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Tokyo’s Shintomiza Theater (新富座) was managed by the legendary Morita Kanya (守田勘弥, 1846-1897), who introduced direct ticket sales—which used to be monopolized by theater teahouses—, bright lights and evening performances to the Japanese theater. His experiments and modernizations in both method and content made the Shintomiza Tokyo’s premier theater. When former US president Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) was invited to watch kabuki during his 1879 (Meiji 12) stay in Japan, it was this theater that he visited.
For this special occasion, lacquered chairs and carpets were brought in from a nearby palace. Just to show how important his visit was, the Prime Minister and three royal princes also attended. Quite unique in itself as kabuki had long been considered vulgar and for townsfolk; people of samurai class would have carefully disguised a visit.
Kabuki had actually been banned to Asakusa, on the outskirts of old Edo, during the last spasms of Tokugawa rule. When the Meiji Period began and old laws and customs were thrown by the wayside, the ambitious Kanya had been the first theater owner to move back into the center of the city.
In 1872 (Meiji 5), he selected Shintomi. Originally the site of samurai mansions like the Honda residence (Omi Zeze Han, 近江膳所藩本多家), the Shin-Shimabara red light district had been established here upon the start of the Meiji Period. This however failed and was closed in 1871 (Meiji 4).
Either through smarts, or sheer luck, Kanya made an excellent choice. Shintomi was located just east of Ginza, the area that was about to become Tokyo’s most fashionable district. The area was also right next to Tsukiji, where the foreign settlement was located. In 1875 (Meiji 8)1, Kanya renamed his theater from Moritaza to Shintomiza.
By all accounts, Grant loved the performance and considered it a highlight of his visit to Japan. He must have especially appreciated the dance that was performed for him. More than 70 Yanagibashi geisha2 danced in kimono of horizontal red and white stripes and blue juban (underwear) with white stars, using fans decorated with the Japanese and US flag. The musicians meanwhile were dashed out in blue clothes with white stars, or clothes with red and white stripes. It must have been an incredible sight.
A young American girl who was among the invited wrote in her diary:
“Ah, the old flag, the glorious Stars and Stripes! … It made the prettiest costume imaginable … We looked with strong emotion upon this graceful tribute to our country’s flag and felt grateful to our Japanese friends for their kindness displayed not only to General Grant but to our honored country.”3
A woodblock print showing the interior of the Shintomiza in 1878 (Meiji 11).
The first Shintomiza burnt down in 1876 (Meiji 9) when a large fire ravaged through the Kyobashi district. The theater was re-opened on June 7, 1878 (Meiji 11)—just in time for General Grant’s visit the following year—with many of the foreign nationals who lived in Tokyo attending the ceremony. The new theater featured chairs and gas lamps and was considered to be extremely modern. Although to us it now looks deliciously traditional.
Kanya didn’t limit the modernization to chairs and gas lamps. His great ambition was to make kabuki socially respectable. He went to great lengths to make his dream come true. On the 1878 opening day, he invited a large number of notables, including the prime minister and the governor. He also brought many modern elements into kabuki performances. In 1879 (Meiji 12), he even experimented with foreign actors, hiring eight actors from Britain. It was a disaster. The audience didn’t understand a word of what they were saying and some complained that “the voice of the British actress sounded just like the barking of a Western dog.”4
In spite of this setback, the Shintomiza remained extremely popular and for a while even managed to compete with the new Kabukiza, opened in 1889 (Meiji 22). Although some experimentations—like foreign actors—didn’t catch on, Kanya’s modernizations were very important. They made the Shintomiza one of the symbols of Japan’s Westernization movement during the Meiji Period (文明開化), and laid the foundation for kabuki as we know it today.
At the height of Shintomiza’s popularity it was surrounded by some 41 teahouses, restaurants, other theaters, as well as the houses of actors, musicians, playwrights and everybody else connected with the theater. Kanya had literally transformed Shintomi from a deserted area into a bustling theater district.
“Theaters were lined along the street from the corner of the Tsukiji Bridge to the crossroads in the direction of the Sakura Bridge. Facing these theaters across the street, there were teahouses. … The area as a whole provided a gorgeous atmosphere of a different world.”6
In 1909 (Meiji 42), the Shintomiza was bought up by Osaka’s Shochiku company, which also became the owner of the Kabukiza in 1912 (Meiji 45).
Shintomiza’s tragic end came on September 1, 1923 (Taisho 12), when the Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed the theater. It was never rebuilt and only an unimpressive plaque reminds of the spot’s illustrious history. On the theater’s location now stands the Kyobashi Tax Office.5 Laughter has undoubtedly vanished from the place.
This detail shows the signs, as well as the large variety of customers.
1892 (Meiji 25) Map of Tokyo: 1. Shinbashi Bridge; 2. Shinbashi Station; 3. Ginza; 4. Tsukiji Foreign Settlement.
1 新富座子供歌舞伎, 新富座のいわれ. Retrieved on 2009-05-21.
2 This is what a wide variety of sources say. The actual English program for the performance contains the following text: PANTOMIME AND BALLET. Several Views are Given, Illustrating Scenes in Ginza and Incidents of the Arrival and Reception of General Grant. Fifty Actors Engage in a Festival Dance.
3 Seidensticker, Edward (1983). Low City, High City. Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 107. ISBN 0394507304
4 National Diet Library, Theatrical Performances and Theaters in the Meiji Period. Retrieved on 2009-05-21.
5 京橋税務署: 2-6-1 Shintomi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo.
6 National Diet Library, Theatrical Performances and Theaters in the Meiji Period. Retrieved on 2009-05-21.