Shakespeare in Japan part 1: History

V for Vendetta” by Alan Moore and David Lloyd contains many references to Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is considered to be the greatest writer in the western road. Over the length of his career he wrote 37 plays and 154 poems/sonnets. His plays covered a variety of themes and topics: the beauty of love in “Romeo and Juliet”, Spouse conflict in “Taming of the shrew” (which is playing at the Stratford theatre festival), the cost of ambition in “Macbeth”, the problem of uncertainty in “Hamlet” (Also playing at Stratford) and many others. His themes have influenced thousands of writers in the western world. Disney’s “The Lion King” is a modern reimagining of “Hamlet”, “Moby Dick” bears striking resemblance to “Macbeth”and the critically acclaimed British graphic novel “V for Vendetta”  contains many references to Shakespeare. The main character’s first line in the comic is a direct quote from macbeth (Act 1 Scene 2) “The multiplying of villainies of nature do swarm upon him” (Moore 11) It should come as no surprise that the greatest English playwright has had an incredibly powerful effect on the English-speaking world. It is not just the western world however; Japan has also been influenced by the bard’s plays.

Japan first learned about Shakespeare from European tradesmen in the mid to late 1500’s. Specifically in 1600 when William Addams the captain of the Dutch merchant ship de Liefde entered the country. In addition to being a skilled shipbuilder Addams was also a contemporary in Shakespeare. He used the plays to help explain Western society to the Japanese. In 1841 high-ranking official Shibukawa Rokuzo translated Lindley Murray’s “English grammar” from Dutch to Japanese. This allowed the country to finally read and understand English writing  and thus Shakespeare. His plays became very popular to the Japanese who were eager to learn more about the Western world after 200 years of seclusion. His plays began to be published in newspapers and magazines. His most popular plays were “The Merchant in Venice” and “Julius Caesar”. “The Merchant in Venice” was popular due to the trial scene; the Japanese were very interested in using western laws to modernize their own legal system. “Julius Caesar” was the first complete word for word translation of Shakespeare published in Japan (1883). This story was popular due to the political turmoil of the play mirroring the political state of Japan at the time. As one of the editors said “The plot is timely, for Shakespeare writes about the fall of corrupt governments” (Takemura 1933 cited in Kawachi p 3).

meji period of Japan
“Meiji Empress and Steam Ship” by Chikanobu Toyohara 1838-1912.    This painting illustrates foreign steam boats entering Japan for the first time in 200 years. During this time Japan learned about Western ideas and concepts through Shakespeare. Image taken from

To quote Yoshiko Kawachi a scholar on Japanese translation of Shakespeare “ Japanese people learned not only English dramaturgy, poetry and literature but also European thought, culture and manners from his plays and poems. Thus Shakespeare, a national hero of England, became a cultural hero in Japan.”(p. 2) Shoyo Tsubouchi (the man called the father of Japanese modern literature) translated the entirety of Shakespeare’s works into Japanese between 1909-1928.


Kawachi Yoshiko Shakespeare and Japan retrieved from

Lloyd, D. & Moore, A. (1988) V for Vendetta New York. NY: DC Comics



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