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Monday, October 28, 2013

Equality Of Sexes In 1902 Japan And The Opera

So... if a 111-year-old American newspaper article of less than two inches in length is to be believed, Japan was making a push - a small one even - to show support for women as equals.

I'm writing THIS line after writing everything else... I even write about the opera... 

Yes, you wouldn't believe the places I go to show support for both Japan and women.

Thanks to Vinny for pointing the way to the Newsbank/Readex database of Early American Newspapers (, a simply amazing resource for you would-be writers, I can present to you an article from the March 26, 1902 edition of the Boston Morning Journal newspaper that purports a bit of Japanese equality amongst the sexes.


High Class Maids of Mikadoland Organize a Bicycle Club

Washington, March 25--A dozen high-class Japanese young ladies of Tokio have organized a bicycle club, to the astonishment of the whole nation, according to United States Consul Davidson, at Tamsui, in a report to the State Department, made public today.
The general feeling among Japanese women as to cycling, says Mr. Davidson, is that it is an unladylike sport.
However, he says that the innovation was favorably received by the men, and the Japanese press generally advocates the use of the wheel by both sexes.

I think this is a very interesting article. Yes, Japan generally is aghast at this change in having women act like men. Sure... I understand that. Afterall, women simply did not act like that in Japan. I suppose we can blame or thank the opening up of the country's doors to international trade and ideas. 

I would imagine any sort of women's suffrage in Japan prior to the opening if its International borders would have been immediately squashed by the male war-dominated culture.

Interesting to me is the author's choice of words in the dek (the line underneath the headline).

"Maids" and "Mikadoland"

Maid... it has nothing to do with donning a French Maid's outfit and wandering around dusting the furniture and playing hot-to-trot with the Master of the house.

Instead, a maid, in this context, is a young, unmarried woman.

The fact that the newspaper article calls them high-class young women is also interesting... if the well-to-do can ride a bicycle, surely, this would be something the less well-to-do would want to try an emulate.

Mikadoland. This is in reference to a Gilbert and Sullivan (W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan) comedic opera. It had opened in London on March 14, 1885 and ran for 672 performances, which at that time was a record.    

The opera was/is actually about British politics, but to disguise it as such, Gilbert (the writer - as opposed to Sullivan the music maker) set the opera in as far-away and as mystical a place as possible - a popular place in the hearts and minds of American and Europeans who had little knowledge of the place - Japan.

Mikado is a title given to the Emperor of Japan. 

Here's a song from The Mikado: The Three Little Maids From School song. I  first discovered this song when I watched The Simpson's... Sideshow Bob (played by Kelsey Grammar) sang it with Bart prior to him attempting to murder the yellow brat. I'd show you the Simpson's version, but they are notorious for copyright protection... even though they once made various snipped parodies at others for acting like that. Kettle meet the Pot.

By the way - I have mentioned that I have not been a tremendous fan of opera, but... there is one piece... a Gilbert & Sullivan song from the Pirates of Penzance opera... the Major-General's song.

I heard it once - and only once - when I was a child, and until the advent of Google and other such search engines, I never heard it again.

Despite only hearing it once - on television as a six or seven-year-old, I always had the first two lines stored away in the old melon for just such an emergency. I loved the superior pace of it...

Here's that song:

Okay... I am also very well acquainted with the Wagner opera Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is a cycle of four epic operas by the German composer Richard Wagner.

You know that scene in Apocalypse Now when the choppers rise up to strafe the Viet Cong? That's it. But, I came across it first on an episode of Gilligan's Island (radio via dental fillings) and the classic Bugs Bunny and Elmer J. Fudd toon, What's Opera, Doc?    

It's so effing powerful.

Hmm...  I guess I do really like some opera.
Despite me pedaling the bicycle all over the place, I wonder when the Mikado was first played in Japan?  I would think that even though the play is a parody of British politics, it's never actually stated out loud as being as such.

To the folks in Japan, it would like like a horrible parody of themselves!

And yet...  the very first performance of The Mikado was performed in 1887 (two years after its debut) in Yokohama.

But here's the thing... only one newspaper - from Osaka - actually mentions this performance (but I can't confirm that).

There was the correct fear that by ignoring and suppressing information about The Mikado to the general population of Japan, they would prevent the Japanese from knowing what the rest of the world thought about them and their quaint ideals.

Of course... it wasn't about Japan. But it seems as though no one actually told the Japanese that. D'oh!

Instead of actually calling the opera The Mikado when it was performed in 1887, it was known as "Three Little Maids From School"  - and I assume it is because even then, while there was concern that the opera could offend the Japanese people, the title The Mikado might greatly offend The Emperor - the descendent from God (Jimmu, Japan's first emperor).  

Who says you can't learn from reading a three-volume set on the history of Japan or this blog? Well... no one actually did... I have no idea why I even bothered to write that.... but then again, everything I write is a stream-of-consciousness kind of thing.

Now... while The Mikado/Three Little Maids From School was forgotten about in Japanese history, Japan does note that the first opera to be performed happened in 1894, but that it wasn't until 1946 in Yokohama, again, that The Mikado was first performed in Japan.

Of course...  The Mikado in 1946 was performed in war-torn and occupied by Allied Forces Japan. You can be sure that no Japanese were privy to the opera - that it was for Allied troops officers only.

Anyhow... that's what a little under two-inch newspaper article from 1902 brings us.

A bit of information on Japan's 'sexist' country that didn't seem so sexist... and a bit of history on the opera in Japan.   
Andrew Joseph

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