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To Japan, with love

Trust Librarian Mareike Doleschal explores links between the collections and Japan.

Mareike Doleschal

At the beginning of 2020, I was looking forward to welcoming Japanese scholar Noriko Sumimto to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library and Archive. Noriko had visited us before, researching marginalia in several of our early editions of Shakespeare’s works. This year, she was planning to look at annotations in the RSC owned First Folio, published 1623. Unfortunately, due to the COVID crisis, Noriko had to cancel her visit.

In this blog, I’d like to pay tribute to Noriko’s homeland by shedding light on books and cultural artefacts in our collection that have links with Japan.

Shakespeare’s name first appeared in Japanese in 1841 in a translation of Lindley Murray’s English Grammar. After a long period of seclusion that lasted two hundred years, a period of Westernization followed that included the introduction of Shakespeare. However, the journey towards a complete translation of a Shakespeare play into Japanese was a long one. At first Japanese audience got to know Shakespeare in the form of adaptations, summaries and partial translations. 

Merchant of Venice, act four, in Japanese, 1903
The Merchant of Venice, act four, published in 1903

In the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library are two early translations of Shakespeare into Japanese. The earliest one is of The Merchant of Venice, published in 1903. The cover of the slim volume features an attractive floral design. Like many early translations, it is incomplete. Doi Shuncho, the translator, only translated the fourth act, which focuses on the trial scene. 

In her book Shakespeare and Japan, Yoshiko Kawachi explains that this scene was of particular interest to Japanese audiences, as they regarded European law as a model for modernising the Japanese legal system. It wasn’t the first translation of this particular act. In 1885 Bunkai Udagawa, a journalist, not only adapted the fourth act but also gave it a new title: Sakuradoki zeni no yo no naka (Money Talks in a World in which Cherry Blossoms are in Bloom). The adaptation includes many features absent from the original and is set in Japan’s merchant capital, Osaka.

Kawakami Otojiro (1864-1911) staged the first productions of Shakespeare’s plays, including those of Othello, The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet. His theatrical productions opened a new chapter in Japanese theatre in many ways. First performed in a Western-style proscenium theatre, they included actresses but not features traditionally associated with Japanese theatre such as music, dance and a narrator. However, directors eliminated longer monologues and actors continued to perform in the stylised speech associated with Kabuki performers. According to contemporary reviews, audiences “were bored by naturalistic acting style. They found nothing especially natural about it and were taken aback by the long soliloquies of the actors." [1]

Hamlet in Japanese, 1905
Hamlet in Japanese, 1905

Our second earliest translation into Japanese is that of Hamlet. Published in 1905, a manuscript note inside the front of the volume informs us that “the text is given in full, but Mr Kawakami’s company adapted it to the Japanese stage when they played this at Hongoza, Tokyo." [2] The binding features a floral pattern; the paper is thin and delicate. The translators are Doi Shuncho and the novelist Kayo Yamagishi. Like with The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet’s journey towards a complete translation was a long one. In the late 1880s, Japanese readers first came into contact with Hamlet through a translation of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, which is a retelling of Shakespeare’s works for children. In 1882 a volume of Western poetry included a translation of a soliloquy from Hamlet.

Lamb's Tales in Japanese, 1904
Lamb's Tales in Japanese, 1904

A visually striking Japanese translation is that of Lamb’s Tales, also held in our library, which shows a title page in black, white and red, featuring floral motifs again. Later translations include those by Tsubouchi who was the first to translate the complete works and brought out the entire Shakespeare canon over twenty years. Each volume has its slipcase, a portrait of Shakespeare on the cover and includes illustrations of scenes depicted in the plays.

Our holdings of items with a Japanese connection aren’t limited to translations and also consist of a facsimile copy of a First Folio of Shakespeare’s works, which resides in Meisei University Library. The publication of this facsimile marks two important occasions: The fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Meisei University and the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. The librarians at Meisei University donated this copy to the Trust in December 2015. It is an invaluable addition to our collection of facsimile copies of folios that help provenance researcher like Noriko to discover more about how early readers engaged with Shakespeare’s text. 

As you like it calligraphed booklet by Ayumi Adachi
A calligraphed booklet by Ayumi Adachi, 2005

In our museum collection, we have a folded calligraphed booklet, showing lines from As You Like It in English and Japanese and delicate origami birds. The Japanese artist Ayumi Adachi created it for an exhibition called The Play’s The Thing organised by the Oxford Scribes and hosted by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 2005. Nature and Buddhism, in particular the Buddhist interpretation of the cycle of reincarnation, are Ayumi’s principal sources for inspiration. Her work ranges from monumental and immersive installations to more individual artworks such as the calligraphed booklet and small scale paintings on mirrors. Considering Ayumi’s interest in human life it is not surprising she chose the line: "All the world’s a stage and all the men and women are merely players" for her booklet.

I hope my blog has given you a flavour of our items with links to Japan and that I will be able to welcome Noriko again in the not too distant future. 

Japanese translation, 1909
Translation into Japanese by Tsubouchi, 1909


[1] Tierney, Robert: Othello in Tokyo: Performing Patriarchy, Race, and Empire in 1903 Japan 17th November 2020

[2] Doi Shuncho and Kayo Yamagishi (translators): Terumaro: the Japanese version of Hamlet, Yokohama, Japan Herald Office, 1905


Akiko Sano: Shakespeare translation in Japan: 1868-1998 (accessed 17 November 2020) (accessed 23 November 2020)

Doi Shuncho (translator): The Merchant of Venice: fourth act, Tokyo, Okura Book Store, 1903

Doi Shuncho and Kayo Yamagishi (translators): Terumaro: the Japanese version of Hamlet, Yokohama, Japan Herald Office, 1905 (accessed 23 November 2020)

Lamb, Mary and Charles: Lambs Tales from Shakespeare, translated into Japanese by Takeji Komatsu, Tokyo, publisher not identified, 1904

Sasayama, Takasi; Mulryne, J. R.; Shewring, Margaret (eds): Shakespeare and the Japanese stage (accessed 17 November 2020)

Tierney, Robert: Othello in Tokyo: Performing Patriarchy, Race, and Empire in 1903 Japan 17 November 2020)

Yoschiko Kawachi: Shakespeare and Japan, Downloads/07-kawachi%20(7).pdf (accessed 17 November 2020)

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