Saturday, July 2, 2022

ENGEKIKAI #3 (March 2022): Cover and Contents

The late Nakamura Kichiemon II as Ichijō Ōkura Nagashige in Ichijō Ōkura no Monogatari. Photo: Shinoyama Kishin.
Here, as promised, is the cover for the penultimate issue of the great monthly kabuki magazine, ENGEKIKAI, which has preserved kabuki history in text and image since early in the 20th century, when it began as ENGEI GAHŌ. This is vol. 3 (March 2022), recording the productions of January, as seen in the lower right headline covering shows at four kabuki theatres: Tokyo’s Kabuki-za, Kokuritsu Gekijō, and Shinbashi Enbujō, and Ōsaka’s Shōchiku-za. But, as the cover photo signifies, the issue’s major contribution is its memorialization of Nakamura Kichiemon II, one of the greatest modern stars, from the 1960s until his death in November of last year. Designated a Living National Treasure, he was the son of Matsumoto Hakuō (previously Matsumoto Kōshirō VIII), a giant of postwar kabuki, and the brother of the still active star, Matsumoto Hakuō II (previously Kōshirō II). The cover shows him in the role of Ichijō Ōkura Nagashige in Ichijō Ōkura no Monogatari.

Among other items in the issue is the most recent in Matsumoto Kōshirō X’s backstage series, “One Thousand and One Nights.”

Coming soon: the final issue of ENGEKIKAI. 


Wednesday, June 29, 2022

"The Theatres of Japan" by T.J. Nakagawa (1890)

This essay was originally going to be part of my book They Saw Danjūrō: Foreign Theatregoers at Meiji Kabuki, a collection of Meiji period writings in English about kabuki, but it was cut when I decided to include only writing by non-Japanese contributors. Although deficient in certain respects, it was one of the more thorough and knowledgeable essays at a time when foreigners writing about kabuki knew little about the form and there were no quality reference sources in English to study in advance. With its commentary and notes, it should give a good idea of how the 62 essays in the book, many of them necessarily condensed, are treated. SLL

 “The Theatres of Japan”[1] (1890)

T.J. Nakagawa 

T.J. Nakagawa, like Anna D’Almeida, is someone about whom no easily discernible traces remain. Although a native Japanese, his fluent English writing suggests he may have been educated abroad. Certainly, his use of the initials T.J. in his name reflects a strong Western influence. And the sole other example of his writing I could find, an article about “Journalism in Japan,” published in the May 1900 issue of Forum is, perhaps, a sign that journalism was his field.[2]

            Nakagawa offers our only indigenous perspective, providing a capsulized, although generally accurate, version of kabuki history, beginning with a brief look at its predecessor, , which influenced it, through its broadest developments up to the late nineteenth century. He reminds us of the low status actors previously had; notes why women were banned from the stage; touches on the artistic evolution of dramatic content; and points out, importantly, that, prior to the Meiji period, Osaka, not Edo was Japan’s theatre center.

This last is often overlooked by modern admirers of kabuki and its colorful past. Nakagawa states, though, that with the ascendance in Meiji of Tokyo’s theatrical power, its stars only rarely visited their provincial brothers, but this was not quite the case. Tokyo actors often toured to Osaka and Kyoto (and elsewhere), although the very top actors did so less frequently than their colleagues, and there was an active interchange between east (Tokyo) and west, especially once railway connections were installed in the early 1870s.

            Nakajima offers a surprisingly negative assessment of kabuki scenography, both artistically and technically, which contradicts the reports of foreigners who often, if not always, tended to highly praise Japanese sets. While some influential Japanese thought features like the hanamichi inconsistent with the stage’s progress into modernity, others, and not simply because they were conservative, recognized the theatrical value of such elements and fought to protect them from overeager reformers.

            Reform was the watchword of the day, and Nakagawa notes the activity of new societies seeking to raise kabuki to a level of international respect. The mid-1880s witnessed an eruption of reformism in all cultural fields. Both Osaka and Tokyo inaugurated Theatre Reform Societies (Engeki Kairyō Kai), of which there were several follow-up groups into the 1890s. Under the influence of the West, they sought improvements in playwriting, social status, and theatrical architecture. Even Western-style oil painters began, occasionally, to design sets. Nakagawa, however, recognized the danger of the reformers throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

            Nakagawa cites a production exploiting a number of naturalistic effects, although, as elsewhere, he fails to mention the title. His clues include it being a play about Dutch-scholar martyrs, starring Danjūrō, performed at the Shintomi-za “several months” earlier. Neither the titles nor the plots of plays performed at the Shintomi-za in the months prior to his article of June 1890 suggest anything about scholar martyrs. However, as Professor Hioki Takayuki of Meiji University informs me,[3] if we go back four years, to May 1886, we can find a candidate in Yume Monogatari Rosei no Sugata-e, listed in some sources by the name of one of its heroes, the historical figure Watanabe Kazan.[4] This is the play we are looking for.

