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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Face That Launched A Million Bikes

I enjoy watching The Murdoch Mysteries… a whimsical television portrayal of 20th century Toronto and its policing methods. Anyhow, in a recent episode I saw the coppers removing the painting of Queen Victoria and replacing it with one of Edward VII… implying that we were now in the year 1901.

In a later episode involving bicycle races, doping and race fixing (and murder), the good people of Toronto appear shocked that a woman would be allowed to ride a bicycle - and thus show more skin above the ankle than was Victorian/Edwardian morally allowed by common decency.

So what about Japan? Let's examine skin, opera and bicycles in that era.

Let's meet Miura Tamaki (三浦環 - surname first) who lived between February 22, 1884 – May 26, 1946. She was a Japanese woman who was best known for her operatic talents, usually as Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's Madame Butterfly.

After making her debut in Tokyo in 1911, she went later that year to Europe to train and study opera.

It was in 1915 that she was first cast in the role of Cio-Cio-San performing first at the London Opera House for director Vladimir Rosing.

In the Fall of 1915, she performed the role again, but this time in Chicago with the Boston Opera Company.

She continued to work in Madame Butterfly and Mascagni's Iris in New York, San Francisco and Chicago, before returning to London to work with the Beecham Company.

For two season, beginning in 1918, she went back to the U.S. to work in Madame Butterfly and André Messager's Madame Chrysanthème.

I have come across a wonderful interview from Miura during this time in her life - but wait a few lines, okay?

After traveling from 1920 to 1922 to play at opera houses in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Florence and Rom, she went to Nagasaki, Japan to view Japanese operas.

In 1924, Miura returned to the U.S. to perform the San Carlo Opera Company before leaving in 1926 to visit Chicago to create the title role in Aldo Fanchetti's Namiko-San.

After this she took part in various tours and sang in Italy before returning to Japan in 1932 and retire.

For more information on Miura, allow me to direct you to - a wonderful place to view long forgotten articles on things we have no business forgetting. HERE. Read the stuff on Miura that's over on the left after you view the magazine article from the 1915 Vogue.

Miura was so beloved, that there is still a statue of her in Nagasaki's Glover Garden.

Here's is a YOUTUBE (audio) video of Miura singing Madame Butterfly:

Interesting, I suppose. I admit to not being an opera fan, though I appreciate the skill it takes to perform it. I sound like I should be able to sing—I have a nice rich chocolate smooth voice—but I must be tone deaf or something equally mortifying.

I do like dancers, though. Ballet and spandex ballet et al.

Anyhow… what caught my attention about Ms. Miura was an interview she gave and appeared in the September 17, 1919 edition of the Jackson, Michigan newspaper The Jackson Citizen Patriot.

In it, Miura discusses how, when she was a child and living in Tokyo, she not only had a historic first NOT related to opera, but also took a step in providing a bit of power to the then non-existent women's rights movement of Japan. A bit of woman's suffrage, if you will.

Anyhow… here's the story… told, I assume, in her own words. (I say assume, because how the hell was the writer taking down every single wood she said? I interview by pen and paper, but I know it's impossible to get every word. This was, of course, before tape recorders became part of the standard reporter arsenal. I have one. I just choose not to use it. I don't want to have to listen to some of these interviews I do again. Ugh.)

