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Circus and Sumo: Tradition, Innovation and Opportunism at the Australian Circus

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 September 2012


This article examines an early example of martial arts performance in Australia occasioned by the tour of – purportedly – the first team of sumo wrestlers to leave Japan. By examining the performances and reception of the Japanese sumo wrestlers against the backdrop of international political relations, which included the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5, this study contributes to our understanding of the transnational circulation of the martial arts on popular stages, and to our understanding of the circus as a politically dynamic site that nurtured performative transnational encounters. The case of the sumo wrestlers reveals, furthermore, ways in which the popular stage of the circus worked to undermine negative racial stereotypes prevalent in Australia's homeland culture.

Copyright © International Federation for Theatre Research 2012

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1 Individual wrestlers had previously left Japan and competed with Western wrestlers. Sorakichi Matsuda may have been the first to wrestle professionally in North America in 1884. Svinth, Joseph R., ‘Japanese Professional Wrestling Pioneer: Sorakichi Matsuda’, Yo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives (November 2000),, accessed 28 January 2012Google Scholar. Yukio Tani (1881–1950) was perhaps the best-known Japanese wrestler in the UK during the early twentieth century. Tani arrived in the UK in 1900 and there established a career as a music-hall wrestler and martial arts tutor. Noble, Graham, ‘Blood on the Sun: The Odyssey of Yukio Tani’, Yo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives (October 2000),, accessed 28 January 2012Google Scholar.

2 The reviewer for the city's leading broadsheet newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald, praised the physique and skill of the wrestlers but seemed at a loss to describe the ritualized performances that preceded the contests, resorting to phrases such as ‘queer native ceremony’, ‘pantomimic attitudes’, and ‘occult ceremonies’. Sydney Morning Herald, 9 April 1904, p. 12.

3 Tait, Peta, Circus Bodies: Cultural Identity in Aerial Performance (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 6Google Scholar.

4 Recent studies of Sandow and his contribution to the physical-culture industry include Daley, Caroline, Leisure and Pleasure: Reshaping and Revealing the New Zealand Body 1900–1960 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003)Google Scholar; and Daley, Caroline, ‘The Strongman of Eugenics, Eugen Sandow’, Australian Historical Studies, 33, 120 (October 2002), pp. 233–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Waller, David, The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman (Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2011)Google Scholar; and Chapman, David L., Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006)Google Scholar.

5 Looser, Diana, ‘Radical Bodies and Dangerous Ladies: Martial Arts and Women's Performance, 1900–1918’, Theatre Research International, 36, 1 (2011), pp. 319CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here p. 12. Budd also notes that in the UK, ‘following upon Japan's victory over Russia, the numbers of advertisements for Ju Jitsu and Asian martial arts schools increased markedly’. Budd, Michael Anton, The Sculpture Machine: Physical Culture and Body Politics in the Age of Empire (Houndmills: MacMillan, 1997), p. 88CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Postlewait, Thomas, ‘Theater Events and Their Political Contexts: A Problem in the Writing of Theater History’, in Reinelt, Janelle G. and Roach, Joseph R., eds., Critical Theory and Performance, revised and enlarged edn (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2007), pp. 198222, here p. 198Google Scholar.

7 Gilbert, Helen and Lo, Jacqueline, Performance and Cosmopolitics: Cross-cultural Transactions in Australasia (Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), p. 6Google Scholar.

8 Analysis of performers with the FitzGerald Brothers’ Circus during 1897–8 provides a typical snapshot of the multiracial and multinational composition of the organization. Newspaper reviews drawn from this period demonstrate that in the course of an evening's programme, performers of Aboriginal, Javanese, German, English, American and Japanese origin appeared in the ring, revealing a travelling community that reflected the many races finding their way to Australia. The broader community of workers on the circus site was drawn from a ‘composite of races and classes – English, German, Australian, Maori, Japanese, Malay’. Te Whero (pseud.), ‘A Morning in a Circus Tent: Behind the Scenes at FitzGeralds’ Show’, Sydney Mail, 26 April 1905. Throughout the period when the White Australia Policy was being constructed, the FitzGeralds’ Circus was a working community of many races.

9 In her discursive history of aerial acts, Circus Bodies, Peta Tait has observed that ‘aerial acts became synonymous with circus during the twentieth century’ (p. 5).

10 Trick cyclists Verne Volt and Olaf Schrader appeared for the FitzGeralds in 1900–1 (Sydney Morning Herald, 17 December 1900, p. 2; The Press (Christchurch, NZ), 19 March 1901), soon to be followed by a team of trick cyclists, the Jerrolds (The Argus, 21 December 1901, p. 16). From April 1902 until late 1904 the circus produced the Cycle Whizz, in which riders rode at breakneck speed around a velodrome sloped at an angle of sixty degrees.

