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Treasures of the Library: The First Western-style Circus in Japan by Utagawa Yoshitora

As the previous issue briefly mentioned the Western-style circus performed in the early Meiji era, this issue will introduce an ukiyo-e that depicts the first Western circus performed in Japan on record.

By Utagawa Yoshitora in March 1864 (35 x 27 cm)
Lisa Sainsbury Library

The Tokugawa Shogunate was forced to open its ports to overseas trade due to the arrival of the Black Ships in 1853 and in 1854. This allowed foreigners to live and trade freely in Yokohama, Nagasaki, and Hakodate in 1859. The newly developed port of Yokohama, with its hint of exoticism, had become an interesting subject for ukiyo-e.

Ukiyo-e publishers in Edo sent a number of ukiyo-e artists to Yokohama, and through the eyes of those artists full of surprise and curiosity, introduced Westerners and their ways to the Japanese people. Thus, this ukiyo-e genre is called Yokohama-e. The Utagawa School artists were the largest group among the artists of Yokohama-e, and Utagawa Yoshitora left a great number of works in this genre. The Yokohama-e print introduced in this issue was created by Utagawa Yoshitora. The years of the birth and the death of Yoshitora are unknown. He was a pupil of Utagawa Kuniyoshi. He began his career as an ukiyo-e artist in the Tenpo era (1830-44) and was active until around Meiji 20 (1887)1.

This Yokohama-e print, housed at the Lisa Sainsbury Library, depicts the first Western-style circus to visit Japan on record. The visit was organised by Richard Risley Carlisle (1814-1874), who had the stage name “Professor Risley”. Risley was born in Salem, New Jersey, in the United States. He joined a circus troupe in 1841. The troupe travelled in Europe to great success, visiting France, Belgium, Russia and Italy. They also visited the UK, including a Royal performance by the command of Queen Victoria, at Windsor Castle2. He was famous for his signature act which is still called the ‘risley act’. A ‘risley act’ refers to the performer lying on his/her back and juggling with his/her feet. Risley was well known for performing this act by using two small children as his props.

In 1858, Risley formed a circus troupe in London and went on a tour of Asia and Oceania3. They performed in Honolulu, Hawaii in March 1860, and in Sydney, Australia in September of the same year. In October 1861, his troupe was in Singapore, and was in Shanghai, China in 18634. Risley arrived at Yokohama from Shanghai on 6 March 1864 with 10 acrobatic performers and 8 horses. There is no source information on the nationality of his fellow performers. According to the textual information on the ukiyo-e pint, it seems that Risley advertised his troupe as being from central India. However, images on the ukiyo-e print do not depict them as being obviously Indian; neither are they shown to be dressed in traditional Indian costume.

The first day of the circus performance was actually held on 28 March, although the text of the ukiyo-e shows it opening between the first and tenth of March. The performance included acrobats with three horses, jumping through flaming hoops, equestrian feats, ball riding and horizontal bar5. On the opening day 450 spectators, which included 250 foreigners, attended in a tent with a capacity of 500, according to the English language newspaper, Japan-Herald6.

Despite the great success of the premiere performance, the audience numbers decreased. The main reason for this may have been that the Tokugawa Shogunate had not given permission for the performance to be seen outside the Yokohama settlement. The population of Yokohama is now the second largest in Japan after Tokyo, but before the opening of its port in 1859 Yokohama was nothing more than a fishing village. There were not enough people in Yokohama to make the circus commercially successful. The distance from Edo, which had the largest population in Japan, to Yokohama is only about 36 km. However, lack of practical means of public transportation made it difficult for the common people to visit the performance from Edo. As well as this, women were strictly restricted from leaving Edo. Risley’s show had to be closed in May due to sluggish customer interest.

After the failure of his circus project in Japan, Risley remained in the country. Perhaps he had a large amount of debt and did not even have enough money to return home. He started a horse-rental business with the horses he had used in the circus. He also imported cows, becoming the first person to sell milk commercially in Japan. Later, he imported ice and sold it. This led to his being the first person to manufacture ice cream in the country. However, his businesses were not successful. Because he was based in Yokohama, 36 km from Edo, the largest city in Japan, and there was no means of refrigeration, it was impractical to sell his products in Edo. The population of Yokohama was not large enough to sustain a profitable business. Therefore he was desperately looking for a viable commercial venture.

Risley eventually came up with the idea of forming a Japanese circus troupe and sending it overseas. There were many talented acrobatic performers in Japan with a long history dating from the Muromachi period (1336-1573)7. Traditionally Japanese acrobats performed individually, not in troupes. Risley took notice of their outstanding abilities and organised them as a troupe, and named it the “Imperial Japanese Troupe”. The troupe departed for the United States in May 1866. The following year, they had a great success in San Francisco in January and in New York in May. After the tour in America the troupe travelled to most of the countries of western Europe such as France, where they performed at the Exposition Universelle in 1867. They also had very successful tours of the UK, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal.

In this way, Risley left his name not only on circus history with his “risley act”, but also as the first person to introduce Western-style circus to Japan, as well as the first person to merchandise milk, ice and ice cream in Japan. In addition, the members of the ‘’Imperial Japanese Troupe’’ founded by Risley were the first Japanese civilians to be issued with passports for foreign travel.

This Yokohama-e print may initially seem to be of little significance, especially as our copy is discoloured compared with a copy held by the National Diet Library. However, by examining the history behind the object, it is possible to appreciate the work in other ways.

Akira Hirano
Lisa Sainsbury Library


1. Higuchi Hiroshi. Bakumatsu Meiji no Ukiyoe Shūsei. 1955.

2. Stuart Thayer, William L. Slout and Circus Historical Society, Inc. “Richard Risley Carlisle, Man in Motion” in Stuart Thayer’s American Circus Anthology

3. Saitō Ryū. Yokohama Nishikie Monogatari. Shin Jinbutsu Ōraisha, 2009.

4.Stuart Thayer, William L. Slout and Circus Historical Society, Inc. “Richard Risley Carlisle, Man in Motion” in Stuart Thayer’s American Circus Anthology

5. Equine Cultural Affairs Foundation of Japan. “Sākasu ga yattekita” in Yokohama to Uma, Keiba no Rekishi.

6. Wakamiya Yumi. “The Imperial Japanese Troupe in Vienna in 1870” in Saitama Gakuen Daigaku Kiyō Ningen Gakubu hen. 17.

7. Equine Cultural Affairs Foundation of Japan. “Sākasu ga yattekita” in Yokohama to Uma, Keiba no Rekishi.

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