The uncommon commoners


By Frederik L. Schodt (Berkeley, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 2012, 336 pp., $35, hardcover)

San Francisco is known to be the port of entry for the Kanrin Maru, the first Japanese diplomatic mission to the United States in 1860. What is lesser known, however, is that the bustling port town was also the port of entry for Japan’s first legal civilian immigration.

In the fall of 1866, six years after the official Japanese visit, an announcement in the city’s newspapers said a group of Japanese entertainers would arrive by the end of the year led by Professor Risley, a famous showman and acrobat of his time. Risley, who had travelled to Japan by way of Australia, India and the Philippines, recruited two families of Japanese entertainers to come to the United States with him to tour the nation and make their way to the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The rather uncommon band of entertainers were the first Japanese commoners to be issued official Japanese passports and leave the country since the island nation was opened by Commodore Matthew Perry in the 1850s.

Frederik Schodt, a historian and translator of Japanese entertainment, became enchanted by the story of Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe. He argues that Japanese culture’s influence on foreign aesthetics is well documented, yet the popularity of circuses and their acts have largely become a lost history. While the Japonisme movement in Europe and the more-recent “Cool Japan” trends are well recorded and known in Japan’s cultural role in the world according to Schodt, the history of its entertainment and its impact on the United States through circuses was largely forgotten.

Risley, a native of New Jersey, led a colorful life. The circus impresario and entertainer first was a business man, founding a town in Illinois and getting embroiled in multiple lawsuits. He became an entertainer and toured the nation, building his name in both the United States and Europe.

By the 1860s, he was world renowned, according to Schodt. He was known for, not only his excellent showmanship, but his physical prowess. In the “Risley Act,” as described in the book, Risley would juggle his biological sons with his legs.

Following his countless successes and misfortunes (Risley lost all of his money on multiple occasions due to various untimely mishaps), the world-renowned entertainer led a Western-style circus to Australia, chasing after the Australian gold rush in 1858, and worked his way north toward the recently opened Japan. Risley introduced the Japanese to the Western-style circus in 1864, and then recruited the Imperial Japanese Troupe.

The popularity of circuses and the impact of Risley’s work remained relatively obscure, especially to the English-speaking world. Schodt explores this history in great detail with well-researched work. “Professor Risley” breathes life back into what is now an obscure history, reviving a lost story of circuses, U.S.-Japan relations and its greater historical context.

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