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Monday, October 7, 2013

Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe - Book Review

Written by Frederik L. Schodt, Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe is the best book I have read on Japanese history. Period. And, for the record, I have read over 35 historical books on Japan.

In fact... this is perhaps the best book I have ever read about Japan. 

Published by the good folks at Stone Bridge Press, the book is wonderfully researched by Schodt and provides playbills, artwork and uses newspaper articles from the era - 1860s - 1870s, especially, to give the reader a fresh understanding of what it was like to be Japanese in the brave new world finally opened up after 250 years of Japanese isolation.

I have been interested in the subject of Japan's circus, and have in fact written about it a couple of times utilizing newspaper articles of the day (see HERE). I even used a newspaper article discussing the troubles the Japanese circus had in America (see HERE) but the newspaper and myself actually seem to be talking about ANOTHER Japanese circus - a fact I now see thanks to Shodt's book.

I should mention stems from the fact that for a while, Risley and partners sought to purposely confuse the two troupes with the media to maximize profits (one of the troupes consists of the first troupes to leave Japan - though without official sanction of the Shogun and Japan). So the error is not quite mine alone.

I have also written about the first foreign circuses to visit Japan, which precluded Japan's citizens being allowed to leave their own country (see HERE).

But this book takes it  to a whole new level of historical relevance and, dare I say it, accuracy.

I used newspaper articles from the 1860s, but sometimes, newspapers get it wrong or do not present the whole truth... and especially difficult thing to do in a blog like my own, despite my greatest efforts at accuracy.

Schodt... he went deep. He writes about how an American acrobat named Professor Risely introduced the circus to Japan and then how he introduced Japan to the West... and does so as to leave no doubt that the facts are indeed correct.

My facts were correct, too, but attempting to gain a complete picture from several editions of ONE newspaper was fool-hardy at best. Schodt does not fall into that trap.

This 304-page, US $35.00 hard cover book, was not only a page-turner, it had me salivating every couple of pages about yet another amazing fact I had 'discovered' about Japan, that I bet most of the world - the Japanese included - have little to no knowledge of.

That's how wonderful Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe is as a book. Chock full of wonderful anecdotes, quotes from performers - the first Japanese to be issued an official passport from Japan... it's just a 'wow' book.

Schodt writes in a manner I admire and strive for myself. It's orderly, easy to read, and more importantly, easy to understand.

Briefly, the book looks at American, Richard Risley Carlisle, who was a well-respected acrobat back in his native country and all over the world, including Asian territories - but not Japan, thanks to its closed door policy of not allowing foreigners in and keeping Japanese people in.

This isolationist policy ran for about 250 years from the early 1600s through the 1860s, and yet... even though contact had been made by first the US and then other world powers with Japan to open up its trading doors, Japan was very much a reluctant partner and with its bureaucratic red-tape led by the Shogun, it was still very difficult for foreigners to set foot on Japanese lands, and when they could, it was always in a few designated areas.  

And yet... Risley was able to bring his circus - the first western-style circus - into Japan... to provide entertainment to the masses in 1864.

Not only did the act become an immediate hit, Risley also spotted Japanese circus performers featuring such daring-do skills and arts that they would have blown the seats off any foreign act in the world at that time.

Spending a few years IN Japan, Risley not only formed his own circus troupe of only Japanese performers, he legally and perfunctionally secured proper passage for these performers - something other less-scrupulous circus management failed to do - and made agreements with the Shogun that they would be gone for a period of two-years and then returned to Japan. This was in 1866.

He brought with him 20 male and female performers: acrobats, top spinners, musicians (no one outside of Japan seemed to care for the traditional Japanese music and singing... and I have to admit, neither do I)... and they performed feats of agility that--doing the better with more panache than other Japanese circuses that popped up (all I believe without proper documentation or leave, from Japan).

