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I assume conference goers are not usually performing Kabuki, so please explain this metaphor from The New York Times:

[the financial conference at] Bretton Woods was itself 95 percent Kabuki theater

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Kabuki is standard jargon in the event management industry- what happens on stage when the Kabuki screen drops is frequently the matter of key slides in presentations related to MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences & Exhibitions). Whether the usage of the word comes across as sardonic, farcical, tragic or otherwise depends on how you view the historical context/backdrop.IMHO Dramatic is what the comment intends to primarily convey. –  Autoresponder Oct 27 '12 at 15:40

2 Answers 2

This article by John Lackman in the online current-affairs-and-culture magazine Slate provides a definition and history of the term.

Highlights:

Pundits use Kabuki as a synonym for "posturing." The New Republic's Michael Crowley, for example, has defined it as a "performance, in which nothing substantive is done."

Pundits don't care about the real thing. They use Kabuki precisely because they and everyone else have only a hazy idea of the word's true meaning, and they can use it purely on the level of insinuation. They deploy Kabuki because:
1) It sounds funny.
2) It sounds childish.
3) It sounds foreign.
4) It sounds incomprehensible.

When American official James C. Hagerty visited Tokyo in 1960, protesters surrounded his car, broke its windows, and nearly flipped it. According to my research, it was in this hostile atmosphere that Kabukiacquired its modern derogatory meaning. Writing in 1961 about a State Department plan to revise its security measures, Los Angeles Times writer Henry J. Taylor declared, "[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." Six months later, Taylor struck again, "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.' "

Lackman concludes by decrying the use as a libel on a sophisticated art form:

How would you feel if your favorite art form, ballet or truckers' quilts, say, became another nation's derogatory epithet?

It's an excellent piece, well worth reading.

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Kabuki theatre is known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its performers.

I would interpret the phrase as saying Bretton Woods was mostly posturing and diplomatic ritual, but not much of substance happened.

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Why Kabuki theatre and not just theatre, elaborate theatre, or similar? –  coleopterist Oct 27 '12 at 7:29
    
Maybe because Kabuki programmes often lasted all day, sometimes with just one play. This is only speculation, of course. –  Roaring Fish Oct 27 '12 at 7:35
    
Kabuki theatre is thus used as a euphemism for "posturing and diplomatic ritual to excess", then? –  Kris Oct 27 '12 at 9:22
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I've seen this metaphor several times before, so it's not uncommon. It indeed means posturing and diplomatic ritual for show without much substance. Possibly people's awareness of political correctness is making it less common now than it was in the past. –  Peter Shor Oct 27 '12 at 13:33
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I'm not sure I can agree with this conclusion: From the article: "The transcript provides 'insight in how it was that they were able to maintain a pace of work which allowed them to reach two really big agreements, on the I.M.F. and the World Bank, within a space of three weeks,' Mr. Schuler said. 'Keynes was something of a task master,' he added." It sounds like quite a bit of substance was accomplished in a pretty short time. –  Jim Oct 27 '12 at 15:02

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