A photographic introduction to items from the collection

The Dawn of Circus - Acrobats travel overseas

Hayatake Torakichi was the last ringmaster of superstar status in the Edo period. His Osaka-based troupe began performing around the Tempo period (1830-1844). In 1857 they went to Edo and then proceeded to tour the country, performing in locations such as Ise, Miyajima and Tokushima to huge acclaim.
Torakichi's specialty was an act known as "kyokuzashi", in which he would balance long bamboo poles on his shoulders or feet, whilst team members would perform juggling tricks or quick-change acts on top. The superb execution of such daring stunts gained the troupe tremendous popularity (Figure 1).

Figure 1."The leading circus-performer Hayatake Torakichi from Osaka"
An advert for Hayatake Torakichi's circus troupe in Hirokoji Street in Nishiryogoku.
The illustration presents a very lively image of amazing performances including "kyokuzashi" (tricks on top of poles), jumping across paper-covered lanterns and tricks with spinning tops, in the midst of a huge set.
Figure 2. "Acrobatic Tricks from Central India" An act by Richard Risley's American Troupe. Equestrian feats were the highlight of European and American circus shows.

In this period, an important event was to radically change the history of circus and performing shows in Japan: the arrival in the country of American, Richard Risley's circus company in March 1864. The shows put on by Risley's group of 10 artists and 8 horses were very well received (Figure 2), but their success in Japan was severely curtailed by being forbidden from performing anywhere outside of Yokohama. Risley then hit on the novel idea of taking Japanese-style acrobatics to Europe and America.

In May of 1866 Risley brought together a number of Japanese entertainers including the Hamaikari Sadakichi troupe who performed tricks with their feet, the juggling and conjuring artists of Sumidagawa Namigoro's troupe, and Matsui Kijujiro's specialists in top-spinning tricks, and took them to America under the canopy of "The Japan Imperial Artistes' Company". In the following year the company performed in theatres in San Francisco (January 7) and New York (May 6), enjoying resounding success.

They then traveled to Western Europe, where they toured extensively during the subsequent two years, performing in France, Britain, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal and other countries.

Figure 3. "Kanewari Troupe - Prologue"
Illustration of the stage prologue of the Kanewari show. Many companies gave children a star role.

In fact these circus artists were the first group of Japanese to receive official governmental permission to travel overseas after the country's long period of isolation, and it is no exaggeration to see this trip as one of the very first opportunities for international contact, providing ordinary people with a taste of "exotic foreign culture".

Meanwhile other successful Japanese circus acts like Torakichi's company, Kanewari Fukumatsu's troupe (Figure 3) and Torikata Kosankichi's company (Figure 4) all decided to travel overseas at this same time, as if to compete with the "Japan Imperial Co." The history of these traveling shows took a romantic turn in New York when it emerged that the popular young lead-performer of the Kanewari troupe had a secret love affair with a lady shamisen player named Tou of the Sumidagawa group, a part of the "Japan Imperial Co," and that the Kanewari Company apparently sent a letter apologizing for the incident. A baby girl was later born in London, daughter of Tou and Hamaikari Sadakichi. The Times newspaper announced this as the very first Japanese to be born abroad.

Figure 4. "Great Acrobatics show on its return from Europe - Ringmaster Torikataka Kosankichi" (one set of three sheets) Performance by Torikataka Kosankichi's company after returning from European tour. Although we can see many European artifacts like Western outfits and umbrellas, these are no more than stylistic imitation; the performance itself was based on traditional Japanese acts developed in the Edo period.

Many other European and American companies came to Japan, following in Risley's footsteps. Louis Soullier's French equestrian troupe who visited Japan in July 1872 were the first equestrian show to be seen in Meiji-period Japan, and even participated in the Kyoto World Exposition. They boasted amazing speed and skill with horses, doing various stunts such as passing through rings of fire (Figure 5). Even more influential in Japan was Chiarini's Italian circus company, which reached the country in April 1887. This show used not only horses, but all kinds of wild animals including tigers, elephants, cattle, monkeys and raccoons.

However by the Taisho period, little more than 20 years later, Japan's circus arts entered yet another new phase. On the poster for "Toyo gigei taikai Otake musume kyokuba" - "The Great Oriental Circus Act, Otake Girls' Troupe"(Figure 6) - we see not only a combination of traditional Japanese tricks like kyokuzashi and Western style acrobatics, but also a number featuring airplanes! These astonished the audience by gliding low over their heads inside the circus arena making a tremendous roaring noise; their appearance on this poster is fascinating in that it unintentionally captures the moment when modern mechanical culture emerges.

Figure 5. "The Great Foreign Circus Show - Ringmaster Soullier"
Performance by Soullier's French troupe. Dynamic equestrian feats, trapeze artists, and tightrope walkers are all vividly depicted.
Figure 6. "The Great Oriental Circus Act, Otake Girls' Troupe"(1916)
Although traditional acts of the Edo period were continued, Japanese acrobatics by the Taisho period (1912-26) closely resembled the Western circus.

Folklore and Folklife Department, National Museum of Japanese History
Kouichi Matsuo

Hajime Miyoshi, Nippon Saakasu Monogatari (The Story of Japanese Circus), Hakusuisha, 1993
Yu Kawazoe, Edo no Misemono (Circus shows in Edo), Iwanamishinsho, 2000 Other sources