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A Beggar's ArtScripting Modernity in Japanese Drama, 1900-1930$

M. Cody Poulton

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780824833411

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824833411.001.0001

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The Rise of Modern Drama, 1909–1924

The Rise of Modern Drama, 1909–1924

(p.29) Chapter 2 The Rise of Modern Drama, 1909–1924
A Beggar's Art

M. Cody Poulton

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter identifies the Taishō era and Henrik Ibsen with the birth of modern drama in Japan. It was also the birth of the shingeki movement, a fact that was borne out by another Ibsen production, that of A Doll House, by Tsubouchi Shōyō's Literary Society in 1911. But it was not only “young men” who were affected by Ibsen's plays. Almost singlehandedly, the plays were responsible for the “new woman” (atarashii onna) phenomenon. This was a time when modern theatre and drama became major players in the rising bourgeois culture. In short, Taishō was an era when theatre became a key forum for the exchange of artistic, social, and political ideas in Japan and drama came into its own as a literary form.

Keywords:   Taishō era, Henrik Ibsen, modern drama, shingeki movement, modern theatre

“The opening of the Free Theatre is nothing other than the expression of our desire to live,” proclaimed Osanai Kaoru at the premiere of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman on November 27, 1909. Novelist and playwright Tanizaki Jun’ichirō (1886–1965) was at the premiere and recalled of Osanai that “such glory comes perhaps but once in a lifetime for a man.”1 It was not only a defining moment in Osanai’s career as the most charismatic force for the shingeki movement, but it also captured a time in which the theatre served for a generation of younger writers and intellectuals as a focus for the aspirations of the age. For Tanizaki, Osanai was a mentor and sponsor for his earliest published works, of both fiction and drama. Kikuchi Kan (1888–1948) likewise recalled that he and many other young writers saw in Osanai a model for the new intellectual. Kume Masao (1891–1952) attested that the Free Theatre had inspired him to start writing plays.2 Mori Ōgai, who translated Borkman for the Free Theatre production, has the hero of his novel Youth (Seinen, 1910–1911) reflect on its significance:

Since Junichi felt that this was an important event from the viewpoint of contemporary thought, he became a member of the Free Theater immediately after the play’s announcement as if he had been waiting impatiently for just this moment. Earlier, when he was still at home, one of Shakespeare’s plays had been performed. When it came to performances of Shakespeare or Goethe, no matter how good the acting, and there could (p.30) be no doubt about the quality of the plays, they would have had difficulty in making a profound impression on today’s youth. Not only would these plays not affect young men, but the majority of our youth could not possibly appreciate such classical works. … To put this in a more extreme fashion, if a new Shakespeare-like play were to be published now, young Japanese would probably not even call it drama but would dub it theater. They might say its poetry was too wordy. And they would probably say the same about Goethe’s works. … And the reason for this reaction might have been that the tongues of these men, accustomed to the strong stimulus of realism in the modern world, would find it difficult to appreciate the deep calm tastes of a century or more ago.3

For his part, Tsubouchi Shōyō felt that Japanese theatre wasn’t quite ready for Ibsen, still insisting that Shakespeare was the necessary bridge for the Japanese to theatrical modernity.4 Note, however, the distinction made above between “theatre” and “drama”: one represented the past, the other the future. Ōgai was right: Ibsen marked the birth of modern drama in Japan. It was also the birth of the shingeki movement, a fact that was borne out by another Ibsen production, that of A Doll House, by Tsubouchi Shōyō’s Literary Society in 1911. (We shall see that it was Shōyō’s student Shimamura Hōgetsu [1871–1918] who was the driving force behind that production.) It was not only “young men” who were affected by Ibsen’s plays. Almost single-handedly, the plays were responsible for the “new woman” (atarashii onna) phenomenon.5

The following decade saw the flourishing of literally dozens of little theatre companies bent on staging new drama, both foreign and Japanese, including Kamiyama Sōjin’s Modern Drama Society (Kindaigeki Kyōkai, 1912);6 Sawada Sōjūrō’s Creative Experiment Company (Sōsaku Shienkai, 1913) and New National Theatre (Shin-kokugeki, 1916); Aoyama Sugisaku’s Fort Theatre (Toride-za, 1918); and Hijikata Yoshi’s Friends’ Theatre (Tomodachi-za, 1919), to name just a few. The breakup of Shōyō’s Literary Society in 1913 saw the establishment of two important companies by alumni from that theatre: Shimamura Hōgetsu’s Art Theatre (Geijutsu-za, 1913) and Ikeda Daigo, Tōgi Tetteki, and Doi Shunshō’s Anonymous Company (Mumeikai, 1914). (The Art Theatre staged what was that generation’s biggest hit, an adaptation of Tolstoy’s Resurrection, starring Matsui Sumako [1886–1919], in 1914.) The Takarazuka women’s musical troupe was founded the same year.

Kabuki actors also established companies dedicated to the production of (p.31) new drama; these included Onoe Kikugorō VI’s Kyōgen-za in 1914; Morita Kan’ya XIII’s Literary Arts Theatre (Bungei-za, 1915); the Five Voice Company (Goseikai, 1913) and Annals Theatre (Shunjū-za, 1920) of Ichikawa Ennosuke II (1888–1963); and Matsumoto Kōshirō VII’s New Kabuki Society (Shin-kabuki Kyōkai, 1919). Nor were shinpa actors remiss in founding new troupes, including the following: Kawai Takeo’s Public Theatre (Kōshū Gekidan, 1913); Inoue Masao’s New Historical Drama Society (Shin-jidaigeki Kyōkai, 1914); and the New Theatre Company (Shingeki-za, 1919), established by Hanayagi Shōtarō and Yanagi Eijirō.

