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Edging Toward Japan: Kabuki's penetrating psychological insight

"Kanjincho: Ichikawa Ebizo V as Togashi Saemon and Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Musashibo Benkei" (1852) by Utagawa Kunisada

By Damian Flanagan

I always find it regrettable that not just the magnificent drama, but the piercing psychological insight of Japanese Kabuki theatre is not more widely appreciated.

Matsumoto Koshiro VII as Benkei, 1943

A play like Kanjincho (The Subscription List) is one of the great plays of the world. It's one of the most thrilling, spectacular nights at a theatre you will ever have, but the chief reason has little to do with Japan. The play actually offers profound wisdom on how to live your life on a daily basis.

The fascination of the play lies in something elemental: a group of rebels, including the general Yoshitsune and his loyal henchman Benkei, have to pass through an impenetrable barrier. How are they going to do it?

In the play, the rebels are disguised as priests wandering the country raising donations for their temple. Yet when they reach the barrier on the road, Togashi, the commander of the guards, is immediately suspicious of them. An elaborate psychological battle then plays out between Benkei - posing as the chief priest - and Togashi. It's gripping theatre, with a steady ratcheting up of the tension. In the end, just as Yoshitsune is about to be apprehended, Benkei, in an unforgiveable transgression of the samurai code, strikes his own master on the pretext of his being a slovenly porter, and urges him to move along.

A scene featuring the character Benkei in the Kabuki play "Kanjincho" is performed at the Osaka Minami-za theater on July 15, 1941. (Mainichi)

The traditional analysis is that Togashi is so moved by Benkei's preparation to go to such lengths that he sympathetically allows the group to pass through.

Yet for me, the key to understanding this amazing play is to grasp the universal insight in it.

In your everyday life, you will find yourself confronted with obstacles which can seem completely insurmountable. What Kanjincho is telling you is two things: firstly, sometimes you are going to have to do something completely unexpected -- to compromise your most dearly-held principles -- to get past that obstacle. Yet, you can get through ..

Secondly, the obstacle in front of you is, more often than not, a human barrier. The way to get through that opposition, Kanjincho potently argues, is to psychologically disarm your opponent -- make them understand your position, make them feel that it would be unworthy to maintain their resistance.

This powerful psychological insight has much bearing on our daily lives, but it also extends right up to matters of national and international politics. Supposing that you are faced with an implacable ideological opponent that you can't defeat by force? How are you going to turn them round and make them open the barrier? By making them see, Kanjincho answers, that it's their position that needs to be reconsidered.

On an almost weekly basis you can catch me in some personal crisis -- be it business, bureaucracy or thorny family dilemma -- thinking I've got some impossible problem, that this time they've got me for sure. But always Kanjincho advises me to think outside the box, encouraging me to psychologically prise open the human barrier in my way. Before I know it, I am there in my kitchen, face contorted into pain and ecstasy. Like Benkei "bounding in six directions," I start a thunderous victory shimmy down the length of my kitchen units.

If you get the chance to see Kabuki, seize it. And don't get bogged down with historical detail: look instead for life wisdom.


(This is Part 27 of a series)

In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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