The Mikado in the Town of Chichibu

Sumiko Enbutsu

Gilbert and Sullivanfs world famous Mikado _ banned in Japan soon after its 1885 premier _ finally made its way into Japanese mainstream entertainment on March 10, 2001, performed by the citizens of Chichibu. Why would the Japanese have banned this classic British piece when they are fascinated by British culture? They revere William Shakespeare, enthusiastically applauding Hamlet and Macbeth. Edward Elgarfs Pomp and Circumstances is performed in concert halls and by school childrensf marching bands. But for more than 100 years after its worldwide success, no one in Japan has laughed at the antics in The Mikado. Few have heard of Gilbert and Sullivan, much less, the opera until a citizensf group in Chichibu produced the opera.
The Mikado: Forbidden in Japan
Using exotic Asia to sugar coat a pungent satire on the Victorian England, Gilbert and Sullivan scored an immediate success with The Mikado (meaning gthe emperorh in classic Japanese language) set in the mythical Town of Titipu. But Japanese in the late 19th century resisted the storyfs uncivilized image of their revered emperor. The nation had just emerged from feudalism and was struggling toward modernity. The Japanese government had begun at last to negotiate with foreign powers over the revision of unequal treaties signed by the shogun. Aspiring to truly join the ranks of world powers, the up-and-coming Japanese did not want to see their monarch caricatured on stage. The operafs other characters with funny Chinese-like names, too, were nonsensical and testified to Westernerfs superficial understanding of the Far East.

Japanese elites who watched performances in London and Munich sent their critical reviews to Tokyo, and a taboo demanding delicate handling in the Anglo-Japanese diplomacy began in Japan.

Riding a wave of international popularity, The Mikado reached Japan early. In November 1885 the Emele Melville Opera and Comedy Company landed in Kobe to perform, among other pieces, The Mikado in the foreign settlements. The British consul persuaded the impresario to eliminate the piece even though the audience was all foreigners. In 1887 the Gaiety Theatre in Yokohama caused a great worry to Acting Consul J.C. Hall and Minister F. R. Plunkett when it booked the Salingerfs Opera Bouffe Company and announced The Mikado in the program. Despite official intervention and even threat of penalties if the performance was not canceled, the show went off under a revised title, gThree Little Maids from School,h every reference to the emperor having been deleted. The Stanley Opera Company followed this precedent at the Gaiety in 1890.

In 1907 when Prince Fushimi visited King Edward II, London performances were canceled to the great resentment of local audiences. A Savoy Theatre troupe on a worldwide tour in 1923 was denied permission to present The Mikado in Tokyo and Yokohama notwithstanding title and script changes. In the wake of the disestablishment of foreign settlements in 1899, the Japanese authorities were determined to prohibit Mikado performances no matter what changes were made.

During the post-WW II Occupation of Japan (1945 to 1952), a Japanese opera company successfully presented The Mikado to Allied military audiences, who love the show. The venue was the Ernie Pyle Theater across the street from the Imperial Palace. But the companyfs performances to Japanese met a cool reception, closing after only three days.

While Gilbert and Sullivan were not widely known in Japan, scholars and historians certainly knew their fame and success. Many regretted their undue obscurity in Japan, particularly music aficionados. Rokusuke Ei, a popular essayist and songwriter, was particularly outspoken about The Mikado. Ei not only admired Sullivanfs music, but was convinced that the librettist set the operafs stage in Japan because he had been inspired by the 1884 Chichibu Incident. The uprising, during which thousands of silk farmers protested governmentfs policies, received renewed attention after WW II as a glorious democratic movement.

For decades, Ei took every opportunity to explain his theory in personal presentations and on a radio program he hosts. When Chichibufs Chamber of Commerce and Industry invited him to speak, Ei focused on this topic, urging his audience to introduce the famous opera. His listeners, silent and bewildered, ruminated over the double pressure of the chrysanthemum taboo and a sense of guilt for their forebearsf rebellion against the imperial government.