Watanabe Kazan (1793-1841), the role played by Danjūrō, was a scholar and painter. As Seichi Iwao writes, he “became interested in Dutch learning—that is, the study of European science and civilization as it was conveyed to Japan through Dutch teachers and textbooks.”[5] The physician referenced by Nakagawa would have been another major character, Takano Chōei (1804-1850), played by Ichikawa Sadanji I. They and other scholars formed a society called the Shōshikai, focused on studying European culture and contemporary political issues in Japan. Kazan and Chōei were critical of the shogunate’s hardline stance on foreign ships that approached Japan. That is why, in 1839, they and other members of their group were sentenced to life imprisonment, which is why Nakagawa calls them “martyrs.” For various reasons, neither served out their time, but, as the play discloses, both ended up committing suicide.

Nakagawa’s next reference, to a play in which a realistic earthquake occurs, is also vague. It was probably Jishin Katō, whose title means The Earthquake and Katō (a reference to the historical samurai, Katō Kiyomasa [1562-1611]); it was done at the Shintomi-za in February 1887. And the subsequent comment on Kikugorō V’s performance as a cormorant fisher has to have been Ukai no Kagoribi, meaning The Cormorant Fisher’s Basket Fire, which premiered at the Shintomi-za in May 1887, with Kikugorō as both a geisha and a fisherman.[6]

Nakagawa moves on to discuss kabuki’s revolving stage (mawari butai) and hanamichi, offering this volume’s most comprehensive and comprehending account of these unique devices. However, for all his admiration, he is disappointed that kabuki has not done even more to take advantage of their possibilities. He also explains why the revolving stage was not available in the West, which he blames on the stage space it requires. Nevertheless, it would be introduced in Munich in 1896, at a time when things Japanese were trending abroad. A decade later, Austrian director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943) would make such innovative use of it that it became increasingly popular in Europe and America.[7] Today it is one of the most common methods of shifting scenes.

Nakagawa follows up with an interesting overview of the beauty, authenticity, and expense of kabuki costumes. Kabuki costumes were typically anachronistic and often far more fanciful than what was actually worn offstage. Danjūrō was concerned about this and wanted to reform costuming. As Nakagawa explains, not all his costars were on board. Allow me to expand on his account of the famous dispute between Danjūrō (whom he refers to by his guild name, or yagō, Naritaya), and Nakamura Sōjūrō.

Danjūrō was a fanatic advocate of historical realism, like Charles Kean (1811-1868) in England a bit earlier.[8] He either had the playwright Kawatake Shinshichi II (Mokuami) write what were dubbed “living history” (katsureki) plays, or adapt existing history plays to eliminate many of their fabrications in the name of authenticity. That was the case with the June 1881 Shintomi-za production of Youchi no Soga, which Nakagawa calls The Two Brothers of the House of Soga.[9] In it Danjūrō used a new way of costuming Soga no Gorō. It was traditional for him to wear a costume with only a butterfly and plover design but he changed this to authentic armor, with a belly band, gauntlets, shin guards, samurai sandals, and leather tabi, all straight from a Kamakura-period picture scroll. In contrast, the Soga no Jurō of visiting Osaka actor Nakamura Sōjūrō wore the traditional costume of bare feet, suō robe, and hakama, with his feet wrapped in straw—the pure Edo-period style.

So the Soga brothers were thoroughly mismatched, throwing the production off balance, earning sharp criticism, and forcing the management to try to persuade them to change, with no effect on either. As a result, it was said, “The younger brother was prepared for a fire, the older brother for a flood,”[10] or “the older brother is going to do his laundry in the river, the younger brother is going to collect firewood in the mountains.”[11] Tokyo’s governor, Matsuda Michiyuki, was brought in to arbitrate, but Sōjūrō refused to compromise. Disgruntled, he walked out after a single performance, and his role was taken by Ichimura Kakitsu (later Ichimura Uzaemon XIV; 1847-1893).

Following his discussion of costuming, Nakagawa turns to a story famous in kabuki annals about the actor Nakamura Nakazō I (1736-1790).The story is another one about how scrupulously kabuki actors of the past were in making their roles as realistic as possible within the limits of the form’s conventions. The unnamed play is Chūshingura, in whose nearly wordless Act V the villainous young rōnin Sadakurō, his face painted deadly white, and his simple black kimono hitched up to reveal his similarly white legs, kills a passerby on a dark and lonely road. As he examines the man’s purse, saying but a single line, with obvious satisfaction, “Gojū ryō” (“Fifty gold pieces”), he, in turn, is shot by someone else. In one of kabuki’s most memorable moments, bright red blood trickles from his mouth onto his exposed white thigh, and he collapses, dead.

This simple scene was perfected by Nakazō in 1766 at the Ichimura-za. Originally, Sadakurō wore the garb of a mountain priest (yamabushi), but Nakazō changed it to the black kimono he made famous, with a wig showing the hair on his normally shaved scalp half grown in. Brief though his appearance is, Sadakurō’s mimic possibilities make the role one many actors long to play.

Nakagawa moves on to further discuss the extreme methods actors went to in their quest for believability, and the measures their masters used to inspire such performances. The example given, involving instructional methods, while far from the internal approach taken by adherents of the Stanislavsky system, is reminiscent of the anecdotes associated with the great American playwright-director, David Belasco (1853-1931). For example, Belasco would smash a supposedly expensive watch—it was a fake—to show his exasperation as a means to rouse his actors’ passions.

