There aren’t many non-Japanese people working in the world of Japanese theater. That’s a shame, because often an outside perspective can help spot weaknesses that the majority aren’t able to see.
The Japan Times sought out some of these outside perspectives to get a sense of their thinking about the performing arts. With the Tokyo Olympics fast approaching, there may be no better time.
William Andrews, 34, works as a freelance writer, translator and editor. A longtime resident originally from England, he has organized the overseas public relations and translation for two of Japan’s major theater festivals, Festival Tokyo and Kyoto Experiment.
Andrews explains that he’d only occasionally been to see plays back home in London, but when he came to Osaka to teach English in 2004 he was immediately drawn to Japanese theater, especially the underground fringe and butoh dance.
Then, as he put all his effort into studying Japanese, he gradually started to work more closely with producers and artists, leading eventually to his involvement with Festival Tokyo.
Back when it started in 2009, he says, the festival focused on scheduling young Japanese theater companies in the hope they’d attract international attention. Now, though, Andrews says some are aiming to make it a showcase for Asian theater, while others want it to concentrate on local or regional Japanese productions.
“I think individual producers are certainly very sincere about the festival’s international approach, but sometimes the attitude of the bureaucrats is not so clear-cut, and often they appear to be using buzzwords like ‘international’ and ‘diversity’ rather superficially without the concrete meaning of those words being explained at all,” he says.
“I think what’s lacking sometimes is clear or inspiring leadership. For instance, lots of organizations, theaters or festivals don’t have proper artistic directors who have real power. Consequently it seems everyone is in a rush to copy each other and make the same kinds of statements and declarations.”
Andrews also mentions a new problem in the Japanese arts scene stemming from the presence of too many large-scale festivals. Many of them, he says, share the same artists and branding instead of creating their own identities.
“For instance, Tokyo has lots of opportunity for something to happen similar to the so-called cultural Olympics in London in 2012, but here the culture side is still very uncertain.” He adds that the scene needs much more public and media attention and has to be more transparent.
“There are a lot of talented artists and people in their 40s in the Japanese theater world and they can be a good force to make the cultural Olympiad a success,” Andrews says. “However, what the bureaucrats have announced have all been quite safe programs involving the same few famous people.”
In contrast, he says that what’s needed is strong leadership by people who will take risks with “sparkling young artists.”
Though Andrews may not have heard of Theatre Iridescence, in both its name and aim this multilingual and multicultural Nagoya-based company seems to fit his “sparkling” bill.
Founded in 2016 by Kim Aya Murray-Kawakami, whose parents are Japanese and British, the company’s mission is to create a new kind of international theater in Japan. While it stages public performances every year, the current focus is on theater workshops and educational programs.
As its Canadian production manager, Denise Hewitt, explained in a recent email, its goal is to be “a bridge between artists from Japan and around the world and to share that with a diverse audience in Japan.”
“We don’t distinguish between Japanese and foreigners as we are trying to break down those barriers,” Hewitt says. “Also, with the 2020 Olympics approaching, Japan should simply embrace that which is different without feeling as though it threatens the culture or tradition it works so hard to protect.”
From her own bicultural point of view, Murray-Kawakami adds, “I think that being an open country means first examining your own preconceptions of who is and isn’t Japanese. People make assumptions about others based on their appearance — the way they think, their life experiences and so on. However, everyone’s got their own story, and our goal is to educate people to be open to the wide range of human experiences and backgrounds.”
When that Olympic bandwagon finally rolls into town in 2020, let’s hope the world at least gets to glimpse more of the diversity that exists beyond the traditional Japanese forms of theater this country is known for.