Shared cultures take center stage


These days in Japan, it’s easy to see Broadway musicals, Russian ballet, foreign rock acts or even Pavarotti waxing operatic.

In this respect, the cultural gap in the performing arts, especially in Tokyo, has narrowed considerably. However, a unique theater festival, running from this week through Oct. 28 in Tokyo, Toga (Toyama Prefecture) and Shizuoka, aims to make us take a broader view of the cross-cultural world map.

“Waiting for Godot” by Korea’s Sanwoollim Theater Co.“Metamorphosis” by Russia’s Meyerhold Theater Center“Uttar-Priyadarshi (The Final Beatitude”) by India’s Manipur Chorus Repertory Theatre
Beseto Theater Festival photos

The BeSeTo (Beijing Seoul-Tokyo) Theater Festival began in 1994, and every year since then in rotation it has taken place in the three neighboring Asian countries. In a 1994 mission statement, the organizers said: “China, Korea and Japan have developed together as Oriental countries sharing in ancient Asian history. Unfortunately, our relationships have been distant for a long time, even though we are neighbors and have similar cultural roots.

“In meeting the 21st century, we need to begin more active cultural exchanges between these countries.”

The festival has developed to include lectures, a program of folklore acts and a panel discussion alongside stage performances. Earlier this month at the New National Theater in Tokyo, I attended this year’s panel discussion examining the condition of the countries’ cultural exchange in the eighth year of the festival.

During the discussion, after each country’s delegates had explained the state of contemporary theater in their part of the world, the focus turned to similarities they all shared. Among these was each country’s tendency to import Western theater — which delegates agreed was largely because producers found it an easy and reliable source of profits. Overlapping that, they agreed that competing for audiences with large-scale commercial productions was a challenge they all shared.

Equally, panelists highlighted problems unique to their country.

In China, we heard, the performing arts education system almost wholly follows government policy. In Japan, by contrast, performing arts depend largely on the private sector, and panelists cited the backwardness of the public sector in the arts as a major problem. In South Korea, development of the arts took on an extra dimension during the recovery of original Korean culture after the country’s 35-year annexation by Japan ended in 1945. This recovery, we heard, constitutes a significant part of Korea’s modern theater history.

Reflecting these similarities and differences, the two Japanese panelists’ comments were enlightening.

Satoshi Miyagi, founder and director of the Ku Na’uka theater company, addressed the real value of cultural exchange. He said that we [Japanese] should meet people of other nations and appreciate their different cultures in order to the better recognize our own. Also, Japanese could regain their self-respect through being accepted by others.

For his part, Kojiro Suzuki, a researcher in arts administration and vice-director of the Tokyo Arts Center from 1997-99, said that in the history of performing arts in Japan, international cultural exchange had been forgotten for a long time. As a result, the country’s modern theater world had long been complacent. However, he saw the BeSeTo festival as a good opportunity to get to know other theatrical cultures deeply and, through this understanding, to infuse these new essences into Japan’s theatrical culture.

In short, both Japanese panelists saw the BeSeTo Theater Festival as a reminder of the value of experiencing other countries’ cultures — cultures which have been little appreciated here due to the currents of postwar history.

This year’s festival has, for the first time, widened its horizons even further, by inviting theater companies from India, Russia and France to participate.

Altogether, the BeSeTo festival offers a marvelous opportunity to see overseas contemporary theater, especially from Japan’s near neighbors — something, ironically, it’s not easy to do because of Japan’s long-distance love affair with all things Western, and showbiz.