Acrobates et jongleurs dans les lettres du Japon de Robert Hewson Pruyn

Robert Hewson Pruyn est ambassadeur (“minister” ; je ne suis pas certain de ma traduction) des États-Unis au Japon entre 1862 et 1865. Les lettres qu’il a envoyées à son épouse depuis le Japon ont été transcrites et annotées par Susanna Fessler et viennent d’être mises en ligne: Fessler, Susanna PhD, “The Letters of Robert Hewson Pruyn” (2022). East Asian Studies Faculty Scholarship. 19 ( Plusieurs d’entre elles mentionnent des spectacles de cirque, americain et japonais. Je retranscris les passages qui concernent ce sujet et ajoute à la fin un document un peu froissé qui pourrait leur être lié.

Carte de visite. “General Robert H. Pruyn. Minister Resident of the United States of America. Yedo”. Photographie par Daderot — CC0,

29 octobre 1863 : spectacle du jongleur Simmons à Kanagawa et anecdote sur ses publicités


With the above exception nothing of interest has transpired. Theatricals (now on the Sémiramis), concerts, jugglers, exhibitions are the order of the night. A Mr. Simmons, an excellent juggler, is now here. He was unable to pay his passage to San Francisco and gave an exhibition. Tickets $2 and received $400. His hand bills gave the representation of a man holding his head under his arm. It is said Japanese circulating these were arrested by the governor. One version says because it was understood as threatening foreigners. As
the handbills were in English this could not have been really supposed. Another version is that the governor thought it foreshadowed a miracle and was a renewal of the pretentions made when the Portuguese were here. He says at that time there were persons pretending they possessed supernatural power and ascended to heaven etc., etc., and [damage] looked as if it bordered on the supernatural. Mr. Hall [damage] of the Eldridge (ship) had several tickets so Ber and I accepted his invitation to see Mr. Simmons whose
performances excelled any I have ever seen.

At the concerts Mr. Sipp, a grand performer, uses one of Boardman and Gray’s pianos owned by Colonel Fisher and it is pronounced equal to any in the East if not superior to all as it is to most. Perhaps if Dawson were told this he could benefit our Albany manufacturers with a first rate puff. I enclose a few handbills, concerts, field sports, etc., etc.


16 mars 1864 : annonce de l’arrivée du Cirque Risley à Yokohama


Civilization, you will observe my dearest, is making rapid progress in its eastward march. Here is a country which is still regarded as debatable ground, the question whether liberality or exclusiveness shall win the victory is even now under debate and none can say what will be the issue and yet here at Yokohama is a large tent with a huge central pole and in that tent and around that pole horses and riders of Risley’s, I beg his pardon, Professor Risely’s, Circus are at the end of the present week to exhibit to admiring spectators.A very extensively traveled monkey is to exhibit marvelous feats
of horsemanship. A Madame somebody ending in ninny or ini, of course radiantly beautiful, is to do something exceedingly graceful. American diplomacy first opened this country partially to foreigners and now that this attempt has been made to thrust us out when once in and slam the door in our faces, why should not an American Circus come to the rescue? Who can tell whether it may not show such surpassing feats of grand and lofty tumbling as to put the Japanese to shame.


1er avril 1864 : prix du ticket au cirque Risley ; de la glace au Japon, autre apport de Risley


Japan you will see is making vast strides in civilization. At the reception of Lady Alcock last evening we had lemon ice, the product of a machine brought out by Sir R[utherford]. Risley’s Circus has also made its appearance and the Japanese admire the clown very much though the very poorest I ever saw. Large number have gone to see it but I imagine the most of them are servants of foreigners who have tickets given them. My servants were very glad to go. But as the price of admission for the Japanese is one itzabu I imagine few would be forthcoming if payment was to be made from their own pockets. The Japanese are very fond of champagne but never buy it. The price of
admission to the circus for us outside barbarians is only $3 which you will see is exceedingly cheap for so intellectual a performance. A further advance is made by the arrival of a soda water apparatus, though the absence of ice will be a great drawback to its success. An ice house is already talked of and when you consider that this place is already as far advanced as Shanghae was four years ago, it is probable that even that may soon be an accomplished fact.


13 juin 1864 : échec du Cirque Risley


The circus proved rather a failure here. One or two performances will attract,
whether concert or theatre or circus, but to sustain anything, the population being so small, tickets must be sold at 2 or 3 dollars and extravagant as they are in this eastern world, such entertainments will not bear repetition, especially when of so insignificant and spiritless a kind as Professor Risley’s Circus, which has probably at successive stages left all its merit behind, so that now it can be found no one [sic] than in a play bill.


11 août 1864 : Pruyn utilise les services de jongleur japonais à Yedo (= Tokyo)


I forgot to say I gave a grand entertainment the night before I left Yedo, at which I had jugglers and top spinners. I had sent for them but they were unable to come that evening whereupon I gravely told a governor of foreign affairs who visited me that I was sorry as I wished to give the guard an exhibition and I should be obliged to stay another day. This brought the gentlemen quickly. I will tell Charlie1 what they did.


