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Kabuki's Forgotten War


James R. Brandon

Publication Year: 2009

According to a myth constructed after Japan’s surrender to the Allied Forces in 1945, kabuki was a pure, classical art form with no real place in modern Japanese society. In Kabuki’s Forgotten War, senior theater scholar James R. Brandon calls this view into question and makes a compelling case that, up to the very end of the Pacific War, kabuki was a living theater and, as an institution, an active participant in contemporary events, rising and falling in consonance with Japan’s imperial adventures. Drawing extensively from Japanese sources—books, newspapers, magazines, war reports, speeches, scripts, and diaries—Brandon shows that kabuki played an important role in Japan’s Fifteen-Year Sacred War. He reveals, for example, that kabuki stars raised funds to buy fighter and bomber aircraft for the imperial forces and that pro-ducers arranged large-scale tours for kabuki troupes to entertain soldiers stationed in Manchuria, China, and Korea. Kabuki playwrights contributed no less than 160 new plays that dramatized frontline battles or rewrote history to propagate imperial ideology. Abridged by censors, molded by the Bureau of Information, and partially incorporated into the League of Touring Theaters, kabuki reached new audiences as it expanded along with the new Japanese empire. By the end of the war, however, it had fallen from government favor and in 1944–1946 it nearly expired when Japanese government decrees banished leading kabuki companies to minor urban theaters and the countryside. Kabuki’s Forgotten War includes more than a hundred illustrations, many of which have never been published in an English-language work. It is nothing less than a com-plete revision of kabuki’s recent history and as such goes beyond correcting a significant misconception. This new study remedies a historical absence that has distorted our understanding of Japan’s imperial enterprise and its aftermath.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

Some material in this book was first presented in colloquia at the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University; the Department of Performance Studies, Brown University; the International Symposium: Nō Theater Transversal, Trier University...

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pp. ix-xiii

I did not plan to write this book. It forced its presence on me while I was doing research on the censorship that kabuki endured during the American Occupation that followed Japan’s defeat in World War II. As I read descriptions of kabuki that were written in the immediate postwar years, I was struck by...

Part 1: Kabuki’s Foreign Adventure: 1931–1939

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pp. 1-109

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1. Prelude to War

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pp. 3-36

Kabuki’s place in Japanese society between 1931 and 1945 closely followed the trajectory of the “Fifteen-Year War” being waged by the Greater Japanese Empire against China, Britain, Holland, Australia, and the United States. When the war on the...

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2. Kabuki and the Manchurian and Shanghai Incidents: 1931-1934

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pp. 37-67

As we have seen, a number of ichiyazuke plays in kabuki dealt with contemporary social and political events in the decade leading up to 1931. And even further back, during the Sino- Japanese and Russo-Japanese conflicts, new war plays sprang up like grass after...

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3. Kabuki and the Marco Polo Bridge Incident: 1937-1938

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pp. 68-93

The hiatus in producing new kabuki plays about the war in China ended in late summer 1937 when the Kwantung Army instigated the incident at Marco Polo Bridge (Lugouqiao) and launched an all-out offensive against China designed to force...

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4.The Darkening Storm: 1939

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pp. 94-109

During 1939 the government exhibited a paralyzing ambivalence in national policy. Stalemated in China with no good end in sight, the army was obsessed with a Northern Advance...

Part 2: Fruits of Victory: 1940–1942

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pp. 111-232

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5. Kabuki and 2,600 Years of Imperial Rule: 1940

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pp. 113-155

The year 1940 marked a watershed for kabuki in wartime Japan. Throughout the year, the kabuki world joined the entire nation in celebrating a New Order in Japan and the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the imperial line...

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6. Confrontation with America and Britain: 1941

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pp. 156-187

Many months before the war with the Anglo-American enemy began on December 8, 1941, imperial subjects were regaled with the well-worn admonition “Luxury Is the Enemy” and a newer, more ominous warning, “No Personal Desires until...

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7. Japan and Kabuki at the Zenith: 1942

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pp. 188-232

In early 1942 Japan was poised to become the master of Asia. Seemingly without pause the Imperial Army and Imperial Navy were moving from victory to astonishing victory. The Pearl Harbor bombing was said to have obliterated America’s Pacific navy...

Part 3: Defeat and Survival: 1943–1945

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pp. 233-341

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8. Kabuki and Japan’s “Decisive Battle”: 1943

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pp. 235-261

As a 1943 New Year’s greeting, kabuki actor Bandō Mitsugorō VIII shared a sober poem with his fans: “All the more shall my birth and life be worthwhile, if I die under His Majesty the Emperor’s sacred...

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9. Kabuki Is a Luxury: 1944

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pp. 262-295

New Year 1944 presented a discordant double image of theater in Japan. When stores and offices reopened in early January, holiday celebrants flooded into entertainment districts in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. On the surface, theater had recovered...

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10.The Agony Ends: 1945

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pp. 296-319

The wholesale decline of kabuki theater in the first six months of 1945 was inescapably tied to the shuddering collapse of the Japanese Empire. The individual actor was like a drowning sailor caught in the powerful wake of his sinking ship. Fate would determine...

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11. War Plays in Kabuki - a Retrospection: August 1945

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pp. 320-341

Kabuki’s role during Japan’s fifteen-year Sacred War is essentially unknown in the West, and in Japan it is either forgotten or ignored. That era of military horrors is so embarrassing or painful, even after some seventy years, that most Japanese do...

Part 4: Kabuki Outlasts the Occupation: 1945–1947

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pp. 343-356

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12. Inventing Classic Kabuki: 1945–1947

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pp. 345-356

When Emperor Hirohito surrendered unconditionally on August 15, 1945, the military struggle between the Japanese Empire and the Allied Powers came to an abrupt end. Japan had “lost” the war, but hostility toward American cultural values...


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pp. 357-415


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pp. 417-438

Index of Play Titles in English and Japanese

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pp. 439-448

Index of Kabuki Actors’ Names in the Text

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pp. 449-451


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pp. 453-465

E-ISBN-13: 9780824863210
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824832001

Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Theater and the war.
  • War and theater -- Japan -- History -- 20th century.
  • Kabuki -- History -- 20th century.
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