We don’t often think about Japan’s economic and technological superpower status these days. The Fukushima disaster in 2011 showed a terrible limit point for Japan’s tech-fixated politics. And now in the realm of high-end tech, there are so many companies and products from China, India, and Korea competing on what used to be Japan’s turf.
Like it or not—and many people in Japan do like it, nationalist politicians notwithstanding—Japan is no longer alone in Asia as a major economic, political, and cultural player. The need to coexist with close neighbors in the region has sometimes been challenging for Japan, as it has also been for other countries. As borders are challenged and globalization helps to determine economic and cultural production, the need to belong to its region is for Japan now an existential question. And an uneasy, somewhat shifting status quo between the major powers is a feature of contemporary life in Asia.
The situation of contemporary theatre and performance in Japan has also shifted, and is both an excellent marker of and participant in some of these larger shifts in the Asian region, and in response to global modernity more broadly. Before saying more about this, it is necessary to say something more about what the contemporary theatre is in Japan and how it evolved.
The Modernist Tradition
Classical theatrical forms such as noh, kabuki, and bunraku are well known as exemplars of traditional Japanese aesthetics, and all continue in their own ways as vibrant performance genres to this day. But since the early 20th century, Japan also developed a modern theatre that includes examples of experimental, realist, and naturalist plays and performances. Remarkably, this modern theatre developed synchronously with the European, mainly German and Russian, expressionist avant-garde theatre of the 1910s and 1920s. In this period Japan was one of the centers of innovation in the fields of literature, film, visual arts, design, and theatre, a point often overlooked in histories of the European avant-garde.
Following the U.S. dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan’s wartime surrender to the Allied forces in August 1945, Japanese society was remodeled with broadly Western and specifically U.S.-directed reforms designed to rid Japan of its feudal past and strengthen Japan so it might act as a buffer in the geopolitical ambit of the newly emergent Cold War. For a period after World War II, Japan was a conspicuously pro-Western power aligned with the U.S., while large parts of Asia were under communist rule or were ruled by propped-up authoritarian dictatorships.
One of the less expected outcomes of the early postwar era is that the modern “new theatre,” or shingeki, returned with renewed energy, and major writers and companies performed a mix of translated Western plays and also produced original Japanese productions, developing their own unique modernist theatres. Shingeki was a leftist theatre critical of Japan’s imperialist wartime history, and it has grown into a popular and enduring medium of modern theatre.
During the 1960s, a rebellious new movement of theatre emerged in Japan, again synchronous with and joining with counterculture and new aesthetic movements internationally. Variously called the “little theatre movement” (shôgekijô), “underground theatre,” (angura) and “post-shingeki” theatre, this movement featured an expressive and visceral melding of Japan’s cultural traditions with 1960s rebellion and avant-gardism. Angura gave a strong focus to the physicality and expressive range of the body, and its plays were a mix of transhistorical, absurdist, and mythic stories. Initially taking place in storefronts and on university campuses, the angura movement was interdisciplinary, syncretic, rebellious, and decisive in the development of a contemporary theatre in Japan.
The playwright/director/performer Jûrô Kara, leader of the theatre group called Situation Theatre and later Red Tent; the director and actor/trainer Tadashi Suzuki, who founded the Suzuki Company of Toga, or SCOT, in 1974; and the director and playwright Makoto Satoh from the group Theatre 68/70 Back Tent were major forces in the angura scene. They were also pioneers in thinking about how Japan’s theatre might begin to make significant regional connections across Asia to express solidarity with and learn from the artists around them instead of looking only to Europe or the U.S.
Here begins a remapping of cultural histories and networks of cultural production that have by now significantly evolved. Kara, for example, wrote plays mixing wartime memories of Japan’s occupation of Korea and China with radical inversions of time and space in which Japan is given over to mythology on the one hand, and the everyday of the contemporary world on the other. In the ’60s he toured his company to Korea and China both as an artistic gesture and for political reasons, in solidarity with artists and cultures in the region and as a subtle critique of a Western-centric view of modernity. Satoh’s group also critiqued Japan’s wartime imperialism. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he developed a pioneering translation and exchange project for playwrights in the region called the Asian Playwrights Series, with seasons in Melbourne at the Victorian Arts Centre and in Tokyo at the public theatre Za Koenji, where Satoh was the artistic director. Meanwhile Suzuki developed many different avenues for artistic exchange, including an annual international arts festival at the small mountain village of Toga Mura, also the home base for his theatre group. In 1994, he also co-founded the influential BeSeTo festival for theatre exchange between Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo, and he continues to work actively in the region.
