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Our Neighbour, the Cross-Dressing National Treasure

Jakuemon Ferrier
Nakamura Jakuemon IV. (Photo Steve Ferrier)

Movers hated the tricky corner by the elevator; someone's couch or shoji screen might wedge there for several hours until its owner worked out how to dislodge it.  Walk too hastily, and neighbours would collide head-on, unleashing a torrent of sumimasens and embarassed bowing.  But space in Tokyo is tight, and the Elbow (as we called it) was just one more quirk of living in a quirky city.

As I arrived home late one afternoon, it came as no surprise to see some lads making a clumsy job of getting a long object through the corridor.   Closer inspection revealed that they were paramedics, and the apparatus they had tilted on its end was a stretcher.

Behind them stood a slightly-built chap, wearing a blazer and Bing Crosby hat.  Though clearly a senior citizen, it was hard to pick his age.  His skin looked incredibly smooth and taut, but didn't bear any of the hallmarks of a facelift.  I would learn later that he had just turned eighty.

Recognising me as a neighbour, he bowed curtly and smiled, before he leapt up on to the righted stretcher.  That took some impressive athletics, since he scarcely reached five feet tall, and the stretcher rose a good distance from the floor.  He declined the offer of a footstool to help him up, but allowed the ambulancemen to remove his shoes, before he strapped himself in for the elevator ride to the ground.

A Brush with Fame

Thus went my first enounter with Japan's most famous kabuki actor, Nakamura Jakuemon IV, better known as 中村雀右衛門.    He was the theatre's foremost onnagata, a male who specialised in female roles.   By all accounts, his technique astounded audiences; a few deft gestures would seduce any observer into the belief that they were, indeed, watching a woman.  In 1991, the Japanese government declared him a Living National Treasure.

Living National Treasures get treasured awfully well.  According to my Japanese colleagues, the deal includes an ambulance to whisk you off for your annual check up.  Probably necessary for most of the elderly writers and artists who made up the legion of NTs, but not for a gent who still lifted weights in the gym from time to time.  It helped him bear those monstrously heavy kabuki robes and headpieces.

Master Right made another point.  Even if Jakuemon had needed an ambulance for an emergency, most men of his generation and stature would feel ashamed to be wheeled about in front of all and sundry.  While he didn't seem frail, it concerned us a little, in a neighbourly kind of way.

An Unhealthy Trade

Older kabuki troupers sometimes succumb to poison.  The first commerical versions of doran (the white foundation used by geisha and kabuki actors alike) contained lots of lead, zinc and mercury.  To remove it, traditionalists would use—I kid you not—nightingale droppings, which had the extra benefit of bleaching the skin underneath.  That can't be good for a fellow's system, and it certainly showed in his complexion.

Our concern heightened when a truck arrived to cart away the master's elaborate collection of costumes.  Had he packed it in?  Was the ambulance trip a harbinger of something serious? 

His housekeeper, who also must have been around eighty, seemed to stay cheerful.  (She took to giving me language lessons in the lift; it was a slow lift, you see.)  When I asked after her boss, she haltingly explained that she had dusted off the costumes and sent them to the theatre.  Jakuemon would reprise a classic role, Princess Yaegaki in the drama Jusshukô, for the 75th anniversary memorial service of his "father", Jakuemon III.   

I put the word "father" in quotes for a reason.  Jakuemon had a biological father, who was also a well known kabuki actor.  But he was "adopted" into another family as a young adult.

The Family Business

The power of identity looms large in Japanese culture—where you fit, to whom you belong, to whom you owe duty and from whom you expect reciprocation.   Names don't just represent individuals—they represent these many connections, and take on an importance beyond just saying who's who.   Business cards carry a mystique.   In such a culture, imagine the symbolism of a stage name

In the west, if we discount the artful concoctions of drag queens, stage names often serve a mundane, practical purpose.  Equity rules stipulate that no two actors share the same working name.   Michael Keaton, for example, was born Michael Douglas, but admired the actress Diane Keaton, who in turn was born Diane Hall, the name of an existing Equity member.  Michael York (nee Johnson) chose his nom de scene because "York" was already tested  in the marketplace, as a popular brand of cigarette

In Japan, stage names act a little like family names, and stage "families" construct a lineage based on a cocktail of blood-relations, relations-by-marriage, teacher/student pairs and honorifics. 

In his movie-star days

Nakamura Jakuemon IV started life as Hirotaro Otani, heir to the stage name Ôtani Tomoemon VII.   In a brief flirtation with movie acting, he actually earned a couple of credits under his real name.

He became close friends with the young man who was the blood-heir to the title of Jakuemon IV.  When his friend was killed in the war, the young man's mother asked if Otani would accept the honour of adoption, so that he may carry on the Nakamura family stage-name.  Since (I understand) Otani had brothers in the family business to carry on the Tomoemon stage-name, he saw it as an appropriate way to honour the family of his friend. 

Like so many other young men, war was a defining experience for the man who would become Jakuemon.  He learned to be a mechanic, and toyed with the idea of becoming one on his return to civilian life.  He enjoyed being high, driving a truck or riding a horse, and even considered joining the maintenance team at the newly constructed Tokyo Tower.

A Comforting View

When I read that fact online, it brought me up with a sharp jolt.  Our apartments were on the fourteenth floor of a building that looked out over what was once the highest point in Tokyo.   Ours looked north on a drab cityscape; as they say on the Gold Coast, we had the Hinterland View.  But Jakuemon's featured perhaps the city's best view of Tokyo Tower.

Tokyo Tower from our building
Why was I online, googling our former neighbour?   Alas, to confirm reports that he had passed away.  He died of pneumonia on February 23, at 91—an impressive age, even by long-lived Japanese standards.  He performed well into his 80s, treading the boards for the last time in 2010, when his frailty began to show.
Two of his sons are also kabuki actors.  One will use the Tomoemon stage name, and the other, a fellow onnagata, will carry on the Nakamura line.

"Another memory of our Tokyo days is gone," remarked Master Right.  Jakuemon's passing reminds us not just to honour living treasures while we can.  But to treasure life itself.

All photos link to source.

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