11 During 1904–5 the athletes Jack Carkeek of England, A. A. Cameron of Scotland, George Hackenschmidt ‘the Russian Lion’ of Estonia and Harry Pearce ‘the champion wrestler and club swinger of Australia’ performed wrestling of various codes in variety/vaudeville theatre throughout Australia and New Zealand. See The Bulletin, 19 May 1904, p. 8; Sydney Morning Herald, 28 May 1904, p. 10; Grey River Argus (Greymouth, NZ), 9 July 1904, p. 3; Evening Post, 15–29 July 1904; Observer (Auckland), 24 September 1904, p. 9; Punch (Melbourne), 29 September 1904, 883; Otago Witness (Dunedin), 25 January 1905, p. 58; Hawera & Normanby Star (Taranaki, NZ), 18 February 1905, p. 2; The Bulletin, 2 March 1905, p. 9.

12 The Bulletin, 19 May 1904, p. 8. See also interview with Harry Rickards, owner of the Tivoli variety circuit theatres in Australia and New Zealand, Otago Witness, 20 January 1904, p. 60.

13 For scholarship connecting circus and physical culture in an international context see Tait, Circus Bodies, p. 27; and Davis, Janet M., The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), pp. 144–8Google Scholar. For scholarship on the contemporary significance of physical culture see Budd, The Sculpture Machine; and Segel, Howard B., Body Ascendant: Modernism and the Physical Imperative (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

14 Masao, Yamaguchi, ‘Sumo in the Popular Culture of Contemporary Japan’, in Martinez, D. P., ed., The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 1929, here pp. 20–1Google Scholar.

15 Reader, Ian, ‘Sumo: The Recent History of an Ethical Model for Japanese Society’, International Journal of the History of Sport, 6, 3, pp. 285–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here p. 290.

16 Masao, ‘Sumo in the Popular Culture of Contemporary Japan’, p. 20.

17 Ibid., p. 21.

18 For scholarship on the circus as ritual and on the semiotics of circus see Bouissac, Paul, Circus and Culture: A Semiotic Approach (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976)Google Scholar; and Bouissac, Paul, Semiotics at the Circus (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Masao, ‘Sumo in the Popular Culture of Contemporary Japan’, p. 20.

20 John FitzGerald indicated in a letter to his brothers that the wrestlers were interested in a contract with the circus in Australia. Letter written in Noji, Japan, 21 November 1903. MS Q284 190–194, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

21 Southland Times, 5 December 1904, p. 2.

22 At the time of his visit to Japan, John D. FitzGerald was serving as an alderman of the Sydney Municipal Council. See Nairn, Bede, ‘FitzGerald, John Daniel (Jack) (1863–1922)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. VIII (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1981), pp. 513–15Google Scholar.

23 The standard diameter of the single circus ring such as was used by the FitzGeralds is forty-two feet, the Sumo wrestling ring or dohyo is 14.9 feet in diameter.

24 Letter from John FitzGerald to his brothers Dan and Tom, written in Noji, Japan, 21 November 1903. MS Q284 190–194, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

25 Sydney Mail, 13 April 1904; Hawera & Normanby Star, 14 January 1905, p. 2. It is possible that journalists may have edited this text from a ‘puff’ provided by the circus producers to media outlets. This excerpt reveals the self-improving discourses of education and authenticity that typified the circus's advertising from the outset of the wrestlers’ performances in Australia.

26 Te Whero, ‘Japanese Wrestlers in Sydney’, Sydney Mail, 13 April 1904.

27 Letter from John FitzGerald (in Sydney) to Tom FitzGerald (in New Zealand), dated 23 December 1901. MS Q284 195–205, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

28 Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March 1904, p. 12.

29 The Sumo wrestlers departed Australia for Java on 1 June 1905 with a FitzGerald Brothers’ Circus company under the management of Tom FitzGerald. State Records of New South Wales: Shipping Masters Office; CGS 13279, Outward Passenger Lists, 1898–1922; [x502] Reel 3174. A season in Singapore commenced on 20 July 1905 (Straits Times, 13 July 1905, p. 4) and closed in early August. There are no advertisements for the circus in Singapore newspapers after 29 July 1905, although an advertisement printed on that date in the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, p. 2, indicates that the circus's season would continue to perform for some time. A receipt amongst the FitzGerald family papers dated 14 August 1905 states that the Japanese wrestlers left the company at that time and that ‘all claims by the Japanese Wrestling Team against the firm of FitzGerald Brothers, circus proprietors, of Sydney, Australia’ were settled in full. FitzGerald Brothers Circus papers at MS Q284, 161a and 161b, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

30 During 1904 the Japanese wrestlers shared top billing with the strength performer, Doctor Gordon, ‘the Modern Vulcan’. Other acts on the two-and-a-half-hour show in Sydney included equestrians, cyclists, a musical comedian, aerialists, a high-wire performer, acrobats, a juggler, escapologists, the Grand Steeplechase and trained-animal acts. During 1905 the wrestlers shared top billing with the Herbert Troupe of flying return trapeze gymnasts.