It was a time when modern theatre and drama became major players in the rising bourgeois culture. Such a plethora of new theatre companies could not have arisen were there not also plays to be produced and a public interested in coming to see them. There was hardly a writer during the Taishō era who was not also a playwright. To list them all here would be tedious, but the exceptions (Natsume Sōseki and Shiga Naoya spring to mind) could be listed on the fingers of one hand. Print media supplied a venue for the publications of new plays and criticism about them. Spearheading such interest was New Tides in Thought (Shinshichō), a journal founded in 1908 by Osanai Kaoru. (Kikuchi Kan and Tanizaki Jun’ichirō were also on the editorial board.) Most of the mainstream literary journals, including The Pleiades (Subaru), Central Review (Chūō kōron), Literary Annals (Bungei shunjū), and New Fiction (Shin-shōsetsu), published new plays as well as theatre criticism; many of the members of White Birch (Shirakaba), including Arishima Takeo (1878–1923), Mushanokōji Saneatsu (1885–1976), Nagayo Yoshirō (1888–1981), and Satomi Ton (1888–1983), also wrote drama. Other late-Meiji theatre journals included Kabuki (established by Mori Ōgai’s brother Miki Takeji in 1900); Entertainment Illustrated (Engei gahō, 1907); Entertainment Club (Engei kurabbu, 1914); New Entertainment (Shin-engei, 1916); Theatre and Criticism (Geki to hyōron, 1922); and, last but not least, New Tides in Theatre (Engeki shinchō, 1924). By the 1920s, several important drama anthologies came out, including the Overview of Contemporary Drama (Gendai gikyoku taikan, 1922); the Anthology of Contemporary Playscripts (Gendai kyakuhon sōsho, 1923); and the massive fifty-volume Collection of Japanese Drama (Nihon gikyoku zenshū, 1928–1930), of which some twenty volumes were devoted to modern plays. Dramatists were quicker to organize themselves than novelists (though many were the same individual): the Japan Playwrights Association was established in 1920 by Yamamoto Yūzō (1887–1974), Kikuchi Kan, and Nagata Hideo (1885–1949), one year before a similar guild was founded to (p.32) protect the interestsof novelists. In certain years, writers like Tanizaki spent more time writing plays than fiction.

In short, Taishō was an era when theatre became a key forum for the exchange of artistic, social, and political ideas in Japan and drama came into its own as a literary form. Critic Endō Tasuke remarks that drama was a youthful literary form that expressed the energy, idealism, and “histrionic” character of the writers who came of age during this period.7 Many have noted that while the title character of John Gabriel Borkman is an old man, the Free Theatre’s production focused on the son, Erhart.8 Erhart’s “I want to live!” became a rallying cry for the new generation of Japanese rebelling against their fathers.

We have seen that by the 1880s Japanese intellectuals were well aware of the high status of drama as a literary genre and the social importance accorded to theatre in the West. But the drama that men like Fukuchi Ōchi, Suematsu Kenchō, and Mori Ōgai saw on European stages in the 1870s and 1880s for the most part remained well within the realm of the melodramatic “well-made plays” of Sardou and Dumas fils. These were not so far removed from the aesthetic of shinpa or even kabuki. Rather, it was the work of Ibsen and his contemporaries that brought about a revolution in Japanese theatre—and, in a broader sense, letters—during the first decade of the twentieth century.

Ibsen’s impact on late-Meiji Japan was profound and inspired both imitators and reactions against the social drama that the Norwegian epitomized. Recognition of his importance was rather slow to come to Japanese intellectual circles, however. Though plays like A Doll House (1879), Ghosts (1881), and An Enemy of the People (1882) were being staged throughout the 1880s in Germany and beyond, there is no evidence that Mori Ōgai, the chief exponent for modern European drama at this time in Japan, was familiar with his work until after his return to his homeland in 1888. (There was, of course, a time lag from the production of these plays in Norway to their reception elsewhere.)9 The first reference to Ibsen—notably it is by Ōgai—is in 1889, but here (as well as in a review of contemporary literature by Shōyō in 1892) there is no evidence that Ōgai had actually read anything by this playwright. Neither Ōgai nor Shōyō knew what to make of him, being unsure of whether he was a naturalist or a symbolist.10 (Ibsen wrote plays in both styles over the course of his career, and these concepts were still hard to grasp for contemporary Japanese critics.) Though some, mostly partial and inaccurate, translations were published in the 1890s, it is not until almost the turn of the century that Japanese critics took real notice of the playwright.11 In 1901, Takayasu Gekkō (1869–1944) published Social Dramas by Ibsen (Ipusen-saku shakaigeki), containing complete (p.33) translations of An Enemy of the People and A Doll House. Playwright Nakamura Kichizō (1877–1941) read Gekkō’s translations and recalled that he had initially been rather put off by Ibsen’s rationalism, but he (like his contemporaries) was still not used to reading drama.12 Growing interest in Ibsen’s work can be seen, however, in 1902 in the attempt at a translation (from English) of John Gabriel Borkman by the poet Ishikawa Takuboku (1886–1912). The first stage production of an Ibsen play was an adaptation of An Enemy of the People by Hanabusa Ryūgai and his Western-style Theatre Company (Yōshiki Engekisha) in 1902. Both Ryūgai and Gekkō demonstrated an awareness of Ibsen’s significance for modern drama in Japan. In particular, Ibsen provided a model for how to portray inner character and motivation through dialogue and gesture without a resort to, for example, the style of narration or long monologues that had been employed in the kabuki and puppet theatres.13

Ibsen’s most ardent proponent was Shōyō’s disciple, Shimamura Hōgetsu, who returned to Japan in 1905 from a three-and-a-half-year stint in Europe, where he had seen many of the Norwegian’s plays performed. In the January 1906 issue of Waseda Literature, Hōgetsu proclaimed “an age of Ibsen.” The playwright’s death less than six months later coincided with a burst of home-grown naturalist literature in Japan that was in large part inspired by Ibsen’s work. Memorials and accolades filled the Japanese press. Waseda Literature devoted a special issue to Ibsen in July 1906, featuring essays by Hasegawa Tenkei (1876–1940), Tayama Katai (1871–1930), Ueda Bin (1874–1916), and other late-Meiji luminaries. Yanagita Kunio, who would later become the father of Japanese folklore studies, described the galvanizing effect of reading Ibsen’s plays:

