From New York to Los Angeles, the Performance Tour of Grand Kabuki

New York, N.Y. In 1967, when I was thinking of starting a professional office of International Promotion, Japan and the United States signed a safety treaty. I thought the timing could not be better. To be able to bring the biggest cultural heritage of Japan — Grand Kabuki — to America was something I believed the Japanese government would sponsor.

There was at that time the Office of Cultural Exchange in Japan’s Foreign Ministry, the precursor of today’s International Fund of the Japan Fund. I visited the Foreign Ministry and proposed to export Grand Kabuki to the United States.

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As I expected, the government took my idea to major companies in the U.S. ignoring my idea and proposed it to them. These companies passed on the idea, and a few months later the government came back to me. I was a bit frustrated, but accepted the results with appreciation. But it was still hard to accept.

Kumagaijinnya was so well received by the audience 

I began to negotiate with the president of SHOCHIKU, the ex-Ambassador who was then head of the Office of Cultural Exchange. These meetings were so interesting, even comical. Being Japanese as well as being a woman, I thought I would never be accepted at these meetings if they found out I was the one in charge.

Hence, I brought two impressively good-looking guys (one my husband) and called one “President,” and the other, “Director.” I even made impressive name cards for them. Then, as for myself, I simply called myself “Manager & Translator.” I was also pregnant at the time and my figure was rather showing, but, somehow, I was able to hide that too with clothing.

Nevertheless, to make a long story short, it was a huge success and at at the first night reception, where the Prime Minister of Japan, Kishi, attended, the foreign minister wanted to announce my name and title in the speech. It became clear to everyone that I had been the boss all along!

Grand Kabuki is the totality of “Art,” encompassing music, dance and acting. Prior to our Grand Tour, only Kabuki‘s dancing and music were ever introduced to the West, never the acting itself. My wish was to show Kabuki as a whole – as the Total Performing Art. So, I chose for the play, the “KUMAGAI JINNJYA,” an incredible play of tragedy full of Japanese emotions and passions.

It was a story of Japanese customs which involved the “One should know ten by knowing one,” unbelievable obedience to masters and incredible loyalties for the Emperor. And the human, beautiful love of mothers… These very Japanese emotions were intertwined in this play.

In this piece, the main character takes the head of his own son, and presents it as the head of the emperor’s son, saving the emperor’s son’s life. Mr. Nagayama of Shochiku president was vigorously against my choice, saying the American audience will never understand! I insisted that America has many people who understand Greek Tragedy, and that such Japanese traditional emotions would be grasped for the first time.

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I fought much with him. And in the end, my passion won and the play was chosen. As predicted, this play became our biggest hit. The then-famous artists Shoroku, Baiko, Kikunosuke, and Tatsunosuke all gave their best at every incredible performance, bringing many in the audience to tears.

Brainstorm: A Unique Promotion

The most difficult aspect I faced was ticket sales. The first 3000-4000 best seats were sold very quickly, bought by existing Japanese fans or connoisseurs of Japan. But sales just stopped there, and did not move whatsoever. Worrying so much about a possible disaster, I consulted with my stepson, then 15 years old. He said to me, “Young people won’t be persuaded by such words like “gorgeous costumes, spectacular dancing,  music,” etc.

In my daily morning meditation, I saw the whole Kabuki face, painted black. So, that morning, I bought a whole page in the Village Voice, the paper then popular among young and artistic intelligent people. And on the whole page, I put only a black Kabuki mask with wording, “Trip to City Center?”  Then, I bought minutes on Rock & Roll stations and played unusual music of Kabuki, with recorded words only, ”Trip to City Center?”

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A couple of days later, I received a call from the theater manager. “Mrs. Hillyer, come and see!” I ran to the theater, and saw lines around the block and beyond with all young people! The word I used, “Trip” meant those days also “to become high.”

First, the hard-to-sell cheaper tickets went, and then they sold in order of cheaper ones. It was amazing! In no time, all two weeks were sold out! I thought this was a miracle. I was convinced that what I was doing was good for people. Therefore, The Universe stepped in to help me.

I have three points in my philosophy of any success:

  1. Do work without greed;
  2. The project has to be good for people; and
  3. Once you decide to do something, give your life completely with full force of your body, soul and spirit.

These I did for Kabuki.              

Because I thought the audience must understand  Japanese emotions deeply, I hired a simultaneous translator. Today, simultaneous translation is normal, but this was the first time in the history of Kabuki.  It is rather sad that later on the translator received an award in Japan for the success of Kabuki but no one gave me anything. This is because I am woman and Japanese!

In New York, critics hailed and praised me for this accomplishment, citing ‘Mrs. Hillyer‘s excellent work.’ But in Japan, no one even mentioned my name or acknowledged me for Kabuki’s success in the West. I considered this, once again, an unfair way of thinking; looking down on me because I am a female from Japan.

I must say I gave my life for the success of Kabuki, working so hard day and night. Someday, I hope this deeply rooted prejudice against women by Japanese people will change and fair admiration towards women will come to being.

Originally published as Vol. 2 in Weekly Biz, September 23, 2017; translated by Jim Luce.

See: Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura Column in Japan’s Weekly Biz

(ニューヨークビズ!)

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About Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura

View all posts by Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko was born into a distinguished old family in Kyoto, Japan, and graduated from Toho conservatory of Music in Tokyo. In 1961 she came to U.S. as a pianist sponsored by the Boston Symphony. She studied at Boston University, New York University, and received her Ph.D. in Oriental Medicine from New York State University and the International Academy of Education in Tokyo. From 1968 to 1992, she promoted cultural exchanges from East to West and vice versa, and became a world famous impresario, producing 2,000 events each year all over the world encompassing over 140 countries. In this connection, in 1972, she went to Dharamsala to find the lost Tibetan Folk Opera, and met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with whom she remains a lifelong friend. In 1973 and 1991 she arranged and funded personally the tours of the Folk Opera of Tibet to the West. She has received many medals and honors from different countries. Her tireless life long work in Philanthropic field is vast and well known ranging from Save the Beacon Theater, Save the Boat People, Help the Homeless, natural disasters of earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as relief to AIDS and HIV positive children in Africa. She has been a dedicated Board Member to both the J. Luce Foundation and Orphans International for years. Her work focuses on the Tibetan people; Tibetan children remain especially strong in her heart. She raised fund for the new academic building for Manjushree Orphanage in Tawang, India and supported many aspects of the school. See HuffPo pieces entitled Japanese Holistic Healer in NYC to Build School for Tibetan Orphans in India, A Japanese Dinner with Raul Castro’s Daughter, and NYC Gala in Support of Tibetan Orphans Set for January.

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