And the incident Nakagawa cites regarding Ichikawa Ichizō III’s playing a villain with so much truthfulness that it angered a spectator enough to seek to harm him reminds us of anecdotes about American frontier theatres where audience members are reported to have shot their pistols at pretend assassins. The Ichizō incident happened in the second month of 1857, when Ichizō was at the Morita-za, playing Tenjiku Tokubei in Irifune Soga Nihon no Torikaji. The story has been covered in various sources.[12]

Eventually, Nakagawa’s commentary on acting realism leads him to men playing women, kabuki’s famed onnagata. He praises the high degree of simulation they bring to their art, notes that they no longer specialize in narrow female types, says that even actors specializing in male roles have expanded to include females, and comments interestingly on the then declining custom of onnagata living their daily lives as much like women as possible. No judgment is passed on the long-established practice, now vanished.

He brings up the subject of actresses to replace the onnagata, something of great concern to those reformists anxious to abandon the old tradition. Nakagawa realizes how difficult this will be, and points out the training it will require. In fact, training schools for actresses began to appear not long after the turn of the century. Regulations against women acting in public were loosened in 1890. The next year, 1891, saw the appearance of the short-lived but revolutionary amateur troupe called the Seibikan, in which a mixed company of men and women performed, actress Chitose Beiha (1855-1918) doing the path-breaking. The Seibikan was a pioneer in the new genre later called shinpa.

However, the earliest example of modern mainstream kabuki using women was at the Kabuki-za in 1893. This happened when Danjūrō cast his two young daughters, Horikoshi Jitsuko (1881-1943) and Horikoshi Fukiko (1883-1947),[13] alluded to by Nakagawa, as the butterflies in Dōjōji.

There follows a compelling passage about kabuki’s naughty past and the low status it and its actors were confined to in the pre-Meiji years. Nakagawa introduces the topic of the theatre’s employment as a place of both moral education and social value, describing the institution of a necessary censorship to assure things remain that way. Late Meiji Japan was, he reminds us, more concerned about propriety, especially in romantic matters, than the West, and he did not wish to see such standards weakened by foreign influence.

He forecasts the construction of a new theatre that will bring Japan into the modern world, confesses that it will contain actresses as well, and predicts reforms to playwriting that will soon transpire.[14] This leads to a discussion of a play Erwin Baelz enjoyed in Chapter 15, Bulwer-Lytton’s 1840 British comedy, Money, the first modern foreign play to be adapted into a Japanese context. He is afraid that the conventions of such plays, so unlike those to which audiences are accustomed, may be harmful to the familiar conventions. As it turned out, the Japanese theatre was flexible enough to allow for such incursions, while adjusting its old traditions to the demands and interests of the new world.  


[Nakagawa opens by depicting the origins of kabuki, which grew out of sarugaku, the predecessor of , which he briefly describes. He tells the familiar story of Okuni, the dancer who, after arriving in Kyoto in 1603, created the popular form that came to be known as kabuki. She originally performed in the dry river bed of the Kamo River, giving rise to the pejorative name for actors “kawaramono” or “riverbed beggars.”

            He details kabuki’s early development, the official pressure it faced from its perceived immorality, the banning of women, and the consequent rise of male specialists in female roles (onnagata). This sparked the form’s maturity as a dramatic, rather than revue-like entertainment.]

At the end of the eighteenth century Osaka had become the recognized home of the national drama. This city was the rendezvous to which all ambitious aspirants were drawn, and no actor could rise prominently in his vocation unless it were known that he had been trained upon its stages, and in accordance with its peculiar artistic principles. The ascendency of Osaka continued undisputed until the restoration of the imperial government, in 1868. Upon the removal of the court and the seat of administration from that part of the country to Tokyo, three hundred miles away, the supremacy of the theatres was likewise transferred, and during the past twenty years no energy has been spared by the managers and players of the Eastern capital to elevate their art to the highest grade of perfection. There are still companies of great merit at Osaka, and in some particulars their performances are said to surpass those of their successful rivals. But the taste of connoisseurs has declared itself overwhelmingly in approval of the Tokyo school. In the majority of the provincial theatres, including at present those of Kyoto, nothing better can be seen than extravagant and gaudy reproductions of plays once worthily applauded, but now represented by troops of wandering players of no standing whatever. It is only on rare and exceptional occasions that actors of metropolitan repute can be persuaded to leave their own sphere and participate in entertainments elsewhere. I shall therefore confine myself, in describing the present condition of the Japanese stage, to a review of what the leading theatres of Tokyo now provide.


