Henry would be surprised

Henry Kairakutei Black’s reception in Japan as a foreign-born rakugoka in the Meiji era (1868-1912) would have been markedly different to the reception foreign-born rakugoka get in Japan these days, says Sydney University Dept of Japanese lecturer, Matthew Shores [Pictured here in 2003 during his apprenticeship with Katsura Bunshi V].

Dr Shores, who is a scholar of Japanese literary arts and entertainment, including rakugo, says Henry Black (1865-1923) was a yose entertainer in an era when people in Japan were not as familiar with the West as they are today.

“We are in a very different time to Henry Black,” he said.

Dr Shores said Australian-born Henry Black, who was inducted into the Sanyū-ha (Sanyū guild) under Sanyūtei Enchō in 1890, would have been seen by Enchō as an innovator for his ability to adapt and incorporate European detective stories into his repertoire. “He was certainly a pioneer,” Dr Shores said.

Henry Black, who took the professional name of Kairakutei Burakku, was born in Australia in 1858, but moved to Japan in 1865 when his father became the editor of an English-language newspaper in the foreign settlement at Yokohama. He spent the rest of his life in Japan, where he died in 1923. He was most popular as a yose entertainer from the 1880s to the early years of the twentieth century.

Dr Shores said that when Enchō took Black under his wing, Black benefited from a well-developed ichimon system, similar to a “family system”, allowing him to share the stage and billboards with other Sanyū-ha members. From Enchō’s perspective, Sanyū-ha gained an innovator who could attract audiences with his tales set in the great European capitals of London and Paris, while Henry was able to contribute to a reinvigoration of the art of storytelling. As for Henry, he was content to earn a living on the stage, which he made his spiritual home. The presence of Henry within the Sanyū-ha also reflected the contemporary debate over the extent to which the centuries-old art of rakugo should experiment with new ways of storytelling.

“I imagine what Henry Black could take from rakugo was very special,” Dr Shores said. “Japan was trying to modernise and prove to the West ‘we have our own great traditions’ and Henry Black had something to perhaps save rakugo.”

Dr Shores said rakugo is constantly undergoing generational change to keep up with the times. He said today’s generation of rakugoka have “the benefit of being able to read objective studies on rakugo”. This was not the experience of Henry Black, who participated in the art form at a time when it was not considered a subject for serious academic study.

Dr Shores spent time in Osaka studying under two rakugoka, Katsura Bunshi V and Hayashiya Somemaru IV. He, said Bunshi V is typical of the immediate post-war generation. “He came of age in the Occupation and was exposed to Western culture while growing up,” Dr Shores said, referring to the immediate post-war years when United States-led Allied Occupation forces under US general, Douglas MacArthur, transitioned Japan from a military dictatorship to a constitutional democracy.

Unlike in Henry’s time, today’s rakugoka are thoroughly familiar with Western culture, as are their audiences, and many can also speak or at least understand some English.

But Dr Shores said that even in the Meiji era, Osakans in particular were already well attuned to outside cultures and ideas. When the Tokyo-based Henry made visits to perform in Osaka, he would probably have been well received.

“He would have been welcomed with open arms to Osaka, which has a very international history,” Dr Shores said. “The nearby port of Sakai was known for its exotic imports and people often stopped in Osaka on the way to and from Nagasaki, so Osakans have a long history of interest in the other.”

Dr Shores said Henry was not the only foreign-born rakugoka in Japan in the Meiji era. His research shows that in the late 1800s, the newspaper, Jinmin Shimbun, reported the presence of a British born rakugoka called John Bell (or Bail) in the Kansai region, which includes Osaka and Kyoto. A report in the Tokyo Asahi Shimbun in October 1900 also mentions Bell and Henry Black sharing the stage on at least one occasion.

Dr Shores said Kansai audiences “probably would have been floored by how Henry Black could rattle off Japanese like an Edokko (person born and raised in Tokyo), and hearing Tokyo dialect would have been exotic.”

Henry, who became a Japanese citizen in 1893, is the first of only a few foreign-born rakugoka to work in Japan. The most recent foreign-born rakugoka in Japan is Canadian-born Katsura Sunshine who had a successful season in an Off-Broadway theatre in New York in 2019.

[Check out this link  https://mwshores.com/hotozero_feature/  for Matt’s interview with Hot Zero] [Pre-order Matt’s new book The Comic Storytelling of Western Japan: Satire and Social Mobility in Kamigata Rakugo  https://cup.org/3qSctqA ]

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