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Henry Black (1859-1923): Japan’s first gaijin talentGaijin Talent

by Eddie Landsberg

Like many Americans of my generation, I remember when the mini-series “Shogun” ran on TV. I’ll admit I never read the book.

“I am Samurai, not Gaijin!” is a line that stuck with so many of its viewers. (That and the references to something called “pillowing”.)

The fantasy of being the only foreigner in an exotic, ancient mythic culture is one that may very well have resounded in the minds of many gaijin who came to Japan subsequently, but once in Japan, we all come to realize that other foreigners live here too. Sometimes when I see another foreigner outside of a work situation, I jokingly imagine myself confronting him by saying, “Hey pal, you’re moving in on my territory…”

I remember how amazed I was when I met a Hungarian guy, who spoke fluent Japanese, at a party thrown by a bunch of Japanese students. It was my first time to meet a Westerner fluently speaking an Asian language. Of course, when we come to Japan and realize that there are plenty of other Western people who’ve mastered the ways and culture as well, the fantasy of being the only white man on the island is shattered. We learn that if we can’t be the only, perhaps we can be the best, hence the allure of the “henna gaijin” persona—a foreigner who’s both funny, likeable and “nihonjin yori nihonjin” (more Japanese than a Japanese person).

We then learn about the existence of gaijin talent who we look upon with a mix of both envy (“I could can do that!”), admiration (“Wow, his Japanese is really good enough to be a celebrity!”) and disdain (“What’s that guy doing on TV dressed like Peter Pan and holding a plate of cookies and why’s he about to be fired from a cannon?”)

Seeing guys like Dave Spector, Patrick Harlan and Bobbie Ologun on TV, I recently came to wonder who the first “foreign talent” to ever step foot on these shores was? In doing so, I came upon the incredible story of the almost forgotten Henry Black, the Japanese equivalent of a vaudeville entertainer who rose to unlikely fame, but died in obscurity a few weeks after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

Henry Black was born December 22, 1858, in Australia. His Scottish born father found himself en route in Yokohama to England, when he became fascinated by the interest of Japanese people to learn from the West and landed himself a job with the Japan Herald. He soon found it too confining for his own tastes and became somewhat of a rogue journalist establishing his own newspapers. He spoke of wanting to publish a Japanese language paper that dared to write serious articles and comment in details on the issues of the day. While most members of the foreign settlement of Yokohama stuck to their own, Black observed how the samurai class had a childish knowledge of even the simplest things related to the outside world and he wanted to use his journalism to help encourage reform as well as help people learn about life outside of Japan. The elder Black’s desire to mingle was not taken upon kindly by his family, peers or other members of the settlement.

Still, his publications grew in popularity, enough that Japanese authorities became concerned about his growing influence, especially his avocation of British concepts of democracy and free speech. To deal with the problem, they offered him a deal: A government post as a foreign adviser in exchange for shutting down the paper. He took it, but soon after, laws were established prohibiting criticism of government policies, and even excluding foreigners from editing newspapers. A week later, he was transferred to the translation bureau, then shortly thereafter dismissed.

Black defied the government establishing another paper, then fell under pressure of the British government who were petitioned by the Japanese government. Embittered, he closed shop and died a year later just as his young son, who had worked for him running stories from Tokyo to Yokohama on horseback was coming of age and ready for his own adventures.

Henry had inherited his father’s love of the Japanese people. He too had a desire to immerse himself in the culture, as well as to share his knowledge of the outside world. But he also had a rebellious streak. His father, who had also had a career as a singer and amateur actor, was a critic of the “yose,” a type of lowbrow Japanese vaudeville entertainment which at the time included rakugo as well as juggling, conjuring and stage acts. He (as did many of Meiji era administrators) believed they should be closed down. Henry, however, somehow became interested in conjuring and decided to try a career as a magician in those very same houses.