31 Te Whero, ‘Japanese Wrestlers in Sydney’.

33 The Bulletin, 7 April 1904, p. 9, reported that the performance lasted nineteen minutes.

34 ‘Some Elephants and FitzGeralds’ Circus’, interview with Dan FitzGerald, The Bulletin, 20 April 1905, p. 22.

35 The Bulletin, 14 April 1904, p. 8.

36 For a detailed description of contemporary Sumo performance see Reader, ‘Sumo’.

37 Arrighi, Gillian, ‘The Circus and Modernity: A Commitment to “The Newer” and “The Newest”’, Journal of Early Visual Popular Culture, 10, 1 (May 2012), pp. 169–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 Bhabha, Homi, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 3Google Scholar.

39 Segel, Body Ascendant, p. 4, p. 204.

40 See notes 10 and 11 above.

41 Horton, Peter A., ‘The “Green” and the “Gold”: The Irish-Australians and their Role in the Emergence of the Australian Sports Culture’, in Mangan, J. A. and Nauright, John, eds., Sport in Australasian Society (London: Frank Cass, 2000), pp. 6592Google Scholar.

42 Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March 1904, p. 2.

43 Te Whero, ‘Japanese Wrestlers in Sydney’. Similar observations appeared in the Hawera & Normanby Star, 14 January 1905, p. 3, although this may reflect a process of transmission wherein comprehensive essays in leading media outlets, such as that by Te Whero, became the basis of subsequent reviews in regional newspapers.

44 Sydney Morning Herald, 9 April 1904, p. 12.

45 Sydney Morning Herald, 18 April 1904, p. 3.

46 Arrighi, Gillian, ‘Political Animals: Engagements with Imperial and Gender Discourses in Late-Colonial Australian Circuses’, Theatre Journal, 60, 4 (December 2008), pp. 607–29Google Scholar; Arrighi, Gillian, ‘Negotiating National Identity at the Circus: The FitzGerald Brothers’ Circus in Melbourne, 1892’, Australasian Drama Studies, 54 (April 2009), pp. 6886Google Scholar.

47 Sydney Morning Herald, 6 April 1904, p. 6. In this article the New South Wales Commercial Agent in the East, Mr Suttor, urged Australian primary producers to beat the Americans into the Japanese frozen-products market by establishing depots with cooling chambers at either Kobe or Yokohama.

48 ‘Incomprehensible Japan’, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March 1904, p. 4.

51 See also Sissons, David C. S., ‘Japanese Acrobatic Troupes Touring Australasia 1867–1900’, Australasian Drama Studies, 35 (October 1999), pp. 73107Google Scholar.

52 Launceston Examiner, 26 July 1886, p. 3.

53 The Argus, 16 July 1886, p. 8; 26 July 1886, p. 6.

54 The Argus, 14 March 1897, p. 6.

55 Collins, Darryl, ‘Emperors and Musume: China and Japan “On the Boards” in Australia, 1850s–1920s’, East Asian History, 7 (June 1994), pp. 6792, here p. 72Google Scholar. See also Sissons, ‘Japanese Acrobatic Troupes’. Davis, The Circus Age, p. 198, also notes the arrival of Japanese circus performers in the United States in 1867.

56 Sydney Morning Herald, 14 November 1885, p. 14. The Mikado received its first Australian performance at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, produced by the theatrical firm of Williamson, Garner and Musgrove. The opera had received its first performance just eight months earlier on 14 March 1885 at London's Savoy theatre under the direction of Richard D'Oyly Carte.

57 The first Australian performance was on 17 December 1898, at the Princess's Theatre in Melbourne, produced by Williamson and Musgrove's Royal Comic Opera Company. The Argus, 17 December 1898, p. 16. The Geisha was first produced by George Edwardes at Daly's Theatre in London in 1896.

58 The term ‘yellow face’ is used by Josephine Lee in her study of The Mikado and the opera's 125 years of production internationally. Lee, Josephine, The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

59 Collins, ‘Emperors and Musume’, pp. 67–92.

60 Lee, The Japan of Pure Invention, pp. viii–xii.

61 See, accessed 17 January 2012.

62 Sydney Morning Herald, 30 April 1904, p. 2; Southland Times (Invercargill, NZ), 5 December 1904, p. 2; Wanganui Herald (NZ), 10 January 1905, p. 7.

63 Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1905, p. 2.

64 Sydney Mail, 10 May 1905, p. 1163.

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