Victorian Perceptions of Japan Formed through Encounters with Japanese Theatre

About the Project:

This project considers American, French, and British Victorians’ encounters with traditional Japanese theatrical performances in Japan as cultural contact zones, in which visitors from the West formulated some of their most immediate perceptions of Japan, Japanese people, and Japanese cultural ideologies of the nineteenth century. By exploring close readings, historic accounts, and literary depictions of these encounters between Western travelers and Japanese art, I employ a critical global approach to consider how the layered temporal and spatial settings of Japanese theatrical narratives manifest through the noh and kabuki theatrical forms on stage. Through the synthesis of historic, literary, and theatrical narratives through which Western travelers encounter Japanese art, I consider the transformative potential of these cross-cultural interactions and ideological exchanges for the Victorians’ material realities and conceptions of gender, sexuality, time, and place. By exploring questions of Victorian notions of epistemology and imaginings of possibility, this scholarship shows how such encounters create opportunities for Orientalism, as well as possibilities that are not entirely foreclosed by Orientalist thought.

During the Victorian era, the cultural exchange between Britain and countries within and peripheral to the European colonies led to the development of a certain fascination, an exoticization of the Eastern other. From the quotidian import of foreign goods to the introduction of Eastern art forms to Western audiences, the establishment of a market and interest in cultural products was predicated upon the sense of Eastern cultures as Other. This phenomenon was first identified by Edward Said as Orientalism. Said explains, “the Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences” (Orientalism 1). Through the dissemination of knowledge through the Church, the family, the school, and the community,[1] these views became significant fragments of Victorian consciousness.[2]

Through twentieth- and twenty-first century queer theoretical frameworks of time and space, I explore the value of considering instantiations of non-linear time and physically dislocated space[3] in “queer-before-queer” texts,[4] with attention to the complexities of historical and cultural difference. As such, this inquiry utilizes a critical global method to combine the feminist research practice of standpoint epistemology[5] with intersectional praxis[6] to reflect on and develop critical reading practices to counter the possibility that this project may in fact reproduce the very Orientalist rhetoric that it aims to expose and dismantle.

For my analyses, I begin with the Western entry to nineteenth century Japan to contextualize how a relationship of mutual exchange formed between Japan and the West. Then, I trace how this cross-cultural contact between Japan and the West was established through Victorian travelers’ encounters with Japanese art. In the next section, I offer a reading from the popular Victorian novel Dracula to establish the fascinations with and mobility of these art forms, to explore the ways this imagery gives us a sense of Victorian intrigue in Japanese art. I then perform close readings of two plays that were performed during the late-nineteenth century, which I will refer to by their titles from the noh stage: The Atsumori narrative, and the Dōjōji narrative. From the analyses of these texts, I then open a discussion of how different facets of each of these stories become altered when the performance medium changes, from noh to kabuki, and beyond. This paper concludes with a coda, where I transition to a set of questions, including some reflection on my own use of these texts, contemplating the critical reading practices I have used in this inquiry, and further considering why critical approaches and feminist reading practices are important to ethically conducting interdisciplinary and global research.

[1] In the canonical gender and sexuality studies text, Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1, the French philosopher describes how notions of normative sexuality developed through the dissemination of discourse throughout all spheres of life.

[2] While certainly nineteenth century Britain, America, and France were distinct in every sense, and the kinds of Orientalism that emerged from each country is highly nuanced, for the sake of this argument, I will discuss these plural phenomena as general Orientalism, as this school of thought was a popular area of study throughout the Global North during the nineteenth century.

[3] Queer theorist Jack Halberstam imagines the possibility of non-normative temporalities and spaces in his work, In A Queer Time and Place. Halberstam writes “A ‘queer’ adjustment in the way in which we think about time, in fact, requires and produces new conceptions of space” (6). This is how queer temporality and space complicates our notions of linear time and physical entrenchment.

[4] In Kadji Amin’s “Haunted by the 1990s: Queer Theory's Affective Histories,” we are reminded that we must decontextualize the term “queer” in a way that is appropriate for a given inquiry (in this case, I decontextualize the term so we can consider what behaviors would be “queer” to Victorian audiences), we cannot ever fully dislocate “queer” from its notably white origins in the United States of the 1990s. Amin writes “ultimately, I propose that the future of the field of queer studies—as well as its relevance for scholarship on prior historical periods, racialized populations, and areas outside of the United States—requires a reckoning with the field’s affective haunting by the inaugural moment of the U.S. 1990s. This reckoning may take the form of a re- rather than a dehistoricization. That is, whereas queer scholars have tended to gesture toward the unbounded future as the domain in which queer can have a renewed life by becoming other to what it has been so far, it may be more efficacious to engage queer’s multiple pasts—including those prior to its explicit deployment as a political and theoretical term in the 1990s—in order to differently animate queer’s dense affective histories” (277-278).

