MASAYA MIYAKURA, a student in the only kabuki school in Japan, has found it difficult to learn how to act and look just like a woman.In his makeup class, for instance, the young man kneels down on a straw mat before a mirror, drops his robe to his waist, and tries to apply the lavish creams and powders of a female character from an ancient kabuki play. But the red lines over his eyebrows come out crooked, the pink powder on his neck is too thin, and all the while his teacher is snapping at him with corrections. "I really love kabuki," the 16-year-old Miyakura says. "It allows a man to dress up like a woman and be beautiful in a play. But it's hard to put makeup on right, and to speak in a high voice, and to move beautifully, with bent fingertips, rounded shoulders, and pursed lips." Fortunately, as one of six students currently attending the kabuki school at the National Theater, Miyakura is not often under much pressure to play female kabuki roles. Others can do that better, recreating roles played in the same way for centuries, learning the subtle movements that kabukigoers love. "I like to play parts where I can jump and twirl on stage, and swing my sword around," says Miyakura. For these more samurai-like roles, he must wear different colors of makeup, which signify the character's virtues. The kabuki school, started 20 years ago in Tokyo, is an attempt by the government to save one of Japan's unique art forms, one that has changed very little over time. "If this school did not exist, Japan would have to close most of its kabuki theaters," says head teacher Matagoro Nakamura, a well-known actor. Kabuki's origins go back to the early 1600s when it sprang up as street theater, mixing dance, song, and drama into a vaudeville for the common people, who were suppressed by the rigid rules of the shoguns. But this early kabuki also served as an advertising stage for prostitutes, and the shogun banned women from the theater in 1629. For over 300 years, the art of kabuki acting, in both male and female roles, has been passed down from father to son. After the 19th century, few new plays were written, and roles became standardized. Several family lines have dominated kabuki, each passing on the secrets of unique performances to their sons. Kabuki became an inherited art. But in recent decades, several lines of actor families have not continued, while kabuki itself has became less popular. In fact, young Japanese know so little about it that some women have applied to the school. "We would never let a woman teach our students how to act like a woman," says teaching assistant Takahiro Onozawa. "Modern women have lost the gestures of olden times when women always wore kimonos." Students graduate after an 18-month training program. In addition to a makeup class, students learn dance, especially how to stomp the boards loudly; singing, especially in sonorous and archaic Japanese; and music, or how to pluck the three-string shamisen, a banjo-like instrument. "Even though I am Japanese and live in Japan, my world has been American culture," says student Akira Noguchi. "Kabuki training has forced me to learn about my own country." At present, Japan has about 300 kabuki actors or apprentices, most of them on contract to the Shochiku company that virtually monopolizes the theater, says Annegret Bergmann, a German scholar of kabuki. While kabuki was entertainment for the vulgar class in old days, by the late 19th century, when Japan opened up to the world and even the emperor attended a show, kabuki began to draw an upscale crowd. Patrons these days are foreign tourists and elder Japanese ladies in mink stoles paying high prices at the most active kabuki theater, Kabuki-za, on Tokyo's Ginza. "Within a 100 years, who knows if kabuki will exist?" says Ms. Bergmann. "The training program helps to preserve the old ways of acting."