Tokio Was Agog When She Rolled Out On Her Bike

Japanese Prima Donna Set Bicycle Style For Fair Nipponese

If you really want to get a good, hearty laugh from Tamaka Muira, the famous little Japanese prima donna of the Chicago Opera Association, ask her if she likes bicycling. If the prima donna is feeling just right (she seldom feels otherwise) she will tell you of her first "bike" journey through the streets of her native city, Tokio.
Madame Muira's father is what she calls, in American slang, a "nut." That is, he is always one of the first to try something new. When the bicycle was first introduced to Japan by American tourists, her father purchased one the very next day. For weeks he tried to navigate the two-wheeled contrivance. At last he learned and was soon one of the curiosities in Japan. Being a lawyer, and having to travel to different parts of the empire, he forsook the trains and always journeyed on his bicycle.
"Oftimes he left his bicycle in the yard," says Tamaka Muira, "and I would go out and try to ride. In a few days I had mastered the art and when my father would go off to his office I would spin all about the place—much to the delight and amusement of the servants.
Bicycle of Her Own
"One day my father caught me. My, but I expected an awful scolding. He was at times a very stern magistrate, and if he had had some case that annoyed him—he often brought his temper home. But this time he laughed, laughed and laughed. Then he sent and purchased me a bicycle. He used to watch me ride about the years with much admiration. Then he invited some European friends to the house and had me perform.
"When they told him that girls in America and Europe rode just as much as the men, and often entered races, my father told me I could ride in the street.
"Then one morning I thought it would be nice to make my debut by riding to the music academy. My father told the police that I was going to do so and to see to it that I did not run down any horse and carriage.
"The police smiled and thought my father crazy.
The Crowd Followed
"Well, I started out. I sped down the main streets, passing the trolley cars, the horses and carriages. Soon I had hundreds of people following me. The boys and men cheered and shouted at me, while the women hid their heads and the young girls their faces. They had never seen such a thing in all of Japan. Here was the daughter of a judge and highly respected lawyer displaying her bare head and arms before the public. It was a disgrace.
"When I arrived at the school all the professors came out and looked at me in amazement. The police warned me against doing such a thing again, while hundreds of my father's friends went to him and told of how his daughter had set a bad example for the girls in Japan.
"My father laughed and laughed and told everybody they were crazy; that all the girls in America and Europe rode bicycles every day. In a short time many Japanese girls had bicycles. But it was great fun to see me the first time on my bicycle—believe me—and I proved much distraction to my teachers that first day."

Pretty cool, huh? Chastized for a bare head and bare arms! I love her father - screw'em! he says (in action, rather than words).

Anyhow... while looking to see if I could actually find a photo of Miura with her bicycle, I came across another website - an English page that seems to have been translated from Japanese: HERE, that claims the bicycle was given to her by her father to try and embarrass her from becoming a singer.

One article is more correct, I suppose... but the Tokyo website article does say that she became a sensation as the “Beauty on a Bicycle” in a newspaper that printed her photograph.  I note also that information in the Tokyo blog was pulled from interesting sources (at the bottom of the article...), but I can't find any other sources to back up this information.

However, we should all recall that the US newspaper interview above is based on an interview WITH Miura. Did she soften the way her father had treated her, or is her version above the correct one?    

Further thoughts: It was a great article! But when did Miura ride all over Japanese sensibility? In what year? I hate it when news articles—in any media then or now that you'd care to mention—don't present an accurate enough picture. It's sloppy…

So… when did this bike ride take place in Tokyo?

I had initially thought it was around 1894-1895 - just before the standard bike came about - why - because by 1896, Japan was on the verge of mass-producing bikes (sort of) for the foreign and domestic market.

Then again… why else would I mention The Murdoch Mysteries… surely not just for one point?!

If puritanical Toronto was still not accepting of women riding a bicycle by 1901 (the show - while often far-fetched, still provides a fairly accurate barometer of the science and politics of the day - though perhaps not the uses of science), then I can make a leap to assume that Miura's Lady Godiva ride a la Helen of Troy could be around the turn of the century… when she rode the new invention… but no… that's just it… the bicycle was still a new invention.

But which bicycle? The Ordinary penny-farthing type known in Japan as the Dharma? Or the standard one we know and love today?

Japan - and thus surely Tokio /Tokyo /Edo knew all about the Ordinary bicycles by the time Miura was born in 1884. They were long in vogue - first as a gaijin curiosity and then because of Thomas Stevens trek around the world on his bicycle that include the finishing leg in Yokohama in 1886. He started a Japanese craze for (Ordinary) bicycles.

So no…. the bicycle that Miura is talking about to the reporter in this 1919 interview… it must involve the brand new standard bicycle and its new pneumatic tube tires. So we can guesstimate 1896 or 1897.

She still had to be in school, and the bicycle had to be a new invention because that's the way her crackpot father rolled.

That's my two-cents worth, if you have a yen to approve.

How's my deduction Inspector Murdoch?

By the way... did anyone else notice that the newspaper article I reprinted above has the WRONG spelling for Miura's name? Yup. It almost caught me, too. Now it makes me wonder what else is wrong in that first-person story...

Andrew Joseph
Photo at the very top was found on Wikipedia, but original source is
PS: And a tip of the hat to the folks who maintain the Newsbank/Readex database of Early American Newspapers ( They have a wonderful library of interesting American newspapers... to be honest, I didn't realize they had such modern papers as this one from 1919... I thought they were all 1860 and younger. Shows what I know.

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