One is not so much moved as shocked by these ordinary characters, whose tempests, stirred up around the table of a conventional drawing room, seem not concocted out of an imagination divorced from reality, but natural and convincing, as if they had been witnessed and recorded just as they had happened. They did not seem in any way strange or exotic to us who are, after all, foreigners to the customs of Norway. The way the writer expresses all this so boldly and precisely seems almost supernatural.14

In 1903, Yanagita established the Ibsen Society for the study of Ibsen’s plays, the Ipusen-kai, whose members read like an honor roll of early twentieth-century literati: Tayama Katai, Hasegawa Tenkei, Iwano Hōmei, Tokuda Shūsei, Kanbara Ariake, Masamune Hakuchō, Osanai Kaoru, and Akita (p.34) Ujaku (1883–1962), to name a few. Missing from this list were Shōyō, Ōgai, and Hōgetsu, who yet had important roles to play in the promotion of Ibsen’s work.15 Hōgetsu would translate A Doll House (from an English translation) for the 1911 Literary Society productions, including the one at the Imperial Theatre that catapulted Matsui Sumako into stardom. (Ōgai supplied another translation of A Doll House [dubbed Nora] from a German translation, for Kamiyama Sōjin’s Modern Drama Society production in 1913.)

Through the efforts of the Ibsen Society and Hōgetsu’s criticism, the Norwegian’s plays inspired a generation of Japanese naturalist writers. Iwano Hōmei, Nagata Hideo, Nakamura Kichizō, Sano Tensei (1877–1945), and Mayama Seika are a few of the playwrights who wrote what were called “social dramas” (shakaigeki) or “problem plays” (mondai-geki) patterned after Ibsen. For all the excitement that his work aroused in Japan in the last years of Meiji, however, Ibsen seems to have had a greater impact on fiction. His influence was less as a dramatist than as a social critic, Mōri Mitsuya writes.16 Ibsen’s ideas are debated in two definitive Japanese coming-of-age novels at that time, Natsume Sōseki’s Sanshirō (1908) and Mori Ōgai’s Youth; Japanese versions of Ibsen’s men and women begin to crop up in the pages of other novels, like Arishima Takeo’s A Certain Woman (Aru onna, 1919).

The Problem of How to Dramatize Modern Life

What were some of the main features of the new drama introduced by Ibsen and his contemporaries? The meaning of “drama,” as we have seen, is action, and its chief medium of expression is dialogue. Thus, in its purest form drama is rooted in people, events, and actions presented concretely, in the here-and-now, before an audience of spectators. It is by its nature resolutely concrete, behavioristic in its presentation of people and their relationships, acted out on stage for all to see. The essence, in short, of pure drama is the ability of a stage character to take action.

Györgi Lukacs is a good guide on the rise of modern drama. “Man grows dramatic by virtue of the intensity of his will, by the outpouring of his essence in his deeds, by becoming wholly identical with them,” he writes.17 “In Shakespeare’s time, the decisive conflicts still occur in a form which worked strongly upon the senses.”18 Lukacs’s remarks here are addressed specifically to Renaissance Western drama, yet he could be talking about kabuki. Traditional European drama “rested on solid metaphysical foundations,” a sense of ethical values and a way of understanding the world shared by both the stage (p.35) characters and the audience.19 Human relations were still defined according to a feudal worldview, one of organic unity to which all individuals were subject. Though relationships could be problematized, the system that defined them was ultimately beyond question. The conflict that was an essential element of all drama was therefore presented as conflict between powerful individuals and not that of an individual against an entire order represented by society, nature, or God.

The new drama reflected the destabilization of relations, values, ways of being, and means of production inaugurated during the Enlightenment and brought to fruition under industrialization during the nineteenth century: “New conflicts result from the new patterning of sensibility, and this at precisely the juncture where, in the old order of society, the relation of higher to lower rank (master to servant, husband to wife, parents to children, etc.) found stability. … What kind of man does this life produce, and how can he be depicted dramatically? What is his destiny, what typical events will reveal it, how can these events be given adequate expression?” Lukacs asks.20 Modern dramaturgy was, above all, a dramaturgy of consciousness, of self-awareness. The force of awakening individual identity began to replace the role of destiny or God in determining personal agency. We have seen how for Shōyō character supplanted destiny or “intrigue” as the engine of drama.

In the new drama, self-realization became a personal goal but also a problem, however. The strong individuals of Shakespearean drama ironically give way in the modern drama to an individualism of powerless people. The lack of a common mythology thrusts the stage hero back upon himself to question every event that happens, every act he must take. The introspection of the first “modern” stage character, Hamlet, thus stands in high relief to the instinctive action of Renaissance revenge plays or, for that matter, the hyperbolic emotions and energies of kabuki or shinpa stage characters. As the modern world rationalized human relations, however, individual identity became abstracted, and relationships between people became more impersonal. Family and other social ties become insuperable constraints for the heroes and heroines of the new drama. In a world with no longer any enduring mythology, it is the individual who becomes problematized. How is drama possible in a world in which true free action becomes increasingly difficult?

Every suffering is really an action directed within, and every action which is directed against destiny assumes the form of suffering. … The heroes of the new drama—in comparison to the old—are more passive than active; (p.36) they are acted upon more than they act for themselves; they defend rather than attack; their heroism is mostly a heroism of anguish, of despair, not one of bold aggressiveness. Since so much of the inner man has fallen prey to destiny, the last battle is to be enacted within.21

“Survival as an individual, the integrity of individuality, becomes the vital centre of drama. Indeed, the bare fact of Being begins to turn tragic,” Lukacs adds.22 The passivity of the modern hero presented a substantial problem for the dramaturgy of Ibsen and his contemporaries, however. In a shift of focus from outward, aggressive action to inward, passive suffering, the appropriate medium of artistic expression became less dramatic and more epic or lyrical. The new drama took on more the qualities of the modern novel, with its focus on the inner thought processes of its protagonists, or of poetry, where subjectivity overcomes third-person objective description.

