- The Man Who Saved Kabuki: Faubion Bowers and Theatre Censorship in Occupied Japan
A half-century has passed since the end of the American Occupation of Japan. Although much has been written about that period, until recently scholars ignored (or were unaware of) hundreds, perhaps thousands, of file boxes stacked somewhere in the darkened corridors of Washington, DC. These documents form a rich archive of information about theatre censorship during the Occupation. While we await the results of research being conducted by Japanese theatre scholar James Brandon and by Michael Cassidy, a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh writing his dissertation on "The Propaganda Picture Show: Kamishibai during the U.S. Occupation of Japan," we can get a peek of what lies inside by reading Samuel L. Leiter's translation and adaptation of Shiro Okamoto's remarkable The Man Who Saved Kabuki: Faubion Bowers and Theatre Censorship in Occupied Japan (originally published in 1998). Despite the title, the book is not so much a hagiography (though it is that, too) as a history of the complex interplay between the psychology of a defeated nation and its occupying conquerors. We are reminded of General Douglas Mac Arthur's absolute belief in his own infallibility and his draconian, paternalistic, often Orientalist ideas, such as his famous dictum that Japan was a nation of 12-year-olds. MacArthur's goal—that is, the goal of the Occupation itself, for like Louis XIV, MacArthur and the State were one—was nothing less than a total reversal of 2,000 years of Japanese thinking, accomplished through the imposition of American-style "democracy." Kabuki (all male, filled with devotion to duty, vendettas, ritual suicide, prostitution, etc.) seemed to embody the feudalistic elements that the Occupation was determined to sweep away. To the defeated Japanese, however, American "democracy" seemed a hypocritical ideal: the Occupation government advocated free speech while enforcing strict censorship, and the war crimes tribunal demanded the execution of military leaders deemed responsible for atrocities while the Emperor escaped punishment. Faubion Bowers (1917-1999) served first as MacArthur's aide-de-camp cum official translator and personal secretary, and subsequently (after the departure of Earle Ernst) as head censor for the Occupation. Through a series of nearly accidental events, Bowers became one of the most powerful people in Occupied Japan. Before the war, this free-spirited and talented pianist had decided to go to Indonesia to study gamelan. On the way, his ship stopped in Japan. Thinking he was entering a temple, Bowers stumbled into Tokyo's Kabuki-za Theatre, where some of the greatest pre-war actors just happened to be performing one of kabuki's greatest plays, Chûshingura [End Page 186] (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers). Bowers, who was ignorant of kabuki and did not speak Japanese, was stunned. He dropped the rest of his trip, immersed himself in Japanese language studies, and began to attend kabuki almost daily. He returned to America shortly before Pearl Harbor and was drafted. When the army realized his Japanese language skills, they made him an officer and trained him as an interpreter.
Young Major Bowers's position in the Occupation government was such that he could circumvent his superior's wishes. Even as civilian head censor (he was required to resign his commission) he maintained nearly absolute authority over the contested fate of kabuki. He diverted attention from the scripts' social implications by emphasizing that, in kabuki, the art of the actor is primary. His subtle rereadings of key plays emphasized reflections of American ideals rather than Confucian values.
His authority extended to actual kabuki production. He insisted on all-star casts (despite the costs to the producers), nurtured new talent, dictated the assignment of roles, and even influenced actors' performances and interpretations. Such clout was possible because kabuki actors and theatre owners respected his knowledge of kabuki and his aesthetic judgment. Initially, they had been stunned when, as a member...