Wendy S. Williams, “‘So Very Japanny’: The British Reception of The Mikado in 1885”


This article examines the writings of The Mikado producers and opera reviewers in 1885. It shows that the British were eager to create a quaint, picturesque, “authentic” image of Japan, based on familiar art objects, in order to ease national anxiety about a quickly developing country that was difficult to understand.

This is an image of a Charles Ricketts costume design

Figure 1: Charles Rickets Costume Design for _The Mikado_

In 1885 librettist William Schwenck Gilbert visited the map iconJapanese Village, a London spectacle featuring Japanese natives performing their way of life.[1] Gilbert drew inspiration from his visit for the production of The Mikado, his comic opera with music by Arthur Sullivan. The Mikado opened at the map iconSavoy Theatre in London on 14 March 1885, just two months after the Japanese Village opened and was the “first significant attempt to use map iconJapan as a theme for a British theatrical production” (Cortazzi 59).[2] Immensely popular, The Mikado ran for 672 performances. When asked in an interview why he chose a fictional village in Japan as the setting of The Mikado, Gilbert replied: “I cannot give you a good reason. … It has seemed to us that … Japan afforded scope for picturesque treatment, scenery, and costume” (“More Interviews”). Gilbert strove to create an authentic Japanese experience:

Our scenery is quite Japanese, and our costumes have been imported … I am anxious about the clothes being properly worn … have my doubts about the flat black hair. … Here are picture-books of Japanese people, very well looking some of them. … (“More Interviews”)

The result, however, communicated more about British perceptions of Japan than about the real nation rapidly modernizing at the time. This article examines the writings of The Mikado producers and opera reviewers in 1885 to show that the British were eager to create a quaint, picturesque, “authentic” image of Japan, based on familiar art objects, in order to ease national anxiety about a quickly developing country that was difficult to understand.

Before examining writings about and responses to The Mikado, I first will offer a brief historical background to provide context for this study. The Meiji Revolution in 1868 led to the emergence of Japan as an industrialized nation. Eager to catch up to the “modern” Western world, the Japanese were willing to adopt Western ways. Japan’s openness to the West “provided a pleasing alternative to the concurrent efforts of other peoples, most notably map iconChina and map iconIndia, to resist English and Western imperialism” (McLaughlin). Anna Jackson explains that British imperialist ideology

was based on strategies of power and subjection, on principles of exclusion and on definitions of “other-ness”. Subjected races did not speak for themselves but were defined and represented by the dominant race, constructed as objects of the imperialist gaze. The imperialist response to Japan was, however, more problematic. (251)

Japan’s “otherness” was hard to define, and Britain’s reaction to Japan revealed efforts to understand, classify, and to assert superiority.[3]

For many, The Mikado presented an authentic Japan to its viewers through its reproduction of Japanese scenes, decorative objects, and mannerisms. Josephine Lee suggests that The Mikado “served as the basis of knowledge of what ‘Japanese’ meant” (viii). The opera both “articulated and significantly refocused the rage for Japanese objets d’art, costumes, décor, and crafts, staging a world inhabited by fanciful characters whose ‘Japanese’ nature is identified primarily in terms of familiar decorative objects such as fans, swords, vases, screens, and china” (xv). Deeply interested in creating an authentic visual experience for his audience, Gilbert brought some of the Japanese Village inhabitants to the Savoy to teach the Mikado actors how to act Japanese. François Cellier, conductor of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company at the time of The Mikado, and collaborator Cunningham Bridgeman wrote: “Through the courtesy of the directors of the map iconKnightsbridge Village, a Japanese male dancer and a Japanese tea-girl were permitted to give their services to the Savoy management. To their invaluable aid in coaching the company it was mainly due that our actors and actresses became, after a few rehearsals, so very Japanny” (190-91). They described the “The Geisha, or Tea-girl” (one and the same to these authors but two entirely different kinds of people in Japan) as a “charming and able instructress” who only knew two words of English: “‘Sixpence, please,’ that being the price of a cup of tea as served by her at Knightsbridge” (191). Her task, according to Cellier and Bridgeman, was to teach the Savoy female actors “Japanese deportment, how to walk or run or dance in tiny steps with toes turned in, as gracefully as possible; how to spread and snap the fan either in wrath, delight, or homage, and how to giggle behind it” (191). She also taught them

the art of “make-up,” touching the features, the eyes, and the hair. Thus to the minutest detail the Savoyards were made to look like “the real thing.” Our Japanese friends often expressed the wish that they could become as English in appearance as their pupils had become Japanesey. (191)