On and Off Center
In the 1980s Japan experienced an era of high economic growth, and its technologies and cultural productions become much more widely known around the world. Viewed from Europe and the U.S., Japan was often seen as a postmodern/cyberpunk culture that influenced the Western dystopian imagination in films such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and the landmark cyberpunk novel Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984). In Gibson’s imagination, the future-to-come of climate decay and corporate government is already incubated in 1980s Japan.
At the height of trade war tensions between Japan and the U.S. in the 1980s, Scott directed the racially stereotyping “Japan-bashing” film Black Rain (1989), which depicted Japan as a postmodern wonderland of gangsters, salarymen and exotic fakeness in comparison to the broken but “authentic” machismo of the U.S.
Meanwhile the so-called “tiger economies” of Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong (before the handover) were watching and learning from Japan, and began to develop their own tech and media economies, and their own substantial culture industries soon followed. Manufacturing of media technologies and the creative production of manga and anime spread to mainland Asia—an example of what the Japanese cultural theorist Kôichi Iwabuchi called the rise of the “rouge flows” of “trans-Asian cultural traffic.”
In the theatre world, Takeshi Kawamura’s Tokyo-based Daisan Erotica group drew on references from U.S. sci-fi and cyberpunk to make plays about Japan’s evolving youth scene and cultural dystopia, including the landmark 1984 work Nippon Wars, loosely based on Blade Runner. The company was a brilliant chronicler of Japan in the era of the bubble economy, when Japanese were drawn toward the allure of wealth and with conspicuous consumption was on the rise. Daisan Erotica honed in on the distortions and levels of despair lurking behind the gloss.
The company enjoyed considerable international attention in the 1990s, including showing their work in Europe, Australia, and the U.S., where Kawamura was also a guest director at the theatre program at New York University. Kawamura closed Daisan Erotica in the early 2000s, and since then he has worked as a playwright and director under the name of T Factory. He has returned to New York several times, as it’s a city he draws inspiration from.
In 2015, Kawamura’s anti-death-penalty play 4 was given a public reading in English translation at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at the City University of New York. In 2018, he returned again to show the results of his three-year collaboration with the New York-based writer and director John Jesurun, a work called Distant Observer: Tokyo/New York Correspondence, at La MaMa.
In Kyoto, the arts and performance collective called Dumb Type pioneered a new kind of contemporary media and dance performance that explored themes such as information overload (pH, 1989), gender, sexuality, and HIV-AIDS (S/N 1994), and the afterlife (OR, a 1997 memorial to Dumb Type co-founder Teiji Furuhashi, who died of AIDS-related illness). Contemporary themes and issues such as postmodernism and biopolitics permeated their works, which toured widely around the world. Composed of a group of artists with backgrounds in design, new media, algorithmic choreography, and modern music, Dumb Type staged immersive performances blending screen, image, body, and sound with dramaturgical perspectives informed by critical theory and activism. By building bridges between dance and the performing arts and performance and visual arts, they showed new pathways into new-media dramaturgy.
In terms of regional connections, Oriza Hirata’s 1989 play Citizens of Seoul (Seoul Shimin) was a breakthrough work. It depicted a Japanese family who own a stationery shop in the city of 1909 Hansong, present-day Seoul, one year prior to the annexation of Korea by the Japanese. The play uses colloquial language to depict the everyday lives of the members of this bourgeois family, all while events in the background unfold that chart the beginning of the end for the imperial Japanese project and its catastrophic vision of modernity. With this play Hirata’s theatre group, called Seinendan, began a long involvement with Korean artists, and Hirata’s prominence in national arts advisory positions and important university posts has been central to establishing new directions and connections for Japanese theatre in the region.
In the 1990s many artists began to widen their connections to artists, producers, and festivals in the region, and “interculturalism” became a buzzword for theatre in Japan. Keng Sen Ong, the Singaporean theatre director and artistic director of TheatreWorks, worked with the feminist playwright Rio Kishida to produce two influential productions, Lear (1997) and Desdemona (2000). Both productions consciously and critically reworked canonical plays, radically adapting and remaking their Shakespearean sources and using a mix of classical and contemporary performers and acting styles drawn from across the Asian region.
