Japanese bureaucracy can be incredibly frustrating, but it also makes great entertainment

by Nobuko Tanaka

In the early summer of 2008, Japan’s theater world was agog as details emerged of a decision by senior board members of the New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT) to replace Hitoshi Uyama, its acclaimed artistic director, barely a year into the job, with the mainstream director Keiko Miyata from September 2010. (See this writer’s JT article on Aug. 14, 2008.)

An NNTT board member present at the key selection meeting, 58-year-old Ai Nagai — a leading playwright and director, and founder of the Tokyo-based Nitosha (Two Rabbits) theater company — immediately put forward concerns about the questionable way the decision was made, only to be denied a response. Nagai then made her questions public in a statement co-signed by many other prominent dramatists, including Hisashi Inoue, Yukio Ninagawa and Yoji Sakate. Still no response or explanation was offered. Consequently, Nagai resigned her board membership in June 2009.

That episode, which she describes as being “nightmarish” and “Kafkaesque,” drove Nagai to write “Katari no Isu” (Chairs for Talking), which is set to open its Tokyo run on Apr. 2.

Coming more than three years after her Yomiuri Drama Award-winning “Utawasetai Otokotachi” (“Men who Enforce Singing of the Song”) — a satirical look at the compulsory singing of the national anthem at school graduation ceremonies in Japan — this new work is just as controversial. Its heroine, Rinko (Keiko Takeshita), is a freelance event planner invited by a local government office to stage a town revitalization program, only to find herself facing obstacles.

When she tries to organize a citizens’ participation-art festival involving placing chairs around town to encourage people to sit down and talk — a idea proposed by local artist Irikawa (Makiya Yamaguchi) — Rinko is blocked by her superiors. Meanwhile local government staffers do all they can to kill the plan.

Nagai recently sat down to talk with The Japan Times about her ideas behind this play.

How much of this play was influenced by the NNTT incident?

Of course I didn’t write this play to embarrass specific people at the NNTT, but I really felt that the whole episode was weird and that there was something seriously wrong. For me, it was a bitter and shocking first experience of working with government officials and appointees.

I also felt the time was right for this play, since one of the key pledges of Japan’s new Democratic Party of Japan government was “to break up the bureaucracy.”

So, with my experience at the NNTT as a starting point, I researched many public sector-private citizens’ projects and tried to make this play cast a universal light on the contradictions found in such organizations as well as focus on the dilemmas that confront individuals.

What did you discover about the nature of bureaucracies?

The play does not simply portray bureaucracy as “bad.” First, we have to ask how bureaucracy became so powerful in Japan, and why it has remained unchallenged for so long.

One of the symbolic characteristics of Japanese bureaucracy is that many meetings are mere formalities: Most decisions have already been made beforehand. I think this reflects the apprehension felt by Japanese people at discussing and arguing out different opinions in group situations. If people were able to have free and lively discussions, then the peculiar kind of bureaucracy I experienced at the NNTT would be a thing of the past.

It’s ironic: Lots of public organizations nowadays describe themselves as being “open”; they even have mission statements to “improve communication with the outside.” But in reality, what they want is to have all decisions made swiftly, internally and without opposition.

Why do you think bureaucrats here have so much power?

I think bureaucracy in Japan is different from other countries. For example, we say “it is sometimes expedient to lie.” I don’t think that would ever be considered in Western countries. In Japan, a person who has stuck to a lie for the sake of a company can even become a hero. People respect those who become victims of their company by lying for the company’s benefit, rather than those who become internal informers.

This creates an ideal environment for bureaucracy — meaning one that is obsessed with secrecy. Japanese people often follow the sayings “do not try to resist the tide” and ” do not resist the accepted view.” That makes me laugh!

Despite its serious themes, you made this play is a comedy. Why?

Everybody at first laughed when I told them about my experience at the NNTT — it was just too absurd. Also, the incident didn’t take place at a small local office — it involved one of the top theaters in Japan, with some leaders of top Japanese companies and titans in the arts world on board. At the key meeting, though nobody else had anything to say, my questions were cut off and ignored completely, followed only by tense silence. That’s surely some kind of black comedy . . .

Your previous play, “Utawasetai Otokotachi” also addressed constraints imposed by authority in society.

Unconsciously, I seem to be becoming a writer who is objecting to the powers that be! (laughs)

But there is something wrong in today’s Japan, I think. While we have experienced tremendous economic growth and developments in technology, our mentality has not grown since the feudal age. Japanese are still not very aware of individual dignity and the right of free expression. In the theater world there is a kind of servitude, with young staff and assistants working like slaves. In companies, too, people work like slaves, working unpaid overtime, etc.

Any thoughts about your next play?

I am going to write a play about a single mother. With the economic recession, all people are concerned about poverty, but single mothers in Japan have always been financially insecure, and they receive little public support. Now, though, such women are creating communication networks and exchanging information. I want to offer a closeup of women in today’s Japan, so we can see face the reality of their lives as well as our own.

“Katari no Isu” runs from Apr. 2 till Apr. 18 at Setagaya Public Theatre, a 2-min. walk from Sangenjaya Station on the Denentoshi or Setagaya lines. It is currently touring till Mar. 28 in Kanagawa, Nagano, Kameido in Tokyo, Osaka and Shiga. For more information call Nitosha at (03) 3991-8872 or visit www.nitosha.net