What does "playing the usual kabuki" mean in the following excerpt from the Japan Times of May 24? And is this a common expression?

Japan can score big in the eyes of Trump if it quickly provides an “easy win” to Trump without having trade negotiators playing the usual kabuki of trying to protect the domestic market until the very end.


This would not be a standard American English idiom as kabuki theater isn't common in the US. However, the context would be understood as the similar phrase "the usual song and dance", just substituting some Japanese flavor. In other words, the sentence is saying that instead of difficult negotiations featuring hard lines and begrudging compromises, by giving a Trump something he can boast about quickly, Japan is likely to see favorable treatment on future requests or implementation.

  • You're right and +1, but this answer would be improved with an example or two of "the usual song and dance" being used in English. – Robusto May 28 '19 at 13:15
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    The dance may not be common in the US but the idiom 'kabuki theater' meaning 'stylized, mostly meaningless acts that are characteristic of a group' is common enough. In fact, common enough that there are calls to not use it anymore. – Mitch May 28 '19 at 13:53

Kabuki theater

is literally one kind of dramatic presentation in Japanese culture, with some very particular tropes. The term is used as such in travel guides in English for Japan.

But in other discourse, its meaning is metaphorical. Because of the history of English speakers viewing such performances, 'kabuki theater' usually means

political showmanship or empty show emphasizing style and words over substance.

The phrase

...trade negotiators playing the usual kabuki of trying to...

is just a slight rewording. Other ways of saying it are "a bunch of kabuki theater".

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