Developing on Lukacs’s theories, Peter Szondi has analyzed how modern European dramatists attempted to negotiate this inherent dramaturgical problem.23 In Ibsen and Chekhov, the events of the past dominate, determine, and limit the actions of the present, and characters slip into reminiscent monologues to add temporal and psychological depth to the present action (or lack thereof) portrayed on stage. Hauptmann’s naturalist drama subjected action and character to a ruthless determinism. August Strindberg wrote, “I believe that the complete portrayal of an individual life is truer and more meaningful than that of a family”;24 his expressionism postulated a radically personal “I dramaturgy” that shifted the focus from the social or family unit, from history to autobiography, to the individual ego as the center of dramatic action. In such drama, individual character was increasingly smashed into fragments of a disintegrated self. Maeterlinck’s symbolist drames statiques seemed to deny the very underpinnings of dramatic form, attenuating action and interpersonal relationships; similarly Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s lyric drama eschewed action for the creation of a mood.

Through their dramaturgy modern playwrights tackled the problem of how to stage modern life. Though their solutions were various, they had one thing in common—namely, an estrangement from what had typically been regarded as “dramatic”: the sphere of interpersonal relationships, the here-and-now, public action. Of all the forms modern drama took, naturalist dramaturgy was closest to the novel; this similarity may explain why ultimately it was the least stable, quickly giving birth to its successors, symbolist and expressionist drama, and also perhaps accounting for why Ibsen’s social dramas (p.37) had a more profound influence on early-twentieth-century fiction than they ultimately had over work for the stage.

The One-Act Play and Mori Ōgai

One solution for the dramaturgical challenges of staging modern life for European playwrights in the 1880s and ’90s was the one-act play. “A Scene, a ‘Quart d’heure,’ seems to be the type of theatre piece for people today,” wrote Strindberg in 1889.25 It was also an immensely popular form for Taishō playwrights. The one-act stood in relation to the more traditional multi-act play in the same way as the short story did to the novel. Kikuchi Kan assessed the advantages of one-act dramaturgy in a 1924 essay:

Truly dramatic events do not occur so often in the life of a certain individual or group of people. If one thinks about it, such events have occurred perhaps only once in our life to date and perhaps will occur not more than two or three times in our entire life. In that sense, a dramatic event occurs very seldom and within a very brief span of time.

It therefore follows that even if one writes a play in five or even four acts with a certain protagonist, not every act will contain something dramatic in it. The dramatic event will occur in the fourth or fifth act, and the rest of the play will be there to lay down the plot or set up the character. In short, the play will be filled with anti-dramatic (higikyokuteki) elements. Of course, in order to write of intricate dramatic events, there is no doubt that it is interesting to incorporate preparatory scenes, scenes like black storm clouds roiling over a peaceful sea. But the essence of drama is not to be found in character portrayal or circumstantial exposition. So since it is enough to write only what is dramatic, whatever conflict may exist requires no more time than is afforded by a single act. … I have a sense that for a dramatist the one-act play is the most direct and honest form. …

From the standpoint of audience appeal, the one-act will in due course surely come to dominate all other forms of drama. Just as the short story is the natural offspring of modern literature during the second half of the nineteenth century, so too is the one-act play the last-born child of the modern drama movement; thus, it should assume its destined place as inheritor of the stage. After all, the frenetic pace of modern life renders it impossible for audiences to spend long hours at the theatre, making it all the more essential that the playwright gets his point across in as little time as he can.26

(p.38) As we see, Kikuchi (who had learned his dramaturgy well at the feet of George Bernard Shaw and J. M. Synge) used brevity and economy as arguments for the one-act play. His critique of the multi-act perhaps also hints at a recognition of the increasingly anti-dramatic nature of modern dramaturgy. Thus, the one-act is seen as a way to recover the dramatic by its intense focus on a single, isolated event. Peter Szondi, however, notes the following:

The modern one-act is not a Drama in miniature but a part of the Drama elevated to the whole. … Because the one-act no longer draws on interpersonal events for its tension, this tension must already be anchored in the situation. … If it is to maintain a semblance of tension, it must elect a borderline situation, a situation verging on catastrophe—catastrophe that is imminent when the curtain goes up and that later becomes ineluctable. Catastrophe is a given, lurking in the future: gone is the tragic, personal struggle with a destiny whose objectivity humans could … resist through their subjective freedom. What separates the individual from destruction is empty time, time that can no longer be filled by an action. … Thus, even on the level of form, the one-act proves to be the Drama of the unfree.27

It is unlikely, however, that contemporary Japanese writers had this insight; many were attracted to the form’s potential to isolate and highlight moments of intense emotion and conflict.

By the Taishō era, the one-act had become one of the most popular literary forms, and most of the credit for introducing it rests with Mori Ōgai, both for his translations of Western drama and for a significant number of one-act plays he wrote in the first decade of the 1900s. We have already seen that his criticism, especially his advocacy of “straight drama” shorn of spectacle and driven by dialogue, had a profound influence on the development of drama as a literary genre in the 1890s. Had Ōgai done no more than translate from European literature, his reputation as a central figure in modern Japanese intellectual life would have been assured. Much of what he translated was drama, published in the pages of The Pleiades and his brother Miki Takeji’s journal, Kabuki.28 Of Ibsen’s plays alone, he translated Brand (1902), John Gabriel Borkman (1909), A Doll House (1913), and Ghosts (1914). In 1909 and 1910, Ōgai published two collections of one-act plays in translation (over a dozen in total) by Gabriele d’Annunzio, August Strindberg, Gerhart Hauptmann, Frank Wedekind, Maurice Maeterlinck, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von (p.39) Hofmannsthal, Rainer Maria Rilke, Oscar Wilde, Hermann Sudermann, and others. Kaneko Sachiyo calls these anthologies “indispensable guides for young literati who wanted to write drama.” Mafune Yutaka (1902–1977), a major playwright of the 1930s and ’40s, called Ōgai’s translations a bible for young dramatists.29 Ōgai completed the cycle with a collection of a dozen of his own one-act plays, My One-Acts (Waga hitomakumono), published in 1912.

