Escolha o seu idioma de preferência para tirar o máximo proveito das páginas do nosso Jornal:
English 日本語 Español Português

Fizemos muitas melhoras nas seções do nosso Jornal. Por favor, envie-nos a sua opinião ao escrever para!

Illinois Japanese Unknown Heroes

Chapter 2 (Part 1): Japanese Acrobats and Entertainers in Chicago—Introduction

According to The Encyclopedia of Chicago, “Chicago’s position as the prime city of the Midwest has made it both a necessary stopover on the itinerary of any touring production and a home for a thriving resident theater community.”1 This explains exactly what Chicago represented for Japanese entertainers and why they lived there. In fact, the first Japanese who set foot in Chicago were members of acrobatic troupes who came here even before the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869.

In the mid-1860s, stories of various Japanese entertainment troupes filled the newspapers. For example, in 1867, Crosby’s Opera House hosted a performance of jugglers with the Imperial Japanese Troupe,2 which was under contract with Arlington’s Minstrels.3 Social encounters between the visiting Japanese and American residents resulted in a love story between a Chicago girl and a Japanese acrobat, which was reported in the July 8, 1867 Chicago Tribune. In 1868, a Hah-Yah-Ta-Kee led a troupe of thirty-one members in a performance for the Mayor of Chicago at the Academy of Music.The troupe had nine females; one was seven-years-old and was nicknamed “Kamisama” (goddess).4

Prairie Farmer, June 22, 1872 (The Digital Research Library ofIllinois History Journal)

These acrobatic troupes often returned to Chicago on an annual basis, after finishing their tours in the U.S. and Europe, on their way back to Japan. One of these was the famous Risley Troupe, which had performed at the Opera House, just before the Great Chicago Fire in July 1871.5 The Royal Jeddo Japanese Troupe of jugglers performed at Nixon’s Parisian Hippodrome and Amphitheatre in 1872, just six months after the Chicago fire,6 and they returned to Chicago and performed at the Kingsbury Music Hall for a week in 1873.7

The troupe extended their stay in Illinois, long enough for troupe members Yae and “Professor Thomas Ganjiro” to have a baby in Warsaw, Illinois in early 1874,8 although the couple eventually continued touring.9 When they returned to Chicago in 1877, Yae gave birth to her twelfth baby,10 the very first Nisei born in Chicago.

In the 1890s, more Japanese troupes came to Chicago and toured in Illinois. Various newspapers reported the performances of the following groups: “The Imperial Japanese Troupe, Greatest Company of gymnasts ever brought to Chicago” in 1892,11 Oura’s Marvelous Japanese troupe in 1893,12 Oano’s Imperial Japanese troupe in 1894,13 the Royal Akimoto Japanese troupe of jugglers and acrobats in 1895,14 and the Hagihara Japanese Troupe in 1897.15 

As fate would have it, several love stories unfolded among the entertainers who gathered in Chicago from all over the world. For example, acrobat Joseph Yoshimote was born in Chicago in 1895 to parents who were both acrobats— Joseph, the Japanese father and Sadie, the Irish mother.16

Obei Manyu-ki by Kawakami Otojiro (National Diet Library)

In October 1899, a world-famous Japanese theatrical troupe came to Chicago; Otojiro (aka Otto) Kawakami and Sadayakko (aka Madame Sadayakko) and their cast of fifteen.17 They stayed in Chicago for thirty-two days, from October 11 to November 12, 1899.18 When they arrived, they were in a most desperate situation, as they had survived only on water for last five days.19 

However, James S. Hutton, manager of the Lyric Theatre, generously gave them a chance to perform kyogen at the theater for two weeks, starting October 22. The troupe even marched in a procession in samurai armor to advertise their performances. Their parade in the falling snow was so impressive that it attracted more than six hundred people to the theater.20 In addition, their popularity in Chicago brought the troupe a new forty-week contract to tour the eastern U.S. According to Kawakami, Chicago (which seemed like the very worst place in the world to them at first) inspired the most hope in them and led them on a path to future success.21

