National / History | Regional Voices: Hiroshima

Artist shines a spotlight on all-female theater group in postwar Hiroshima Prefecture

Chugoku Shimbun

During the post-World War II recovery period the city of Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, was home to an all-women’s theater group.

Established in 1946, the theater group, based in the city’s Yoshiwa district, was named Hoshigekidan. It performed plays on stage at theaters and became recognized as a source of entertainment for the fishing community.

In an attempt to uncover the group’s history and in hopes of re-enacting a performance in autumn next year as part of an art project, Naho Yokoya, a 43-year-old Tokyo-based artist, has been conducting an oral survey. For the group’s performances, female residents in the Yoshiwa district, led by the late Yaeko Kawahara, acted on stage with the support of some men in an unseen capacity backstage. Kawahara passed away last year at the age of 93.

Hoshigekidan primarily performed at Shurakuza, a theater located in the city’s Higashimoto area. Its performances are said to have featured popular songs, original plays and even scenes with sword fights. The group disbanded in the mid-1950s, and the theater itself was consumed by fire in 1960.

The survey on the group has essentially been carried out by Yokoya together with Tamaki Ono, a 46-year-old professor at Onomichi City University. Ono is head of the managing committee of “AIR Onomichi,” an art event during which artists come and stay in Onomichi and create works during their visit. With help from commissioned welfare volunteers, the pair are interviewing residents who remember the period.

Based on the results of their research, the duo have reproduced maps of the area as well as a scale-model of the theater. Emiko Okada, an 83-year-old woman who lives in the Okigawa district of Onomichi, assisted in their inquiries. “It was a popular acting troupe with many young women,” she said. “Once, the audience filled the theater to its limits and the floor caved in! They wrote a song based on that incident and sang it, which is very memorable for me.”

Yokoya learned about Hoshigekidan in 2013. She was invited to “AIR Onomichi” as a guest artist and spoke with Kawahara about the theatrical troupe while visiting. “I was shocked to learn that there was a theater, led by women, in a fishing town shortly after the war,” Yokoya recalls.

Every year since, Yokoya has visited and stayed in Onomichi in order to conduct research. Hearing stories from Kawahara based on her memories, she learned about how people lived during the postwar period. The drama group recycled empty cans acquired from Occupation forces personnel for use as stage decorations, for example, and compiled stories based on their daily lives.

“I was drawn to the image of independent women that Yaeko had embodied,” Yokoya said.

The re-enactment is expected to take place in the fall of 2020 in Yoshiwa district. Yokoya and Ono are working with local residents and students attending Onomichi City University to put together a program. They are also going to display their findings about the troupe.

“I’d like to unearth the district’s hidden history,” Yokoya said. “That history can be connected to the present as we are getting young students involved” in the story.

This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published on Aug. 27.

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