It will first be convenient to speak of scenic and mechanical effects, although it must be admitted, at the outset, that these are unquestionably defective in Japan. We have as yet no proper estimate of the importance of pictorial and structural accessories. The mimic views of landscape, architecture, and interiors are never intrusted [sic] to really capable hands, but are almost invariably executed by painters and machinists of mediocre talent. Elaborate settings, for the purpose of increasing the illusion, are almost unknown. Gradations of light and shade are rarely attempted, and colored illuminations were experimentally introduced for the first time only about a year ago, in the Shintomi Theatre, and then without sufficient care or dexterity to produce a satisfactory impression.[15] It is difficult to supply an explanation for the various imperfections in this department of the theatre. No sustained effort at amendment appears to have been made in the last fifty years. But occasional indications have latterly been given of a willingness to introduce practical reforms. A movement has been set on foot by travelled Japanese who have made themselves familiar with the theatrical processes of Europe and America, the object of which is to compel the attention of managers to the required improvements. Societies have been formed, not alone for the purpose of making good the superficial deficiencies of the stage, but also to enhance its influence as an instrument of popular education. If their endeavors have thus far been unproductive of large results, it is probably because the innovations proposed are of too radical a nature. The advocates of foreign methods and applicances [sic] had known little or nothing of the Japanese drama before they went abroad, for the theatre of their own land was in many cases so degraded by evil repute that the better class of society was reluctant to patronize it. Without sufficient investigation, they are eager rather to destroy utterly, and build anew, than to graft the advantages of Western growth upon the native foundation. It is unfortunate that they are frequently found recommending a degree of change which cannot for the present possibly be tolerated by the community. If the entire system should be remodeled according to their plan, the theatre would inevitably lose much of its national character, and become in many respects an imperfect and spiritless exponent of uncongenial principles. Nevertheless, their exertions have had the beneficial end of directing the minds of all concerned to the importance of casting off the old-time conventionalities and traditions, which are utterly inconsistent with a proper respect for art. Of the immediate consequences of their proceedings a few examples may be given.

            Several months ago, at the Shintomi Theatre, a new piece was produced, upon the subject of the martyrdom of the early Dutch scholars. The supposed time of year was the end of November, when the leaves turn yellow and are blown off the trees by the least breath of wind. This also is the season of continuous misty rain. It is evening. The scene reveals a physician’s study, which opens on a small garden entirely exposed to the weather. At the request of Danjiuro [Danjūrō], the actor who assumed the principal character, machinery was contrived by which rain was made to fall, and leaves were shaken from the trees as if by the breeze. The slender branches of the willows were seen vibrating to and fro; the fragile bamboo fence swayed from side to side; the wind was heard moaning and wailing, and the raindrops pattered against the walls of the house and into the pools that had collected upon the ground. It was a perfectly realistic representation, so far as external effects were concerned. Unluckily, it had the result of entirely diverting the attention of the audience from the action of the play. The performer was not, however, deterred from making further experiments. His next appearance was in a historical drama, one of the incidents in which was a destructive earthquake. For the first time in Japanese theatrical history, a house was built upon the stage in fragments, and was thrown to the ground with a violence and a disorder which startled the beholders into the belief that an actual convulsion was in progress.

            During the same season the celebrated actor Kikugoro, our foremost representative of pathetic characters, was cast in the part of a cormorant fisherman supposed to be living on the eastern shore of the Bay of Yedo. In order to acquaint himself with the habits of life and occupation of this humble class, he took up his abode in the very neighborhood, and practiced fishing with cormorants until he became an adept in the pursuit. Toward the end of his rural sojourn he sent for the manager and the scene-painters of his theatre, in order that an exact likeness of the locality might be presented to the public. In this instance the result was so satisfactory that the experiment was soon after repeated on a more extensive scale. Kikugoro was charged with the preparation of a romantic drama illustrating the adventurous career of a notorious bandit[16] who was for years the terror of the district surrounding the famous temples of Nikko. The natural beauties of this region, as well as the picturesque and majestic shrines erected in memory of the early Shoguns, are well known to great numbers of Japanese; and the actor added largely to his reputation for faithfulness of scenic reproduction by visiting the temples as a pilgrim, in company with artists and machinists, and securing models of the edifices in and around which the action of the play was understood to take place. He went so far as to join, with his associates, in one of the great religious festivals for which Nikko is celebrated, and was thus enabled to represent the various ceremonies, processions, etc., with a spirit and a precision which excited the most unbounded popular enthusiasm.

            The indifference to ingenious mechanical devices appears the more remarkable when it is considered that the Japanese stage has one peculiarity of construction which fits it for effects that can nowhere else be produced. This is the revolving stage (mawari-butai), which in any other country would probably have suggested and [sic] infinite variety of interesting and surprising illusions. The greater part of the stage, in our playhouses, consists of a large circle which can be turned around so that separate divisions are successively presented to the eyes of the spectators. Only one-half of this circles [sic], at most, is disclosed at any one time. It is customary, while a scene is in progress before the audience, to prepare the following scene upon the hidden part of the movable platform. A change of view can thus be effected without abruptly interrupting a dialogue, or disturbing the continuity of action. In the favorite play of “Chiushingura,” an adaptation of the historical record of the famous “Forty-Seven Ronins,” this contrivance is turned to excellent account. The last scene but one of the chivalrous drama represents the devoted band of avengers about to break into the fortified mansion of their dead master’s enemy. It is a chilly December night, and the snow is falling. The assailants’ first endeavor to gain admission by stratagem, but finding the gate strongly blockaded, they throw aside all artifice and attack the defences with axes and heavy battering rams. Having forced the barrier and made a sufficient opening, some of the party rush to the interior, while others scale the walls by means of rope-ladders or by climbing upon one another’s shoulders. Meanwhile, the stage turns and the inner court-yard of the edifice comes into view. The ronins are seen in fierce combat with the ill-prepared and terrified inmates. In no other manner could so stirring and impressive a picture of assault and conquest be realized in theatrical representation. The objection to employing this device in European or American cities is that twice the ordinary space behind the scenes would be required. Fully one-half of the Japanese stage is never visible from the front. I have described only the effect produced by dividing the revolving platform into two parts; but additional subdivisions can be made whenever required. In the theatres of Osaka, especially, four and even six views are sometimes presented before the stage completes its circuit.

