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Peals of laughter erupt in the audience as the performers onstage go through their routines. It’s not every day that the residents of Kitagawa, a village outside of Kochi, have the opportunity to see a musical performed entirely in the local Tosa dialect, and they’re relishing every minute of it — especially because of the fact that all the cast members are foreigners.

Performers in this year’s Genki Seinen Kai musical take a bow for a full-house audience in Kitagawa, a village near Kochi City in Shikoku.

“The creativity and energy that they bring to our village is something really special,” one elderly woman comments. “These are things you rarely see in Japanese young people these days.”

Re-enacted in rural towns and villages throughout the prefecture in a traveling show that has become an annual spring event, the musical is the work of the amateur drama group Genki Seinen Kai, whose acting talents are drawn largely from members of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. Set up in 1996 by American Brandon Blau, a former JET program coordinator for international relations at the Kochi Prefectural Government, the group aims not only to entertain but also to stimulate interest in Tosa-ben (which, like many other indigenous dialects around the world, is rapidly dying out), while fostering international understanding on the grassroots level.

One indication that the Genki Seinen Kai has gone a long way toward achieving at least the latter goal is the increasing community support of its efforts over the last six years. Funded by the prefectural government, the group has attracted a support network of 50 volunteers, who coordinate and publicize activities. The group collects donations at its performances for a prefectural scholarship program that sends selected local students abroad for foreign language study.

Putting together each annual show is an exercise in group cooperation in itself. Preparations for the April performances begin seven months in advance, when the group meets in Kochi to discuss ideas for the musical. A team of three writers is selected to write the English script; it is then given to a Japanese team that translates it into Tosa-ben. Popular songs that convey the mood of the story are selected, and original Japanese lyrics are written by several JETs with outstanding Japanese language skills. Come February, rehearsals finally begin, just two months before the debut performance.

“It is really remarkable how things come together,” says American Deanna Gunderson, director and co-author of this year’s musical. “Some of us have been in Japan for less than six months and have little or no Japanese-language skill, but when showtime comes in mid-April, everyone knows their lines.”

Despite the musical’s remarkable success, Genki Seinen Kai faces many challenges. Although local CIRs play a major role in getting each year’s performance off the ground, there has been no constant core of organizers dedicated to keeping the group alive, as JET participants stay in Japan a maximum of three years and often less. There is also no guarantee that enough JETs, whose schedules are already busy, will volunteer as actors.

“Many of us, when we’re asked to join the group each year, feel it’s too much of an investment of time,” explains Sally White, a British assistant language teacher stationed near Kochi. “But when the rehearsals begin we remember how much fun it always is, and it’s a chance to get together with other JETs based in rural areas whom we usually don’t meet.”

This year’s play was based on the folk story of Kaguyahime, who is discovered in a bamboo grove as a baby. She grows up to become a great beauty, only to discover that she is from the moon and must soon return. The story is developed the way drama is created on the popular Japanese television show “Mirai Nikki (Future Diary),” in which a small group of strangers are given individual “future diaries” that dictate interaction with other members of the group. Kaguyahime and a suitor are given scenarios to follow. As in any good musical, there are many plot twists that end with an unexpected, yet happy ending.

Much like the story of the Genki Seinen Kai itself.