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The origins of acrobatics (karuwaza) in Japan

Karuwaza is a general term covering what in the West would be called acrobatics – such as juggling, wire walking and perche acts. Karu 軽 means light, or agile, waza 業 is trick or business. A secondary meaning is “risky business”.

Acrobatics are said to have been brought to Japan from China in the seventh century. Records from that time show that popular arts (both acrobatics and conjuring) from China were known as sangaku 散楽.

During the Muromachi period (1392–1573) a form of acrobatics – largely wire walking and paper walking – called “spider dancing” 蜘蛛舞 (kumomai) was sponsored by aristocrats and military leaders as a type of religious entertainment and incorporated into kabuki. When women (who were usually courtesans) were banned from performing in kabuki in the 17th century, these roles were taken over by young boys aged 11 to 15.

During the early Edo period (1615-1868), Japan became increasingly urbanized and commercialized and acrobatics began to be performed in urban areas as a kind of commercial enterprise for the enjoyment of all classes of society.

When performed by outcastes in the Edo era, juggling and acrobatic feats were known as 放下(hōka, symbolizing “release” and something “below”). According to some, because of the religious connections of many performances, this may also refer to Zen Buddhist monks “releasing” themselves into earthly relations, to a low level in society.

In Britain

Many of those Japanese performers who settled in Britain and elsewhere in the 19th century were tightrope/slack wire walkers (often men dressed as women), feet equilibrists and jugglers – they may also have started their careers as children who were kakubeejishi:

John Gingero

Kintarō (Arthur King Tarro)

Ogawa Torakichi

Tamamoto Chiyokichi

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