[5] Sandra Harding’s canonical work in gender and sexuality studies on feminist approaches to research in “Is there a Feminist Method?” illustrates the grave importance for the researcher to practice self-reflexivity and positionality, to locate the self in relation to the object of study. For this project’s inquiry, I acknowledge that while I am a queer and trans scholar, I am also a white American; I am not Japanese nor do I have any genealogical ties to Japan, and I have not yet traveled to nor lived in Japan. To hold myself accountable for the biases that do result from my outsider status in relation to Japanese culture, I aim to present relevant literary and historical information in as objective of a fashion as I can in this inquiry.

[6] The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in her work “Mapping the Margins” as a concept for understanding workplace inequities experienced by Black women in the U.S. After its coinage, as Jennifer Nash outlines in “Re-Thinking Intersectionality,” the term has grown to represent a more ethical and holistic approach to discussing Black women’s experiences, by considering the interconnectedness of identities and how belonging to several marginalized groups at once amplifies the frequency and degree to which people are treated unjustly. This way of thinking precedes both Nash and Crenshaw, in a range of different texts in African American literature and in Black intellectual thought. By applying an intersectional approach to this project, I consider how those minoritized by Japan and the West have been treated or thought of prior to and during the Victorian period.

Why hanga (Japanese color woodblock prints)?

A significant reason for incorporating Japanese color woodblock prints into my research relates to shifts in the patronage of the arts at the time of Japan’s entry into global trade in the 1860s. Some of the primary supporters of noh theatre were members of the samurai social class, so when the dramatic social shifts of the Meiji Restoration gained full traction, this theatrical form had lost its primary source of support. For the noh form to regain popularity, Kōgyo Tsukioka produced Japanese color woodblock prints, where he took artistic liberties in his depictions of noh actors and the stage, which were positively received by the public. While viewing these prints which often functioned during the nineteenth-century as both art and advertisements for specific plays and actors, I am consistently impressed by the intricacy of shading, the vibrancy of color, and the specificity of subjects that are depicted through these prints. By considering historical significance of the Kōgyo collection to the popularity of noh during the nineteenth-century, my work in the archives has greatly benefited my understanding of this research.

Atsumori 1936.png

The Atsumori Narrative

Atsumori is a second category shura (warrior) Noh play written by the fourteenth century Japanese playwright Zeami[7] to narrativize one of the famous battles that occurred during the twelfth century Genpei Civil War. In these stories located in a larger work called Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike), the narratives highlight historic battles of the Civil War that are recurringly referenced throughout works in the Japanese literary canon. In Atsumori, the titular warrior from the Heike[8] clan, who is repeatedly characterized as a beautiful, youthful boy who plays the flute, is dramatically killed by a warrior named Kumagae from the opposing Genji[9] clan. After Atsumori is slain, Kumagae spends years in a state of emotional and moral upset because of how deeply the murdered Atsumori reminded Kumagae of his own son. To rectify his murder of the youthful warrior, Kumagae goes on to become a Buddhist priest called Renshō[10] and then returns to the site where he had slain Atsumori to atone.[11] In this text, the designation of Atsumori’s ghost as the primary protagonist (shite) for the second act, and his characterization as a great warrior who is defeated (rather than a great warrior who is victorious) adheres to the general narrative arc of this subset of warrior noh plays, which focus on the great mortal losses of war. Furthermore, these plays and the Atsumori narrative adhere to themes of Buddhist non-dualism, which are evident in the characterization of Atsumori and Kumagae as both enemies and friends. The transience of their friend/foe relationship in the noh text is also suggestive of further fluidity that occurs in their relationship as portrayed in subsequent Kabuki adaptations of the narrative.

[7] In Gary Mathew’s “Zeami’s Confucian Theatre,” while modern interpretations of Zeami’s traditional Japanese theatrical works for the noh stage are understood to draw largely on Zen Buddhist mores in the dynamics of performance established between the actors and the audience, Mathews illustrates that Zeami’s plays also incorporate themes of Confucianism in the affect and characterization of his characters on stage.

[8] Heike and Taira are used interchangeably to describe the clan because while Taira is the actual familial name, ‘hei’ (a different reading of the kanji for Taira) and ‘ke’ (a kanji suffix for family) together means the house of Taira. They were also called the Heishi (‘shi’ meaning clan). See Lebra for more information about how these Japanese imperial houses were discussed.

[9] Genji and Minamoto are used interchangeably to describe this clan because while Minamoto is the actual familial name, ‘gen’ (a different reading of the kanji for Minamoto) and ‘ji’ (an alternate reading for the ‘shi’ from Heishi, meaning clan) together mean the Minamoto clan. Again, I defer to Lebra for more in depth perspectives on the Heian period Japanese imperial houses.

[10] For the sake of clarity, rather than interchangeably referring to Kumagae as Renshō, I will almost exclusively call this character Kumagae. Later, when I do mention the character’s adopted name as Renshō the priest, I will discuss how identities and names are layered throughout the Atsumori narrative in connection to the layering of time, place, gender, and sexuality.

