Me and Henry Black
Have you ever been on the Ginza subway line in Tokyo, in particular the stretch between Nihonbashi and Ginza stations? It’s a great place for spotting ladies in fashionably immaculate dresses, carrying fluffy white dogs in designer handbags, or straight-laced businessmen wearing Armani suits and Italian silk neckties. In 1983 I was living in Roppongi and working as a correspondent for the Melbourne-based Herald and Weekly Times stable of Australian metropolitan newspapers. I’d spotted an advertisement in the Japan Times for Monumenta Nipponica, a highly respected academic journal published out of Waseda University. The ad mentioned that a former sempai [senior] from my university days had a paper published in the latest edition of the journal, so I’d gone to buy a copy at Maruzen bookstore in Nihonbashi. Which is how I happened to be on the Ginza subway line heading home to Roppongi while flipping through the journal to find my sempai’s article. Instead, the first thing that caught my eye was a photo of Henry Black, who was born in Australia but lived in Japan during the Meiji era (1868-1923). The photo was probably taken when he was in his thirties and just inducted into the Sanyu’ha school of professional storytellers (rakugoka). The story’s authors were Sasaki Miyoko and Morioka Heinz. A quick glance at the story told me that Henry’s Scottish father had been a journalist in Japan. I’d scored a few points in common with Henry. So there I was – an Australian of Scottish ancestry working as a journalist in Japan – now oblivious to the fluffy dogs and Armani suits. I’ve always had an interest in the cross-cultural experience, so I knew I was on to a great story. I wanted to know more.
At that moment, Henry became a part of my life.
The Meiji era was a time of great change, when Japan borrowed and adapted much from the rest of the world, in particular from Western Europe and the United States. This great era of experimentation and openness to other cultures enabled an extraordinary man to live across two different cultures while performing in the theatres of Japan.
So hello and welcome to my website, which celebrates the life of Henry Kairakutei Black and the creative spirit of the Meiji era.
My initial interest in Henry resulted in a feature-length article for the papers back in Australia, shortly after attending the first of annual commemorative ceremonies at Henry’s grave in the Yokohama Foreigners’ Cemetery.
Several years later (1992), I published, through Kodansha, a Japanese-language book about Henry, called Kairakutei Burakku – Nihon saikō no gaijin tarento [Kairakutei Black: Japan’s most famous foreign-born talent]. I remember that in that year my friend, Masako Endo, came to the annual grave-side ceremony. Masako, who lives in Yokohama, has had a long interest in aspects of the Australia-Japan relationship. She has written several books on this topic, including Nazo no Ikokusen [謎の異国船」about initial contact between the two countries.
Soon after publication of my book, I had a surprising call from the rakugoka, San’yūtei Tonraku 三遊亭とん楽, asking if I might be interested in taking on the role of Henry in a stage play which film director Fujii Tomonori 藤井智徳 wrote based on my book. I accepted…and promptly lost a few kilograms in body weight over the ensuing weeks of intense practice late each night after work. But it was worth the experience as I gained much insight into what Henry must have felt as an Australian-born British national living and working as a rakugoka in Meiji-era Japan.
I hope you enjoy learning about Henry and the Meiji era.
These days I live in Sydney, Australia, and describe myself as an author, journalist, translator and educator. I’ve earned a doctorate in Japanese Studies from The University of Sydney examining the contribution Henry Black made to the modernity debate in Japan during the Meiji era through his narrated adaptations of British and French sensation fiction as well as his support of the pro-democracy Freedom and People’s Rights Movement. I now teach English as a Second Language. I have also taught Japanese language, Japanese Studies, Media in Asia and Asian Studies programs at several universities in Sydney. In 2013, I published my book, Henry Black: On Stage in Meiji Japan, through Monash University Publishing and I’m writing a work of historical fiction based on the life of Henry Black.