John Hewson Pruyn, Richard Risley, and the Misemono

In an earlier post about the American statesman John Hewson Pruyn, I wrote about the role that the American circus performer and impresario Richard Risley Carlisle played in the evolving cultural relationship between the United States and Japan. Risley arrived in Yokohama on March 6, 1864 with a small troupe of performers, and Pruyn initially expressed hope that the circus would help thaw tensions between the Japanese and foreign communities. The show opened on March 28 in front of an audience of around four hundred people, about half of whom were foreign residents. Pruyn was seemingly less than impressed with the circus as a letter dated April 1 noted that “the Japanese admire the clown very much,” but that he was “the very poorest I ever saw.” He went on to sarcastically speak of the relatively expensive tickets as being “exceedingly cheap for so intellectual a performance.” Whatever Pruyn’s opinion, the circus proved popular and a number of Japanese artists made wonderful woodblock prints documenting the show, including this one by Utagawa (or Issen) Yoshikazu.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

After its initial success, interest in the circus waned and the performers dispersed, but Risley elected to stay in Japan and pursued a variety of eclectic ventures, including at one point importing dairy cows from California and selling ice cream (for more on Risley’s doings in Japan, see Frederik Schodt’s aforementioned book). But the big idea that he finally hit upon was the realization that the Japanese performers who often entertained the foreign community would be a real novelty abroad. Indeed Pruyn frequently commented on the quality of Japanese entertainment, and he was particularly taken with the characteristic top-spinning performances that he witnessed, which were a novelty to foreigners. Below is a woodblock print that Pruyn saved commemorating a November 14, 1864 performance by a famous top-spinning troupe headed by Matsui Gensui (for a full account of the evening see Francis Hall’s recently published journal).

Matsui Gensui Troop of Top Spinners Woodblock print 1865 Albany Institute of History & Art Robert H. Pruyn Manuscript Collection, CH 532
Matsui Gensui Troop of Top Spinners
Woodblock print
Albany Institute of History & Art
Robert H. Pruyn Manuscript Collection, CH 532

Matsui Gensui and those of his ilk were known as misemono, which Schodt translates literally as “things to show” or “exhibitions,” and included sleight-of-hand, balancing, juggling, acrobatics, amongst a range of other entertainments. The obvious popularity of misemono amongst the foreign community led a number of would-be impresarios to consider organizing a troupe to tour abroad, but the Japanese government’s prohibition on overseas travel and raising the necessary capital made such a venture difficult. With the help of the U. S. consul and local American merchants, Risley cobbled together the needed funding and secured permission for what was dubbed the “Imperial Japanese Troupe” to head abroad. In early 1867, the troupe arrived in San Francisco and embarked on a strikingly successful tour across the United States and eventually around the world. As Schodt notes, Risley’s Imperial Japanese Troupe ultimately played a signature role in introducing the then mysterious world of Japan to those in the West. Risley’s activities are a more or less perfect distillation of one of the major themes of my own work, namely how popular entertainment has served as a medium for cross-cultural exchange.

Though we are straying ever farther from Robert Hewson Pruyn, the man whose papers at the Albany Institute of History & Art originally inspired these posts, I want to highlight one last cultural artifact of interest. It is a short motion picture filmed in Thomas Edison’s New York Studio on April 29, 1904 now at the Library of Congress. It shows two Japanese acrobats performing what was by then known simply as a Risley act. It was this foot-juggling routine that catapulted its namesake to fame and fortune, and its performance by two Japanese entertainers aptly illustrates the ongoing legacy of international exchange via performance and popular culture.

Risley’s Circus to the Rescue?


Robert Hewson Pruyn (1815-1882) was an American lawyer and statesman from New York who is the subject of an ongoing exhibition at the Albany Institute. Presently, the fascinating materials on display focus on the years 1862 to 1865 when he served as the U.S. minister to Japan. As a diplomat, Pruyn played a pivotal role in resolving the Shimonoseki War, which was a series of military engagements waged by recalcitrant daimyos (powerful feudal lords) angry with the Tokugawa shogunate’s accommodation of foreign interests. While holding office, he also negotiated a number of shrewd trade agreements that allowed commerce to flourish. And though his diplomatic and economic accomplishments were undoubtedly significant, I was much more intrigued to see a wide variety of ephemera documenting performances by both Euro-American and Japanese entertainers. In the decade that followed Commodore Perry’s expedition in 1853-54, relations between the United States and Japan remained tense, but popular entertainment provided one avenue for cross-cultural exchange and understanding. Indeed, some of Perry’s sailors famously performed a minstrel show at a banquet held when the Kanagawa Treaty was concluded, and the Japanese reciprocated with exhibitions of sumo wrestling, plate-spinning, and acrobatics. 

MIT Visualizing Cultures

By the early 1860s, Yokohama was a “boomtown,” and performances by both visting Euro-American and Japanese entertainers were patronized by the mixed lot of officials, merchants, and military who congregated around Tokyo Bay. In March 1864, the noted American performer Richard Risley Carlisle (1814-1874), popularly known as “Professor Risley,” arrived in Yokohama with a circus from Shanghai. Risley had ascended to trans-Atlantic fame and fortune in the 1840s with a foot-juggling act that involved spinning and launching limber young assistants high into the air. By the early 1860s, he was touring the Pacific with a small circus comprised of a dozen or so equestrians and acrobats. John R. Black (himself a traveling entertainer that settled in Japan) observed that:

Risley was a man who never did himself justice. He was for some years a resident in Yokohama; but at one time of his life, his name was well known in all the great capitals of Europe and America. I remember him with his sons at the Strand Theatre in London in 1848, when his fame and success seemed carrying everything before him. Apart from his great strength and agility, and the wonderful pluck and cleverness of his boys, which enabled him to present an entertainment as attractive as it was at that time unique, he was peculiarly cut out for the kind of Bohemian life he had chosen. He was a wonderful rifle shot; a good billiard player; up to everything that lithe and active men most rejoice in. He knew thoroughly well the usages of good society, and could hold his own with high or low. His fund of anecdote was marvellous ; and he could keep a roomful of people holding their sides with laughter, without the least appearance of effort, or the faintest shade of coarseness (Young Japan, 1880, 401-402).

Risley’s peripatetic history and his eventual management of a troupe of Japanese acrobats who traveled across the United States and to the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris have been ably chronicled in an excellent study by Frederik L. Schodt so I will not dwell on that here. What is interesting was how Pruyn perceived Risley’s presence in Japan, and the role of popular entertainment in US-Japanese relations more generally. Again, things were particular tense in March 1864, and Pruyn confessed in a letter that he still regarded it as debatable whether “liberality or exclusiveness” would prevail in Japan. In this context, he saw the arrival of the circus as auspicious, continuing: “American diplomacy first opened this Country partially to foreigners & now that this attempt has been made to thrust us out when once in & slam the door in our faces – why should not an American Circus come to the rescue?” While it is of course arguable just how important Risley’s activities were within the evolving relationship between the two nations, it seems significant to see that the American minister regarded the circus as so relevant. In a follow-up post, I’ll develop this point further by looking at how Pruyn’s perceptions of the Japanese were shaped by his experiences with their sundry forms of popular entertainment.

*** The Robert Pruyn Papers are held at the Albany Institute of History and Art library and a special thanks is owed to Erika Sanger there for bringing these materials to my attention.