16 novembre 1864 : description d’un spectacle de jongleurs japonais de toupies (Yokohama)


Socially we have the usual round of amusements with very little variety. On Monday I gave a grand entertainment to about 300 people at 2 o’clock p.m. in a large building recently built by Mr. Benson, very handsomely furnished and still unoccupied, room 60 x 40. I had my Yedo top spinners and butterfly man and the band of the 20th regiment stationed outside. The top spinning I have described. But on this occasion a large number of new tricks were performed such as spinning a top on the point of an egg. I was about getting the egg as many supposed it was marble when perhaps intentionally
it was suffered to fall and doubts were solved. A top was also set going and placed on the handle of a fan and caused to move till it reached the end when the fan was raised upright and while the top was spinning on the corner the fan was opened and the top made to move till it reached the center, resting on the paper edge alone and moving along that narrow causeway. Then again while the performer was fanning himself a top was spinning on the corner of the fan nearest to him. A top was placed which spinning on a tea cup filled with water and a fountain played up through the spindle. Another top was tied up in a cotton cloth and made to spin 7 minutes by the watch, by moving
a fan a few times. Five tops were placed on the corners and center of a small board held in the hand and perfectly at rest and then successively in the order he pointed each was made to spin while the others were at rest. Try and move any object in the center of a board and keep these at the corners from moving and you will be able to understand the difficulty of this. The way in which they invisibly spin the top is to throw it quickly and sharply from the person and following it back catch it in the hand. This they do with very large tops. They spun one top and raised it from the floor on the hand which weighed fifty pounds.


Il existe un autre compte-rendu de ce spectacle, par l’homme d’affaires et journaliste Francis Hall, qui témoigne du même enthousiasme que Pruyn pour ce spectacle de toupies2.

Un prospectus de jongleurs de toupies à l’Université d’Albany

Puyn a fait don à l’Université d’Albany, son alma mater, d’une collection d’objets japonais ou en rapport avec son séjour japonais, et la bonne fortune fait qu’un visiteur a photographié et déposé sur Wikimedia Commons un document que, me semble-t-il, on peut mettre en rapport avec le fait qu’un troupe de jongleurs de toupies japonais s’est produite plusieurs fois à son invitation devant le diplomate.

Prospectus pour la troupe de Matsui Gensui3; Robert Hewson Pruyn collection – Albany Institute of History and Art ; Photographie par Daderot — CC0,

Citer ce billet : Alexis D'Hautcourt, « Acrobates et jongleurs dans les lettres du Japon de Robert Hewson Pruyn ». Publié sur Acrobates japonais en France le 28/10/2022. Lien :
  1. Sans doute son plus jeune fils, Charles Lansing Pruyn (1852–1906). []
  2. F. Hall et F.G. Hotehelfer, Japan through American Eyes: The Journal of Francis Hall, 1859-1866 (Boulder, 2001) (non vidi), cité par Schodt, Professor Risley, p. 137. []
  3. Sur cette troupe, qui plus tard tournera autour du monde, notamment en France en 1867, voir Schodt, Professor Risley, p. 180-184. []

Toupies japonaises et blog ethnologique

Un autre article du Asahi Shimbun (Associated Press, Edo-style spinning tops tell stories, aim for playfulness, The Asahi Shimbun (31 octobre 2018) informe des recherches que mène Paula R. Curtis, doctorante à l’Université du Michigan (University of Michigan).

Elle a créé un beau site sur l’histoire et les traditions des 江戸独楽 (Edogoma), “les toupies d’Edo”, centré sur des entretiens avec un vieil artisan de Sendai: Carving Community – The Landis-Hiroi Collection.

Comme exemple des toupies que l’on trouve dans cette collection, voici un specimen de 唐子の蝶々遊び (karako no chōchō asobi) , d’ “enfant chinois jouant avec des papillons” :

Image © Janell Landis, reproduced with permission from Carving Community.

J’invite mes lectrices et lecteurs à se rendre sur le blog Carving Community pour écouter (et lire la traduction) le commentaire de Michiaki Hiroi, l’artisan qui a sculpté cet objet.

C’est ici l’occasion de rappeler que la manipulation des toupies faisait partie du spectacle des jongleurs-acrobates japonais, comme le montre, par exemple, cette estampe d’ Utagawa Yoshiharu:

Metropolitan Museum of Art 2009.434.3, domaine public

Liens du mois (Octobre 2018)

Une toute petite liste ce mois-ci, toutes mes excuses

Au Japon, l’acrobatie est pratiquée publiquement dans les écoles par des enfants lors des festivals des sports (undokai): les étudiants forment des pyramides humaines et cela n’est pas sans danger, comme le rappelle tristement cet article de journal: H. Hashimoto, Parents seek redress over human-pyramid death of son, The Asahi Shimbun (2 novembre 2018) (avec une petite vidéo de l’accident et de son contexte)

Un autre récent article de journal montre que la manipulation de toupies, qui faisait partie du répertoire des jongleurs que nous étudions ici, a encore quelques adeptes au Japon: Y. Saito,  Youngster spins way to world title at contest of spinning tops, The Asahi Shimbun (26 octobre 2018).