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Posts Tagged ‘kabuki’s forgotten war’

After a week or two of devoting my time chiefly to other things – tanken bouken (exploration adventures), Flickr photos, watching TV & movies – I have returned to the realm of reading journal articles and history books for pleasure. One absolutely needs a break from academic reading, no matter the topic, after a long and stressful school term, but I personally find I have little time or energy for reading during term, outside of those things assigned for class. The number of articles and books I’ve been meaning to read is quite overwhelming.


Today, I finally began reading James Brandon’s “Kabuki’s Forgotten War,” which deals with the nationalistic and militaristic kabuki plays produced during the 1930s-1945. Brandon points out that according to popular conventional wisdom, and the vast majority of scholarship, the kabuki repertoire pretty much froze in the late Meiji period (c. 1890s-1910s), and that ever since then, only plays written before that time (or the rare more recent play written to fit pre-20th century themes, language, style and content) have been performed. Most treatments of the history of kabuki totally ignore the wartime period, breezing over it in superficial summaries.

It seems a standard trope to believe, romantically and stereotypically, that the people of the art world – artists, poets, writers, playwrights, actors – tend not to collaborate with oppressive regimes and political views, either lying low, organizing rebellion, or suffering persecution, as did indeed happen to a great many people in, for example, the Cultural Revolution in China. Whether because the heavily nationalistic and militaristic kabuki plays of the 1930s to early ’40s are no longer performed (for obvious reasons) or because we simply don’t want to believe it happened, we (kabuki lovers, Japan scholars, etc) seem to have convinced ourselves that kabuki did not so fully embrace the war effort and imperialistic ideology, but simply went on producing traditional dramas, and in essence lying low. Similar arguments have been made about a great many painters & other fine artists, who it is said painted subjects like Mt. Fuji in order to appear patriotic and to not attract the attention of the censors – for many, such a story may be true, but for many others, regardless of how much we may admire their prewar or postwar works, we must admit that such a story is a fantasy.

Brandon points out that, in fact, kabuki did not in any way freeze in the 1890s-1910s. New plays continued to be written and produced throughout the 1910s-1945, addressing contemporary issues and events such as the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and the so-called Fifteen Year War (1931-1945); contrary to what one might expect, these were often not couched in historical traditional dramas, using samurai legends as metaphors for current battles, but in fact represented the personages, events, and uniforms of the contemporary period quite directly. It was not until after 1945, he argues, that these plays of the 1910s-1945 were stricken from the repertoire (and from the public awareness, essentially) and kabuki’s repertoire and style was retroactively made to have frozen some time around the turn of the century.

Personally, I remain a bit skeptical. Given our perceptions and definitions of kabuki today – as a form that exclusively is set in pre-20th century traditional settings, with traditional costume, its own particular brand of traditional language and theatrical style – many of these plays of the 1930s-40s seem, to my mind, difficult to fully recognize or acknowledge as kabuki. The costumes are not traditional kimono but Western-inspired modern Japanese military uniform; the battle scenes are not portrayed stylistically, as over-the-top kabuki swordfights generally are, but are portrayed relatively realistically, with blood and bandages and screams of agony. The language, I can only assume, is more modern, leaving essentially only the acting style to truly mark it as kabuki. As this book of course cannot, does not, contain audio or video – and I’m not sure if film of these performances would be in any way widely available anyway, on YouTube or the like or elsewhere – it is hard for me to make any judgment on this matter, and must simply take Brandon’s word for it. He is a mightily respected expert, however.

Perhaps this is simply a function of the retroactive rewriting of kabuki’s tradition & history that occurred after the war. Perhaps, at the time, in the 1930s, this was seen as fully true kabuki. I shall have to reserve judgment, I suppose, until I finish reading the book.

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The other text I read recently which I found quite interesting and enjoyable was a 1969 journal article by Richard Chang, which describes in great detail Ulysses S Grant’s 1879 sojourn in Japan.

