Derived from the words onna (woman) and kata (way of doing), onnagata is a term used to refer to the male kabuki
actors who specialize in playing female roles. The onnagata came into existence due to an Edo era edict which prohibited women
from performing in kabuki. Onnagata were frequently depicted in 18th and 19th century ukiyo-e and could be distinguished
from actual women by the presence of a purple cloth (murasaki-bôshi) covering their shaved forelocks. Onnagata were among
the most admired kabuki actors and were highly regarded as arbiters of taste and fashion in the Edo period.
The shin hanga artists who specialized in kabuki actor prints depicted numerous onnagata in their prints. By the 20th century,
the murasaki-bôshi was being used less frequently by onnagata, and it appears in only a handful of the modern prints.
Examples include the prints Nakamura Utaemon V as Owasa by Yamamura Toyonari, and Kataoka Gado as Miyuki by Yoshikawa Kanpo.
Most onnagata in the 20th century were using a full wig to cover their shaved forelocks instead of the murasaki-bôshi.
Because of this, some onnagata actor prints closely resemble prints of beautiful women, such as the prints, Nakamura Utaemon as Hanako by Natori Shunsen and Sawamura Sonosuke I as Umegawa by Yamamura Toyonari. The majority of 20th century onnagata portraits show at least a hint of the actor's masculinity underneath his feminine garb. The popular appeal of onnagata was due in large part to the way they successfully bridged the gap between male and female.