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70512-0011 - Japanese Acrobats, 1890s

1890s
Kakubeijishi

Artist Unknown
Publisher Unknown
Medium Albumen Print
Period Meiji
Location Outside
Image No. 70512-0011
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Kakubeijishi (角兵衛獅子, also: Kakubeejishi) are acrobatics performed on the street by young boys who did handstands, somersaults and the like, either alone or with their partners. In this photo, three children perform a combination act.

The acrobatics were accompanied by drums, usually played by an adult leader. Kakubeijishi has its roots in the province of Echigo (now in Niigata Prefecture). The stories about the origins of Kakubeijishi, and especially the boys’ trademark handstand, are absolutely fascinating.

According to these stories, Kakubeijishi started during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Annual floods routinely damaged harvests in the village of Tsukigata-mura (月潟村), currently part of Niigata City. With harvests destroyed, the villagers were often starving.

Among the villagers was a farmer by the name of Kakubei who was a former ronin (masterless samurai) of the Mito Domain (水戸藩), a prominent feudal domain (han) during the Edo Period. To earn money in spite of the floods, he taught his two sons acrobatics. The practice soon spread among the other children of the village.

One day, Kakubei was killed. During the end of the fight, he was able to bite off his opponent’s toe. In spite of his missing toe, this opponent managed to escape without being identified. To find their father’s murderer and revenge his death, Kakubei’s sons realized they had to look for somebody with a missing toe. They had to come up, however, with a way that would raise no suspicion. The solution was sheer genius. They included a large number of handstands in their routines, so they could check out people’s feet without anybody noticing. The stories do not say if they succeeded.

It is unknown if a real Kakubei actually existed and whether the events of the stories truly happened, but Kakubeijishi is still performed today and it still includes an extraordinary large number of handstands.

Kakubeijishi often appear in jidaigeki (a movie, TV or theater drama usually set in the Edo Period). A famous movie using Kakubeijishi performers as the main characters is Kurama Tengu: Kakubeijishi (鞍馬天狗 角兵衛獅子, 1951). In this story, two Kakubeijishi performers lose their money. They are saved by the masked avenger Kurama Tengu. When they attempt to return the favor, they once again need his protection. Famous actress Hibari Misora (1937-1989) plays one of the child acrobats.

These days, Kakubeijishi can be observed at Tsukigata Hakusan Jinja (月潟白山神社) in Minami-ku, Niigata City, on the day after the Tsukigata Matsuri. The acrobatics take place annually on the fourth Sunday of June.

Kakubeijishi were not the only acrobatics performed on Japanese streets. On the streets as well as at Japanese shrines and temples there were countless acrobatic performances. Some of these even ended up traveling abroad. Here is a video clip from 1904 (Meiji 37) of such acrobats:

see current map

The Google map does not show where the Meiji Period photograph was taken, but the location of Tsukigata Hakusan Jinja, where the Kakubeijishi can be observed.

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Reference for Citations

Duits, Kjeld (). 1890s: Kakubeijishi, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on June 26, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/295/kakubeijishi

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