Japanese performers were not always so lucky in Chicago and were somewhat susceptible to “incidents.” For example, someone threw a fist-sized rock from a window above the corner of Madison and Lake streets at the head of Mijamoto, the interpreter for a Japanese troupe performing at Crosby’s Opera. He was walking with some performers and someone yelled “There are these d—d Japanese.” Mijamoto was seriously injured.22 Money also caused fights—according to an article in the January 6, 1892 Chicago Tribune, “Ah Sid, a diminutive black-eyed Jap” and a fellow acrobat, Charles Harding, sued their employer, the Chicago Panopticon Company for $200 when their contract was cancelled.23

Performers also became ill: In 1908, Ossof Otsura, a member of a troupe of Japanese acrobats, had smallpox and was taken to an isolation hospital by the Chicago Health Department.24 And of course they suffered injuries during performances: when the Kitamura troupe performed at the Majestic Theater in Chicago in 1916, one of the acrobats fell from a great height during the first performance and was injured.25

Even after the turn of the 20th century, the popularity of Japanese troupes did not diminish; in the early 1900s, annual performances by Japanese entertainers could be found somewhere in Chicago throughout the year. Japanese performers were so popular that it was reported that “Although the Japanese are having trouble getting into the public schools in San Francisco, they are having no trouble getting into the show business in the United States.”26

According to one analysis, Japan furnished more performers than any other foreign country and Japanese performers consisted of three-eighths of the entire entertainment industry in the U.S. Furthermore, “the Japanese (were) especially skillful in every feature of juggling, balancing by hands or feet, manipulating of objects, wire walking etc., which they have carried to such a degree of perfection that their acts were unapproachable by the people of any other nationality.”27

These are examples of the Japanese entertainers reported in the newspapers: Tenichi Shokyokusai, a famous magician, made an impressive performance at the Coliseum in 1902 with acts such as “eating what appeared to be pieces of live coal taken from a brazier and after a considerable pause blowing sparks from his mouth.”28

Tenkatu Shokyokusai

One of the female disciples in the Tenichi troupe, Tenkatsu Shokyokusai, returned to Chicago with her own troupe in 1924 and performed at the Palace Theater.29 The program was called Madam Tenkatsu and Geisha Girls.30 Danjuro, “the idol of the Japanese stage [who] always draws crowded houses,” performed in 1906,31 the Royal Japanese Troupe of acrobats returned to Chicago in 1907,32 and so did the Marvelous Fukino Japanese Troupe.33 Araki’s Japanese Troupe of five magicians, equilibrists, jugglers, and balancers performed a captivating “risky act” 34 and were “headliners at the Majestic in Chicago” in 1909.35

Japanese jugglers participated in the world-famous Ringling Brothers Circus as well. Performers in the Ringling Brothers represented more than a dozen races, including “Spaniards, Chinese, Javanese, Japanese, Austrians, French, German, Turks, Russians, Indians, East Indians, and Balkans.”36 Among the Japanese performers, the names of E. Ichekawa, the four Yamamotos, Echitsuka and Ando Sakato appeared in the 1906 Catalogue.37

In 1911, the Royal Azuma Girls from Japan “gave not only a novel performance but the finest dressed act of the kind ever seen in vaudeville” at the Grand Theatre.38 In 1912, the Hayaichi Acrobats performed at the Grand Theater and were proclaimed “most remarkable in their feats of strength, endurance and agility;”39 two months later at the same theatre, Chiyo and Anatoka, a duo of Japanese jugglers and balancers demonstrated “physical endurance and positive attack.”40 In 1913, “five Japs” who did “some very wonderful gymnastic and magic tricks” appeared among other acts at the Grand Theater.41 

Tameo Kajiyama (Leader Post, April 21,1919)

In 1916, at a rodeo held at the old Chicago Cubs’ ballpark, (Polk Street and Lincoln Avenue) there were Japanese acrobats who provided entertainment.42 World-famous Tameo Kajiyama, “the ambidextrous Japanese writing marvel or the man with two brains”43 also came to Champaign, Illinois in 1914 and to Chicago in 1919.44

