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Reviewed by:
  • Henry Black: On Stage in Meiji Japan by Ian McArthur
  • Matthew W. Shores
HENRY BLACK: ON STAGE IN MEIJI JAPAN. By Ian McArthur. Clayton, Victoria, Australia: Monash University Publishing, 2013. xi + 274 pp. 17 black-and-white illus., bibliography, index. Paper, $34.95.

Born in the newly self-governing colony of South Australia, Henry James Black (1858–1923) moved to Japan when he was just a boy—he was still six years old when his ship made port in Yokohama in 1865. Although his family had come to the country to pursue opportunities for work and upward movement, Black found his way into a career as a professional rakugo storyteller (rakugoka) and variety entertainer. During the 1890s, he became something of a celebrity, and a good number of his acts brought notions of European modernity to ordinary Japanese people. He also intrigued foreigners who visited Japan, such as Jules Adam, who wrote in 1899, “I had been haunted for a long time by a secret longing to become acquainted with this phenomenon … I wished to question him, to study him, to turn over page after page of his life.” Six years later, Black gave an interview in Japanese for the magazine Bungei kurabu (Literary Club) and recounted the time he was bitten by the “performance bug”:

[My father’s Japanese friend] said to me, you’ve got a good handle on Japanese, so why don’t you try giving a political address [seidan enzetsu]? I was at the height of my impertinence, so, although I didn’t have much of an idea or an opinion about politics, I said, okay let’s do it, and made the promise. So, I went before the public and gave my address. … Strangely enough, I received a wonderful applause and this made me eager to present again. Soon, I was speaking all over, alongside famous orators.

(Nishū Kyōsei 1905, reviewer’s translation)

Henry Black was also known by his stage name, Kairakutei Burakku, as well as his Japanese name, Ishii Burakku. Much has been written about this individual in Japanese, and a few scholars, such as Morioka Heinz and Sasaki Miyoko (1983), and Ian McArthur (2002, 2004, 2006), have written about him in English. The author’s new biography, Henry Black, is the most comprehensive work in English on this person to date. A fine scholar and talented investigative reporter (he has even interviewed a number of Black’s descendents), McArthur engages readers from beginning to end. The book will be especially welcomed by those with interests in modern history, anthropology, [End Page 675] media studies, performing arts, popular culture, international relationships and marriage, and even queer studies.

McArthur’s book can be divided into three parts. Chapters 1–6 cover Black’s family, their move to Japan, and his eventual and controversial decision to pursue a career as an entertainer. Chapters 7–13 are about Black’s career and undertakings that led to his becoming something of a “media darling,” and further explore his private life, including his apparent long-term relationship with another man. Chapters 14–18 discuss Black’s identity as a man of European heritage who opted to live more or less as a Japanese, his falling out with colleagues in the rakugo world, a serendipitous meeting with an American who journeyed to Japan to make the country’s first sound recordings, and Black’s somewhat lonely last years. Henry Black is written with a general readership in mind, but those who specialize in Japanese studies will be engaged, too, as McArthur is thorough in his presentation of a number of topics ranging from Japan’s transition to modernity and the country’s first newspapers to rakugo and variety entertainment hall (yose) culture, stenographic books (sokkibon), adaptive translations (hon’an mono), and more.

One of the premises of the book is that Henry Black made significant contributions to ordinary Japanese people’s understanding of European culture and modernity through his public performances and sokkibon. His longest and most innovative works include Eikoku Rondon gekijō miyage (Story from a London Theatre, 1891), Iwade ginkō chishio no tegata (The Bloodstained Hand-print at the Iwade Bank, 1891), and Minashigo...


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pp. 675-680
Launched on MUSE
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