As with Shōyō’s translations of Shakespeare, something of the history of the Japanese language can be traced in the development of Ōgai’s own dramatic style, from the measured, classical, but very rational seven-five syllable prosody of his earliest play, The Jeweled Comb Box and the Two Urashima Tarōs (Tamakushige futari Urashima Tarō, 1902, commissioned by the shinpa actor Ii Yōhō), to later plays like Shizuka (1909) and The Ikuta River (Ikutagawa, 1910), which were written in unadorned, contemporary colloquial dialogue.30 Form follows content to some extent here: Ōgai’s earlier plays, which are set either in the historical past—Urashima and Nichiren’s Sermon at the Crossroads (Nichiren tsuji seppō, 1904)—or somewhere exotic, like India—Purumula, 1909—use versions of the classical idiom as a kind of alienation effect. For Nichiren’s Sermon, Ōgai employed a kind of kyōgen style. Purumula presented problems: “I tried out various styles, but nowadays there’s no set way to write historical plays. A Western play, if lyrical, might be written in free verse, or in prose form, but since we don’t have rules about such things, it was a real chore, and an even greater one since I was writing of matters long ago in a foreign land.”31 Like Shōyō earlier on in his career as a translator, Ōgai settled on a modified puppet theatre style. Shizuka and The Ikuta River, on the other hand, though set in the distant past, are both close to the modern colloquial. In his last play, The Soga Brothers (Soga kyōdai, 1914), Ōgai reverted to literary Japanese. Kinoshita Junji claims Ōgai was one of the few playwrights of his generation who gave serious thought to the problem of language, yet his experiments are not altogether successful.32 The dialogue in even his modern colloquial plays seems wooden, artificial, and argumentative, as if Ōgai were using his characters to push an idea and not reflecting on how his people actually conversed. For his experiments with dramatic language and his use of the one-act play as a medium for the exploration of ideas, Ōgai had a profound influence on a future generation of playwrights. But his plays remain corseted by the influence of Western drama.

(p.40) Translating the West

Translated drama had a profound impact on the production of domestic plays, both sparking and inhibiting Japanese creativity. The role of translation (as opposed to adaptation) of Western drama during the first decade or so of the twentieth century has been neatly summarized by Ayako Kano:

As Westernization fades from foregrounded theme to backdrop, free-wheeling adaptation (hon’an) gives way to straight translation (hon’yaku). The connecting thread is a new, or heightened respect for the original: a sense that the original Western text must be taken seriously, treated with reverence, transplanted carefully to Japanese soil, with as little disturbance as possible. Whereas Westernization in the early years of Meiji was characterized by a pragmatic attitude of borrowing whatever seemed useful from the sources and adapting it to the Japanese environment, even when the result was a haphazard mishmash, Westernization in the late Meiji and early Taishō years was both more careful and more wholehearted. Whereas in the 1870s and 1880s, Western institutions were imported because they were useful and functioned better, in the 1900s and 1910s, Western ideas were imported because they were thought to be universal and make you a better person. Whereas straightening theater meant borrowing useful plots from Western plays and adapting them into Japanese theater; New Theater meant making Japanese theater as Western as possible.33

This shift in sensibility by the first decade of the twentieth century is captured in Ōgai’s Youth: “How had classical Shakespeare been performed in Japan up to now? According to today’s newspapers and magazines, Venice had become the town of Yashiki-machi in Surugadai, and the actor playing Othello appeared on stage in the braided uniform of a Japanese army general wearing the Third Order of Merit for his role in the Sino-Japanese War. Just to imagine such a setting and costume would certainly have caused today’s youth to feel as if they had been insulted.”34

The new taste for authenticity presented Japanese writers in the first decades of the twentieth century with a dilemma, however: how might writers liberate their own voice without having that voice preempted by the alien forms and ideals they attempted to emulate? Could foreign ways of thinking, being, and acting ever be assimilated? Should they? Ōgai had a keen understanding of what happened to Western culture when it was introduced to (p.41) Japan. Noting that “the Japanese people import all kinds of systems, all kinds of isms,” a character called Fuseki (a stand-in for Natsume Sōseki) remarks in Youth that “At first, Ibsen was Norway’s little Ibsen, but after turning to social drama, he became Europe’s big Ibsen. When he was introduced to Japan, however, he again reverted to the small Ibsen. No matter what comes to Japan, it turns into something small.”35

The problem of how to “translate” the West was a dilemma felt more keenly in the shingeki movement than in perhaps any other area of contemporary Japanese culture.36Shingeki was faced with what Gioia Ottaviani has called a “twofold learning process,” in which it had to learn the codes of not only a new theatrical model, but also the “unfamiliar cultural reality” reflected in that form.37 Before modern theatre as an artistic form could be born, it had to undergo a revolution in thinking, in the discovery of the individual self, in human relationships, and in attitudes toward society. Nor was it enough to put such new ideas on paper; they had to achieve concrete form on stage, with living characters faced with realistic human problems with which Japanese audiences could identify. Inasmuch as translated drama was the model—indeed provided the majority of the repertoire—for the New Theatre, actors had somehow also to transform themselves into Europeans. Kishida Kunio (1890–1954), who would become a key shingeki figure, would in the 1920s sum up the problem of doing Western drama in Japan: “To transpose the words themselves from one language to another is one thing. When it comes to the various problems in staging a foreign play, the most important element remains the impersonation of the characters by the actors. No matter how a Japanese will disguise himself, he will not look like a Westerner. … To a certain extent, unless the actor’s appearance, movements, and expression are ‘translated’ into Japanese terms, their original meanings will be lost to us.”38

