Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 2, May 1999

Jennifer Robertson

Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan

Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, University of California
Press, 1998, 278 pp.,
ISBN 0-520-21150-2 (alk. paper),
ISBN 0-520-21151-0 (pbk.: alk.paper).

review by Leonie Rae Stickland

  1. A spectacular and controversial theatrical genre was born 85 years ago, in a sleepy hot-spring resort in the north-west corner of the Osaka Plain, when a group of 20 well-bred adolescent girls performed a musical play at a converted indoor swimming-pool, for the entertainment of visitors to a wedding exposition.[1] Both attractions aimed to boost passenger numbers on a local electric train line, the beginning of today's extensive Hankyu rail network. The girls' adored successors, the nearly 400 current members of the all-female Takarazuka Revue Company, now constitute five troupes called Flower [hana], Moon [tsuki], Snow [yuki], Star [hoshi] and Cosmos [sora]. The troupes perform in rotation at huge, luxurious theatres in Kansai and Tokyo, patronised by millions of avid fans each year. The greatest attraction for these fans is undoubtedly the stage presence of the tall, slender, handsome otokoyaku, women who play male roles. The charged atmosphere palpable both in the auditorium and outside the stage door at a performance in 1985 stimulated anthropologist Jennifer Robertson to embark upon the more than a decade of research which led to her 1998 book, Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan.
  2. Although not the only, but certainly the largest all-female theatrical group in the world, the Takarazuka Revue occupies an important place in Japanese popular culture. The 'strategic ambivalence' of Takarazuka, its history within the context of 20th-century Japan, the Revue's largely invented traditions and the controversy and secrecy which have surrounded it are some of the aspects examined by Robertson, now Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.
  3. One of the underlying themes of the book, as described by the author, is the way in which modern Japanese reflexively create a sense of themselves as one sex or the other, or both, and their way of attributing maleness and femaleness to others.[2] Robertson begins by exploring cultural debates in modern Japan, employing current theoretical approaches, juxtaposed with those of Japanese scholars and critics, but also with reference to the way non-academics have 'negotiated the interwoven politics of sexuality and modernity,' drawing an analogy between the 'excessive semiosis' of popular culture and the practice of cross-dressing.[3]
  4. Androgyny is the focus of the second chapter, in which Robertson introduces the Janus-faced shojo [girl or young, unmarried woman], symbolic of the 'problematical ambivalence of modernity, the Revue theater and sexuality.' The chapter also explores the Japanese deployment of androgyny 'to support and subvert dominant representations of females and males.'[4]
  5. In the central section of the book, Robertson somewhat abruptly launches into a detailed description of utilisation by the state of the Takarazuka Revue as an effective tool for the 'spiritual mobilisation' of Japanese citizens, especially women, as well as for the encouragement of love and admiration for Japan among the colonised peoples of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In 1939, 1942 and 1944, travelling troupes of Takarazuka members (known as 'Takaraziennes,' by analogy with 'Parisiennes') performed in China, where the power of theatre (especially Peking Opera and regional operas) as a weapon for political purposes was already acknowledged.[5] Indeed, the war against Japan constituted 'a vital turning point in the history of Chinese theater.'[6] Colin Mackerras cites the manifesto of the anti-Japanese All-China Theater World Association, which states, 'To spread propaganda against the enemy among the broad masses of the people of the whole country, the most effective weapon is undoubtedly drama.'[7] The aim of radio broadcasts and live performances of Takarazuka revues in such countries as China would have been to counterattack with a similar 'weapon' (the montage-like revue).
  6. Takarazuka dramas and revues, with the exception of some wartime productions, have been set in every country and time but present-day Japan. Takarazuka performers, therefore, often must play non-Japanese roles, engaging in what Robertson calls 'cross-ethnicking.' British playwright Sandra Freeman also describes a similar concept when discussing the performance of English plays by actors from other Anglophone countries. 'Actors,' she writes, 'are required to perform the stranger, whose otherness is embodied in the very words they have to speak. An English actress playing an American is working on pure imitation and imagination rather than drawing on the depths of personal experience.'[8]
  7. Revue rules dictate that performers all be unmarried females (supposedly sexually inexperienced and never to have borne children), yet these same women may be called upon to play every type of role, male or female, of any age, life experience or nationality. The otokoyaku are more likely, however, to be occasionally cast as women (especially characters with strong personalities, such as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind), whereas the female-role specialists, known as musumeyaku, only play adult male roles in comic parodies. Ironically, the only role that a Takarazienne is unlikely to play is that of a contemporary Japanese female like herself.
  8. Some Japanese readers, in particular, may be taken aback at Robertson's chapter on the role of the Revue in 'dramatizing and aestheticizing Japanese imperial ideology.' She sees cross-ethnicking and cross-dressing as 'strategies of containment and transgression.'[9] The systematic sanitisation of history by Japanese authorities regarding Japan's role and activities during the years of its imperialistic expansion up till August, 1945, in addition to the postwar self-sensorship of the Revue administration as to the content and purpose of wartime performances, will not have prepared certain readers to approach or accept Robertson's viewpoint. Takarazuka's image as a 'purveyor of dreams' clashes greatly with the picture she paints, yet the reader must realise that all aspects of life in Japan before the end of World War Two were controlled by the state, and the very popularity of the Revue would have made it a useful propaganda tool.
