was adopted by the widow of Nakamura Jakuemon III, who had lost her son and the heir to her late husband’s name during the war. In 1964 he succeeded to the name Jakuemon IV.

Jakuemon was the recipient of multiple cultural, Imperial and government awards and was named a Living National Treasure in 1991.