The Kawakami Theater performing “Okan” at Meiji-za, Tokyo, c. 1905.

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The Kawakami Theater (Kawakami Otojiro and his wife, Sadayakko aka Sada Yacco) performing “Ōkan” [王 冦, “bandit crown”] at Meiji-za Theater, c. 1905. “Okan” was Kawakami’s interpretation of Francois Coppée’s Pour la couronne (“For the Crown”), first staged in Paris in 1895. Over the course of their marriage and careers, Kawakami, a founder of Japan’s shinpa [“new school” theater], and Sadayakko, considered to be Japan’s first actress, would cross paths with several prominent Japanese aristocrats and politicians who would become patrons and benefactors … and even omiai (“matchmaker”).

See also:
Teruha, the “Nine-fingered Geisha,” c. 1910.
The Smiling/Laughing Geisha, c. 1910.
Tokyo Amateur Dramatic Club, c. 1910.
Kitamura Trio, Tokio’s Foremost Equilibrists, 1917.

The Kawakami Theater’s principal players were Kawakami Otojiro, a raconteur, actor and comedian (and for whom the troupe was named), and his wife, Sadayakko, a famed geisha and dancer at the beginning who, by the end of her career, was considered to be the most significant actress of the Meiji era – considered by some to be Japan’s first actress – who could count among her fans Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry, and Isadora Duncan.

Sadayakko and Kawakami Otojiro, c. 1900. [Source: DazedDigital]

During their lifetimes, both Kawakami and Sada would cross paths with several of Japan’s most influential aristocrats who acted as patrons, benefactors and promoters of their careers, probably none more influential than Japan’s first prime minister, Ito Hirobumi.

Inspired by the political turmoil of the time, as the Meiji government cautiously navigated Japan’s modernization and reentry onto the world stage, Kawakami joined the Liberal Party of Japan as a radical, rabble-rousing soshi [trans. “unruly samurai”]. By the age of nineteen, he claimed to have been arrested over one-hundred eighty times, and imprisoned on six occasions, and was banned from public speaking in Kyoto for a year and from using his nom de guerre “Liberty Kid”.

After this tumultuous beginning, Kawakami created his own acting troupe and, influenced by philosopher Chomin Nakae (who, among other accomplishments, had introduced the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Japan), he began staging theatrical productions as an outlet for his political views. By 1888, Kawakami had acquired some measure of national fame after composing a satirical song, ‘Oppekeppe’, whose catchy chorus (“Oppekeppe! Oppekepeppo! Peppoppo!”) imitated the sound of a bugle. It was while on an 1891 tour in Tokyo that Kawakami caught the attention of Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi who commanded the troupe to perform at a private party in the capital. At the same gathering was another invited entertainer who also shared Ito’s patronage, Yakko. Knowingly or unknowingly, when the prime minister made their introductions, he became something of their unofficial omiai [“marriage go-between”] for the pair.

Yakko, at the time, was considered to be one of Japan’s most accomplished geisha. The youngest of twelve children, she was born Koyama Sada into a prosperous family that fell onto hard times after the Restoration. At age four, she was employed as a maid at the Hamada okiya (geisha lodging house). At age seven, after the death of her father, Sada was adopted by the proprietress, Kamekichi, to be her heir. At age twelve, Sada made her debut as a o-shaku [lit. “sake pourer”, the Tokyo label used for an apprentice geisha vs. Kyoto’s label, maiko] and received her first geisha name, Ko-yakko.

Sadayakko, c. 1900. [Source: DazedDigital]

To ensure that Koyakko’s career would blossom, Kamekichi made arrangements with a local Shinto priest to teach her to read and write – a revolutionary thing to do in an age when girls’ education was still reserved only for those born into the nobility and the monarchy. Koyakko also took secret lessons in judo, and learned how to ride horses and play billiards. Not afraid of scandal, Koyakko even participated in professional horse races. (It was at one of these races that she would meet Momosuke Fukuzawa, then a student at Keio University, and sustain a short friendship with him that would not be revived again until years later, after Otojiro’s death.)

At age fifteen, Koyakko’s mizuage [lit. “hoisting from water”], a rite of passage whereby a sponsoring patron bought the right of taking a maiko’s virginity, was sold to Ito Hirobumi, Japan’s first prime minister. Her coming-of-age led her to formally change her name from Koyakko and adopt the name “Yakko”. After three years [in 1888] the Prime Minister released Yakko from being his mistress, though he remained her friend and advisor until his death in 1909.

In early 1893, at the suggestion of another mutual friend, Baron Kaneko Kentaro (Ito’s personal secretary and future Minister of Agriculture and Commerce), Kawakami embarked on a personal five-month trip to Paris to study European theater. Upon his return to Japan, he infused several new innovations into Japanese traditional theater, from lighting nothing but the stage using only electric lights, to applying only faint coatings of makeup, and delivering dialogue naturally without a stilted delivery, the use of contemporary patriotic events as subject matter, and the frequent adaptation of western classics (e.g. Shakespeare). All were considered radical moves for the time. Kawakami is thus considered to be one of the founders of shinpa, Japan’s “new school” theater, that was considered to be more contemporary and realistic in its performance than the more traditional kabuki and noh.