Kishida had worked closely with the famous angura artist Shûji Terayama and later established her own company, Kishida Office (Kishida Jimusho), in partnership with another group called Rakutendan. From the 1980s until 2003, when she died, Kishida was actively connecting with female performance-makers in Korea. Her work drew on themes of colonialism, and her critical stances on history, gender inequality, and Japanese imperialism were mirrored and enlarged in her collaborations with Ong.
Networks and Cultural Production
Japan’s heady days as an economic superpower were short-lived, and the neoliberal economic order that has been in play since the 1980s has created inequalities and a decline in living standards for many Japanese. Such troubling events as the Aum Shinrikyo’s gassing of the Tokyo subway in 1995 and the ongoing fallout of the Fukushima disaster in 2011 have marked wider moments of national introspection, amid rising right-wing nationalism and a rapidly aging population. Meanwhile China’s economic and political expansion in this century has eclipsed Japan’s own rapid growth, creating uncertainty and stoking bellicose nationalism on both sides.
Though active since the 1990s, Toshiki Okada burst onto the theatre scene in the early 2000s with a remarkable prescient vision of people adrift, aimless and lost. His 2004 work Five Days in March (San Gatsu no Istukakan) that told a story of two people hooking up for sex in a “love hotel” while the television showed the U.S.-led “coalition of the willing” and their trumped-up invasion of Iraq. It was a brilliant synecdoche for hapless members of the “lost decade” (shinawareta jûnen) generation.
If Japanese society in this period was less certain of itself and daily life was becoming more precarious, the theatre was also breaking into different streams and ideas. We are no longer able to discern one movement or group of representative artists. The angura production system no longer worked, and as one Japanese critic was known to comment, “everyone is doing everything.” There are artistic directors and cultural producers who are influential at the national level and run major theatres and/or festivals such as Hideki Noda, Satoshi Miyagi, and the contemporary-thinking kyôgen actor Mansai Nomura. And there are major contemporary artists working internationally: Okada; Akira Takayama’s “theatre of the real” group, Port B; and Yûdai Kamisato and his group Ozaki Art Theatre, who explore questions of migration, cultural appropriation, and identity. These artists are among a generation of performance makers who show their work at international arts festivals, and these festivals—in Europe, parts of Asia, Australia and to some extent, the US—are an important part of the way that contemporary performance is sustained and circulates to audiences internationally.
Chiaki Soma, who from 2009 to 2013 was the internationally respected artistic director of Festival/Tokyo, now leads a grass-roots project called Theatre Commons Tokyo. TCT was founded as a “collective space for society to harness the collective wisdom of theatre” and has created substantial networks of artists and cultural producers in the region. “I want to break out of this sluggishness by helping to foster a style of theatre that works directly and deeply on each person… And though our movement so far is a very small step, one day I want to run a theatre that has that new kind of mission,” Soma told The Japan Times in 2018.
Another example is Hiromi Maruoka’s revival over the last decade of the Tokyo Performing Arts Meeting (TPAM). Though the first TPAM was held in 1995, it was given new relevance as a creative meeting place under Maruoka’s leadership. Since 2015, TPAM has expressly focused on creating networks among Asian-based performing artists and cultural producers, partly with an eye to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. In a theatre world that has often been dominated by men, Soma, Maruoka, and the producer Akane Nakamura, an executive at the producing organization precog, represent a new generation of Japanese culture makers who have built networks and collaborations internationally. Their approaches to theatre as a medium of collaboration and participation are helping to redefine theatre in the contemporary moment.
All these artists and their expanding networks are of central forces of resistance against the fossilized, parochial constructs of many of Asia’s current political leaders and the corrupting tendencies of neoliberalism. We don’t have to look far to see that these are global challenges for us all. Indeed, as these examples of Japanese artists and cultural producers show, the growth of arts networks in Asia is one of the progressive hopes for our global future.
Peter Eckersall is a dramaturg and author of multiple publications. He is professor of theatre studies in the Ph.D. program in Theatre and Performance at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and Honorary Professorial Fellow in the Department of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne.