August 14, 2010

One of America's First Teenage Heartthrobs was Japanese

Recently I heard from my older friends that an American orchestral group was touring Japan and playing the Tommy Polka. Puzzled, I looked further into the subject. Turns out Tommy was Tateishi Onojiro, a seventeen year old member of a delegation of besworded samurai that visited America in 1860. Tateishi soon got the attention, a nickname, and a polka titled after his new moniker. These days he would get a parody song and novelty ringtone, but they had class in those days. The New York Times has a good rundown of the the whole thing here. They say:
Tommy was sort of the Robert Pattinson of his day, a heartthrob who had women swooning. “From Washington Heights to East Broadway, Tommy is already a household word,” Vanity Fair gushed. Lapping up the adulation, the young man mugged for the crowds and blew kisses to them, in stark contrast to the iron faces who formed the rest of the Japanese delegation.

They also provided a Walt Witman poem made for the event (it's so long!):
The Errand-Bearers (1860)

Over sea, hither from Niphon,
Courteous, the Princes of Asia, swart-cheek’d
First-comers, guests, two-sworded princes,
Lesson-giving princes, leaning back in their open
barouches, bare-headed, impassive,
This day they ride through Manhattan.

I do not know whether others behold what I
behold pass, in the procession, along with the
Princes of Asia, the errand-bearers,
Bringing up the rear, hovering above, around, or
in the ranks marching;
But I will sing you a song of what I behold,

When million-footed Manhatten, unpent,
descends to its pavements,
When the thunder cracking guns arouse me with
the proud roar I love,
When the round-mouth’d guns, out of the smoke
and smell I love, spit their salutes,
When the fire-flashing guns have fully alerted me
—When heaven-clouds canopy my city with a
delicate thin haze,
When, gorgeous, the countless straight steams, the
forests at the wharves, thicken with colors,
When every ship is richly drest, and carrying her
flag at the peak,
When pennants trail, and festoons hang from the
When Broadway is entirely given up to foot-
passers and foot-standers—When the mass is
When the facades of the houses are alive with
people—When eyes gaze, riveted, thens of
thousands at a time,
When the guests, Asiatic, from the islands
advance—When the pageant moves forward,
When the summons is made—When the answer
that waited thousands of years, answers,
I too, arising, answering, descend to the pavements,
merge with the crowd, and gaze with them.

Superb-faced Manhattan,
Comrade Americanos—to us, then, at last, the
orient comes.
[Read the rest here]

For a Japanese movie about a slightly similar event, wherein Japanese samurai travel to England to learn about Western technology despite the whole affair being illegal, Choushuu Five looks interesting:

In case you are curious about the Tommy Polka—we all love a good polka! no?—I have found a rendition here:


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