Opera reviewers bought into the authenticity of the production. They discussed the “fidelity of characterization” (“Gilbert and Sullivan’s New Opera”) and the “characteristics of Japanese art [that] are reproduced with wonderful fidelity in the scenery, costumes, and groupings” (“Music”). One reviewer wrote, “‘The Mikado’ is richly and beautifully mounted, and is realistic to a hair. We are in Japan” (“The Tatler”).

Though producers and reviewers of The Mikado expressed such confidences in their knowledge of Japan, their Japan, in fact, was an imagined version largely gathered from scenes depicted by Japanese art. Cellier and Bridgeman described the Mikado characters as “notabilities” who “may have been portrayed on lacquer-trays, screens, plates, or vases, but none of them had ever lived in the flesh before they came to life at the Savoy Theatre” (189). Further, they explained Gilbert’s aim in inventing Japanese characters: “Every proud, upright, and lithesome Savoyard would have to be transformed into the semblance of a Jap who, to our Western eyes, was not the ideal of perfect grace and loveliness” (188). Thus, Gilbert strove to construct “authentic” Japanese characters who were more graceful and lovely than actual Japanese people.

In some measure, he succeeded. One reviewer of The Mikado stated of the “three maids” played by English actors: “They are more Japanese than the Japanese. Their sudden, angular picturesqueness outvies that of the screen, and their ready cheerfulness that of the tea-house” (“The Stage”). A reporter for The Times also described the English actors’ Japanese-ness in terms of Japanese art scenes, stating that it would be difficult to find people as Japanese as these English actors: they “flirt their fan, and walk with their feet turned in and look so charming withal, that their equals would with difficulty be found on fans or screens or in real life.” The writer looked for the essence of Japan on fans and screens and found the English actors, if not more Japanese, at least as Japanese as actual Japanese people: “The European physiognomy marvellously adapts itself to the changed conditions of hair and head-dress, and … is scarcely distinguishable from the genuine article at the Japanese village” (“Japanese Opera”). One reporter described the palace as a “sort of willow pattern”[4] and the “Japanese” men with their “limp and angular attitudes which Japanese screens, plates, and tea trays have made familiar.” In addition to emasculating the “limp” men, he dehumanized the “Japanese” women who adopted a “familiar tripping gait” and rushed around like “young rabbits in a hutch” (“Gilbert and Sullivan’s New Comic Opera”). Another reporter likewise noted how the three maids “seem to have walked off an old plate and they toddle around with their toes turned in after the hobbling fashion of the highborn Japanese young ladies” (“Gilbert and Sullivan’s New Opera”). The Academy reporter feminized the “Japanese” man played by the British actor Mr. Rutland Barrington “who has either been to map iconYokohama or to Knightsbridge to excellent purpose.” His “wicked little eyes are very telling, and so is his smooth face, and his placidity of demeanor. And he pads about the stage with the half-feminine courtesy and softness which belong to the cultivated male in the Land of the Rising Sun” (“The Stage”). Reporters thus asserted British superiority not only by associating the Japanese with scenes and pictures but also by feminizing Japanese men.[5]

Theater-goers responded enthusiastically to the fanciful staged world of The Mikado, a world of characters whose Japanese nature was identified in terms of art objects such as fans, screens, and vases. Lee explains that the racial impersonation that relied on the use of art objects brought into relief the “relationship between race and commodity fetishism”—known by Anne McClintock as “commodity racism” (xv).[6] Lee states:

The allure of the commodity racism felt in these first Mikados was potent indeed. The opera is a prime example of how the understanding of racial difference can be shaped by the interaction of consumers and goods rather than by experiences of body contact. The Mikado’s extraordinary power to define what was Japanese harnessed the energies of the Japan craze but also changed its dynamics by placing familiar things into an engaging story. (xv)

