Japan’s talented ballerinas find opportunities overseas


An increasing number of Japanese ballerinas are appearing on the world stage and winning acclaim, but concerns are growing over the drain of young talented dancers away from Japan where many of them find it hard to make a living.

In February in Lausanne, Switzerland, Madoka Sugai, 17, won first prize in the prestigious Prix de Lausanne competition, which is regarded as a gateway to success for young ballerinas.

“I can’t explain how much I like ballet,” Sugai said at the Sasaki Ballet Academy in Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture, in early April. “There were times when I thought of quitting ballet, but when I dance it surely gives me fun.”

Sugai said she was captivated by ballet at the age of 3 when she went to see her older sister perform.

The teenager, who goes to the academy six days a week, now dreams of becoming a ballerina who performs internationally.

Following her victory in Lausanne, she is set to join a ballet troupe in Hamburg, Germany, this summer, as each winner is awarded a scholarship to an internationally renowned dance school.

“I’m so excited,” Sugai said. “I’d like to dance until I get too old to dance.”

“We will certainly miss her, but we believe she has the ability to perform as a professional dancer with world recognition,” said Mika Sasaki, Sugai’s 49-year-old teacher.

Renowned ballerina Miyako Yoshida was a winner of the Prix de Lausanne in 1983 and one of the jurors this year. Many other Japanese dancers have been active internationally in recent years.

“Japan boasts a broad base of ballet dancers whose population is huge,” said Kumi Oyama, a professor in the junior college department at Showa Academia Musicae in Kawasaki.

A survey that Oyama conducted over three years since 2009 found that an estimated 400,000 or more people, 98 percent of whom were women, were learning ballet at 4,630 schools nationwide, 70 percent of which were small enterprises.

Oyama voiced concern over the often poor working conditions for ballet dancers in Japan, and a resultant drain of young talented ballerinas to foreign countries.

“In Japan, ballet dancing has not been established as a profession and the industry here is based on dancers’ passion,” said Oyama.

“Many talented dancers thus choose to leave Japan and ballet cannot take root as a culture,” she said.

Even the National Ballet of Japan, which was formed as Japan’s sole national ballet troupe in 1997 under the New National Theatre in Tokyo, does not provide salaries to its dancers and only pays them fees for each performance.

The annual income for a soloist — a major dancer just below the principal dancer — is somewhere between ¥3 million to ¥3.6 million with no pension after retirement, according to the troupe.

Oyama’s research also found that most of the ballet schools in Japan are run by individuals.

This is one of the major differences from schools in the United States and European countries such as France and Britain where ballet dancing is an established profession and there are a number of schools affiliated with internationally recognized ballet troupes.

Oyama, who used to dance in the United States, explained that applicants to the Prix de Lausanne competition include many from Asia and South America whose opportunities to perform on stage are limited. Such dancers are looking to gain a foothold at the competition to join ballet troupes in Europe or the United States.

Even after dancers join a troupe, a thorny path awaits them in Japan. They only get the minimum of compensation and often no pension, unlike their colleagues in Europe where they are paid a decent salary based on employment contracts. Pensions are also provided to retired dancers in some countries.

“I feel great joy about this job in which I can move the audience by dancing,” said a 41-year-old dancer who belongs to a major Japanese ballet troupe but did not want her name published. “But financially, I can’t say I’m satisfactorily rewarded.”

The woman first joined a small ballet troupe after graduating from high school.

She was given only a meager salary, yet was asked to pay membership fees and purchase tickets for the troupe’s performances.

To get by, she had to work at convenience stores and fast food restaurants.

She moved to her current troupe, a bigger one, when she was in her late 20s. But she still earns only ¥2 million a year and can’t survive without working at a ballet school in her spare time.

“If I get injured and become unable to dance, there are no guarantees for my future,” she said. “I’m worried about that.”