            Another striking characteristic of our theatres is the hana-michi, literally, “flower-path.” This is an open passage extending from the front of the stage to the extreme rear of the auditorium, at the left of the pit or parterre. It is about six feet in breadth, and is elevated two feet above the flooring of the pit, to the level of the shoulders of those who sit in that part of the house. Under certain circumstances this passage is utilized for the entrances and exits of actors. If the character is imagined to have come from a great distance, or if his approach is hurried or precipitate, he proceeds to his position on the stage directly through the audience, and his arrival is thus made to appear much more vivid and life-like than if he made his way from the side. The use of the hana-michi is, of course, a severe trial even to the most experienced and self-possessed performers. It is only by the exercise of great discretion, and by a complete abandonment to the spirit of the part, that the illusion can be preserved. But the real masters of the stage have proved that the danger of close contact with spectators is only fanciful, and that by exposing themselves, as it were, to the very touch of the public they are enabled to exercise a magnetic influence which can be asserted under no other conditions. When a perfect sympathy is established between artist and audience, this daring expedient is sometimes carried to startling extremes. After a scene of great distress and sorrow, the retiring actors will linger until the surrounding multitude is utterly subdued by the pathos of his spell. On the other hand, a bold and impetuous advance, in the execution of some desperate errand, or in obedience to a necessitous appeal for help, will frequently kindle the wildest excitement. At the close of the above-mentioned drama, “Chiushingura,” the friends and allies of the besieged noblemen are made to swarm upon the stage from various directions, with a remarkable and thrilling increase to the effect of confusion and and [sic] strife. For most purposes the hana-michi I have described as running through the left side of the pit is considered sufficient, but a corresponding passage exists at the opposite side, of somewhat smaller proportions, which is opened whenever required for more elaborate evolutions.


As regards the accuracy and taste of its wardrobe, the Japanese stage is second to none in the world. No representation is considered worthy of the public in which the minutest and most patient attention has not been given to every detail of personal attire. Audiences may always safely reckon upon seeing a literal and faultless presentment of the dresses of any age or locality selected for dramatic illustration. In satisfying the requirements of this department the question of expense is rarely considered. Managers are always ready to provide the costliest materials and to engage the most skilful workmen for fashioning the garments selected by the leading actors. It is understood that the players are in the first place responsible for the choice and style of raiment, the managers being content to follow their instructions implicitly, and to be guided entirely by their practiced judgment. Sometimes this blind faith leads to awkward misunderstandings. A few years ago an old historical drama entitled “The Two Brothers of the House of Soga” was revived with exceptional splendor, the leading parts being confided to the distinguished tragedians Sojiuro and Naritaya,[17] both of whom are recognized as unimpeachable authorities in matters of costume. On this occasion their views as to the appropriate garb of the two brothers were totally antagonistic. Each claimed to have discovered the precise mode of attire in the period set forth, and each professed to be abundantly supplied with evidence in support of his pretensions. Neither was willing to yield, and the play was finally brought out with dresses of undoubted brilliancy and sumptuousness, but which could not be made to harmonize by any reference to history or tradition. Theatrical circles were greatly agitated by the conflict of discussion that ensued, but the question whether Naritaya or Sojiuro were entitled to greater confidence was never satisfactorily decided.

            As an example of the diligence with which apt and suggestive effects of costume are sought, I may mention an incident in the career of an actor who identified himself with the wild and lawless heroes of the stage. In his youth he was cast for the part of a ronin named Sadakuro—the subordinate vassal of a nobleman who, having been expelled from his master’s service, took to highway robbery for a livelihood. The conventional dress provided for this role, which had long been familiar to the public, failed to satisfy the performer’s conception of what was suitable for a person in the situation of the discarded retainer. It occurred to him that if he could invent a new and more appropriate costume, the effect of his impersonation would be greatly increased. For many weeks, he dwelt upon this subject until it became the absorbing occupation of his mind. The day of performance approached, but no satisfactory design presented itself to his imagination. Returning home from rehearsal one afternoon, he passed the imposing Buddhist temple of Zojo,[18] in Shiba, in which stood the image of Kuwan-on,[19] to which many of the populace were in the habit of praying for the realization of their dearest hopes. Impelled by the thought that he might obtain aid from this source, the actor entered the shrine and devoutly appealed for guidance in his dire emergency. For seven successive days he repeated his adjuration in vain; but on the last day, as he turned away dejected, and was about to descend the gilded steps of the temple, he was restrained by a sudden downfall of rain. Having no umbrella or overcoat with him, he stood awhile under the shelter of the broad, projecting roof. He was presently joined by a young man, apparently a profligate outcast from some family of rank, who had given himself up to the most dissolute habits of life. He wore a stained and threadbare robe, which was caught up to the knees with slovenly carelessness. He had no outer garment; his feet were bare; he carried in his right hand a torn and broken paper umbrella, and a pair of swords in tarnished lacquer sheaths were negligently stuck through his soiled silken sash.

