Rough transition raises issues over F/T’s future

by Mika Eglinton

Special To The Japan Times

On Dec. 18, 2013, the Festival/Tokyo website announced that following the implementation of “a new administration system,” Program Director Chiaki Soma, 38, would resign from her position and be replaced at the end of March 2014 by Sachio Ichimura, 64, the then chairman of F/T’s executive committee.

The statement went on to praise Soma’s six-year stint at the helm of the annual flagship event, stating that “it has attracted attention from around the world as a festival aspiring to create new values for the arts, and has grown to be an international performing-arts festival that represents not only Japan but also the whole of Asia.”

However, no official explanation of the change has been forthcoming from F/T’s executive committee; no questions have been asked in public by Arts Council Tokyo, part of whose declared mission is to foster “the autonomy and originality of culture and the arts”; and the independent Tokyo Culture Creation Project, a body that annually evaluates F/T, has also remained mute.

In fact the only critical response to Soma’s sacking — aside from a deluge on social-networking sites — appeared in the online magazine RealTokyo in an article by its Editor-in-Chief, Tetsuya Ozaki.

Drawing on interviews with Soma, Ichimura and prominent European festival directors including Frie Leysen, Stephanie Carp and Romeo Castellucci, Ozaki denounced the “closed-door politics” of F/T’s executive committee and its “lack of public accountability and consensus.”

However, behind those closed doors it seems Tokyo’s successful bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics changed the climate surrounding F/T. This would, of course, be a supreme irony considering that when the Tokyo Metropolitan Government launched F/T in 2009 to revamp its long-running Tokyo International Festival, part of its mandate was to boost the city’s cultural standing in order to enhance its Olympics bid.

Added to that, it was Ichimura — still the longstanding chairman of Arts Network Japan, a key organizer of F/T — who appointed Soma as F/T’s program director when she was just 33.

As the head of ANJ, Ichimura also encouraged Soma to pursue her vision of rethinking theater and performance in Japan as a sphere in which to respond to pressing social and political questions.

Yet it was Ichimura who suggested — after the success of Tokyo’s bid for the Olympics — that a change of directors was needed in order for F/T to receive more funding and administrative freedom from TMG going forward. Then Ichimura was slated to replace her.

Really, though, why was Soma abruptly dismissed when F/T was thriving — and she was on maternity leave?

In conversation with her recently, it was obvious that she remains in the dark — though she suspects it had to do with her thought-provoking style as a single director clashing with one of those traditional group-led models of authority that still presides over many of Japan’s institutions.

However, with Ichimura declining to comment for this article on Soma’s removal or her achievements as F/T director, the real answer remains locked behind closed doors — even though that December 2013 F/T statement also vowed to “create a more open festival structure.”

This is not to suggest that Soma’s directorship was flawless. At times, the programming risked becoming too insular with its repeat invitations to in-vogue artists and companies, and also too Eurocentric. But on the whole, Soma leaves behind a solid legacy of nurturing transnational creative partnerships, innovative performance and fearless challenges to the status quo.

If this is to survive as a driving force of the festival, then it seems imperative to push for greater transparency and critical scrutiny of executive decision-making processes through independent bodies — and also through domestic journalism fulfilling its supposed mission of holding those in authority to account.

Without such probity, large-scale cultural projects like F/T and the 2020 Summer Olympics risk being little more than exercises in self-serving commercial euphony such as those still glossing over crucial questions surrounding the ongoing Fukushima nuclear catastrophe.