The tensions raised by the attempt to reconcile foreign models with personal expression played out as a debate over the relative virtues of translated drama and original work written by Japanese. It was a debate that exercised the energies of dramatists and theatre practitioners for the better part of two decades. Osanai threw down the gauntlet the year he inaugurated the Free Theatre, proclaiming “an age of true translation for both playscripts and directing methods.”39 The same year, 1909, in the pages of Entertainment Illustrated, Osanai got into a debate with the playwright Mayama Seika over the merits of staging translated over domestic drama. In an open letter to the kabuki actor Ichikawa Danshi (who played Erhart in the Free Theatre production of Ibsen’s Borkman), Osanai wrote that “I hope to bring about in the Japanese theatrical (p.42) world a real ‘epoch of the foreign play in translation,’ both in the matter of the plays themselves and the acting technique; modern Japanese plays will come later.”40 He qualified this remark immediately by noting that he planned to stage modern adaptations of the works of Chikamatsu and Ihara Saikaku. (Indeed, in the late 1920s, Osanai would direct versions of Chikamatsu at the Tsukiji Little Theatre.) He added that he was also interested in “new Japanese social dramas” but that there were “really very few of these. And among these few are not many good ones. We probably will not have this type of play in our repertory for the time being.”41 In a rebuttal entitled “Sow New Seeds,” Mayama Seika expressed doubts as to whether Japanese audiences were ready for Osanai’s radical ideas. He also asserted the importance of the playwright in guiding theatre reform.42 Countering this, Osanai struck a chord that would remain a leitmotif throughout his career as a theatre director: “How much of a contribution have literary men made in the past to the progress of theatrical art? I have real doubts about this. My opinion is that while harm has certainly been done, no good has been contributed at all.”43

As we have seen, since the 1880s, the general drift had been toward the elevation of drama to literary status and, by the same token, the rise in the importance of the dramatic text and the playwright. This movement helped spark the boom in playwriting during the Taishō era, but it was not a trend Osanai fully supported. The Free Theatre would stage several modern Japanese plays—Mori Ōgai’s The Ikuta River; Nagata Hideo’s A Fiend for Pleasure (Kanraku no oni, 1911); Akita Ujaku’s First Dawn (Daiichi no akebono, 1911); and two plays by the poet Yoshii Isamu (1886–1960), Yumesuke and the Monk (Yumesuke to sō to, 1910) and Kawachiya Yohei (1911)—but Osanai clearly saw that his mission was to produce plays by Ibsen, Chekhov, Gorky, Maeterlinck, and other Europeans. This impetus to produce Western drama grew even stronger after his first trip to Europe in 1912–1913.

The major shingeki troupes focused their efforts on the production of foreign drama, not domestic. Some two-thirds of the plays staged by Shōyō’s Literary Society and Osanai’s Free Theatre were European. Already by 1913, the plethora of translated plays was identified as a major problem. Hasegawa Tenkei took Osanai to task for his neglect of domestic drama, declaring the preference for staging foreign plays “superstitious” and calling for its eradication. The bodies of Japanese actors are simply not suited to the playing of Europeans, he said.44 (We shall see below that others take the same tack.) In 1915, another critic, Masumoto Kiyoshi, would similarly lament the “decline of shingeki” due to its overemphasis on translated drama. It had become harder (p.43) and harder to stage good Japanese plays in a style that matched their content.45 But others like Honma Hisao would argue that Japanese theatre was still in a state of transition. Drama had not yet reached appropriate artistic standards, and it was necessary to stage translations of European plays.46 The end result was that shingeki essentially became synonymous with not only Western stagecraft and acting technique but also Western drama. The vast majority of domestic drama, if staged at all, was produced by kabuki and shinpa troupes, new wine in old bottles.

The argument has been made that much of the drama written and published during the Taishō era was never meant for the stage anyway. Many writers seemed content in using the form as a literary experiment, producing lesedrama, work written less for the stage than for the page, or armchair theatre. Though Osanai and others would stage a number of his plays, Tanizaki for one admitted that “I wrote plays as a form of fiction. I cannot entirely abandon the notion of ‘drama for the sake of reading,’ I suppose. It would be enough if the reader were able to construct and illuminate in his mind a stage where he freely manipulates his actors, thereby enjoying the illusion of the drama.”47 Such remarks do not speak well for the art of drama, however. Though in his later novels Tanizaki would demonstrate a flair for dialogue and dramatic pacing, his plays are discursive, static, and filled with long expository speeches. A closer professional association with the theatre might have given Tanizaki and many of his contemporaries more opportunity to hone their skills at writing good stage dialogue.48 Pointing out that “too many novelistic elements had crept into” Tanizaki’s plays, Osanai would take an axe to Tanizaki’s script for his production of The Age of Terror (Kyōfu jidai, 1916) at the Tsukiji Little Theatre in 1927.49 Though he was a prolific dramatist and his plays were frequently staged in the 1910s and ’20s, the work of Mushanokōji Saneatsu likewise betrays a discursive sensibility that is singularly undramatic, with characters more like puppets expounding the ideas of their maker. As exercises in literary form or the use of dialogue to advance an idea, these works may have some appeal, but they are not drama, something that can hold our interest when performed by live actors on stage. For that, dialogue must be an integral part of the action.

