An early Japanese adaptation of Merchant of Venice

Japan as 'half-civilized': an early Japanese adaptation of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Japan's construction of its national image in the late 19th Century

Yukari Yoshihara

'Zeni no yononaka' (Life as fragile as cherry blossoms, A world of money; 1885) is the second Japanese adaption of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. It was performed as an experiment in the Theatre Improvement Campaign ('Engeki kairyro-undo'). The early Meiji period saw numerous kinds of improvement ('kairyo') campaigns, and in most cases 'improvement' was an euphemism for westernization.

In the prologue of the adaptation, a fictional college student says 'Eigaku' (English education) is the best way to civilize and enlighten Japan', and he describes Japan as half-civilized. In his formulation, 'civilization' simply refers to Shakespeare as the supreme icon of 'civilization'. If it is correct to say that Shakespeare is a poet 'discovered' and invented as the National Poet, an embodiment of 'Englishness' in the age of British colonial expansion, then in a modern World History synonymous to the globalisation of Europe or the Europeanization of the globe, what are we to make of this student's Japanized Bardolatory?

By analyzing this adaptation, a 'Japanized' or nationalized Merchant of Venice, I would try to historicize and contextualize the ideological significance of English literature as introduced to, consumed and appropriated by, Japan in the age of the construction of its national culture in the late 19th century. What kind of 'mission' does Shakespeare's work have in Japan in the late 19th century?