They performed such tricks as:
  • tub balancing (wooden washtubs perched precariously atop one another and then tossed into the air by leg juggling); 
  • top spinning (making string wound up tops travel up inclines through mini pagodas, spin and come out... spin on a man's shoulders and back and arms... throwing them 20 feet into the air and catching them on the sword bade of a katana where they spun back and forth. Below is a video that will hopefully give you an idea of what Japanese top spinning is like;

  • the butterfly trick (making paper butterflies  - origami - fly into the air with a fan - and having then be attracted to a bouquet of flowers - a video below will give you an idea of what this trick is about; 
  • magic tricks (pulling a large amount of ribbon from a lacquer box, which when lit would explode like fireworks and change into a huge beautifully colored Japanese umbrella; 
  • and then the acrobatic act involving a young boy nicknamed Little All Right who performed balancing acts at the end of a 20-foot long bamboo pole that was supported vertically on the shoulder of his father. 
 The piece de la résistance involved Little All Right performing the death-defying ladder trick: an adult would lie on the ground with his feet balancing a huge ladder that had a smaller ladder attached to it and another ladder attached to it... to look like a '7'... Little All Right would perform feats of acrobatics from the end of the smallest ladder.

For a look at what these acts might have looked like - take a gander at the book cover at the very top....  and note that there are fine examples of art showing the performers in action throughout the book.

If these acrobatics seems a little too much fun for the Japanese - it confuses me, too... but it's still an original Japanese acrobatic feat... and one still performed to this day in a modified version as the fireman ladder trick in Japanese festivals and circuses.

The only downer  in this otherwise fine book is the lack of real closure - and that has NOTHING to do with the writer, but rather the research material.

I want to know more about the first Japanese child born outside Japan! What happened to Victoria? What did the old Japanese passports look like? Who really was issued the first one - that information MUST exist, because Japan is nothing, if not a bureaucratic nation. Tell me MORE about the lives of the performers once they got back to Japan - yes... there was a bit about one man, and how he was ridiculed for being poor... and was a calling card as to why Japanese kids should not waste their lives to become a circus performer... but I think that has more to do with class distinction (and snobbery) than anything else. I do think the author did become lazy in ONE regard... he talks about how difficult it might be to find the grave of Professor Risely in Philadelphia... but only because he snipes that American graveyards are not as well kept as Japanese ones. Yes... the graveyard that Risely is in is closed as of 2011, but that doesn't mean one can gain access to it and find the grave marker.

That's my only knock against the writer and the efforts he has made to create this book. Faint criticism, indeed.  

Anyhow... what a great book. History out the wazoo. Easy to read and easy to remember... it's the mark of a damn fine writer, and I am now looking forward to reading more of his work.

Frederik L. Schodt is an award-winning author of Japanese culture books, including: Native American in the Land of the Shogun (sounds very interesting!); Inside the Robot Kingdom (Hmmmmm); Manga! Manga! (Double Hmmmmm); The Astro Boy Essays (ummm, maybe) and Dreamland Japan. He was also editor and translator for The Four Immigrants Manga.  

I give this book 5 out of 5 thumbs up. I had to borrow a few thumbs...

If you would like to purchase a copy of this book - Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe, visit Stone Bridge Press, a Berkely, California publisher that specializes in books about Asia, with a healthy dose of all things Japanese. This and other Stone Bridge Press books are available at book shops throughout the world.

Hey! Dave Jacobson (publicist with Stone Bridge Press) - thank you very much for providing me with a copy of this book! You not only made my day, but my week as well.

Andrew Joseph




  1. For a picture of the first Japanese passport: see Wikipedia:

    1. Wow! Thanks for sharing! But who's is it? My Japanese reading ability sucks!

  2. I saw Fred at Anime Weekend Atlanta a week or so ago and got a signed copy of the book from him: haven't had a chance to read it yet but his talk on it was great, and in it he mentions that the first Japanese passport (which I assume must be the one above) was to one of the acrobats in Risley's troupe. He mentioned the individual's name in the talk but I forget what it was now...

    1. Rheinhard - cool! I have Dave (the publicist) asking Fred about the passport stuff right now... I'll follow up!