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Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013

CLOSE-UP: Fred Schodt

Frederik Schodt: Japan's pop culture ambassador to the world

Staff writer

Quick quiz: Who was the first Japanese civilian to be issued a passport?

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Roll up!: Translator, interpreter and author Frederik Schodt shows off his latest book, "Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe," about a group of Japanese acrobats and their American leader who became world-famous in the 1860s. YOSHIAKI MIURA

If your mind is drifting in the direction of a businessman who might have availed himself of an early opportunity to travel abroad in the mid-1860s, when the government first permitted such things, think again.

It was a circus performer named Sumidagawa Namigoro, whose speciality was to keep paper butterflies afloat in midair using only a fan. He is known to have delighted audiences the world over.

Sumidagawa is one of the many real-life characters who spring to life from the pages of a new book, "Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe," which describes the exploits of one of Japan's first groups of touring performers and of the man who led them, an American by the name of Richard Risley Carlisle.

The book is the work of Frederik Schodt, an American whose name will be familiar to many readers — but likely not for his work on circuses. That's because Schodt is considered one of the foremost authorities on a more modern form of Japanese popular culture: manga and anime. And, perhaps more than any other Westerner, he can claim credit for the extraordinary boom in those two artistic forms that spread through the world just after the turn of the millennium.

Indeed, having come to Japan for the first time way back in 1965, when he was still a high school student, Schodt became an expert in the genre even before most Westerners knew it existed.

Schodt's many credits include translating works of manga by Osamu Tezuka, the fabled artist and animator who created "Astro Boy," the manga and animation about a robot boy that became an international hit in the 1960s. Schodt recalls traveling with Tezuka to the United States as his interpreter, and coming away with the distinct impression that he had been in the company of a "genius."

In 1983, Schodt distilled his many years of experience reading and translating manga into the first English-language introduction to the genre, a book titled "Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics" that is now a cult classic. The book was also cited along with his translations when in 2009 the Japanese government bestowed on him the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette.

But, just as his recent foray into early circuses shows, Schodt's interests have always been manifold. In the mid-1980s, his work as a conference interpreter for large technological firms got him interested in the then-fledgling field of robotics. Thus, long before Honda unveiled its ASIMO humanoid robot and Sony came up with its AIBO robot dog, Schodt was envisaging Japan as the center of a brave new world in his 1988 book, "Inside the Robot Kingdom."

Schodt was fortunate to catch two industries on the upswing. His books came out in time to ride a long wave of optimism surrounding Japan, its economy and its culture. But, as Schodt is the first to admit, things aren't so rosy nowadays.

Still, as the 62-year-old explained to The Japan Times during a recent trip to this country, he maintains his faith in the abilities of the country's rising generations to right the country's course.

What attracted you to Professor Risley and his circus?

I've always been interested in what you might call "lost histories" — people who fell through the cracks, eccentric characters who in some unusual way contributed to early communication between America and Japan. That is the territory I mine.

So what was the nature of Risley's contribution?

Well, first of all he introduced the Western circus into Japan. Most Japanese people these days, when they think of "circus," they think of the Western-style circus, which involves somebody with a top hat, maybe an arena, a trapeze and that sort of thing. It was Risley who introduced that type of circus into Japan, when he set up base here at Yokohama in 1864.

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Stepping out: Frederik Schodt in America with "Astro Boy" creator Osamu Tezuka when he worked as his interpreter there in the 1970s and '80s. COURTESY OF FREDERIK SCHODT

But Risley also did the opposite: He introduced traditional Japanese acts — the original Japanese idea of a "circus" — overseas. And this is the part that is the "lost" history, because it's been largely forgotten.

The Imperial Japanese Troupe, which Risley took from Japan around the world in the late 1860s, was one of the earliest exposures that Americans and Europeans had to not just Japanese popular culture, but to ordinary Japanese people.

It coincided with the Japonism art movement, but it was separate from that. It wasn't highbrow. Everyone liked it.

What do you think the American public took away from those performances?

I think first, on the level of skill, they were completely awed by the creativity of the Japanese acts, especially top-spinning. Top-spinning was very evolved in Japan in the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Some of the acts involved running tops down samurai swords, over your shoulder, over long distances. Some of them were huge tops that were very heavy.

Another act that I think was amazing to American audiences was the butterfly trick, which involved making origami-paper butterflies flitter and float in the air by manipulating a fan beneath them. They seemed to be so real at the time.

Then there were the acrobatic feats. There were perch acts, involving pirouetting and doing gyrations on top of a long bamboo pole. And then they had these ladder contraptions — cantilevered ladders that one person would be lying on the ground supporting in mid-air with his feet while some younger acrobat, a child, would crawl up to the top and run around on it.

But, on another level, I think people in the West were also intrigued by the exoticism, the costumes, the music.

Were the Japanese acrobats allowed to leave their country in the 1860s?

They were, but, actually, one of the interesting things is that the members of the Imperial Japanese Troupe received the first civilian visas to travel overseas.

The butterfly expert, a man named Sumidagawa Namigoro, received the first civilian passport in Japan.

Does that mean the government was giving its blessing to those circus tours?

I think so. In 1866, there were actually multiple troupes that left Japan, all headed for the Paris Exposition of the following year.

In the first year or half-year that the Japanese authorities started granting permits to civilians to travel outside of the country, something like 60 to 70 percent of them were issued to acrobats. This was a form of cultural export.

The "Cool Japan" program has a longer history than we thought!

Well, in a way, "Cool Japan" was happening back then.

You've probably done more than almost anyone to help promote the idea of Japanese culture being cool, but what was your first encounter with Japan?

When I was 15, we were living in Canberra, Australia, and my father, who was in the U.S. State Department, came home one day and announced we were going to Tokyo. That was how it happened.

What were your first memories of Japan?

I remember arriving in Yokohama and thinking it was all very gray. We traveled to the Sanno Hotel here in Tokyo and I just remember how gray it was. In Australia, I had a dog, a horse and a rifle, so it was quite a change.

And you spent about three years here.

Yes, I went to the American School in Japan. Then I went to the University of California Santa Barbara for a while before returning to Japan, when I went to the International Christian University in Mitaka, Tokyo, for a couple of years. After graduating, I worked in California for a while as a tour guide for Japanese tourists and then I went back to Japan again to study for a second time at ICU. I did interpreting and translation.

Why did you decide to come back to Japan after studying at the University of California? Had you decided already that you'd make a career here?

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Schodt's groundbreaking 1983 book, "Manga! Manga!" COURTESY OF FREDERIK SCHODT

Well, before that, during the last year I'd spent in Japan, I was in a dormitory at the American School because my parents had left the country. The other dormitory kids were all missionary kids, and they were all fluent in Japanese as they had been raised in the country and they had gone through the Japanese school system. I was very influenced by them and I realized that knowing the language would really open up a new world.

When did you develop an interest in manga?

I didn't really encounter manga until I was living in a dormitory at ICU and so many of my dormmates were reading manga. That would have been around 1970.

What did you like about manga?

I think there were two things. I've always liked comic books as a form of entertainment. And Japanese comic books have always been very creative; they were very different from American comic books at the time.

A lot of Japanese manga artists were trying to make the comic format a place they could develop ideas just as novelists did. In many ways, the manga they produced were more fascinating than they are now.

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