James Rodger Brandon (1927-2015), the late great scholar of kabuki theater, challenged the persistent myth that Faubion Bowers, one of the American theater censors during the military occupation of Japan following Japan's defeat in the WWII, prevented the extinction of kabuki. This allegedly heroic legend that describes Bowers as “the savior of kabuki” remained unchecked for half a century both in Japan and the U.S. until recently.
As late as 1998, the nonfiction writer Okamoto Shiro published a book about Bowers’ contribution to kabuki that reinforced this savior myth. A couple years after, the theater critic Samuel L. Leiter translated into English under the title, The Man Who Saved Kabuki: Faubion Bowers and Theatre Censorship in Occupied Japan (2001). Leiter seems to have considered this translation useful in viewing the myth critically.
Interestingly, at just about the same time Bowers’ heroism started being called into question. Among other critics, Brandon began to argue that this heroic myth needs to be problematized primarily because Bowers played a key role in fabricating and disseminating a series of anecdotes and stories about the heroic savior of kabuki being threatened by politically-driven censorship. Brandon critically scrutinized this false assumption about "Bowers the savior of kabuki" and revealed the truth.
Faubion Bowers, a self-proclaimed kabuki enthusiast since prewar times, has been said to believe that since kabuki traditionally caters for common people, it cannot subliminally encourage them to accept ignorantly feudalism and militarism. This assumption is suggested by his own book, Japanese Theatre (1952, rpt. 2013). Such liberal egalitarianism of his helped motivate kabuki actors, fans, and many other people who were psychologically traumatized by militarism to see him as a hero.
Brandon patiently and meticulously examined historical documents and rerecords concerning Occupation censorship. His analysis brings to the fore what Bowers sought to deliberately ignore these facts and why he didn’t care about them, because he was only interested in himself and your own activities.
He published a monograph entitled "Myth and Reality: A Story of 'Kabuki' during American Censorship, 1945-1949" in Asian Theatre Journal, v. 23, no. 1 (Spring, 2006). This is a 100-page, densely endnoted monograph based on primary historical sources, and is available online at:
According to Brandon, Bowers (1917-1999) was born in Oklahoma and educated at University of Oklahoma, Columbia University, a prestigious French university, and the Julliard Graduate School of Music in the 1930s. Despite this ardent desire to pursue higher education, he left all these schools without receiving a degree.
In 1940 he traveled to East Asia to do research on Indonesian music. While there, he spent a couple of prewar years or so in Japan and became fascinated by kabuki. Although just before the Asia-Pacific War broke out he returned home, he came back to Japan as an interpreter for General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers from May 1947 through May 1948. Most likely his experience living in prewar Japan, and even enjoying kabuki, made him feel much superior in comparison to his peers. He was a proud theater censor assigned to examine kabuki, which had been his favorite.
This natural pride of his suggests that he was not only self-centered ignoring others but also self-conscious having a sense of rivalry or competition. Maybe this self-centeredness suggests that he had a superiority complex that conceals his feelings of inferiority in relation to someone else. More often than not, he felt an urge to ostentatiously display his artistic prowess. All in all, this particular aspect of his personality caused him to create the myth that characterizes him as the savior of kabuki.
On the one hand, Brandon’s pursuit of the truth has uncovered the long-standing myth about the kabuki savior that has unfortunately bewildered kabuki devotees both at home and abroad.
But on the other hand, Brandon came to believe that kabuki should be put on display as a museum piece because kabuki is so old-fashioned that it cannot interact with the 21st-century Japan and the world. Brandon writes:
We need to recall that president Otani [of Shochiku, Japan’s largest production company (then and now) for theater and film] determined Shochiku’s reactionary course of conserving traditional kabuki before the Occupation began. Those who came to censor and to introduce democratic content saw themselves as liberating kabuki from tradition. In the contest, it was the Occupiers who were liberated from the narrow Occupation cause and changed forever by the encounter. The Occupiers came to love the harshly feudal repertoire they had come to destroy. But the only way kabuki changed was to withdraw completely from the modern world. Today, more than half a century after America’s experiment in social engineering petered out, kabuki still delights audiences. But kabuki in the twentieth-first century is not a living theatre. Thanks in part to its protectors, it is a gloriously flamboyant fossil, an artifact of a past world that has nothing to say about today. (p. 83, emphasis added.)
It is ironical indeed to identify and recognize the real hero other than Bowers for having accomplished their daring rescue mission. Yet it was not specific individuals but kabuki itself that prevented from dying out allegedly because of its anachronism. Ironically enough, Brandon’s concluding paragraph mentioned above strongly suggests that this very anachronism helped it avoid total extinction. The 21st-century doesn’t provide a venue for kabuki to further develop and flourish, but instead safe shelter in which to rest in peace.
But even today, “thanks in part to its [contemporary] protectors”, i.e. newer and younger kabuki devotees, kabuki tradition not only stays alive but also keeps evolving. I wonder why Brandon argues that kabuki has been left incarcerated, or entombed, in the museum, despite his decades-long expertise in kabuki and other performing arts. Does he contend that being already fossilized, kabuki deserves peaceful sleep in a storage facility for non-living items?
Let me hasten to add that Brandon recognizes the contribution of Bowers’ peer censors to the then endangered kabuki. He notes:
Bowers was not shy about accepting the title “Savior of kabuki,” saying in one published discussion, “Although I was a censor, I was its savior” (Bowers et al. 1999: 122). What has not been acknowledged is that [John] Boruff, [Harold] Keith, [Earle] Ernst, and [John] Allyn [Jr.] showed their appreciation of kabuki artistry in 1945 and 1946 independently of Bowers. [Stanley Y.] Kaizawa became so enamored of kabuki he studied kabuki dance (nihon buyo) and kouta singing, something Bowers never did (Interview with Stanley Y. Kaizawa, February 2, 2002). Forty years after the Occupation ended, Ernst was incensed that Bowers hogged all credit: “[Bowers] has continued to advertise himself as the person who singlehandedly “saved kabuki”. (p. 18).
A minor erratum: “Ima Hidekai” (p. 8) should be “Kon Hidemi (今 日出海, surname followed by given name first, 1903-1984), a writer and literary critic. I think his colleagues specializing Japanology or those of Japanese descent could have helped him to correct such a slight error.
Additionally, I have a question in regard to the caption attached to one of the pictures in the monograph. This caption on page 80 goes:
Figure 16. At dawn, in the summer 1947, a solitary man walks out of an obliterated urban landscape that was once Hiroshima City. Was it possible to place the devastation of atomic explosions on the kabuki stage? Kabuki producers did not think so. (Emphasis added.)
The italicized comment above makes me feel uncomfortable, even disgusted. This is an offensive joke. Was he not aware that his home country had committed genocide in Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
At any rate, Brandon’s critique of Bowers’ self-proclaimed heroship seems to have encouraged the Japanese media scholar Hamano Yasuki (1951-2014) to scrutinize the historical background of this widely believed myth. Hamano’s book, False Democracy: The Hidden History of Post-War Japan: GHQ, Cinema, and Kabuki (2008), includes two chapters —chs. 5 & 6-- that examine this persistent myth. Unfortunately no English translation is available.
Lastly, let's return to Faubion Bowers. The obituary of Bowers written by the American journalist Eric Pace (1936-2018) can be found at: