Have you heard of Otojiro Kawakami? Recently there has been a surge of interest in him. Born in the Tsumashoji district of Hakata Ward in 1864, at the end of the Shogunate, Kawakami was a Meiji period actor who toured the world. At the age of 14, he boarded a ship in the Port of Hakata, sailed to Osaka, and then walked to Tokyo. Kawakami became involved in anti-government activities and the Freedom and Peoples’ Rights movement, but left Tokyo after the government began cracking down in the 1880s. The progressive thinker Chomin Nakae suggested that he try his hand at drama. Kawakami followed Nakae’s advice. One of the songs he wrote and performed on stage, oppekepe-bushi, took Japan by storm. The lyrics, which lampooned contemporary political conditions, became quite popular. Because Kawakami’s performances incorporated anti-government themes, they were known as soshi shibai.
He wore a jimbaori (coat worn over armor), a headband, a hakama (a divided formal skirt for men), and held a fan adorned with the rising sun during his performances. Kawakami married the popular geisha Sadayakko in 1891, and they established the Kawakami troupe. His wife became Japan’s first actress. In 1899, the troupe went to the United States, and performed in New York, Washington, and Boston. The following year, they were invited to perform at the Paris Exposition, and were a great success. The year after that, they toured 14 countries from Spain to Russia. They also made a recording of the oppekepe-bushi, said to be the first record made by a Japanese artist.
After returning home, Kawakami achieved success as an impresario, staging versions of Shakespeare’s Othello and Hamlet. He died during a performance on November 11, 1911. A commemorative memorial service will be held at Joten-ji, where he is buried. In addition, Osore wo Shiranu Kawakami Otojiro (The Fearless Otojiro Kawakami) will be the opening performance of the new Theater Creation in Tokyo’s Hibiya district from November 10 to December 30. This work was both written and produced by Koki Mitani. Yusuke Santamaria will appear as Kawakami, and the part of Sadayakko will be played by Takako Tokiwa.