Arai Saburo

Japanese showman and businessman

Arai Saburo was one of a new breed of young Japanese businessmen who had worked widely in the United States and were bringing back fresh and expansive ideas. Born the third son of a samurai family in Niigata Prefecture and with no hope of inheriting from his father, Arai was adopted by a wholesaler. Eventually he ran away to Tokyo, and studied English before sailing to the USA in 1884, age 18. In California he did manual jobs while studying horticulture, languages and law. He designed the traditional Japanese house and garden set at the 1893 Chicago World Fair, and in 1896 travelled to West Orange where he purchased two Edison Vitascopes and a stock of films for 3,000 Yen ($1,500). Daniel Grimm Krouse travelled with him as operator. Arai first exhibited in Osaka at the Shinmachi theatre on 22 February 1897, one week after Inabata Katsutaro had opened in the same city with the Lumière Cinématographe, and there was instant strong competition between the two rival machines.

Moving on to Tokyo, the arrival of the Vitascope was heralded by musicians on barges proceeding down the Sanjiken canal while leaflets were handed out to all. Arai opened on 6 March 1897 at the Kinkikan theatre, two days before Yokota Einosuke arrived with the Cinématographe. Both shows vied fiercely with one another but both were hugely popular, Arai's not least because of the appeal of Komada Koyo, the first of the star lecturers, or benshi, who were to become such a prominent feature of the early Japanese cinema. Arai, unlike the populist Yokota, wanted his films to be seen by high society, eventually succeeding in exhibiting at the prestigious Kabuki theatre, where the Crown Prince of Japan came to see the show. Arai subsequently went to work for an insurance company, before returning to the United States where he designed a Japanese village for the 1904 St Louis Exposition. In 1906 he moved to Texas where he became a rice farmer. He later ran a major nursery and landscaping business in Texas for forty years. After the attack on Pearl Harbour the business closed briefly, removing all signs of its Japanese origins.

Luke McKernan (revised January 2004, June 2007, October 2017)