Skip to main content Accessibility help

Intercultural Problems and the Modernization of Theatre in Japan

  • Mitsuya Mori (a1)


Shakespeare was first produced in Japan in a version fairly faithful to the original when, in 1903, the actor-manager Kawakami Otojiro, who came from outside the Kabuki world, directed Othello. Some reviewers were quite critical of the production, saying that it would make no sense to call this genuine Shakespeare since the serious drama was played so badly as to become comic. Others were more sympathetic and said that one had to be satisfield with this brave undertaking since the audience seemed to have enjoyed it very much. However, most critics did not see the entire performance, either arriving late or leaving before the end. Yet they seem to have felt no need to apologize: they had simply followed the usual custom of theatre-going practised by Kabuki audiences.



Hide All


1 Cf. Kabuki, Vol. 34, March 1903. This is the special issue on the Othello production of the Kawakami Company.

2 The hero, Muro Washiro, is a lieutenant general and not a black man.

3 For details of the Hamlet production, see Kawatake, Toshio, Hamlet in Japan (Nihon no Hamlet) (Tokyo: Nanshosha, 1972).

4 A female player, Chitose Beiha, appeared on the stage in 1891 together with male players, but because she was a hostess in a tea house and made her appearance on the stage only a few times she is not generally considered to have been the first modern professional actress in Japan.

5 As for the reason why Sadda-Yakko became an actress in the United States, another version claims that she appeared on the stage for the first time in Chicago, being required to take over the female role which the company's onnagata was supposed to play but was unable to do because of illness: having been brought up in a tea house in Tokyo, she had had a good deal of training in Kabuki dance.

Kawakami's troupe belonged to the newly-established, non-Kabuki theatre emerging in Japan, but abroad Kawakami described (or was required to describe) his company as a traditional Japanese theatre group, even the country's National Theatre. And in Chicago the Kawakami company was successful enough to mark the first step toward its extraordinary popularity in the United States and Europe.

6 According to Kawakami, the Japanese-American lawyer, who was the promoter for the company, had run off, after a month's successful performances, with all the profit as well as all of the props and costumes. Since the Meiji Restoration an increasing number of Japanese people had emigrated to America. At the time one could find about thirty-five thousand Japanese immigrants in the whole of America, ten thousand of whom were living in California. The promoter for the Kawakami company certainly counted on this fact.

7 Andre Gide wrote, ‘Je suis retourné six fois voir cette pièce, à des intervalles assez grands. […] Oui, Sada Yacco nous donna, dans son emportement rythmique et mesuré, l'émotion sacrée des grands drames antiques, celles que nous cherchons et ne trouvons plus sur nos scènes. […] Sada Yacco ne cesse jamais d'être belle; elle l'est d'une manière continue et continuellement accrue […]' (Gide, Andrére, Lettres à Angèle, in (Œuvres complétes, III, NRF, p. 206–8).

8 Craig, Edward Gordon, The Theatre Advancing (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1963 [1947]), ‘Sadda Yacco’ pp. 261–6.

9 Antoine, André, Le Théâtre (Paris: Les Editions de France, 1932), Vol. I, pp. 420–1.

10 Cf. ‘Symposium on Kawakami Company Abroad’, The Periodical of the Japanese Society for Theatre Research (Nihon Engeki-gakkai Kiyo), Vol. 16, 1976. Also some comments on the Kawakami Company in Europe are found in Das Theater von Morgen: Texte zur deutschen Theaterreform (1870–1920), ed., Christopher, Balme (Wörzburg: Königshausen u. Neumann, 1988), p. 20.

11 The teaching of western music was integrated in the general education curriculum, in the new system which began in 1872. But theatre has never been included in public education. The famous Iwakura Embassy, which had, in 1871–3, visited numerous cities in the United States and Europe to seek knowledge of western civilization, left a voluminous report with encyclopaedic descriptions of almost everything in the West. (Kunitake, Kume, ed., Beiou Kairan Jikki, 5 vols, with comments by Akira Tanaka, Tokyo: Iwanami, 1977–82.) But not a single reference to the western theatre is found there.

12 Cf. Mori, Mitsuya, ‘Before Ibsen. The Problem of Theatre Modernization in the Meiji Era (Ipusen Izen)’, Bigaku Bijutsushi Ronsu, 6 (Graduate School of Literature, Seijo University, 1987).

13 Cf. Paz, Jacob, Audience and Actors: A Study of their Interaction in the Japanese Traditional Theatre (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1983), pp. 191–2.

14 It was Sudo Sadanori who led this amateur company, and he is generally considered as the first to have staged this kind of political theatre, called Soshi shibai, ‘Agitator's Theatre’. Sudo was said to have got this idea from Nakae Chomin, who was the foremost advanced political thinker in the Meiji era and who had been expelled from the Tokyo area in December 1887. However, Kawakami never called his own theatre Soshi shibai, which had a pejorative nuance.He preferred the term Shin-engeki, ‘New Theatre’.

15 Kawakami's first war play, The Sino-Japanese War, was in part an adaptation of a French patriotic play which he had seen during his first visit to Paris in the previous year.He then travelled to China to collect material for a second and equally successful war play. See Matsumoto, Shinko, A History of Theatre Criticism in the Meiji Era (Meiji Engekiron-Shi) (Tokyo: Engeki-shuppansha, 1980).

16 .Soshi shibai or Shin-engeki had come to be called Shimpa, ‘New School’, around the turn of the century in opposition to Kyuha, ‘Old School’, that is, Kabuki. But Shimpa became popular for its tragic melodramas and retained the onnagata convention of Kabuki for a long time.Shimpa is still performed today, albeit not very often.

17 Yamamoto Hosui was one of the first Japanese artists in the Meiji era to be influenced by the Western style of painting.

18 Kawakami called this new type of production Seigeki, ‘Genuine Drama’, implying ‘spoken drama’ as opposed to ‘musical drama’.

19 .An Enemy of the People had been adapted by Hanabusa Ryugai to the dramatization of an actual story of the river pollution scandal of a copper mine in Ashio, in central Japan. But the original story of Ibsen's play was hardly recognizable.

20 SM, ‘No Actor is needed’, Tokyo Asahi Shinbun, 1 December 1909.

21 The part of Mrs Fanny Wilton was played by Kawarasaki's sister because no additional Kabuki onnagata was available.

22 A Japanese writer once said that a correct translation of ‘I love you’ in Japanese should be ‘The moon is so blue that …’ Agirl saying ‘I love you’ in public in Japan is something like Hedda Gabler's shooting herself. As Judge Brack says, ‘People don't do such things.’

23 In modern Japanese theatre censorship sanctions not so much verbal as physical indecency. In the West, Ibsen's plays were often censored, or certain lines of explicit sexual language were modified. This was never the case in Japan. At the performance of John Gabriel Borkman no one seemed to pay any attention to the ‘sexual immorality’ implied by Mrs Wilton's explanation for her taking Young Frida along to the South together with her lover, Erhart.

24 The same thing could be said regarding the fact that so many foreign productions have been brought to Japan in recent years. In 1988 Peter Brook's Mahabharata was performed at one of the finest theatres in Tokyo: all the permanent seats were replaced by wooden benches in order, perhaps, to create a more primitive atmosphere in the house.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Intercultural Problems and the Modernization of Theatre in Japan

  • Mitsuya Mori (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.