Shakespeare in Japan

- Historical Overview -

[adapted from Minami Ryuta's "Seven Stages of the Reception of Shakespeare in Japan: 1885-1996"]

1. Earliest attempts by foreign residents

The earliest attempts to stage Shakespeare in Japan were, as one might expect, put on in English by foreign residents of Yokohama between 1866 and 1891. Masumoto Masahiko's Yokohama Geiteiza (The Gaiety Theatre of Yokohama) is the best source for these productions.

2. Japanese productions in Kabuki style

The earliest Japanese productions of Shakespeare were done in Kabuki style. The first of these was an 1885 production called Sakura-doki Zenino Yononaka (It's a World Where Money Counts for Everything), an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice.

3. Japanese productions in Shimpa style

Shimpa artists were the next to experiment with Shakespeare. Ii Yoho's Julius Caesar was produced in 1901, and Kawakami Otojiro's Othello, Merchant of Venice and Hamlet in 1903.

4. Shingeki's Western realist values

Shingeki (New Theatre) introduced Western realist values to Japanese theatre (including the first performance of all female parts by actresses). Some of the earliest performances in this style were by the Bungei Kyoukai (Literary Society) of Hamlet in 1907, and Osanai Kaoru's Romeo and Juliet in 1904.

5. Beyond realism

From the end of World War II, Shakespeare became the vehicle for attempts to go beyond modern realism. Fukuda Tsuneari's production of Hamlet for the Bungaku-za in 1955 inaugurated this phase.

6. The 1970s

This stage dawned with the visits of the RSC to Japan between 1970 and 1973 and the Bungaku-za (Literary Theatre) Shakespeare Festival of 1972. Influenced by the Little Theatre Movement and the ideas of Jan Kott, professionals presented Shakespeare as their contemporary, as Suzuki Tadashi did with Don Hamuretto (Hamlet) in 1972.

7. The 1980s

Free adaptation of Shakespeare was the hallmark of productions in the late 80s by younger practitioners such as Noda Hideki with A Midsummer Night's Dream and Iijima Sanae with The Same Old Story (Romeo and Juliet).

Noda Hideki's A Midsummer Night's Dream picture 1 - see also 2, 3