His father’s friend, a retired navy general also began taking him to political speeches which were very popular, and one day challenged him to try delivering one himself. He did, and soon further became acquainted with Shorin Hakuen, a famous Kodan storyteller who took him under his tutelage. Kodan, which is now nearly extinct, was a form of dramatic story telling in revival at the time, and Black soon began appearing on stage telling tales of popular tragic heroes such as Charles 1st and Joan of Arc, as well as narratives based on popular British short stories. Although not particularly interested in politics, he began delivering speeches at train stations between Yokohama and Odawara with his fellow actor/orators until the police cracked down upon such activities.

In turn, Black retired and opened an English school (he is said to have also written a text book, and ran a side business that helped merchants correct the terrible English on their signs). At the same time, Hakuen and his fellow orators found a way to get around the restrictions by simply disguising their speeches as historical war narratives and taking them to the Yose Halls. Soon, Black came to realize that the stage was his destiny and he came back to the theater.

Under the leadership of Encho Sanyutei, modern rakugo was born, and on Sept 17, 1890, the Asahi Shimbun announced, “The Englishman Black, who has recently been narrating Western romantic tragedies on all the yose stages with outstanding rhetorical skill, has entered the San’yuha as a professional storyteller.” He took the name Kairakutei Black and would eventually begin to mentor disciples all over Japan. He was also adopted by the owner of a candy store in Asakusa, married her daughter and received Japanese citizenship, though the marriage was short lived and he did not have any children.

Black would go on to act in yose comedies and play onnagata (female roles) in kabuki plays. (An Asashi reporter marveled at how such a hefty man could play tender female roles so convincingly.) Though unable to read classical kabuki librettos, he would have someone transcribe the dialogue into Roman script, and managed to memorize them successfully. Black’s narrations, which also included detective stories, were carried in newspapers and magazines, published as books and his voice appears on one of the first phonograph recordings ever made in Japan.

By 1891, Black had become a full-time actor, and newspaper reviews claim that people were astonished by his skill as he did not appear to be a foreigner. At some point in his career he was reportedly called upon to tell stories to the crown prince who could not get enough of him and retained his audience for three hours. He was so popular that he appeared on postcards and in 1896 he was chosen by the Yomiuri Shimbun to appear in a series of interviews with the leading celebrities of the time.

This, however, was all his Victorian family finally could bear. They could not have a member of their family appearing on Yose stages as a low class entertainer anymore. It was also at a time when many of Black’s peers and mentors began to retire, and a younger less skilled generation began to ignore him. Soon, he began to suffer from depression and psychological problems. In 1895, his brother ran onto the stage and threatened to cut him off from his family and relatives and have him disinherited. Black stood up before the shocked audience, left the stage and announced that his career was on hiatus.

By 1902; however, he had gone back to being a magician, hypnotist and variety performer, though with his popularity waning, peers and critics were advising him to return to his true art, rakuko. By 1903, however, recession was causing many yose to close and strife within the industry. In 1908, Black, 49, suffering from financial difficulties had to dismiss his estate and move to a small house. During a performance, he attempted suicide by ingesting arsenic. One newspaper attributed it to “weariness of life” – fortunately he survived and within a couple of years was back on stage, also later in life making a living translating silent films. He adopted a Japanese son who married a French actress and the couple took to the stage themselves, developing their own conjuring act. By the summer of 1920, Black had little contact with his own family had fallen into obscurity and was retired.

He died of a stroke at the age of 64 several weeks after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

Black, now almost entirely forgotten at the height of his career, was admired by his audiences and accepted and genuinely respected as a master orator by his peers. He lies buried next to his father at the Yokohama Foreigners’ Cemetery and is credited as being the first foreigner to integrate himself into the common population and win their love and admiration. In retrospect, looking back, perhaps there’s a little Henry Black in all of us foreigners who come to Japan and try little more to fit in, offer our perspectives and be good at whatever we do. Black, of course, excelled.

And so we have the story of the man who may have very well been Japan’s first gaijin talent.

Originally published in Japan Today, 9/13/2011.


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Edward Landsberg

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