At first the actor did not notice the new-comer, but his attention was gradually attracted, and as he became aware of what was before him his heart beat with joy and gratitude at the revelation which had been miraculously vouchsafed. Speeding homeward, he summoned his wife and servants, and impressed upon them the necessity of imitating with scrupulous minuteness the costume and the properties which had happily fallen under his observation. The dress was hastily made ready for the opening performance, and the result of the bold departure from habitual usage was awaited with lively interest and anxiety. The secret had been carefully guarded. Upon the first appearance of the ruined ronin the audience stared in astonishment, and for a moment appeared undecided whether to accept or reject the unlooked-for novelty. But the spirit of truthfulness and propriety soon prevailed. A tumult of applause testified to the appreciative recognition of the actor’s intentions, and from that time the costume and general “make-up” of the character of Sadakuro has been in accordance with the precedent established by the inspired votary of Kuwan-on.


Although the theory of dramatic art in Japan excuses, and even encourages, indifference to many superficial and external accessories, it is extremely severe in demanding the closest attention to the illustration of feeling and emotion. Audiences are accustomed to the most subtle and delicate analysis of character and are mercilessly critical in all that relates to the portrayal of human life and nature. An artist is forgiven many shortcomings if he shows evidence of a determination to identify himself personally with the ideal creation he endeavors to embody. The method of study adopted in the fulfilment of this purpose may be exemplified by incidents in the career of those who have successfully produced it.

            Two years ago the tragedian Otowaya[20] was called upon to personate a merchant who had been driven insane by financial disasters and still heavier domestic calamities. For several days previous to the general rehearsal this actor began to accustom himself to the conditions of his part by a complete change in his habits of personal life. He dressed negligently, selecting the oldest and most worthless of his garments; partook of indifferent and ill-prepared food; omitted his daily bath, which is a unheard-of deviation from Japanese usage; became moody and irritable, and seemed resolved to simulate, in every particular, the actions and demeanor of lunacy. To such an extent was this carried that those nearest to him became alarmed, and without his knowledge took counsel with the family physician, apprehending that his excessive devotion to artistic principle would seriously endanger his health.

            In the training of their apprentices our leading actors are none the less solicitous to inculcate the importance of the extremist fidelity in depicting strong emotions. The same Otowaya was once endeavoring to explain to a follower what was required to give appropriate effect to a hasty and excited entrances upon the stage. A messenger was supposed to be bringing intelligence of the highest moment to his lord. Many times the desperate rush of more than a hundred feet along the hana-michi was repeated, without meeting the approbation of the exacting teacher. Stung by the ridicule of his associates, and looking upon himself as the object of some inexplicable spite, the youthful actor determined to renounce his calling if again subjected to reproach, rather than persevere in what he believed to be a hopeless task. He came to rehearsal prepared to resent the affront which he anticipated, and to break away from his connection in a storm of rage. Bursting in upon the group surrounding Otowaya in his character of feudal chieftain, he endeavored to announce his determination with angry vehemence; but his agitation was so great that he could not utter an intelligible word. While he stood gasping for breath his instructor rose, and approaching him with a smile, said: “At last you have done well; continue thus and your success is assured.”

            It is my genuine conviction that the Japanese actors are fully entitled to the credit they receive for the delineation of sentiment and passion. Few spectators, however hardened by experience, could witness unmoved the masterly exhibition of fortitude under suffering, filial devotion, conjugal tenderness, and patriotic ardor which are constantly presented for the admiration of the theatre-going multitude. In the season of 1857, Ichikawa Ichizo was playing the part of a pirate chief who treats his father with great cruelty and exposes him to shame as well as grief. The performance was one day interrupted by a samurai from a distant province, who suddenly sprang upon the stage and attached Ichikawa with a dagger, inflicting several wounds before he could be seized and disarmed. He had been so carried away by the actor’s truthfulness that he attributed to the man himself, and not to the ideal character, the acts of filial impiety.

            The brilliant romantic actor Yebizo[21] was once engaged in representing a treacherous fencing-master, who first assassinates a rival swordsman and afterward murders, under circumstances of unpatriotic atrocity, the two sons of his victim. During this latter scene of inhuman slaughter a spectator in the pit flung a heavy tobacco box at the actor’s head, severely bruising him, and for a short time suspending the progress of the play. Immediately after the curtain was drawn, at the close of the act, Yebizo presented himself before the audience, with the tobacco box fastened upon his head in place of the cap he had worn during the performance. In a few lively but emphatic words he declared himself grateful for so unmistakable a proof of appreciation, notwithstanding the extraordinary manner in which it had been manifested, and professed his determination to make himself worthy, forever after, of a testimonial the sincerity of which was beyond suspicion.


