Sadayakko: The first Japanese actress who charmed the rest of the world

Sadayakko (貞奴), whose birth name was Sada Oguma, made an appearance at a Geisha parlour at age seven and was patronized by Hirobumi Ito at fifteen. After that she married Otojiro Kawakami, who was famous for a satirical verse titled “Oppekepe”. In 1899, Sadayakko joined Otojiro’s first Japanese touring theatre to America and made her debut as the very first Japanese actress in the country as “Madame Sadayakko”. At that time, because of a Japanese boom in the West, famous artists such as Van Gogh, Manet and Monet got to learn a lot from woodblock prints (or woodcuts) made by Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro.

Sadayakko was both popular and admired in Boston. A quote from that time: “She captured our heart and made us throw ourselves at her feet.” In Washington, she performed for President McKinley, as well as for Prince Edward in England. In 1990, she became the chief attraction at World Exposition in Paris. Jean Lorrain, a poet from the Symbolist movement, stated: “Sadayakko is, metaphorically speaking, a kind of hallucination caused by opium from the Far East. She is as elegant and gentle as Utamaro’s ukiyoe.” Andre Gide, a novelist also known as a severe critic, highly praised her. The famous sculptor, Rodin, had asked her to model for him, but Sadayakko’s tight schedule did not allow it to happen. A 19 year-old Picasso got her to model for him when Picasso was making a poster. In Moscow, she dined with a Russian emperor. Puccini, who was composing “Madame Butterfly” at that time, went to Milan just to see Sadayakko in order to create an image of a heroine.

Yomiuri Shimbun wrote: “Sadayakko left her name wherever she went. Could there ever be a Japanese who gave such an impression of Japan to Europe as strongly as Sadayakko?”