People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Playwright Aya Ogawa: Seeing theater as a stage for cultural identity

by Mika Eglinton

Contributing Writer

‘If I had never left Japan, I probably would not have done theater,” says Aya Ogawa, the Tokyo-born Brooklyn-based playwright, director and contemporary drama translator.

“I think the things that drew me into theater in the first place and kept me engaged in it were the ideas of fluid identity and translation,” she says, appearing relaxed in a cozy Manhattan cafe. “As an actor you’re translating what you’re reading on the page through your body. As a director, you’re translating the visions of the playwright on the stage. If I had not moved so much between Japan and the United States and had been raised in one country, I would have a very different sense of the world, perspectives and interests.”

Ogawa’s bicultural upbringing in Japan and the United States, she says, has made her what she is now. Using her linguistic “knife,” she has been carving out a unique trajectory while honing her creative skills for more than four decades.

Born in 1974 to Japanese parents in Tokyo, Ogawa followed her father’s work for the Bank of Tokyo, moving to Houston, Texas and then Atlanta, Georgia, when she was just 2 years old. After her father was transferred back to Tokyo in 1980, she went to an international school from the age of 6. Five years later, the family relocated again, this time to California, where she started acting at her local high school. “I saw it as a way to channel the energy, tensions and experiences as a human being living in uncertain circumstances.” she says, although she was not yet so conscious about her cultural identity onstage. Theater soon, however, became an important outlet for her self-discovery and self-expression.

Ogawa decided to go to New York to study drama at Columbia University. After graduating in the summer of 1997, she joined the International WOW Company, an ensemble-based theater group, as a performer. And, at the same time, she gained American citizenship, which Ogawa remembers as the moment she made “the real conscious decision not to go back to Japan, but to keep living in the U.S. and create theater here.”

Since 1999, however, Ogawa has been increasingly working on more international exchanges. In addition to a WOW collaboration project in Thailand, an encounter with the Japanese playwright-director Yoji Sakate, the artistic director of theater company Rinkogun, who was in New York on an Asian Cultural Council research grant at that time, became seminal points in her career. As a privileged guest artist, Ogawa was invited to work as an interpreter in rehearsals, which led to her co-translating Sakate’s “The Emperor and the Kiss,” an award-winning play about the American Occupation and media censorship in postwar Japan.

“That was really the first time that I used my linguistic ability in the context of theater,” she says, and it was within the context of a male-dominated, hierarchical company that she says felt “almost like the mafia.”

The experience left a profound mark on Ogawa. After translating and directing an adaptation of Yasunari Kawabata’s 1965 novel “Beauty and Sadness” in 2003, she decided to leave WOW in order to pursue a career as an individual artist, working mainly as a playwright and director. Through a process of trial and error, she formed her own nonprofit theater company, Knife Inc., while working full time as a program officer of performing arts at the Japan Society (U.S.).

It was Ogawa’s work at the Japan Society — fundraising, producing, promoting, touring, interpreting and translating — that shifted her life from one dominated by English to one dominated by Japanese. Up to that point, she explains, she had had very little contact with Japanese people and the language, apart from when at her family home where she spoke Japanese with her parents and was encouraged to complete writing exercises in order to learn kanji.

“The environment of the Japan Society was hugely influential. My Japanese ability in general improved by 600 percent through work and socializing. Both of my work life and private life became very Japanese,” she says. “Not only did that have an influence on my language ability, but it also changed the way I interacted with people. I don’t feel I became more Japanese or less American, but my understanding, perception and consciousness expanded.”

Now a mother of two sons herself, Ogawa reflects on what she sees as the “very complicated” issue of language and identity, believing that children can absorb languages before they actually start speaking. Her mother tongue, she says, is Japanese, the language she inherited from her parents, even though her entire education was in the U.S. and she feels more comfortable in English.

“English is incredibly direct,” she says, talking a little about the struggle to juggle the English language with her “Japaneseness.” “Even today I still do have a difficult time in deciphering what Japanese people mean to say, because they never say ‘no’ in a clear way.”

Her Taiwanese-American husband, Ogawa says, “only speaks English as he was raised in circumstances in which bilingualism or multilingualism were not seen as viable. I was luckier than him as I was open to two cultures.”

But with her boys, as a Japanese-speaking mother, she has an unusual approach to bringing them up in a multilingual environment. “I don’t even know the exact reasons why I’m doing this,” she says. “But I pretend that I can only understand Japanese, so my boys have to speak Japanese to me.”

Moving back to Japan, however, seems unlikely. While highly valuing the cuisine, cleanliness, punctuality and functionality that life in Japan can offer, Ogawa explains that she feels oppressed whenever she goes back to visit. “On the train, every single woman wears make-up and many ads promote how to get rid of body hair,” she says. “Sexism is so imbedded in the fabric of society there, you can’t even see it.”

Such sexual and gender prejudices, as well as the linguistic and cultural hurdles have nevertheless been explored in Ogawa’s stage productions. Her 2008 play “Oph3lia,” a contemporary and international take on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” features a female Japanese traveler who immerses herself in New York without uttering a word of English. Ogawa has also just presented “Failure Sandwich,” her Brooklyn Arts Exchange artist-in-residence work based on her “failed” relationship with her late father, while she is currently working on Japanese-Taiwanese-American playwright Kristine Haruna Lee’s “Suicide Forest,” a play that explores Japan’s shame-based society, to be shown next year.

Experimenting with what she calls “ideas of fluid identity and translation” both on- and offstage, it is clear that Ogawa’s exploration of self continues to evolve, reflecting the varied influences and experiences of her life.

Profile

Name: Aya Ogawa

Profession: Playwright, director, translator

Hometown: Tokyo

Age: 43

Key moments in life:

1985 — Relocates to California as a 10 year old where starting acting in school.

1997 — Joins International WOW Company

1999 — Works with Yoji Sakate of Rinkogun

2003 — Steps down from the International WOW Company and starts a career as an individual artist, while working for the Japan Society (U.S.)

2007 — Becomes a mother

Personal strengths: Passion and honesty