Although the number of Japanese performances in Chicago decreased in the 1920s, there were still shows by acrobats such as Hama and Toyo, a pair of Japanese perch and wire experts, who performed at the Grand Theatre in 1921.45 The Matsumoto Troupe of acrobats (three sixteen-year-old girls, one small girl of ten, and five grown adults) came to Illinois with the Robbins Bros. Circus from Mexico in 1928.46 Ravinia, the well-known music festival venue, also featured Japanese jugglers and magicians, the Yoki Japs, who performed after the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1930.47

Among these Japanese entertainers, there were some who broke the stereotypical image of being constantly “on the road,” found their place, and had families in Chicago. Some of them continued as entertainers for the rest of their lives, while some became businessmen after they retired from the entertainment world.

Chapter 2 (Part 2) >>


1. The Encyclopedia of Chicago, page 817.

2. Chicago Evening Post, June 1, 1867.

3. Chicago Evening Post, June 8, 1867.

4. Chicago Evening Post, Jan 20, 1868.

5. Chicago Tribune, July 4, 1871.

6. Chicago Evening Mail, May 21 & September 5, 1872, Chicago Tribune, May 22, 1872.

7. Chicago Evening Mail, May 6, 1873, Chicago Tribune, October 29 & 31, 1873.

8. Chicago Tribune, May 16, 1877.

9. Warsaw Bulletin, January 24 & 31, 1874.

10. Chicago Tribune, May 16, 1877.

11. The Japan Weekly Mail, January 2, 1892.

12. The Daily Review, March 19, 1893.

13. The Rock island Argus, December 20, 1894.

14. The Inter Ocean, March 17, 1895.

15. Dixon Evening Telegraph, July 31, 1897.

16. 1920 New York census.

17. Chicago Tribune, October 23 & November 6, 1899.

18. Kaneo, Tanejiro, Kawakami Otojiro Obei Manyu-ki, page 18.

19. Kawakami, Otojiro and Sada-Yakko, Jiden, page 57.

20. Yomiuri Shimbun, December 14, 1899.

21. Kawakami, page 57.

22. Chicago Tribune, July 25, 1870.

23. Chicago Tribune, January 6, 1892.

24. Chicago Tribune, March 29, 1908.

25. Nichibei Shuho, May 20, 1916.

26. Chicago Tribune, January 13, 1907.

27. Freeport Journal-Standard, March 6, 1908.

28. Chicago Tribune, June 23, 1902.

29. Nichibei Jiho, August 23, 1924.

30. Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1924.

31. La Salle Daily Tribune, May 24, 1906.

32. Inter Ocean, March 17, 1907.

33. The Decatur Herald, October 27, 1907.

34. The Joliet News, June 5, 1909.

35. The Daily Review, November 14, 1909.

36. The Day Book, June 13, 1914.

37. Ringling Brothers Catalogue, 1906.

38. Chicago Defender, July 22, 1911.

39. Chicago Defender, October 12, 1912.

40. Chicago Defender, December 7 1912.

41. Katherine Kerr letter to May Walden, April 14, 1913, May Walden Papers, Newberry Library.

42. Chicago Herald, August 13 & 20, 1916.

43. The Champaign Daily News, October 24, 1914.

44. Chicago Tribune, March 20 & 21, 1919.

45. Chicago Defender, March 19, 1921.

46. The Decatur Herald, April 29, 1928.

47. Chicago Tribune, August 3, 1930.


© 2022 Takako Day

acrobats Chicago Japanese entertainment troupes

Sobre esta série

Before World War II, there were far fewer Japanese in Chicago than after the war. As a result, more attention has been paid to postwar Chicago Japanese, many of whom chose Chicago as a place to resettle after enduring the humiliation of incarceration camps in the western US. But although they were a small minority in the bustling metropolis of Chicago, the prewar Japanese were in fact unique, colorful, and independent people, perfectly matched to the cosmopolitanism of Chicago, and enjoyed their lives in Chicago. This series would focus on lives of regular Japanese in pre-war Chicago.