From the second decade of the twentieth century, playwrights became increasingly estranged from direct involvement in the theatre world. At the same time, their model—foreign drama—also tended to inhibit personal expression. Kishida Kunio had doubts that the performance of translated drama alone could be a sufficient medium for the expression of what was relevant to (p.44) contemporary Japanese. He would write in 1923 that Japanese playwrights “were able to acquire almost nothing of substance from the influence of foreigndrama. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Japanese drama remains in the Stone Age as far as literature is concerned.”50 Some of the challenges faced by dramatists in assimilating Western ways can be seen in the work of Ibsen’s epigones in Japan. Playwrights found it a hard task to make Japanese characters speak and act like a Nora or an Erhart. Writing of works like Mayama Seika’s First Person (Daiichi ninsha, 1907) and Nagata Hideo’s A Fiend for Pleasure, Akemi Horie-Webber comments that “some of these plays show a curious poetic conflict: while they adopt the ideas of their original models, the actions of the Japanese heroes seem to be frustrated. Their natural impulses as characters and their thematic ideals seem to be in conflict.”51 A similar tension can be found on a linguistic level. The Japanese dialogue attempts to replicate the style and syntax of the original plays that served as its models, often resulting in strained and exotic metaphors and locutions that seem anything but what a Japanese person would actually say.52 The Japanese language literally strained under the weight of new ideas.

In a more substantial sense, the new drama epitomized by Ibsen may have been ultimately uncongenial to the Japanese, who, though excited by the ideas in his plays, typically try to avoid conflict and argumentation in their social dealings. The artificiality of so many of the social dramas written in Japan in the early 1900s can be attributed to a large extent to a failure to transform their stage characters into Japanese versions of Europeans. Many critics, like Nagahira Kazuo and Ōzasa Yoshio, have suggested that Maeterlinck, whose plays were more congenial to Japanese social tastes, had a greater impact on modern Japanese drama than Ibsen ever had. Certainly Maeterlinck’s influence can be detected in the still, even static, nature of many of Ōgai’s plays and, through Ōgai, the work of his student Kinoshita Mokutarō (1885–1945) and that of Yoshii Isamu, Kubota Mantarō (1889–1963), and others. A dramaturgy and dialogic rhetoric of Japanese social interaction could not be invented overnight, but the themes that Ibsen and his contemporaries would introduce to the vernacular of modern drama—the growing self-awareness of men and women; domestic, class, and intergenerational tensions; all the fault lines that began to appear in any society faced with the challenges of becoming “modern”—demanded a voice. Dramatists of the Taishō and early Shōwa eras would experiment with every mode available to them—chiefly naturalism, symbolism, and expressionism—to articulate the concerns of their generation.

(p.45) In the following pages, we shall look at four one-act plays from a dozen years leading up to the Great Earthquake of 1923. These works represent what I consider are fairly successful attempts to assimilate European ideas, stagecraft, and style into an idiom congenial to contemporary Japanese audiences and readers. In short, they present modern Japanese people (bourgeois, urban, working class, and provincial) and their concerns in language that is for the most part close to how ordinary people indeed spoke. Given the narrow focus on the one-act on isolated situations, subject matter centers on the modern family, especially on marital relations, and (with the exception of Izumi Kyōka’s symbolist tribute to Maeterlinck) the works are strongly realist in style, though at times, because of the implication of catastrophe that hovers over the form, these plays are not without a certain melodramatic flourish. (p.46)


(1.) Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, Seishun monogatari (1932); in Tanizaki, TanizakiJun’ichirō zenshū, 13:386. At the time, Osanai was only twenty-eight years old and Tanizaki twenty-three.

(2.) Kikuchi Kan, “Osanai-san to bokura”; Kume Masao, “Haiku kara geki, shōsetsu”; both cited in Endō Tasuke, “Kindai ni okeru gikyoku jidai: Sono seiritsu no ichimen,” Nihon kindai bungaku 6 (May 1967): 28.

(3.) Mori Ōgai, Youth, translated by Shōichi Ono and Sanford Goldstein, in Youth and Other Stories, edited by J. Thomas Rimer (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1994), 412.

(4.) Tsubouchi Shōyō, “Shaōgeki wo okosan to suru riyū” (1910); cited in Mōri Mitsuya, “Ipusen shoen zengo (2): Meijiki no engeki kindaika wo meguru mondai (4),” Bigaku/bijutsushi ronshū 12 (March 1999): 138.

(5.) See Kano (Acting like a Woman, 184–199) for an account of the Literary Society’s production of A Doll House and the debate on the “new woman” that it inspired. I follow Ayako Kano in using A Doll House as the English title for Ibsen’s play.

(6.) A friend of Tanizaki’s, actor and director Kamiyama Sōjin (1884–1954) was a fascinating individual who deserves more study. Instrumental in the early Taishō years in the introduction of Western drama to Japan, he later went to Hollywood, where, like Hayakawa Sessue, he played exotic heroes and villains in (p.245) a slew of silent films, including the Mongol prince in Douglas Fairbanks’s Thief of Baghdad (1924) and Charlie Chan in The Bombay Parrot (1927). Talkies, which revealed a foreign accent not appreciated by American audiences, led to his demise as a Hollywood star, and he returned to theatre and cinema in Japan. One of his last roles was as the blind minstrel in KUROSAWA’S The Seven Samurai (1954).

(8.) See, for example, Kaneko Sachiyo, “Nora no yukue: Mori Ōgai to Ipusen no gikyoku,” in Mori Ōgai kenkyū (Izumi shoin, 1989), 3:117. Novelist and playwright Masamune Hakuchō (1879–1962) was one of the first to take issue with a play about old age being the catalyst for the New Theatre movement.

(9.) Kano (Acting like a Woman, 186–187) notes that the first German production of A Doll House in 1880 changed the ending of the play so that Nora does not leave her husband and children. This “happy” ending, enforcingconventional notions of a woman’s marital and maternal duties, remained the dominant one for German productions throughout the 1880s, and Shimamura Hōgetsu’s first translation of this play in 1906 reflected this bowdlerized version.

(10.) Mori Ōgai, “Gendai shoka no shōsetsuron wo yomu,” Shigarami zōshi 2 (November 1889); Tsubouchi Shōyō, “Kaigai bungaku ni tsuite,” Waseda bungaku (October15, 1892); both cited in Mōri Mitsuya, “Ipusen shoen zengo (1): Meijiki no engeki kindaika wo meguru mondai (3),” Bigaku/bijutsushi ronshū 10 (September 1995): 181.