In recent years I have had frequent occasion to visit our theatres in company with foreigners. It was for a long time difficult to make them believe that the women of the stage were in all cases represented by men. To such perfection have feminine impersonations been brought, that even those who are familiar with every artifice of disguise are unable to detect the slightest difference between the imitation and the reality. This is the result of a method of training which was once so laborious and painstaking that the actors who followed it were compelled to renounce all the natural occupations and pursuits of the male sex, and devote themselves to a life of perpetual mimicry. Not only in the exercise of their vocation, but in the privacy of their homes, they were accustomed to wear a modified form of feminine dress, to arrange their hair after the fashion of women, and to habituate themselves to the use of those household articles which are ordinarily manipulated by wives and daughters. Their style of living was like that of ladies of high degree. Their theatrical dressing-rooms have been compared, though with considerable exaggeration, to the boudoirs of feudal noblewomen. The lines of study were so carefully subdivided that one class would devote themselves to the imitation of fair damsels, while another would assume the guise of matrons, and a third would deport themselves like aged dames. These fine distinctions are not at the present day so strictly observed as in preceding generations; and though there are still numbers who address themselves chiefly to the impersonation of women, as their special branch, there appears to be growing disposition to enlarge their sphere so as to include the assumption of male as well as female characters. One of the proposals of the theatrical reformers before alluded to is to abolish the custom of assigning feminine roles to men, and to introduce actresses in accordance with the system of Western theatres. Their arguments have not yet been sufficient to convince the public that the change is necessary, and I confess to grave doubts myself, whether it would prove truly advantageous and wise. There would certainly be great obstacles for some time to come. Theatrical companies composed entirely of women do already exist in Japan, and their performances are witnessed with more or less curiosity by those who seek variety at the expense of artistic refinement. They are popular to a certain extent among the vulgar, but they can never hope to entertain cultivated amateurs. Thus far no attempts have been made to unite the two classes of performers, and it is probable that, before this can be successfully done, a special training school for actresses must be instituted, and a course of theatrical education be applied from early childhood until the time when they are fitted for the difficult duties of their profession. Our first tragedian, Danjiuro, is said to be rearing two of his daughters with this object in view. These young ladies are now six and eight years old, respectively. The inquiry when they will be ready for admission to their arduous career has often been made, but yet remains unanswered.


It has long been a contested question whether the theatre in Japan can or cannot be regarded as an aid to the moral education of the people. I doubt that it has ever served this desirable purpose; on the contrary, its agency appears to me to have hitherto been injurious. It was to contravene its pernicious tendencies that actors were bound by severe restrictions under the government of the Shogun. They were not allowed to mingle freely with citizens in general, and were required, when walking in the streets, to wear a peculiar helmet[22] made of straw, the visor of which completely hid their features. Until fifty or sixty years ago regulations were posted in all green-rooms giving notice that actors were forbidden to wear garments of silk; that they must reside in a quarter especially set apart for them by the authorities; that a particular license must be procured to enable them to go more than three blocks from their dwellings; that gambling by them would be punished more stringently than the same offence committed by other parties; that the incident of suicide from disappointed love must never by represented on the stage, and much more to the same effect. These ordinances, however, were by no means implicitly obeyed, and the influence of the theatre grew to be so deleterious that it was universally considered a dark blot upon public morality.[23] After the restoration of the imperial government, some twenty years ago, energetic efforts were made to improve the character of the performances and to elevate the condition of the actors. These projects were sanctioned by official authority, and in some cases the schemes of reform were laid out by responsible attaches of government. Some of the methods adopted for counteracting the evils of the playhouses, and purifying the associations of those connected therewith, were certainly calculated to startle the conservative sense of the community. Several actors of distinction were invested with the rank and dignity of preacher of the Shinto faith—the established state religion of Japan. The celebrated and popular Naritaya, the two Narikomas, father and son, [24] and numerous others still hold those places and occasionally perform the functions of their sacred office. It may be mentioned, incidentally, that the services conducted by them are largely attended by young daughters of rather indulgent parents, and it would probably be difficult to trace any substantial improvement in social manners or habits directly to this cause.

            A regular theatrical censorship has been instituted by the present government, and every piece intended for performance in the capital has now to be submitted to the inspection of officers of the metropolitan police. Delegates from this bureau attend all representations, partly to preserve order, but also to see that the rules forbidding offences against propriety are not infringed. Their interference is very rarely called for. It has come to be understood, in late years, that the indecencies of a former period must necessarily be banished, in order to secure the countenance and patronage of the respectable class. Twenty-five years ago no ladies, and comparatively few gentlemen of position, could be induced to attend the theatres. Now the families of daimios and the attachés of the Court are frequent occupants of the boxes, and there is as little fear that their sensibilities will be shocked as in the most prudently conducted houses of Europe or America. The question of the limit to which the relations between the sexes may be illustrated has been discussed in newspapers and debating clubs, at various times, with a good deal of vigor. Some extreme purists, like the classical scholar Yoda,[25] have gone to the length of asserting that all love-scenes should be rigorously excluded, and only historical or religious episodes be permitted. It is true that the latitude of love-making which is recognized as natural and becoming in Western countries would not be legitimately possible with us in real life, as Japanese society is now constituted. Young people are not permitted to meet and converse unreservedly, and the growth of affection is never sanctioned until after a formal betrothal. More commonly it is kept in restraint until the actual ceremony of marriage is performed. Ardent and passionate demonstrations would therefore either have no meaning, or would be suggestive of a licentious disregard of social laws. The tender attachments of husband and wife; the boundless devotion of children to parents; the fervent and self-sacrificing loyalty of the servant to his master—all these may be depicted with the utmost intensity of feeling; but it is only in the illustration of loose intrigue or illicit intercourse that amatory scenes are represented.