I have never had too much interest in American history, least of all in the Civil War, so I must confess, I do not know very much about former President Grant. I am sure he is rather lionized in American history textbooks & public school classes, and by Civil War buffs, at least outside of The South, for his role in the Civil War. While General Grant may be a great hero, however, Chang describes President Grant in passing as “one of the two American presidents often rated as a failure in office.” Remember, Chang was writing at a time when the scandals and.. er.. failures of the last seven or so administrations had yet to occur. Off the top of my head, I would guess that the other president he refers to, who might be described as a failure in office could be Taft, though I know that plenty of criticism has been leveled against Wilson, Hoover (who was president when the stock market crashed in 1929), and others; certainly, as far as I am aware, Polk, Pierce, and a handful of others are not known for any great accomplishments. To be honest, I know next to nothing about the details of Grant’s presidency, and have no idea why he would have been considered a failure.

In any case, this makes it all the more interesting that Chang presents former President Grant (who left office in 1877 and traveled to Japan in 1879 as a private citizen, though he was welcomed as a great leader and military hero and given a welcome equal to that which would have been given a royal prince) in an extremely positive light. It is quite tempting to take this all at face value, and to truly come to believe that Grant was not only extremely sympathetic to Japanese feelings and ambitions, but was also amazingly refined and well-behaved despite the great potential for cultural faux-pas; that he presented himself as an amazing statesman and leader, comporting himself with a humility which came as a great shock to the Japanese who expected all Westerners – particularly Americans – to be loud, boisterous, obnoxious, racist, condescending, clumsy, etc., thus earning him great respect among the Japanese. One also wonders whether it could possibly be true that the advice given by Grant to Emperor Meiji in a private meeting on August 10 1879 could have been as influential in determining the Emperor’s attitudes and philosophies, Japanese Meiji era foreign and domestic policy, and the content and form of the Meiji Constitution, as Chang claims it was.

The article overall makes for relatively fun, light reading, as it rather brings to life the world of 1879 Japan through its descriptions of the many grand receptions and welcomes produced for the former president. Grant’s stay in Japan, it would seem, was filled with receptions, parties, lunch dates, dinner parties, and the like, all produced at great expense. The government and a handful of prominent businessmen combined spent the equivalent of roughly $60,000 in 1879 US dollars, on such events. Grant’s visit set a great many precedents, making him the first foreign head of state (former or sitting) to see a Noh performance, the first to see a Kabuki play… he and his wife were reportedly the first Westerners to be guests of honor at a “popular reception [given] … by the Japanese populace.” The article also relates many interesting and amusing anecdotes and bits of historical trivia, such as the presentation of a stage curtain to the Shintomi-za by the Grants, following the presentation of a kabuki play written especially for that occasion, relating events of Grant’s life, especially aspects of the Civil War, through the metaphorical mirror of a historical tale of the 11th century featuring Minamoto no Yoshiie as a stand-in for Grant, and Kiyohara no Takehira representing Robert E. Lee. … In another anecdote, Grant is invited to cross the famous Shinbashi (神橋) in Nikkô, a privilege reserved for those of royal or Imperial blood; he impresses and surprises his Japanese hosts with his humility by refusing, stating that he is not a prince or king, defying or disproving Japanese stereotypes or expectations about Americans as arrogant and domineering.

Grant’s visit was not all parties and tourism, however. He met with top government officials on a number of occasions, and with the Meiji Emperor directly twice, to discuss a wide range of issues, including a dispute, very heated at the time, between China and Japan over sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands (you can see where my interest comes in here). As I alluded to before, Grant advised the Emperor on a great many things, including the importance of seeking revision of the Unequal Treaties with the Western powers, and how to pursue it; the importance of implementing democratic forms of government, and the caution that must be taken in implementing it gradually; taxes and economic policy; and the danger of assuming that any of the European powers would ever act altruistically in Japan’s best interests. Chang asserts that the Meiji government had not previously considered a diplomatic approach to reconciliation with China over the Ryukyus, and thus represents Grant’s involvement in pushing for both sides to engage in negotiations, as quite crucial. War was indeed averted for the time being, thanks largely (perhaps) to Grant, though the underlying issues would continue to simmer below the surface, coming to a boil in the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War, which resulted in Japanese acquisition and colonization of Taiwan.

I must admit I read this with a less cynical and skeptical eye than perhaps I should have… I hardly ever expected Grant, of all people, to become a historical figure in whom I should have an interest. But Chang’s writing is quite compelling, and I am, I guess, somewhat gullible when it comes to the light in which historians paint certain figures and events. I suppose I shall just have to see what other articles say, and how other scholars represent General Grant.

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