Public theater takes on a leading role


Special To The Japan Times

Once upon a time, Japanese contemporary theater shared the limelight with youth-cultural movements that were rocking the nation. Back then, in the late 1960s and ’70s, the avant-garde works of the angura (underground) theater scene had such an affinity with the radical student movement that they often made the headlines in newspapers.

“Many of us got prestigious prizes from the cultural mainstream, which is quite incredible to reflect on now,” recalls Makoto Sato, who, along with Shuji Terayama, Juro Kara and Tadashi Suzuki, was one of the main figures of the movement. “In fact, reports of our activities often appeared on the national news pages in papers, not just on the cultural pages.”

Sato is now the artistic director of the public Za-Koenji Theater, which, in Tokyo’s western Suginami Ward, was built and paid for — like many in the regions and in big-city wards — by central and local government taxes.

Born in Shinjuku, central Tokyo, in 1943, Sato said that when he was small there seemed to be events and festivals at every turn, and it was because of that he was drawn to theater.

Now, having being the inaugural artistic director of Setagaya Public Theatre (SEPT) in Tokyo from 1997 to 2002, prior to joining Za-Koenji when it opened in 2009, Sato’s experience gives him a rare insight into Japan’s theater scene. Speaking at his office in the huge, black, tent-shaped theater, Sato shares some of those thoughts with The Japan Times.

At SEPT, you dramatically changed the way public theaters in Japan operate.

Well, public theaters here used to just rent out the space willy-nilly, and not function as artistic and cultural hubs of their localities.

So I took on the role of artistic director, which was rare in a public theater. I planned our programs and sometimes created original works — I tried to give the theater an identity. We also hired specialists to bring together all the creative and technical people involved in our productions and pass on their know-how to a new generation.

SEPT opened in 1997, when Japan’s bubble economy was still roaring along. What happened after that?

I thought there would soon be lots more public theaters around the country enjoying new freedoms and having artistic directors. But when the bubble burst a few years later, SEPT was left in its privileged position with a big budget and high artistic profile.

That meant young dramatists had few opportunities to become artistic directors and learn how to run a theater and use public money. If we had a system of artistic directors, who worked terms in different theaters, they would be more experienced — and one of them could eventually take the role at the National Theatre to lead theater in Japan. Without such a system, though, artistic directors are randomly appointed and the title actually means little.

What do you want to achieve at Za-Koenji?

I’d like this to be a model for all those public theaters that don’t have the budget and staff that SEPT does.

I declared the mission of Za-Koenji to be “Theater for the town.” Even if residents are busy with their jobs and can only come occasionally, we can still work with them — for example, by providing a rehearsal space for when there is a street-dance or music festival, and by helping to organize festivals, too, because we are good at that.

By doing these kind of things, the community can learn to understand theater in a broad sense — not just as a place where performances are staged, but as a space that’s really open to local people.

We are also dedicated to staging great plays from the past, because works come and go so quickly in Japanese contemporary theater, and it’s important to keep the best ones alive, even though they metamorphose with every performance.

Finally, unlike many theaters, which close their doors when there are no performances, we are open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. almost every day of the year. To encourage people to drop by we have a cafe and restaurant, and we host flea markets, workshops and lectures.

At Za-Koenji, you particularly cater to children. Do you think theater is particularly good for children?

Well, let me say that to begin with, I don’t think theater is inherently a “good thing” for children. For instance, at school kids learn not to steal from others — but in dramas they’ll see people who can’t survive without stealing. But if they see both sides of the story, they’ll understand why thieving is a crime.

I think if theaters want to attract more people and make the stage more of a major medium, it has to be more interesting. If children aren’t keen to go to the theater, that’s because they’re not interested enough. Children are very honest, but many dramatists ignore such realities and they tell us that theater is somehow good for developing a child’s character and that the government should give more money to theater education programs. But that’s a sophism they use to try to get subsidies.

How will theater survive in the future?

I think we should build a dedicated body of theater professionals, people who are not theater devotees but more practical specialists. Also, we should ensure theaters can operate on a firm financial foundation that pays actors properly so they don’t need other jobs to pay their rent. We also need to lure back talented and creative people we’ve lost to other media such as TV and music — and established older dramatists must allow them to do things their way and not force traditional practices on them.

In a nutshell, one of public theater’s duties should be to employ young creators and train them as professionals.

Personally, rather than focus on creating my own works, I’d rather devote my energy to developing theater culture in Japan — and that’s because live theater can show all manner of contradictions in life and go so far beyond the constraints of words.

Finally, what do you think theater can contribute to the nation since last year’s March 11 disasters?

The dramatist’s main duty is to preserve the correct words for the next generation.

I would like to remind playwrights and directors that all Japanese were afflicted by the Great East Japan Earthquake, the tsunami it triggered and the ongoing nuclear disaster — not only those in Tohoku. It’s also complicated because, in a way, we are both the victims and perpetrators of that accident. I think writers should regard the nuclear disaster as a global issue that affects the future course of mankind.

“Futago no Hoshi (Twin Stars)” by Kenji Miyazawa and directed by Makoto Sato plays Aug. 30-Sept. 18 at Za-Koenji. For more programs at Za-Koenji, visit