(11.) Partial translations of An Enemy of the People, The Master Builder, and A Doll House appeared in 1892; complete translations of The Master Builder and John Gabriel Borkman were published in 1897.

(12.) Nakamura Kichizō, “Ōshū bungaku no torai no eikyō,” Waseda bungaku (April 1926); cited in Kaneko, “Nora no yukue,” 114.

(14.) Yanagita Kunio, “Ipusen zakkan,” Waseda bungaku (July 1906): 99; cited in Mōri Mitsuya, “Ipusen shoen zengo (2),” 133.

(15.) Mōri Mitsuya suggests that Hōgetsu’s notable absence from this roster is due to the fact that he and Osanai never got along; Mōri Mitsuya, “Ipusen shoen zengo (2),” 134.

(16.) Ibid., 132.

(17.) Györgi Lukacs, “The Sociology of Modern Drama” (1914), translated by Lee Baxandall, in The Theory of the Modern Stage, edited by Eric Bentley (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), 429.

(18.) Ibid., 445.

(19.) Ibid., 426.

(p.246) (20.) Ibid., 439–440.

(21.) Ibid., 429

(22.) Ibid., 433.

(23.) Peter Szondi, Theory of the Modern Drama, translated and edited by Michael Hays (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

(24.) Cited in ibid., 22.

(25.) August Strindberg, “The One-Act Play” (1889); cited in ibid., 55.

(26.) Kikuchi Kan, “Ichimakumono ni tsuite,” Engeki shinchō 1, no. 2 (February 1924): 2–3.

(28.) Ōgai translated as many as fifty plays between 1908 and 1918, amounting to more than ten volumes of his complete works. Some twenty-two of these were published in Kabuki, and all but seven of them were staged between 1910 and 1916. See Kaneko Sachiyo, “Ōgai to Kabuki,” in Mori Ōgai kenkyū (Izumi shoin, 1995), 6:226–227. For a list of Ōgai’s translations, see the appendix to Richard Bowring, Mori Ōgai and the Modernization of Japanese Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 259–269.

(30.) See Poulton, Spirits of Another Sort, 91–94, for a discussion of The Jeweled Comb Box. Four of Ōgai’s plays have been translated: Masks (Kamen, 1909) has been translated by James M. Vardaman Jr., in Mori Ōgai, Youth and Other Stories, 291–311, and three have been translated by Andrew Hall: Shizuka, The Ikuta River, and Without Introductions (Nanoriso, 1911), in Mori Ōgai, Not a Song Like Any Other, 150–184.

(32.) See the analysis of Ōgai’s style in Kinoshita, Nihongo no sekai, 169–177.

(35.) Ibid., 406–407.

(36.) Critics of modern Japanese drama are in agreement on this. See Rimer, Toward a Modern Japanese Theatre, and Akemi Horie-Webber, “Modernization of the Japanese Theatre: The Shingeki Movement,” in Modern Japan: Aspects of History, Literature and Society, edited by William G. Beasley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 147–165. This point is further elaborated by Gioia Ottaviani in two essays: “‘Difference’ and ‘Reflexivity,’” and “The Shingeki Movement until 1930,” in Rethinking Japan, vol. 1: Literature, edited by Adriana Boscaro, Franco Gatti, and Massimo Raveni (Sandgate, Folkstone, Kent: Japan Library, 1990), 178–183.

(39.) “Kyakuhon no hon’yaku ni tsuite,” in Osanai, Osanai Kaoru zenshū, 6: 11. Osanai’s essay was first published in the February 11 and 14, 1909, issues of the Yomiuri shinbun.

(40.) Osanai, “Haiyū D-kun e,” Engei gahō (January 1909); cited in Brian W. F. Powell, “A Parable of Modern Theatre in Japan: The Debatebetween Osanai Kaoru and Mayama Seika, 1909,” in Themes and Theories in Modern Japanese History: Essays in Memory of Richard Storry (London: Athlone Press, 1988), 150.

(42.) Mayama Seika, “Atarashiki shushi wo make,” Engei gahō (February 1909); cited in ibid., 156.

(44.) Hasegawa Tenkei, “Meishin gekijō,” and “Nihon no gekijō wa hon’yakugeki wo suteyo,” Taishō engei (May 1913); cited in Sugai Yukio, Kindai Nihon engeki ronsōshi (Miraisha, 1979), 109–117.

(45.) Masumoto Kiyoshi, “Shingeki no chōraku”; cited in Fujiki Hiroyuki, “Taishōki no gikyoku 1: 1910-nendai no gekisakka,” Higeki kigeki 29, no. 11 (November 1976): 39.

(47.) Gendai gikyoku zenshū jobun” (1925), in Tanizaki, Tanizaki Jun’ichirō zenshū, 23:85.

(48.) Tanizaki was not entirely ignorant of stagecraft, directing his own Okuni to Gohei in 1922 at the Imperial Theatre, but Osanai did not think highly of Tanizaki’s skills; see Ōzasa Yoshio, Nihon gendai engekishi (Hakusuisha, 1987), 1:408.

(49.) Osanai Kaoru, “Gikyokuka toshite no Tanizaki Jun’ichirō-kun ga aruita michi” (The road Tanizaki has walked as a dramatist, 1923); reprinted in Kanshō Nihon gendai bungaku: Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, edited by Chiba Shunji (Kadokawa shoten, 1982), 345. Tanizaki’s Okuni and Gohei (1922) has been translated by John Gillespie in The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, vol. 1: From Restoration to Occupation, 1868–1945, edited by J. Thomas Rimer and Van C. Gessel (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 627–639.

(50.) Kishida Kunio, “Taiwa saseru jutsu” (The art of making dialogue); cited in Saitō Yasuhide, “Gikyokuron kara mita kindaigeki,” Higeki kigeki 43, no. 8 (August 1990): 30.