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In my quest to gather all of my dissertation notes and outlines into one centrally located place in digitized format, I've come across some interesting things in the depths of my Evernote notebooks. The draft text for my remarks at Fred Schodt's book talk last year is one of the more interesting ones, and I thought I'd share it here.

First of all, I want to thank Fred Schodt for his illuminating talk and for his bringing this fascinating story to light. His new book Professor Risley's Imperial Japanese Troupe (2013) does an excellent job, I think, of telling the story of a hitherto almost forgotten chapter of 19thC Japanese and Euro-American history. As a native New Jerseyan, I especially enjoyed discovering the picaresque tale of one of the more colorful of my state's non-Mob affiliated historical figures.

One of the things that historians like to harp on is the idea that "globalization" isn't anything new to the 20thC, just deeper and broader, and one of the things I really appreciated about Professor Risley and company is how their story, and their international success, demonstrates the extraordinary mobility which a certain segment of self-selected people could, even in the 19thC when we often think of people being more or less shackled to their birthplace or the major metropolitan area nearest to it, partake of to easily circumnavigate the globe multiple times over. We often talk of "flows" of people, ideas, and culture in the age of globalization, and the circus in the 19thC is clearly an early example of that phenomenon. As one of the reviewers quoted in the book wrote, "How quickly what was once unimaginable becomes so simple."

The fact that Risley's Imperials were so successful the world over also indicates that their audiences shared certain similarities beyond their appreciation of the artistry of the "Butterfly Trick." Circus studies has discussed how in the 19thC the circus, and other forms of popular entertainment that Fred touches on briefly in the book such as blackface minstrel shows, functioned to demonstrate and confirm the hierarchies that audiences experienced in their everyday lives--in the case of Professor Risley and the Imperials, for instance, we might think of Self versus Other, native versus foreign, white versus non-white. The fact that Risley and his fellow circus performers were able to so easily traverse the globe, with such minimal real danger, also speaks to the expansion of the European empires that were so concerned with asserting "peace" and "order" in their territories. A hundred years earlier, or a hundred years later, Risley and company would have had a very different experience on these same performance circuits.

From the standpoint of Japanese history, I was particularly interested to see the members of the Imperials as a compelling footnote, or fillip, to the standard narrative of the Meiji Restoration. They intrepidly left the country in 1866 before the malcontent samurai of Satsuchô succeeded in overthrowing the shogun, and by the time the last members of the troupe returned to Japan in the 1870s the Meiji oligarchs were well on the way to transforming the country into a truly modern nation-state. While the Imperials were capitalizing on the performance of "traditional Japanese culture" abroad, the new society the Meiji oligarchs were building at home was increasingly primed to see "traditional Japanese culture" as everything that had to be left behind to survive in the "survival of the fittest" world of 19thC international politics. One of the things I would have loved to hear more about in the book was a longer histories of these performing families, and the history of the development of their specific acts. I wonder, too, whether the Imperials came to know themselves as "Japanese" through their encounters with foreigners first in Yokohama, and then around the world.

The popularity of the circus also touches on another important theme of the 19thC, namely the ascent of the middle class as the social group setting standards and morals for all of society. As Fred mentions, the circus was considered a respectable form of entertainment--which reputation Risley certainly capitalized on in promoting the Imperials as "art" rather than mere "theater." That royalty enjoyed it as much as the bourgeoisie--and that the newspapers covered those reactions--speaks much to the emerging popular culture of news, gossip, and celebrities that we know so well today.

Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe
demonstrate that the global fascination with Japanese popular culture didn't begin with anime and manga, and was not solely represented in the 19thC by Japonisme. Their story is a reminder that the world and its history is infinitely more complex than we remember it, and that the 19thC in particular was in many ways, for those fortunate enough to reside in the societies that dominated their fellows, a time of newly expanding and unrivaled potential. With great promotion and an excellent act, Risley and the Imperials were able to take the world by storm in a way that was probably only possible at that moment. Although they have been neglected until now, their story is a reminder that the past can constantly surprise us. 

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Andrea J. Horbinski

August 2017

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