Tenjiku Tokubei (天竺徳兵衛) (role )



Keiko Suzuki wrote:

"An important point is that “Christian magic” was not monopolized by the Dutch; it was also associated with other tōjin and foreign-related characters. For example, puppet and kabuki plays incorporated wicked “Christian magic” to illustrate how diabolical Tenjiku Tokubei was. In reality, Tokubei (1612–?) was a Japanese sailor who had been to Siam and other Southeast Asian countries before the seclusion was enforced, and that was the reason for his nickname Tenjiku, meaning India. After coming back to Japan, he wrote his memoirs. Although inspired by his life story, playwrights drastically changed his character to one that plots a rebellion against Japan... To make his evilness more formidable, they embellished his stage character by ascribing to him various traits that are associated with foreigners.

For example, the plays identify Tokubei as the son of a Korean official who came to Japan to seek revenge for Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Korean invasions in the late sixteenth century. As Japanese were aware of how brutal the invasions were, they could readily believe that Tokubei would be ferociously anti-Japanese. Moreover, he is described as having learned “Christian magic” from his Korean father. Using magic spells sprinkled with Portuguese words such as Santa Maria and paraiso in fully Japanized pronunciation, he conjures up a giant frog that shoots out fire... Although he is supposed to be coming back from Southeast Asia, he appears in an attush, which usually means an Ainu robe made of bark cloth, but in kabuki means robes with Ezo moyō or distinctive Ainu motifs... Moreover, his hair is reddish, and his pate unshaven, unusual in a society in which the government tightly regulated the physical appearance of the people... It does not seem to matter that the combination of various foreign traits does not make any sense—the more foreign features that were combined, the more terrifying and fascinating Tokubei appeared to the audience. “Christian magic,” being of Korean descent, and sporting a rebellious mind all made this picaresque character very convincing, and this image provided the Japanese with escapism as well as exoticism."


Tokubei plays originated centuries ago, but came to the fore in the early 19th century, 1804, to be exact, with The Tale of Tokubei from India. It “…enjoyed outstanding popularity and established its author, Tsuruya Nanboku IV (1755-1829), as the preeminent playwright of his generation.” Tokubei was based on a real merchant/trader named Takamatsu Tokubei who returned to Japan in 1633 aboard a Dutch ship. Plays about him were performed during the summers in which real water was used “…to distract audiences from the heat. Nanboku also used water and added numerous spectacular tricks (keren) to emphasize his transformation of the tale into a, at times, chilling ghost play (kaiden mono), in tune with the summer Obon (bon) festival in which the spirits of the dead were briefly welcomed home by their families.

The success of the 1804 production of Tokubei from India not only resulted in a series of revivals but also ushered in a whole slew of ghost plays. Previously ghosts had appeared in kabuki to express the yearning of a departed soul. Nanboku — inspired by the new taste of theatregoers for the bloodthirsty and bizarre, an effect of the Bunka-Bunsei (Kasei) era's (1804-1830) social decadence — wrote a series of ghost plays that aimed to terrify audiences….

The play is renowned for its spectacular tricks and unusual costumes, which represent magic and foreign influences on Japan. The play is also unusual for the multiple and rapid scene changes that contribute to the sense of supernatural uncertainty.”

Tokubei doesn’t realize it but he is the son of a Korean warrior who is hell-bent on killing the shogun. His father is in the possession of several powerful tools which help him perform magical feats. Before killing himself the father hands off these magical tools to Tokubei. The spectacles that follow in this play are astounding.

“The play is remarkable not only for preposterous magic and visually brilliant special effects, but also for the dramatic concept of supernatural chaos…”

Source and quotes are from: Kabuki Plays On Stage: Darkness and Desire, 1804-1864, volume 3, pp. 33-35.