Taisho and Asakusa Opera

Have you ever heard of the Asakusa Opera? Probably not. The name itself probably conjures up the image of an Italian diva shattering a champagne glass in a historic Japanese temple. They don’t necessarily go together, do they? However, Asakusa Opera was a unique and special genre of Japanese musical theater performed in the 1920s and 30s in Asakusa, Tokyo, and developed in the eclectic environment of the Taisho era (1912 – 1926). And while it borrows the name of the famous European genre of musical stage performance, it really was its own wonderful thing. Asakusa Opera gives us a look into the fascinating and often overlooked world of Taisho Japan and the major cultural changes that were occurring. So find out more about Asakusa Opera below.

But first, let’s take a step back and talk about the larger picture. The Taisho era is a relatively short period in modern Japanese history, compared to Meiji (!868-1912), Showa (1926-1989), and even Heisei (1989-2019), and so it is somewhat overshadowed. The era is bookended by two big events: the end of WWI, and The Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 which destroyed a huge swath of the main part of Tokyo at the time (including most of Asakusa).  

During this era, people were celebrating the end of WWI and hoping for peace, not knowing that the next Great War was already around the corner. Taisho’s father, Emperor Meiji opened the country to foreign influences for the first time after centuries of isolation and put the country on a path towards modernization. This stance towards adopting foreign cultures continued into the Taisho period, and so the two eras are sometimes lumped together. However, there were some major differences.

For one thing, the modernization of the Meiji era was very much imposed and enforced from above. Meiji and his ministers sometimes used brutal methods to push the nation along the path to “civilization and enlightenment”. The emperor of Taisho was known to be physically weak due to a health condition and was mostly kept out of the limelight. As a result, power was more dispersed, allowing for more wiggle-room at the grassroots level. Labor unions, political parties, suffrage movements, literary societies all emerged from this brief period of political organization and liberalization–which together is known as “Taisho Democracy.

Another big difference was that a generational shift had occurred in Japan. Those who were active in culture and society by the time of Taisho, as well as the youth that propelled the new mass culture, had no memory of pre-modern, pre-Meiji Japan. They had been born during Japan’s turn towards Western culture, which means that they could critique it better and develop their own understanding of it.  

During the Taisho period, Tokyoites experienced their very own roaring twenties, similar to New York and other international Metropoles of that time. Modern Japanese culture and mass media came into its own with new styles of novels, fashion, art, and entertainment–all of which incorporated both Japanese and Western elements in a unique fusion. 

The center point for Japanese theater and entertainment was Asakusa. You might know Asakusa for its famous Sensoji temple, which is the oldest temple in Tokyo. It was exactly the area around the temple grounds that became the hub of the Tokyo theater culture at that time. This area was called Asakusa Rokku, Asakusa 6th district. The end of the theater street was marked by an iconic landmark, the Ryounkaku, a twelve-floor brick-facade tower that showcased state of the art technology like electric elevators. Unfortunately, the tower had to be demolished in 1923 after it suffered irreparable damage during the great Kanto earthquake in the same year. The street leading up to Ryounkaku was lined by theaters and cinemas, the abundance of which made this street the epicenter of Asakusa Opera where the peragoro, the hardcore theater fans gathered.

Asakusa had been a major theater and entertainment center since the pre-Meiji Edo period (1603-1868), when the capital was moved from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo) by the Tokugawa shogunate. The shoguns reserved the Western part of the capital for the aristocrat’s estates, while the Eastern part was left to the merchants, craftsmen, and other menial laborers, and it was in this part, specifically around Asakusa and Yoshiwara, that the pleasure districts, the geisha houses, and the kabuki theaters emerged and thrived.  

As I mentioned earlier, the Meiji government attempted to move Japanese society and culture from above, sometimes forcefully. This was also the case for the theater, parts of which were deemed too bawdy and immoral according to Western notions. The government, therefore, attempted to lock down and codify Japanese theater, and in particular Kabuki, so as to be able to present it as an art form on par with Western theater, which meant stripping away some of its inventiveness, originality, and connection to low-brow culture. 

With the general loosening up under Taisho, a lot of the pent-up creative frustration of Japanese playwrights, directors, and producers was released. But instead of going back to Kabuki, which by now was pretty tightly sealed off, they turned instead to Western theater and opera. Or to be more precise, they reinterpreted Western theater with an eye towards what kabuki had been, injecting it with similar references to Japanese popular culture and low-brow humor. The result was Askusa Opera.  

Asakusa Opera is a fairly loose interpretation of the term opera which encompasses a wide range of traditional and musical theater played in Asakusa during the Taisho era. This was not Opera as we think of it today. They were more akin to variety shows, vaudeville, and cabaret. The lyrics were funny, lighthearted, and nonsensical. Some Asakusa Opera performances consisted of a mix of unscripted skits, songs, and dance performances, but also adaptations of popular American and European plays (Salome, La Traviata, Orphée aux enfers). 

The whole Asakusa art scene of the Taisho period was also influenced by the Zurich, Berlin, and New York-based Dada movement, both in design and performing arts. European dadaism and the Japanese Ero Guro Nansensu (“erotic, grotesque, nonsense”–which was used to describe the Asakusa theater scene in Taisho) became a perfect match for each other. 

Asakusa Opera influenced a lot in Japanese culture. Due to the shift in the political and social climate, the profession of the actor became more open to women and even all-female theater companies were founded, like the Takarazuka Revue, which is still active and popular today. Many women who sought independence, such as the famous ingenue Matsui Sumako, were able to pursue a career in the theater. The peragoro, cult-like fan groups, formed around these actresses, presaging the modern idol phenomenon. Songs that came out of the shows also became smash hits and some of the first “pop” songs in Japan, like The Song of the Croquette and Katyuusha’s Song

There is not much left physically from Asakusa Opera, though. The phenomenon ended with the Great Kanto Earthquake on September 1, 1923. The earthquake and subsequent fires destroyed most of the eastern part of the city, including Asakusa and its theaters. In the aftermath and rebuilding period, many came to think of the earthquake as divine retribution against Japanese society, which had become degenerate and immoral. The government, controlled by then-regent, Prince Hirohito (Showa), moved towards tightening down on free expression and creative license of artists and theater producers, which continued apace after he became Emperor in 1926. Asakusa Opera was never given a chance to revive itself.
The Taisho period and Asakusa Opera inspired us during the creation of our newest outdoor scavenger hunt, Hidden Secrets Journey: The Stolen Bell of Taisho. The story takes place during 1922, at the Tokyo Peace Exhibition, and involves a mystery to track down an enigmatic thief and a Peace Bell through the back-streets of Asakusa. While researching the period, we were struck by the amount of striking creativity that occurred during the Taisho period and at the Asakusa Opera. The style and feel of Taisho Roman (the Taisho Look) seems very familiar but also distinctly Japanese, and we hope that our newest HSJ game will encourage more people to learn about this fascinating, dynamic, but sorely underappreciated era of Japanese history.

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