Saturday 14 April 2018

Japanese jugglers, acrobats and top spinners in Victorian London - by Lesley Downer

Japanese acrobats at the Paris Expo 1867
When Phileas Fogg arrives in Japan, the first thing he does is to go to an ‘acrobatic performance’. There he sees the ‘butterfly trick’, where the performers make origami butterflies fly across the stage just by waving their fans. Another performer juggles lighted candles while one sends tops spinning along ‘pipe stems, sabres, wires and even hairs’ as if they have a life of their own. He watches ‘astonishing performances of acrobats and gymnasts turning on ladders, poles, balls, barrels, etc., all executed with wonderful precision.’ And he finally tracks down his lost servant, young Passepartout, underneath an entire human pyramid.

All of this makes perfect sense. In 1872, when Jules Verne was writing his Around the World in Eighty Days, westerners’ image of Japan was as a land of acrobats. Before the arrival of Japonisme the first Japanese to tickle westerners’ fancy were top-spinners, jugglers, acrobats and other performers and when westerners thought of Japanese they thought of acrobats.
'The Japanese at St Martin's Hall'

This year is the 250th anniversary of the birth of circus - in April 5th 1768, when Philip Astley opened his Amphitheatre in Surrey Road, London. To celebrate I’ve been looking into the jugglers, acrobats and other performers who were the first Japanese to arrive in Victorian Britain.

For 250 years Japan had been closed to the west and Japanese had been prohibited from leaving the country under pain of death. It was only in 1866 that the prohibition was lifted and the first ‘passports’ - actually ‘letters of request’ - were issued. The idea was to enable diplomats, government officials, merchants and students to travel abroad to help develop Japan and its economy. But entertainers were also eager to apply.
'Matsui Gensui Troop of Top Spinners' 1865

Among the very first was a legendary top-spinner called Matsui Gensui. He was 43 years old and had been wowing crowds with his amazing feats for decades in Edo (now Tokyo)’s East End, around the famous Asakusa Sensoji Temple. In the traditional way the illustrious name of Matsui Gensui was handed down through the generations. He was the thirteenth to bear it. 

On December 2 1866 the Gensui troupe - seven men, two women, two boys and a girl - set sail on the British steamer Nepaul. They landed in Southampton on February 2nd 1867. On February 11th they made their debut to a packed house at St Martin’s Hall, just behind the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

The arrival of the Japanese acrobats led to one of the first Japanese crazes of the nineteenth century. Audiences filled theatres to capacity and newspapers reported extensively on their performances and daily activities.
Hayatake Torakichi performs
the ladder trick

The Times reported that ‘a company of acrobats, conjurors and jugglers have established themselves at St. Martin’s-hall where, richly habited in their native costume, they go through a set of feats. ... The children are whirled around in huge humming tops. The others walk on the slack rope and do the famous butterfly trick.’ 

The Era reported on May 5 1867 that the tight rope walker, ‘Kosakichi, in common with the rest of the Japanese does not seem to know the meaning of the word nervousness. ... He carries an umbrella in one hand and a fan in the other and grasps the rope between the first and second toe, after the manner of monkeys in general. Kosakichi rests for a time and, sitting on the rope, smiles amiably at the public while he fans himself. He recovers his position without touching the rope, and never for a moment dispenses with the umbrella.’ Then, to the shock of the audience, the cord snapped, sending Kosakichi to the ground, where he landed gracefully and dexterously on his feet. 

The troupe also performed the ladder trick, in which a man lying on his back balanced a vertical ladder on his feet. The Brighton Gazette described it: ‘A child with the greatest ease ascends to the top of the upright ladder, where he stands upon his head and again upon his feet, and with an intrepid air and serene aspect clasps his hands, amidst the greatest applause; he then continues his journey along the horizontal ladder where again his flexible manoeuvres and gyrations, at a very lofty elevation, are as surprising as they are wonderful.’

Hayatake Torakichi spinning tops
The troupe went on to tour England and performed for the royal family at Windsor Castle. Then, on May 27 1867, they left from Liverpool for the Paris Exhibition. Here they took on the new and grand title of ‘The Tycoon’s Japanese Troupe’. They must have known they’d be crossing paths - and swords - with some old friends and rivals ­- the so called ‘Japan Imperial Artistes’ Company’, fresh from the newly United States.

In 1864, when westerners were allowed in to Japan but Japanese were not yet allowed to leave, the shogun’s government gave permission for the self-styled ‘Professor’ Richard Risley and his American circus troupe to perform in Yokohama. He arrived with ten artists and eight horses. Their performances were a sensation. Many Japanese balancing artistes, jugglers, contortionists, top spinners, and conjurers came to watch and to show off their own expertise.

Amazed at what he saw, Risley had the idea of taking Japanese-style acrobatics abroad. He assembled several groups of Japanese entertainers including Hamaikari Sadakichi’s troupe, who performed tricks with their feet, Sumidagawa Namigoro’s troupe of jugglers and conjurers and Matsui Kijujiro’s top-spinning specialists. Three days after Matsui and his troupe left for London, on 5 December 1866, they set sail for San Francisco. Under the name ‘The Japan Imperial Artistes’ Company’, they performed there for several months in early 1867, then went on to New York where they performed until July, when they left for Paris.
The tumbling tubs trick - Japanese Imperial Troupe in Paris

The most celebrated member of the company was a little boy called Hamaikari Nagakichi, the only child athlete to appear abroad. The first time he performed in San Francisco, he fell from the slack wire. The audience rose to their feet, gasping in horror. The boy picked himself up and shouted, ‘Little All Right,’ which became his nickname thereafter. He was hugely popular.

The greatest acrobat of all was Hayatake Torakichi, celebrated as the last superstar ringmaster of the Edo period. He was based in Osaka but thrilled crowds across the country. Torakichi’s specialty was an act called kyokuzashi, in which he balanced long bamboo poles on his shoulders or feet while other members of the troupe performed juggling tricks or quick-change acts on top. He too was lured to San Francisco and performed there in 1867.
Frog acrobats by
Kawanabe Kyosai

Jostling for public acclaim, all these different troupe members unexpectedly found themselves in each other’s company. In New York it transpired that Hamaikari Sadakichi, the popular young leader of one of the three troupes in The Japan Imperial Artistes’ Company, had had a secret love affair with a lady shamisen player named Tou, who was part of the Sumidagawa group, another of the three. She found herself pregnant and eventually had her baby in London. The Times reported that this was the first Japanese ever to be born abroad. 

Thus it was that Japan’s first representatives on the world stage were its acrobats and stage performers.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see

All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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