[11] Along with this noh play which narrativizes the killing of and atoning for Atsumori, Ikuta Atsumori is a separate warrior noh text in which the deceased warrior Atsumori tells his own son about his untimely demise (Brazell 126-127).

Atsumori 1897.png

This print expands upon this very moment in Zeami’s script in which he invokes the image of birds taking flight through the noh text peeling back towards the viewer. Like a singing bird, Atsumori’s harmonious music echoes through the bird motif, in a fleeting, miraculous panoply of beauty. The muted blue sky surrounding the birds stands in stark contrast to the white nōmen jūroku (the Atsumori noh mask), promising transcendent clarity to the dying warrior’s soul.

dojoji mae shite.png

The Dōjōji Narrative

Dōjōji is a fourth category play of the kyōjo-mono (crazed woman) genre of Noh, which features a compelling story of revenge and demonic extraction that transcends time and gendered embodiment. In an earlier version of the narrative called Kanemaki,[12] which also was written for the noh stage, the story focuses more on the religious motivations of the vengeful protagonist. Both Dōjōji and Kanemaki are typically grouped together, along with similar narratives that draw on the Japanese literary canon, like the story of Lady Aoi from Genji Monogatari, which is adapted to the Noh stage in Aoi no Ue.[13]

dojoji ato shite.png

A long time ago, a yamabushi[14] would visit the province and pay visits to a steward and his only daughter, bringing her gifts. Once, the priest told the young girl that he would marry her someday, which she took to heart. After years passed, the priest returned to the steward’s residence and the girl approached him in his bedroom late at night. She asked him why he had not yet claimed her for marriage, to which he responded by making a joke, before fleeing in bewilderment. During the priest’s plight, he arrived at Dōjōji temple and climbed inside the temple’s bell to hide from the girl. In the night, the girl ran after the priest, only to find that she could not reach the temple as the nearby Hitaka River had flooded. She ran back and forth along the riverbank until her fury transformed her into a snake. She then swam across the river, reaching Dojoji temple, and searched relentlessly for the priest, until she finally detected her prey. Forming seven coils around the bell, her reptilian body clenched and thrashed, producing fire and smoke from her mouth, and she strikes the bell with her tail, burning the priest within to a charred crisp.

[12] This precursor to Dōjōji is attributed to playwright Kanze Kojirō Nobumitsu (1435-1516), though with minimal evidence, and there is even less evidence of who revised the original Kanemaki narrative to the more popular Dōjōji. Kanemaki means ‘to coil around.’

[13] In this narrative, Lady Aoi, the Radiant Prince Genji’s first wife, is neglected by Genji and exacts her revenge through killing one of Genji’s other wives.

[14] A yamabushi is a type of traveling priest. These characters are frequently featured in narratives for the noh stage.

Selected Works Consulted

Amin, Kadji. “Haunted by the 1990s: Queer Theory's Affective Histories.” Women's Studies Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 3/4, 2016, pp. 173–189. JSTOR.

Brazell, Karen, editor. Traditional Japanese Theatre: An Anthology of Plays. Columbia University Press, 1999.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6, 1991, pp. 1241–1299. JSTOR.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume I. Translated by Robert Hurley, Pantheon Books, New York, 1978.

Halberstam, Jack. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York University Press, 2005.

Harding, Sandra, editor. “Introduction: Is There A Feminist Method?” Feminism and Methodology: Social Science Issues. Highlighting edition, Indiana University Press, 1988.

Lebra, Takie Sugiyama. Above the Clouds: Status Culture of the Modern Japanese Nobility. University of California Press, 1995.

Mathews, Gary. "Zeami's Confucian theatre." Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 30, no. 1, 2013, p. 30+. Gale Literature Resource Center.

Nash, Jennifer C. “Re-Thinking Intersectionality.” Feminist Review, vol. 89, no. 1, June 2008, pp. 1–15, doi:10.1057/fr.2008.4.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.

About the Student:

Max (Maxwell) B. Reiver is a fifth-year undergraduate studying English literature, Japanese, and Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Max is graduating this spring (April 2021), and greatly looks forward to continuing to apply an interdisciplinary approach to studying literatures, languages, and cultures.


Max is forever grateful for the kindness, support, and guidance from their faculty mentor Amy Murray Twyning, and their librarian mentor Hiroyuki Good, as well as Laura Nelson, Jeanann Croft Haas, Patrick Mullen, and Gesina Phillips from the Office of Undergraduate Research. They would also like to thank Elizabeth Oyler and Paul Bové for their continued support, interest, and care for both them and this project. Max extends a special thanks to Julie Beaulieu for the many hours spent mentoring, encouraging, and supporting them through the most tenuous phases of this project. They especially couldn't have done it without them.

Encounters with Japanese Theatre