British viewers of The Mikado, enamored of Japanese objects, confused Japanese people and things. In so doing, they contained the Japanese to that which was concrete, familiar, and safe. Anna Jackson offers a reason for the British attitudes toward Japan: “By 1876, Japan may well have advanced rapidly, thanks to its contact with the West, and its cultural artefacts could be much admired; however, it was clear that it was only on the first step of the ladder of civilization” (251). The British regarded Japan from a stance of superiority and anxiety. The British fascination with all things Japanese and the confident assertions about the Japanese people revealed a need to classify the rapidly modernizing Japan and to assert dominance over it.

published February 2017

Wendy S. Williams is an associate professor in the Honors College at Texas Christian University. Her book, George Eliot, Poetess (Routledge 2014), explores Eliot’s reliance on a poetess tradition that was deeply invested in religion and feminine sympathy.


Williams, Wendy. “‘So Very Japanny’: The British Reception of The Mikado in 1885.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Cellier, François, and Cunningham Bridgeman. Gilbert, Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte: Reminiscences of the Savoy and the Savoyards. Pitman, 1914.

Cortazzi, Hugh. Japan in Late Victorian London: The Japanese Village in Knightsbridge and the Mikado, 1885. Sainsbury Institute, 2009.

“Gilbert and Sullivan’s New Opera.” Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, 16 Mar 1885, n. pag.

“Gilbert and Sullivan’s New Comic Opera.” Glasgow Herald, 16 Mar 1885: n. pag.

Jackson, Anna. “Imagining Japan: The Victorian Perception and Acquisition of Japanese Culture.” Journal of Design History, vol. 5, no. 4, 1992, pp. 245-56.

“A Japanese Opera.” The Times, 16 Mar 1885, p. 4.

Lee, Josephine D. The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. U of Minnesota P, 2010.

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. Routledge, 2013.

McLaughlin, Joseph. “‘The Japanese Village’ and the Metropolitan Construction of Modernity.” Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, vol. 48, 2007, n. pag. DOI:10.7202/017441ar

“More Interviews.” The Musical World, 14 Mar 1885, p. 166.

“Music: The Week.” The Athenaeum, 21 Mar 1885, p. 384.

Sharun, Sara. “Show Me a Samurai: British Representations of Japanese Manhood, 1895-1905. MA thesis. University of Victoria, 2004.

“The Stage.” The Academy, 28 Mar 1885, p. 230.

“The Tatler at the Theatres.” Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 21 Mar 1885, p. 5.

Williams, Wendy S.  “‘Free-and-Easy’, ‘Japaneasy’: British Perceptions of the 1885 Japanese Village.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net.

Further Reading:

Lavery, Joseph. “The Mikado’s Queer Realism: Law, Genre, Knowledge.” Novel, vol. 49, no. 2, 2016, pp. 219-35.

Beckerman, Michael. “The Sword on the Wall: Japanese Elements and Their Significance in ‘The Mikado.’” The Musical Quarterly 73.3 (1989): 303-19.


[1] See “‘Free-and-Easy’, ‘Japaneasy’: British Perceptions of the 1885 Japanese Village” in BRANCH for an examination of the British response to the Village.

[2] François Cellier and Cunningham Bridgman created a mythical origin for the opera: “One day an old Japanese sword which, for years, had been hanging on the wall of [Gilbert’s] study, fell from its place. This incident directed his attention to Japan. Just at that time a company of Japanese had arrived in England and set up a little village of their own in Knightsbridge” (186). This account has led many to believe that this Japanese sword and/or the Japanese Village inspired The Mikado; but in fact, Gilbert had been working on the opera since May 1884 and completed the first act two months before the Japanese Village opened (Cortazzi 62).

[3] See “‘Free-and-Easy’, ‘Japaneasy’: British Perceptions of the 1885 Japanese Village” in BRANCH for more historical background information.

[4] I am thankful to Josephine Lee for pointing out the fact that the “willow pattern” refers to British chinoiserie and was applied to later Japanese porcelains.

[5] For a discussion of British representations of Japanese manhood, see Sara Sharun’s MA thesis on the topic.

[6] McClintock describes a shift in the culture of imperialism in the last decades of the nineteenth-century from “scientific racism”—which was “embodied in anthropological, scientific and medical journals, travel writing and ethnographies”—to “commodity racism,” which used “Victorian forms of advertising and photography, the imperial Expositions and the museum movement” and that changed the “narrative of imperial Progress into mass-produced consumer spectacles” (33).