Five months after his return from Paris, in October 1893, Kawakami and Yakko were married. with a mutual friend Baron Kaneko acting as the official omiai between the two. In 1899, with their troupe, the Kawakamis began a three-year overseas theatrical tour of both the US and continental Europe. Yakko later said she intended to go only as Otojiro’s wife, although she practiced some of her geisha performances should she have to appear onstage. Unbeknownet to Yakko, their American sponsor had promoted her as the starlet of the troupe, the Japanese equivalent of famed actresses like Sarah Bernhardt. “If they were to perform before Americans, they would need a beautiful actress as the star,” he reasoned. Yakko thus adopted the stage name “Sadayakko”, and made her stage debut in San Francisco on May 25, 1899.

“Yakko’s debut [is] a triumph,” opined the San Francisco Examiner. “Her dancing lessons since the age of four, her years as a geisha, which was a form of acting in itself, her appearances on the stage in charity performances … [T]he most celebrated geisha in Japan, adored by prime ministers, sumo heroes, and kabuki stars … could bewitch anyone – even a theaterful of Westerners who could not understand a word she said.” During the troupe’s three-year tour, everyone from Sarah Bernhardt to Ellen Terry to Isadora Duncan would be awed and inspired by the Kawakami Theater’s distinctive blend of Japanese traditional theaters with Western theatrical melodrama, as well as Sadayakko’s legendary dance skills, beauty, and meticulous make-up technique.

Picasso’s painting of Sadayakko. [Source: DazedDigital]

Sadayakko seemed to have her greatest impact in France. During the “Japanism” movement, Sadayakko acted as both idol and muse for French artists. Debussy took inspiration from her when composing music. Picasso painted her portrait. She also experienced commercial success: Guerlain, surfing on the wave of her fame, created the perfume “Yacco” in homage to her. During this period, Sadayakko launched her own range of cosmetics and kimonos, sold in a boutique in her name not far from the Opéra Garnier in Paris.

When the Kawakamis returned to Japan in 1901, Sadayakko was no longer just a star, but an internationally-acclaimed celebrity who her contemporaries held up as a symbol of the modern, free woman. A few years later, she opened the first theater school in Japan for women, saying “I would like to train accomplished actresses, who might come to be called the Sarah Bernhardts of Japan.” Five prominent local businessmen became founding patrons: entrepreneur Eiichi Shibusawa, industrial magnate Kihachiro Okura, financiers Tsunenori Tanaka and Taro Masuda, and Sadayakko’s former horse-riding companion, Momosuke Fukuzawa, now known as the “Wizard of the Money Markets” and the “King of Electrical Power” who, among other accomplishments, built the Oi power plant – the first hydro-electric generating plant in Japan – along the Kiso River.

After Otojiro’s death in 1912, Sadayakko rekindled her relationship – romantically this time – with Fukuzawa. Neither had ever forgotten the intensity of their first meetings decades before, and Fukuzawa took Sadayakko on as his chatelaine. Although it was not uncommon for married men to seek out and maintain mistresses, it was usually done in secret or discreetly but Momosuke and Sadayakko took up residence and frequently traveled together.

In September 1917, Sadayakko announced her retirement. Ever the rebel, after her retirement, she became an entrepreneur. Sadayakko founded a silk company, Kawakami Silk Company, selling textiles under the brand names “Yakko Meisen” and “Yakko Silk”, that would last until she closed it following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. She was frequently seen riding around the countryside on a large, red motorcycle wearing a pair of red-leather motorcycle boots. In December 1924 she also established another school – the Kawakami Children’s Music and Drama School – in Tokyo.

The home she and Momosuke would build together in Futaba (now part of Nagoya) was restored and moved to Shumoku-cho in Higashi Ward and is now a museum dedicated to them. Sadayakko also built two homes in Tokyo, the “House of Peach Water” a few blocks from the Imperial Palace (which she would sell in the late 1920s) and a luxurious residence built in Kawada-cho, an exclusive “Millionaires Row” in the north of Tokyo.

In 1933, the pair decided that Momosuke, now sixty-five and in poor health, should move back to his house and wife in Shibuya and ended their relationship. Momosuke and Sadayakko held a solemn ceremony to mark the end of an era. They had been together for more than twenty years. Sadayakko then used her fortune to establish Teishoji Temple (lit. “the temple of Sada shining”) by the Kiso River in 1933.

Soon after Japan’s surrender in 1945, Sadayakko discovered that she had metastatic cancer of the liver. Sadayakko, Japan’s first actress, paramour of prominent politicians and preeminent entrepreneurs, died on December 7, 1946, aged 75, at her retreat in the coastal hot springs city of Atami and was interred at Teishoji Temple.

Her death only receives a couple of lines in the newspaper, her past glories all but forgotten.

[Sources: DazedDigital and Wikipedia]

Additional information: Places linked to Sadayakko and Momosuke

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[Admin note:] In the spring of 2007, I hiked a portion of the Nakasendo “highway” in the Kiso River valley between Magome and Tsumago. After my hike, when I was waiting for the train at Nagiso station, I passed by a gorgeous old wooden suspension bridge. I didn’t learn until later, after returning to the US and googling it, of what significance the bridge had for the area. Came to find out it was built for the construction and on-going maintenance of Fukuzawa Momosuke’s first hyrdro-electric plant on the Kiso River, and is still maintained (as a tourist attraction) to this day. And, now, researching this postcard, I’ve discovered it has a more-than-casual connection to Sadayakko (via Fukuzawa). It is said that Fukuzawa often came here with Sadayakko to enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

Suspension bridge across the Kiso River, Nagiso, Japan, erected for the construction of Japan’s first hydro-electric power generating plant by Fukuzawa Momosuke.

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