When the future Admiral Togo was a young cadet in Britain, he spent several months in the company of a homestay family. His arrival caused great disappointment to the youngest boy in the Capel family, who had assumed that if Togo came from Japan, he must surely be an acrobat? Certainly, he must have been a friend of the most famous Japanese man among British youth, a circus performer known as Little All Right? The stoic Togo, already a veteran of the Japanese civil war, gruffly denied any association with jugglers or plate-spinners, and that was that.
But who were the Japanese Imperial Troupe? There was, indeed, such a group, although if either the Shogun or Emperor had ever heard them described as “Imperial”, they would have had conniptions. The Troupe’s impresario, “Professor” Richard Risley Carlisle, was a hard-up strongman who introduced the Japanese to Western circus traditions in 1864. Realising that the newly opened land of Japan had its own performers and trickery, Risley pulled all the strings he could in order to bring a platoon of Japanese entertainers to the West, getting a motley crew of itinerants to sign away their lives for him in a contract that would take them literally around the world. The first-ever civilian passports granted by the Japanese government were given to Risley’s performers, a fractious, occasionally drunken and regularly licentious bunch of rascals who back-flipped, juggled and caroused their way throughout Europe and America.
Frederik L. Schodt’s account of this landmark event, Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe, argues for it as the first flowering of japonisme, in which these unlikely blue-collar ambassadors from the mysterious land of Japan brought a highly unrepresentative and oft-misunderstood series of performances to a cluster of industrial towns, from the mills of Wakefield to the mines of Wales. Pursued by creditors, scandal and intrigue, the Imperial Japanese Troupe became many Europeans’ first-ever encounter with things Japanese; they sang old Kyoto songs in the Wild West, and got into bar-room brawls in Piccadilly…. Schodt mines the Troupe’s own diaries, contemporary newspapers, theatre reviews and even court reports in order to unearth a truly globe-trotting adventure, which prods the underbelly of Victorian society, and whispers the first strains of The Mikado, Madame Butterfly and other Western obsessions with the east. He presents the Imperial Japanese Troupe as the first true Japan craze, but does so with an incredible sense of place and time, dragging the reader into a narrative of carnival barkers and gasping crowds, spectacular entertainments and forgotten celebrities. An amazing work of scholarship, and an incredible feat of literary plate-spinning. Roll up, roll up…
Jonathan Clements is the author of Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East.