  9. An examination of the philosophy and actions of Kobayashi Ichizo, the railway magnate who founded the Revue and who saw himself as surrogate father to all its performers, features prominently in the book, especially because its historical focus is upon the first 30 years of the Revue's operation. Kobayashi was a war-time Cabinet minister, but Robertson fails to mention his resignation due to disagreement with the direction of politics at the time.[10]
  10. The product of a 'bilingual and multicultural' childhood in Japan from the age of three, Robertson tackles her subject with insight and tenacity. She criticises the dismissal of Takarazuka by some Western critics as mere 'kitsch' or 'schmaltz,' and strongly disagrees with the idea that Takaraziennes are 'asexual,' or that fans see in the cross-dressed stars the heterosexual image of an 'ideal male.' Robertson describes the reluctance of fans to speak frankly, and the taboo on discussion of sexual matters imposed by the Revue administration, which tightly controls publicity. Somehow, however, she fails to mention the well-known term for Takarazuka's unwritten conspiracy of silence: the 'Sumire (violet, named for the symbol flower of the Revue) Code,' which is invoked whenever sensitive subjects are broached. It is also used both to regulate the off-stage behaviour of performers and to censor the contents of scripts. Tommy Tune, guest director of the Moon Troupe's 1990's production of 'Grand Hotel,' told me how amazed he was that a line suggesting the female lead performer was wearing no underclothes had to be deleted from the script, by order of the administration.
  11. Robertson's approach will no doubt be anathema to many fans of the Revue to whom Takarazuka is a fantasy realm unsullied by sordid sexuality or state politics. Its motto, created by Kobayashi to promote an image of wholesomeness, is: 'Kiyoku, Tadashiku, Utsukushiku [with purity, righteousness and beauty].' Her fourth and fifth chapters, entitled 'Fan Pathology' and 'Writing Fans,' describe both male and female fans of the Revue and their text-making activities. Journalist Matsuo Hisako, for example, who has researched Takarazuka through years of interviews with many Revue performers and fans, attacks Robertson's assumptions of the erotic fantasies of female Revue spectators as an erroneous 'Eurocentric view of Japanese sexuality.' She insists that the majority of zealous female Takarazuka fans are not lesbians, but 'happily-married women who get on well with their husbands.'[11] This reaction belies Robertson's stated care 'to avoid succumbing to the tendency of forcing Japanese cultural practices into Western analytical categories and to distinguish those practices from the dominant sexual and gender ideology operating in Japan.'[12]
  12. I imagine that few, if any, critics of Robertson's work have conducted thorough research, especially into the historical sources which elucidate the debate on revues and sexuality in the 1920s and 1930s which she details. Scholarly articles and newspaper reports of the period discussed the so-called 'eroguro nansensu [erotic-grotesque nonsense]' of the all-female productions and the problematical sexuality of the shojo, teenaged girls and young unmarried women who were seen as both likely to be influenced by and to themselves influence the cross-dressing otokoyaku. With 85 years of history behind it now, Takarazuka is no longer seen as a shocking new phenomenon that might disrupt social order. Its otokoyaku are taken for granted by the media and the audience. Not only the Revue administration but also performers and fans are now likely to express dismay and anger at any report seen to spotlight sexual motives or practices. Robertson, however, has proceeded in a scholarly manner, scrupulously avoiding sensationalism, and I hope that pro-Takarazuka readers will approach the book without prejudice.
  13. Robertson's book provides explanations of a large number of Japanese terms for aspects of Japanese culture and the Revue in particular, although the volume also contains some mistakes, such as 'gingyo' for 'ginkyo' [apron stage]. Also, Robertson insists on calling Takarazuka's two-year training facility the 'Takarazuka Music Academy,' when the institution has long sported the English name 'Takarazuka Music School,' the initials 'TMS' being inscribed on the school badge. Recruited between the ages of 15 and 18 (not 24), the first-year students at the school are known as 'yokasei,' second-year students 'honkasei,' and although each Takarazienne is essentially of equal status, the hierarchical relationship between junior [kakyusei] and senior [jokyusei] students endures throughout their career in the Revue and extends even into their private lives.
  14. Takarazuka's main rival, the Tokyo-based SKD (Shochiku Kageki Dan) has indeed disbanded. However, contrary to Robertson's belief, its Kansai counterpart, OSK Nippon Kageki Dan (established in 1922, six years before SKD) is still performing regularly at its main theatre in Ayameike Amusement Park in Nara, as well as in Osaka and at various provincial locations. According to the company's official Home Page, the 72nd graduating class from its attached training school is now making its stage debut.[13] OSK has even held special performances in Tokyo in recent years. Together, Takarazuka and OSK command a huge audience, pointing to the importance of their home region to Japanese theatre. Nakao Shigeo describes Osaka, the commercial centre of the Kansai area, as having 'old traditions of boisterous, irreverent popular culture,' with 'characteristics of eccentricity, gaudiness and unruliness.'[14] Entrepreneur Kobayashi Ichizo, in spite of his literary aspirations, founded the Takarazuka Revue primarily as a popular, commercial venture. This significance of Kansai as the birthplace and long-term home of the revue, at a considerable distance from the capital, Tokyo, in which most other aspects of modern Japanese life have become centred, is one of the subjects Robertson does not discuss.
  15. Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan is a meticulously-researched, scholarly work, couched in the terms of current theories on culture, gender, sexuality, theatre studies and many related disciplines. Unlike the escapist Revue it interrogates, this volume is not for light entertainment, nor does it offer much titillation to the casual reader attracted by the word 'sexual' in the title. A Japanese translation of the book is due for release in the latter part of 1999 by Gendai Shokan, with the title Odoru Teikokushugi' [Dancing Imperialism].[15] It will be interesting to observe the Japanese reaction to such a publication. An insightful yet potentially challenging study, it will surely stimulate debate and provoke more research into the fascinating subject of Takarazuka and its place in Japanese society in the 20th century.


