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Henry Kairakutei Black

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Get to know one of the most interesting figures in Japan’s past. Australian-born British citizen, Henry Black, became a Japanese citizen during the turbulent Meiji era. He lived and worked in Japan as a professional storyteller. (Main image courtesy of Mr Hisashi Kano)

Who was Henry Black?

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Newspaper image of Henry Black.

Henry Black was born in Australia in 1858. At the age of seven, he moved to Japan, where his father had become editor of an English-language newspaper serving the growing foreign settlement of Yokohama. Henry Black lived out the rest of his life in Japan, becoming a professional storyteller (rakugoka), enthralling audiences with his adaptations of popular European novels. Henry Black also acted kabuki roles, managed an orchestra, performed magic and hypnotism, enjoyed Japanese poetry, and practised tea ceremony. In the 1880s, he supported the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement and later incorporated references to the movement’s aims in his narrated tales. In his later years, Henry took the professional name of Kairakutei Burakku and became a naturalised Japanese citizen. He died in Tokyo in 1923.

 The Meiji Era – Old Japan/New Japan

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Recently restored Tokyo Station portico.
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Yokohama port in the early Meiji era.

One of the more striking things to emerge from the writings of foreigners living in Japan in the Meiji era is their fascination with the co-existence of the old and the new, the exotic and the familiar. It is a theme which continues to preoccupy travellers to Japan today. During the Meiji years, many Japanese and foreign observers spoke wistfully of an Old Japan as compared to a New Japan. Old Japan was associated in the minds of many with an idealised agrarian past represented by images of rice paddies, thatched roofs, the distant night chorus of frogs and a slower pace of life. New Japan was represented by steam trains and telegraph lines traversing the country, as well as factories and the trappings of a Western lifestyle, such as bowler hats and brick buildings (see image, right, Tokyo Station entrance). (Text from Henry Black – On Stage in Meiji Japan, by Ian McArthur, pub. Monash University Publishing, p. 18)


As a professional storyteller in Japan during the Meiji years, Henry Black offered audiences satirical and entertaining comments on the attempts people made to adapt to the coming of modernity. These included amusing jibes at people who aspired to own a Western-style brick home ‘whether or not the breeze is bad and they are unbearably hot’ and the fashion among men to copy a Western-style moustache ‘even though it gets in the soup’. – from Henry Black’s tale
Eikokujin [The Englishman].

 

 

Me and Henry Black

It is Tokyo in 1983. I am riding the Ginza Line home to Roppongi with a copy of the journal Monumenta Nipponica bought at Maruzen bookshop in Nihonbashi. I open it at a photo of Henry staring out at me in full kimono. I read that he was an Australian-born man called Kairakutei Black who worked as a storyteller and actor in Japan in the Meiji era (1868-1923). The Meiji era was a time of great change which enabled this extraordinary man to span two different cultures while performing in the theatres of Japan. This site celebrates the life of Henry Kairakutei Black and the creative spirit of the Meiji era.