Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


The Mikado in Japan

as recalled in 1998 by Joseph Raben

  While serving as an editor of translations at GHQ in Tokyo in the summer of 1946, I was privileged to see all three performances of what I was told was the first public performance of The Mikado in Japan. Apparently there had been some private performances, but with emperor worship still the rule in the country, only the army of occupation could undertake such a gross action of lese majeste.

The performances took place in what the Japanese called the Takarazuko Gekijo, but what we had rechristened the Ernie Pyle Theater, in honour of a famous and beloved war correspondent killed in the Pacific. The leads were all American, Canadian and British, but the male singing chorus and the female dancing chorus were Japanese. The costumes for the leads were, with one exception, those rented by the royal court for coronations; even after half a century, I recall their splendour. The exception was the Mikado, a tall man, who had to have his own trousers of gold and blue diamond panels. The set was equally magnificent, with overhanging cherry blossoms and an elaborate bridge from the rear. The reason for this extravagance was the Allied policy of demanding huge reparations for the war, but not taking any of that money out of the country. These so-called blocked yen were available in prodigious quantities to be fed back into the economy, so that the producers apparently had an unlimited budget.

The audience was entirely GI, and I suspect that the majority of those watching it would have preferred a recent movie, which was actually the standard fare at the Ernie Pyle on other nights. I saw a Russian general in a box one night, but did not recognize MacArthur or any other US brass at any performance. For me, it was a magic experience, since I had seen this operetta only once before, in the D'Oyly Carte movie with Martyn Green and Dennis Day as Nanki-Poo, around 1936. At the time I was too young to appreciate either the satire or the beauty of the work. Hence my returning to see all three fabulous performances.

Later that year, awaiting discharge in Fort Ord, California, I met the sergeant of the squad that was in charge of the Japanese staff that ran the Ernie Pyle. He told me that the production had been scheduled to tour all the major US Army establishments in Japan (and probably those of the other occupying powers), but that the sets had been designed to fit into American-style freight cars, and the Japanese railroads at that time all were the narrow-gauge type, much too small to accommodate the scenery. So the entire run was limited to those three nights in Tokyo. According to the sergeant, the lieutenant in charge of the theater was court-martialled.

What impact this production might have had on the native Japanese is hard to calculate. I did meet a professor of English literature who seemed (to a young recent graduate) knowledgable about his subject. But the performance of Swan Lake that I saw around the corner at a Japanese theater was pitifully crude, as if directed by someone who had heard of the ballet but never seen it performed. It would be interesting to see whether any native-language newspapers of that time had any knowledge of this impudent but magnificent gesture, a tribute to their culture in a sense, but also an assertion of the Americans' right to do as they pleased in a conquered country.


Robert Telford adds:

  I was the Administrative Officer for the Ernie Pyle in Tokyo and left for home — after my three and a half years service — just before The Mikado  opened in the fall of 1946.  I have numerous photos, etc. of the production although I didn't see it, myself, since I had shipped out before it opened.  However my last duties involved helping the production, including freeing up the young man who played the title role.  As far as Mr. Raben's article is concerned, it is filled with comments that are completely baseless.  The production was an absolute milestone and Life Magazine devoted six pages to the production, sets and costumes.
           I might add that I was in the very first production (directed by Craig Noel of the San Diego Rep theatre), Arsenic and Old Lace, which I, as the only officer in the company, took by train up and down Honshu.  There was never any, as far as I knew, intention of taking The Mikado on a similar tour.  And certainly no one was ever court martialled.
         Let me add that films were never shown in the main theatre where stage shows like The Mikado were mounted.  Films were shown in a small theatre on another floor run by the Eighth Army.  The building entirety was property of the 8th Army Hq. while the big stage (60 foot proscenium) was run by GHQ Special Service Detachment of which I was a part.
       Robert S. Telford (1st Lt, Infantry, in WW II)

Page created 24 October 1998, updated 8 May, 2007