            It is to be expected that the gradual adoption of Western ideas and principles will make itself apparent in the theatre as in other institutions of Japan, but not, I trust, to the extent of interfering with its thoroughly national characteristics. Its value as a popular recreation would be greatly impaired by confining it too rigidly to a purely aesthetic purpose. According to time-honored custom, a visit to the playhouse is an affair not of a few hours, but of the entire day. Families or parties of friends take their places early in the morning and remain until nightfall, partaking of refreshments which are served between the acts from neighboring restaurants. Among the projects contemplated by the reformers to whom I have once or twice alluded, there is one which threatens destruction to these easy and comfortable habits of indulgence. A building is to be constructed with accommodations for spectators like those provided abroad, and with a stage admitting of the most elaborate foreign effects. The performances, in which women will take part as well as men, are to be given only in the evening, and the several acts are to follow one another in rapid succession. If the existing dramatic libraries do not furnish pieces that are suited to these innovations, a new repertory will be created to meet every requirement. Adaptations of exotic plays may be found desirable, and a few preliminary attempts in this direction have already been made.

            Bulwer’s comedy of “Money” has been submitted to the audiences of Tokyo, but not, it must be acknowledged, with the most convincing results. It will be a difficult task, in my opinion, to set aside the forms and methods of amusement which have become endeared to the public by long and happy association, and to secure the acceptance of strange and novel features, however meritorious in themselves, in place of the cherished drama of history, adventure, or domestic romance, with its continuous and measured development, and its protracted course of action relieved by interludes of brilliant dancing and pantomime (shiosa).[26] But I am bound to say that the societies which have taken upon themselves the work of elevating and improving the stage are entitled to respect for the honesty and uprightness with which they prosecute their plan, and as they have secured the co-operation of many eminent actors, and declared themselves ready to be guided by practical counsel in matters in which they are inexperienced, it is not unlikely that their efforts will at least prepare the way for future benefits. If they can broaden and strengthen the edifice of dramatic art without weakening its foundations, they will deserve the gratitude of the theatre-loving community throughout Japan.




[1] From T.J. Nakagawa, “The Theatres of Japan” Scribner’s Magazine, 7:5 (May 1890): 603-620. Reprinted as pamphlet (n.d.) from which this chapter is taken.

[2] I use the male pronoun as a convenience, not a certainty.

[3] My thanks to Professor Hioki, and to Professor Kei Hibino, of Seikei University, who put me in touch with him.

[4] It is also known as Watanabe to Chōei.

[5] Seiichi Iwao, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Japanese History, trans. Burton Watson (Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1978): 270.

[6] As we see, Nakagawa’s references to recent events in Japan are several years behind the appearance of his article.

[7] This is not to deny even earlier—albeit occasional, not permanent—uses of revolving (or turntable) stages, some historians even considering the ancient Greek eccyclema the origin of the technique.

[8] See Richard W. Schoch, Shakespeare’s Victorian Stage: Performing History in the Theatre of Charles Kean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[9] It is more usually (and accurately) known as The Soga Brothers’ Night Attack.

[10] Toita Kōji, “The Kabuki, The Shinpa, The Shingeki,” in Komiya Toyotaka, comp. and ed., Japanese Music and Drama in the Meiji Era, trans. and ad. by Edward G. Seidensticker and Donald Keene; Vol. 3 in Japanese Culture in the Meiji Era (Tokyo: and Donald Keene (Tokyo: Ōbunsha, 1956): 202.

[11] Nishiyama Matsunosuke, Ichikawa Danjūrō (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 1960): 282.

[12] For a fuller account, in Japanese, see Ihara Toshirō (Seiseien), Kabuki Nenpyō, Vol. 7 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1962): 39-40.

[13] Jitsuko later became Ichikawa Suisen II, while Fukiko became Ichikawa Kyokubai II. Although known as kabuki-style dancers and actresses in shinpa, they never achieved kabuki acting careers. On the other hand, a female Danjūrō disciple, Ichikawa Kumehachi (1846-1913), previously mentioned, gained a respectable reputation as a kabuki actress or onna yakusha, as explained in Chapter 11. See, also, Loren Edelson, “Revisiting the Female Danjūrō: The Acting Career of Ichikawa Kumehachi,” The Journal of Japanese Studies 34:1 (Winter 2008): 69-98. 

[14] The Teikoku Gekijō (Imperial Theatre), which opened in 1911, fulfilled Nakagawa’s predictions.

[15] A reference to lighting effects with colored filters.

[16] Plays about bandits, known as shiranami mono, were an important subgenre of the sewamono category.

[17] Danjūrō.

[18] Zojōji, still a major Tokyo temple.

[19] Kannon, goddess of mercy.

[20] Kikugorō V.

[21] Ichikawa Ebizō (1791-1859), better known as Ichikawa Danjūrō VII, the father of Danjūrō IX.

[22] Actually, a woven, basket-like hat with an opening for the eyes.

[23] Theatres were classed as akusho, places of ill repute, along with brothel districts.

[24] Naritaya was Danjūrō IX and the actors referred to as Narikoma (i.e., Narikomaya) were Nakamura Shikan IV (1831-1899) and his son, then Nakamura Fukusuke IV (1865-1940), later Shikan V, and, finally, Utaemon V.

[25] Yoda Gakkai (1834-1909), a very important figure in the Theatre Reform Movement.

[26] Shosa, lit. “posing,” but, loosely, “movement.”