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  • Street Performers and Society in Urban Japan, 1600–1900: The Beggar’s Gift by Gerald Groemer
  • Stanca Scholz-Cionca
Street Performers and Society in Urban Japan, 1600–1900: The Beggar’s Gift. By Gerald Groemer. New York: Routledge, 2016. $240.00.

When Japan entered the horizon of Western perception after the forced opening of the country in the mid-nineteenth century, street performers were among the first Japanese seen in European and American cities. Jugglers, top spinners, acrobats, and other petty artists recruited by Western brokers rushed on world tours, to baffle large audiences with their stupendous dexterity, establishing a worldwide Japanese dominance in certain circus acts into the twentieth century. During the Meiji period, performing artists of all colors remained profitable Japanese exports, along with handicrafts, such as ukiyoe, porcelain, and textiles. The performers’ exotic bodies and skills, exhibited in zoologic gardens, circuses, variety theatres, or ethnic villages at World Fairs that celebrated technological progress and ideologies of empire fueled a triumphant japonisme that put its stamp on the fin de siècle. For roughly one century, the export of Japanese theatricals in general would remain (with the exception of Sadanji’s kabuki tour to the Soviet Union in 1928) in the hands of fringe performers—mostly economic migrants driven by despair: jugglers and acrobats, sword fighters, wrestlers, dancers, conjurers and legerdemain artists, geishas, itinerant actors, storytellers and singers, along with artisans, who performed their occupational skills as show. One of the first Japanese stars celebrated on Western stages, Öta Hisa, alias Hanako (1868–1945), was a typical offspring of that vast world of street entertainment, trained from early childhood as a tabigeinin, vagant artist. However, [End Page 243] despite prominence in the early cultural exchanges with the Western world, all these performers and their arts are barely mentioned in theatre histories or scholarship in the West.

Gerald Groemer helps to fill in this gap in this long-awaited book, heralded by substantial articles in scholarly journals, which dealt with segments of the spectrum: street and the commoners’ , respectively, the guild of blind musicians who toured the country, itinerant blind women performers (goze), “petitioning monks” (gannin), singers of popular music, performers specialized in public reading (yomiuri), small fringe theatres (yose), or the emergence of the outcaste order. In contrast to those detailed studies, which deployed rich documentary material related to separate genres and social categories of performers, the present volume undertakes an in-depth investigation of the whole multilayered and fluctuating field of street-art performances that thrived in the city of Edo during the Tokugawa shogunate (in spite of the somewhat misleading title—a concession made to the editor, as the author admits on page 6—the book is focused on the warriors’ metropolis).

This complex task demanded clear decisions: rather than attempting a morphologic taxonomy of the street arts, the author approaches his subject by investigating the sociopolitical, economic, and ideological embedding of the heterogeneous categories of performers, who thrived at the lower end of the hierarchical social spectrum. Two key concepts—both fluctuating categories—are operative in the process: the “social status,” or “social position” (mibun) and models of governance and control (shihai)—and both terms are elaborately introduced (pp. 14–25). Groemer suggests that it was in the nooks and crannies of the overtly rigid, but actually flexible social system of the shoguns’ Edo that street performers—outcastes, low-ranking religious persons, or commoners with a special status—found space to thrive, yet a space incessantly negotiated and defended in public and legal discourses by invoking allegiances and consecrated social practice. In contrast to the legitimate theatre (of kabuki and jōruri), which worked on a commercial basis, street performers had to veil their activities in a hazy space that included overt begging, religious mendicancy, practices of gift giving, advertisement of wares, and more commodified forms of entertainment (those implying an entrance fee, kido).

Chapters 2–5 are dedicated to overarching performers’ categories, identified by specific configurations of mibun and shihai, each embracing a whole scale of performer occupations: outcastes by birth; religious performers; (temporary) outcastes by occupation; and street hawkers belonging to the commoners’ class, who offered entertainment as a...


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pp. 243-246
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