    [1] Kenko Kawasaki, Takarazuka: Shohi Shakai no Supekutakuru [Takarazuka: The Consumer Society Spectacle], Tokyo: Kodansha, 1999, p. 24.

    [2] Jennifer Robertson, Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, p. 20.

    [3] Robertson, Takarazuka, pp. 20-1.

    [4] Robertson, Takarazuka, p. 48.

    [5] Colin Mackerras (ed.), 'Drama of the Qing Dynasty' in Chinese Theater: From its Origins to the Present Day, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983, pp. 113-4.

    [6] Mackerras, (ed.), 'Theater and the Masses' in Chinese Theater: From its Origins to the Present Day, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983, p. 151.

    [7] Tian Han, Ouyang Yuqian et al., (eds), Zhongguo huaju yundong wushi nian shiliao ji, di yi, Beijing: Zhongguo xiju chubanshe, 1958, quoted in Mackerras, 1983, p. 152.

    [8] Sandra Freeman, Putting Your Daughters on the Stage, London: Cassell, 1997, p. 174.

    [9] Robertson, Takarazuka, p. 22.

    [10] Hisako Matsuo, personal communication, April 1998.

    [11] Robertson, Takarazuka, p. 21.

    [12] Hiroo Sakata, Nihon o tsukutta Nihonjin [Japanese who made Japan]: Kobayashi Ichizo, NHK Kofu ETV Special (television documentary), 93.

    [13] OSK Nippon Kageki Dan Home Page.

    [14] Shigeo Nakao, Ajia Shifuto, Tokyo: Sogensha, 1995, quoted in Morris-Suzuki, Tessa, 'Invisible Countries: Japan and the Asian Dream' in Asian Studies Review, vol. 22, no. 1, (1998):5-22.

    [15] Jennifer Robertson, personal communication, April 1999.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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