Chichibu? Where Is It?
Chichibu is a mountain city and hikersf paradise 75 kilometers northwest of Tokyo. On a clear day one can see its blue-hazed mountain ranges from a top floor of a high rise in central Tokyo. As the mountains have blocked large-scale industrialization and urbanization, the area has preserved a wealth of traditional customs and festivals. The most famous is the Night Festival on December 3rd, featuring an exciting parade of splendid floats accompanied by the fast beat of drums. Parked on streets, the lavishly decorated floats turn into stages for Kabuki performances by local actors. Both the floats and local Kabuki are a legacy from the 18th and 19th centuries when Chichibu prospered enormously with silk farming and weaving.

Silk farmers of Chichibu suffered from avalanches of high-paced economic and social changes as Japan progressed rapidly toward modernity. Driven to absolute destitution, they formed a well-organized alliance in November 1884 to demand administrative remedies.
The rebellion occurring so close to Tokyo prompted government authorities to send in the imperial army. Restoring order in ten days, the authorities not only punished everyone who rioted, but convinced the entire populace that the rebellion was a lamentable folly and infringement on the emperorfs supreme prerogative. The brainwashing left a lasting sense of humiliation and painful memories in Chichibu.
Citizensf Initiative to Break the Cultural Taboos
In 1991, seven years after Eifs lecture in Chichibu, Takashi Inoue, owner of a modest print shop, happened to hear Ei explaining his ideas about The Mikado on the radio. Amazed that he had never heard of this link between the famous opera and his home town, Inoue told the story to Yasuichi Tsukagoshi, a close friend and proprietor of a coffee shop. With other friends, they gathered more information and a laser disc of a 1982 Canadian performance. When they watched it, they immediately fell in love with the topsy-turvy story and titillating music
Volunteers formed a group to investigate the mystery of the Titipu-Chichibu link and to explore the possibility of introducing the delightful opera through an exhibition or lectures. They never dreamed they would stage a performance. The then Mayor Zenfichi Uchida joined the group in a private capacity, and Ei became an advisor.
Taking into considerations the local sensitivity to the Chichibu Incident, they preferred to think that Chichibu silk, rather than the rebellion, inspired Gilbert. Chichibufs high quality silk was an important export item in the 19th century. A taffeta-like silk, called Chichibu meisen, was a common material for womenfs everyday kimono.

Their imagination became a conviction when they learned about the gJapanese Villageh at Knightsbridge in London in 1885. To open this theme park to introduce everyday Japanese ways, about 100 men and women came from Japan and were housed in thatched bamboo huts for several months. Village women were invited to Mikado rehearsals to coach the cast on how to bow and use folding fans. From them Gilbert may well have heard the name Chichibu and thought it sounded funny.

After many turns and twists in their pursuit, the group succeeded in staging The Mikado in March 2001 - the operafs first performance to the mainstream Japanese audiences. For the details of the decade-long project, please refer to Enbutsufs The Mikado in the Town of Chichibu, The East, Vol. XXXVII No. 6.
The unexpected success of the volunteer citizensf project owes much to the energetic leadership of Toru Sakakibara, a capable producer and devotee of operas. He was introduced to Tsukagoshi in the spring of 2000 when the volunteer group became the Citizensf Committee to Produce the Mikado in Chichibu underwritten by the municipal assembly. Tsukagoshi was elected Chairman of the Committee.
While discussing various elements of the opera with advice from Sakakibara, the committee members realized that they had a wealth of local talent who knew Western music and dance, including young opera singers active in Tokyo. These vocalists, as well as Kabuki groups, chorus groups and ballet and music schools volunteered to participate as performers, stagehands, and wardrobe and stage set designers. The only missing talent was a bass for the role of the Mikado, for which Keisuke Shimada was invited from Tokyo. Sakakibara pulled everything together, and the citizens scurried around raising funds to cover production cost shortfalls.
The Chichibu version of The Mikado, staged twice on May 10 and 11, 2001, impressed the audience with a refreshing lyricism that rejected exaggerated exoticism. Skillful translation of Gilbertfs intricate English incorporated local jokes and regional dialect. The Three Maidens were charming without being over flirtatious.
Kosei Hayama as Namki-poo sang with youthful pathos in a magnetically romantic voice. With empathy for the rustic culture of Chichibu, Akiko Fujishiro, an internationally known director, introduced a fresh perspective to the Victorian opera.
As a result of the first productionfs complete success, encore performances were given in Chichibu and in Ikebukuro, Tokyo in March 2003. A concert and symposium were held in Marunouchi, Tokyofs prime business district, in July 2005.
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