Meiji-era rakugo and European Detective Fiction in the Negotiation of Japanese Modernity

Dr Ian McArthur, University of Sydney

When:  Wednesday 9 November 2011, 17.00-18.30 hrs
Where:  Conference Room, ICOSS, University of Sheffield
Event type:  NIJS Lecture
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Meiji-era rakugo and European Detective Fiction in the Negotiation of Japanese Modernity

Ian McArthur

University of Sydney

 This presentation will focus on the participation of Australian-born storyteller (rakugoka) Henry Kairakutei Black in particular, and his mentor Sanyutei Encho, in the Meiji-era debate about social and legal reform in Japan by portraying Western European  examples of modernity for their readers and theatre audiences. Black’s earliest participation in the Meiji-era debate over the meaning of modernity was through speech making for colleagues in the Freedom and People’s Rights movement. Later, as a rakugoka at a time when Western European countries served as prototypes for change, Black and Encho adapted detective and sensation fiction from authors in Britain and France to provide audiences and readers with templates for reform and assist in their negotiation of modernity. The stories which Black in particular chose contained examples of Western legal practice, new male-female relationships and new notions of the role of the metropolis. Black’s ideas reached audiences via his narrations as well as stenographic books (sokkibon) and serialisations in newspaper. The presentation explains the role of theatre and print in the dissemination of nineteenth-century European notions of modernity in Japan. If time permits, there will be a demonstration of some of the techniques of a rakugo storyteller.

 Ian McArthur in profile

Ian McArthur is an Honorary Associate of the Department of Japanese Studies in the School of Languages and Cultures at The University of Sydney. He is also a full-time subeditor at News Corporation in Sydney. Ian’s research interests focus on mechanisms of cultural translation and information transmission; the role of print media (newspapers, stenographic books) and theatre (kabuki and vaudeville theatres, or yose) in transmitting European prototypes of modernity to Japan in the Meiji period. Ian has taught Japanese language and Japanese Studies at universities in the Sydney region, including The University of Sydney, the University of New South Wales and Macquarie University.


In the 1980s, while Tokyo correspondent for the Melbourne-based Herald and Weekly Times group, Ian began researching rakugo, the Japanese art of narrating humourous short stories. Ian’s research into rakugo was sparked by an interest in the Australian-born storyteller (rakugoka) Henry Kairakutei Black, who lived in Japan between 1865 and 1923. In 1992, while at the International Department of Kyodo News in Tokyo, Ian authored a Japanese-language book about Black (Kairakutei Burakku: wasurerareta Nippon saikō no gaijin tarento) published by Kodansha. In 1993, he shared the Japan Translators’ Association Special Merit Award (tokubetsu kōrō shō) with his translators for their cooperative effort on the book. In 1993, Ian played Black in a stage play in Kashiwa.In 2002, he completed a doctoral thesis at Sydney University about Black’s narrated and stenographic book (sokkibon) adaptations of nineteenth-century French and English mystery novels as contributions to the reform debate in Meiji-era Japan. In 2009, Ian won the third Inoue Yasushi Award for Outstanding Research in Japanese Literature in Australia for his paper Narrating the Law in Japan – Rakugo in the Meiji Law Reform Debate in the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies. See: