The Boy Travelers - Japan and China by Thomas W. Knox The Boy Travelers by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 16: Amusements—Wrestlers and Theatrical Entertainments

After the party had recovered from the fatigues of the journey to Mount Fuji, the boys were on the lookout for something new. Various suggestions were made, and finally Frank proposed that they should go to a theater. This was quite to Fred's liking, and so it did not take a long time to come to a determination on the subject. The Doctor agreed that the theater was an interesting study, and so the matter was settled.
A Japanese Wrestler

"What time in the evening must we go," said Fred, "so as to be there in season for the beginning of the performance?"

"If you want to be there in season for the beginning," the Doctor answered, "you should go in the morning, or, at all events, very early in the day."

"Wouldn't it be well to go the day before?" Frank ventured to ask.

"Certainly you could do so," Fred responded, "or you might go next week or last summer."

"The Japanese performances," Doctor Bronson continued, "do not all begin in the morning, but the most of them do, and they last the entire day. In China they have historic plays that require a week or more for their complete representation, but in Japan they are briefer in their ways, and a performance is not continued from one day to the next. They have greater variety here than in China, and the plays are less tedious both to one who understands the language and to one who does not. The Japanese are a more light-hearted people than the Chinese, and consequently their plays are less serious in character."

It was agreed that a day should be given to amusements, and these should include anything that the boys and their tutor could find. Frank went in pursuit of the landlord of the hotel, and soon returned with the information that there was a theatrical performance that very day in the native theater, and also a wrestling match which was sure to be interesting, as the Japanese wrestlers are different from those of any other country. After a little discussion it was determined that they would first go to the wrestling match, and Frank should write a description of the wrestlers and what they did. After the wrestling match was disposed of, they would take up the theater, and of this Fred should be the historian.

Here is Frank's account of the wrestling as it appeared in the next letter he sent home:

"I thought we were going to a hall, but it was nothing of the sort, as we understand a hall. We went into a large tent, which was made by stretching matting over a space enclosed by a high fence. The fence formed the walls of the building, and the matting made the roof. We had the ground to sit on or stand on, but soon after we went in a man brought us some chairs, and we sat down. In the center of the tent there was a circular mound something like a circus ring. It was perhaps two feet high and ten feet across, and there was a flat place outside of it where the master of ceremonies was to stand and see that everything was fair. We paid twenty-five cents to go in, and then we paid about five cents more for each chair. Of course we were in the best places, and only a few others were in that part. I don't know how much the Japanese paid in the poor places, but I don't believe it was more than five cents.
Sumo Wrestlers Locked in the Clinch

"In a little while after we went in, the performance began. A boy came into the ring from a room at one side of the tent, and he walked as if he were playing the king, or some other great personage. When he got to the middle of the ring, he opened a fan he carried in his right hand. He opened it with a quick jerk, as though he were going to shake it to pieces, and after he had opened it he announced the names of the wrestlers who were to come into the first act. If I hadn't been told what he was doing, I should have thought he was playing something from Shakespeare, he made such a fuss about it. Then he went out and the wrestlers came in, with a big fellow that Fred said must be the boss wrestler. He looked like an elephant, he was so big.

"The wrestlers were the largest men I have seen in Japan, and the fact is I didn't suppose the country contained any men so large. As near as I could see, they had more fat than muscle on them, but there must have been a good deal of muscle, too, for they were strong as oxen. Doctor Bronson says he has seen some of these wrestlers carry two sacks of rice weighing a hundred and twenty-five pounds each, and that one man carried a sack with his teeth, while another took one under his arm and turned somersaults with it, and did not once lose his hold. The Doctor says these men are a particular race of Japanese, and it used to be the custom for each prince to have a dozen or more of these wrestlers in his suite to furnish amusement for himself and his friends. Sometimes two princes would get up a match with their wrestlers, just as men in New York get up matches between dogs and chickens. Then there were troupes of wrestlers, who went around giving exhibitions, just as they sometimes do in America. But you never saw such fat men in all your life as they were. Not fat in one place, like the man that keeps the grocery on the corner of the public square in our town, but fat all over. I felt the back and arms of one of them, and his muscles were as hard as iron. The flesh on his breast was soft, and seemed like a thick cushion of fat. I think you might have hit him there with a mallet without hurting him much.

"Some of them could hardly see out of their eyes on account of the fat around them, and when their arms were doubled up, they looked like the hams of a hog. I was told that the Japanese idea of a wrestler is to have a man as fat as possible, which is just the reverse of what we think is right. They train their men all their lives to have them get up all the fat they can, and if a man doesn't get it fast enough, they put him to work, and tell him he can never be a wrestler. It is odd that a people so thin as the Japanese should think so much about having men fat, but I suppose it is because we all like the things that are our opposites. But this isn't telling about the wrestling match.

"After the herald had given the names of the wrestlers who were to make the first round, the fellows came in. They were dressed without any clothes to speak of, or rather they were quite undressed, with the exception of a cloth around their loins. They came in on opposite sides of the ring, and stood there about five feet apart, each man resting his hands on his knees, and glaring at the other like a wild beast. They looked more like a pair of tigers than human beings, and for a moment I thought it was not at all unlike what a bull-fight in Spain might be.

"There they stood glaring, as I told you, and making a noise like animals about to fight. They stamped on the ground and made two or three rushes at each other, and then fell back to watch for a better chance. They kept this up a minute or so, and then darted in and clinched, and then you could see their great muscles swell, and realize that they were as strong as they were fat.

"They did not try to throw each other, as we do when we wrestle, but they tried to push from one side of the ring to the other. I couldn't understand this until the Doctor told me that it is not necessary for one of the men to be thrown. All that is to be done is for one of them to push the other outside the ring, and even if he only gets one foot out, the game is up. Only once during all we saw of the match did anybody get thrown down, as we should expect to see him in a wrestling match in America. And when he did get fairly on the ground, it was not very easy for him to rise, which is probably the reason why the rules of the Japanese ring are so different from ours.

"They had several matches of this kind with the two men standing up facing each other before they clinched, and then they tried another plan. One man took his place in the ring, and braced himself as though he were trying to stop a locomotive. When he was ready a signal was given, and another man came out full tilt against him. They butted their heads together like two rams, and tried to hit each other in the breast. In a short time they were covered with blood, and looked very badly, but the Doctor says they were not hurt so much as they seemed to be. They kept this up for nearly a quarter of an hour, and took turns at the business, one of them being bull for the other to play railway train against. It was as bad for one as for the other, and if I had my choice which character to play, I wouldn't play either.
Japanese Actor Dressed as a Doctor

"After the wrestling was over they had some fencing, which I liked much better, as there was more skill to it and less brutality. The fencers were announced in the same way as the other performers had been. They wore large masks that protected their heads, and their fencing was with wooden swords or sticks, so that no harm was done. The game was for each to hit his adversary's head, and when this was done a point was scored for the man who made the hit. They did a good deal of shouting and snarling at each other, and sometimes their noise sounded more as if made by cats than by human beings. In other respects their fencing was very much like ours, and was very creditable to the parties engaged in it. One of the best fencers in the lot was a young girl. She wasn't more than sixteen years old, and she had arms strong enough for a man of thirty. The performance ended with the fencing, and then we went back to the hotel."

It was determined that the evening would be quite early enough to go to the theater, and so the party did not start until after seven o'clock. They secured a box at one side of the auditorium, where they could see the stage and the audience at the same time. When you go to the play in a strange land, the audience is frequently quite as interesting a study as the performance, and sometimes more so. In no country is this more truly the case than in Japan. But it was agreed that Fred should give the account of the play, and so we will listen to him. Here is his story:

"The theater was a small one, according to our notions, but it was well ventilated, which is not always the case in America. The man that sold the tickets was very polite, and so was the one who took them at the door. The latter called an usher, who showed us to our box, and brought the chairs for us, and then he brought a program, but we couldn't read a word of it, as it was all in Japanese. We cared more about looking at the people than trying to read something that we couldn't read at all, and so I folded up the program and put it into my pocket.

"The house had a floor and galleries like one of our theaters, but there were only two galleries, and one of them was on a level with the parquet. The parquet, or floor, was divided into boxes, and they were literally boxes, and no mistake. They were square, and the partitions between them were little more than a foot high, with a flat board on the top for a rail. This was about five inches wide, and I soon saw what it was used for, as the people walked on it in going to and from their boxes. The boxes had no chairs in them, but they were carpeted with clean matting, and anybody could get cushions from the ushers by asking for them. Each box was intended to hold four persons, but it required that the four should not be very large, and that each should stick to his own corner. One box in front of us had six women in it, and there were two or three boxes crowded with children. They had tea and sweetmeats in many of the boxes, and I noticed that men and boys were going around selling these things. I asked if we had come to the right place, as it occurred to me that it was only at the Bowery and that kind of theater in New York that they sold peanuts and such things, but the Doctor said it was all right, and they did this in all the best theaters in Japan.

"Of course, if they come and stay all day, they must have something to eat, and so I saw the reason of their having tea and other refreshments peddled about the house. Then there were men who sold books which gave an account of the play, and had portraits of some of the principal players. I suppose these books were really the bills of the play, and if we could have read them, we should have known something about the performance more than we do now.
The Shamisen

"While we were looking at the audience there came half a dozen raps behind the curtain, as if two pieces of wood had been knocked together, and a moment after the rapping had stopped, the curtain was drawn aside. It was a common sort of curtain, and did not open in the middle like some of ours, or roll up like others. It was pulled aside as if it ran on a wire, and when it was out of sight we saw the stage set to represent a garden with lots of flower-pots and bushes. The stage was very small compared with an American one, and not more than ten or twelve feet deep, but it was set quite well, though not so elaborately as we would arrange it. The orchestra was in a couple of little boxes over the stage, one on each side, and each box contained six persons, three singers and three guitar-players. This is the regulation orchestra and chorus, so they say, in all the Japanese theaters, but it is sometimes differently made up. If a theater is small and poor, it may have only two performers in each box, and sometimes one box may be empty, but this is not often.

"The orchestra furnishes music by means of the guitar, or 'shamisen.' It is played something like our guitar, except that a piece of ivory is used for striking the strings, and is always used in a concert that has any pretense to being properly arranged. There are two or three other instruments, one of them a small drum, which they play upon with the fingers, but it is not so common as the shamisen, and I don't think it is so well liked. Then they have flutes, and some of them are very sweet, and harmonize well with the shamisen, but the singers do not like them for an accompaniment unless they have powerful voices. The shamisen-players generally sing, and in the theaters the musicians form a part of the chorus. A good deal of the play is explained by the chorus, and if there are any obscure points, the audience is told what they are. I remember seeing the same thing almost exactly, or, at any rate, the same thing in principle, in the performance of "Henry V." at a theater in New York several years ago, so that this idea of having the play explained by the chorus cannot be claimed as a Japanese invention.
Playing the Shamisen

"In the theater the singing goes on sometimes while the actors are on the stage, and we got tired of it in a little while. I don't suppose the Japanese get so tired of it, or they would stop having it. Some of them admit that it would be better to have the orchestra in front of the stage, as we do, but others say that so long as the chorus must do so much towards explaining the play, they had better remain where they are. The Japanese seem to like their theater as it is, and therefore they will not be apt to change in a hurry.

"Just after the curtain was pulled away, they opened a door in the middle of the garden, and the actors who were to be in the play came in. They sat down on the stage and began a song, which they kept up for ten or fifteen minutes, each of them singing a part that was evidently prepared for himself alone. The music in the little boxes joined them. After they finished this part of the performance, there was a pantomime by a woman, or rather by a man disguised as a woman, as all the acting is done by men. They get themselves up perfectly, as they have very little beards, and they can imitate the voice and movements of a woman, so that nobody can tell the difference. I couldn't tell what the pantomime was all about, and it was so long that I got tired of it before they were through, and wondered when they would come on with something else.

"Then the real acting of the piece began, and I wished ever so much that it had been in English, so that I could understand it. The story was a supernatural one, and there were badgers and foxes in it, and they had a woman changed to a badger, and the badger to a woman again. Gentlemen who are familiar with Japanese theaters say there are many of these stories, like our Little Red Riding-hood, and other fairy tales, acted on the stage, and that the play we saw is one of the most popular, and is called 'Bumbuku Chagama,' or 'The Bubbling Teapot.' One gentleman has shown me a translation of it, and I will put it in here, just to show you what a Japanese fairy story is like.
Scene from a Japanese Comedy - Love-Letter Discovered

"'Once upon a time, it is said, there lived a very old badger in the temple known as Morin-je, where there was also an iron teapot called Bumbuku Chagama, which was a precious thing in that sacred place. One day when the chief priest, who was fond of tea and kept the pot always hanging in his sitting room, was about taking it, as usual, to make tea for drinking, a tail came out of it. He was startled, and called together all the little bourges, his pupils, that they might behold the apparition. Supposing it to be the mischievous work of a fox or badger, and being resolved to ascertain its real character, they made due preparations. Some of them tied handkerchiefs about their heads, and some stripped the coats from their shoulders, and armed themselves with sticks and bits of firewood. But when they were about to beat the vessel down, wings came out of it, and as it flew about from one side to another, like a dragon-fly, while they pursued it, they could neither strike nor secure it. Finally, however, having closed all the windows and sliding-doors, after hunting it vigorously from one corner to another, they succeeded in confining it in a small space, and presently in capturing it.

"'While they were consulting what to do with it, a man entered whose business it was to collect and sell waste paper, and they showed him the teapot with a view of disposing of it to him if possible. He observed their eagerness, and offered a much lower price than it was worth, but as it was now considered a disagreeable thing to have in the temple, they let him have it at his own price. He took it and hastily carried it away. He reached his home greatly pleased with his bargain, and looking forward to a handsome profit the next day, when he would sell it for what it was worth.

"'Night came on, and he lay down to rest. Covering himself with his blankets, he slept soundly.
Telling the Story of Bumbuku Chagama

"'But near the middle of the night the teapot changed itself into the form of a badger, and came out of the waste paper, where it had been placed. The merchant was aroused by the noise, and caught the teapot while it was in flight. By treating it kindly he soon gained its confidence and affection. In the course of time it became so docile that he was able to teach it rope dancing and other accomplishments.

"'The report soon spread that Bumbuku Chagama had learned to dance, and the merchant was invited to go to all the great and small provinces, where he was summoned to exhibit the teapot before the great daimyos, who loaded him down with gifts of gold and silver. In course of time he reflected that it was only through the teapot, which he had bought so cheap, that he became so prosperous, and felt it his duty to return it again, with some compensation, to the temple. He therefore carried it to the temple, and, telling the chief priest of his good fortune, offered to restore it, together with half the money he had gained.

"'The priest was well pleased with his gratitude and generosity, and consented to receive the gifts. The badger was made the tutelary spirit of the temple, and the name of Bumbuku Chagama has remained famous in Morin-je to this day, and will be held in remembrance to the latest ages as a legend of ancient time.'

"This is the fairy story," Fred continued, "which we saw on the stage, but it was varied somewhat in the acting, as the badger at times took the form of a woman, and afterwards that of a badger again, as I have already told you. A good deal of the acting was in pantomime, and in the scene where they are all trying to catch the teapot as it flies around the room they had quite a lively dance. We enjoyed the play very much, but I don't care to go again until I know something about the Japanese language. And a well-cushioned chair would add to the comfort of the place."

    The Boy Travelers - Japan and China by Thomas W. Knox The Boy Travelers by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 16: Amusements—Wrestlers and Theatrical Entertainments


Study the chapter for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the chapter.
  • Review the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.


Sumo Wrestling: A stylized Japanese form of wrestling in which a wrestler loses if he is forced from the ring, or if any part of his body except the soles of his feet touches the ground.
Fencing: The art or sport of dueling with swords.
Theater: A place or building, consisting of a stage and seating, in which an audience gathers to watch plays, musical performances, and public ceremonies.
Auditorium: A large room for public meetings or performances.
Shamisen: A kind of three-stringed Japanese fretless lute.


Activity 1: Narrate the Chapter

  • Narrate the events aloud in your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Chapter Pictures

  • Study the chapter pictures and describe how each relates to the story.

Activity 3: Observe the Modern Equivalent

  • Examine a chapter feature in modern times: Sumo Wrestlers.

Activity 4: Map the Chapter

  • Find the country of Japan on the map of the world.
  • Find Yokohama on the map of Japan.

Activity 5: Map the Chapter on a Globe

  • Repeat the mapwork from Activity 4 on a three-dimensional globe.