The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Hironori Naito talks about 30 years of theater projects with the mentally challenged
Robin Hood - Rakuen no Boken
Robin Hood - Rakuen no Boken
Robin Hood—Rakuen no Boken
© Shiga Prefectural Social Welfare Corp.
*Kazuo Itoga (1914-1968)
A pioneer in the education of handicapped children and in social welfare programs in Japan. Born in Tottori Pref., Itoga attended the Imperial University of Kyoto, where he majored in philosophy in the Literature Dept. After graduation he began working in the Shiga prefectural government. After World War II he established the Omi Gakuen facility for war orphans and mentally handicapped children. Later he established the Biwako Gakuen, the first facility in western Japan for children with severe physical and mental handicaps, and numerous other facilities. At the same time he worked to build the nation’s social welfare system through his positions as a member of the Central Children’s Welfare Deliberative Council’s Welfare Council for the Mentally Handicapped and president of the Inclusion Japan (Japanese Association of/for People with Intellectual Disabilities). He approached welfare education with the belief in “Making these children a light for the world.” For these activities, Itoga is known as the leader in establishing social welfare for the handicapped in Japan. His spirit I carried on by many social welfare workers today and in Shiga prefecture where he spent most of his working life, an Itoga Memorial Foundation has been established with the aim of passing on his heritage to the next generation of welfare workers by recognizing outstanding contribution in the field of welfare for the handicapped through an awards program and conducting educational, training, survey and research programs aimed at raising the quality of welfare activities for the handicapped. Among his main publications are Kono Kora wo Yo no Hikari ni (Making These Children a Light for the World), Ai to Kyokan no Kyoiku (Education with Love and Sympathy), Benkyo no Nai Kuni (A Country Without Education), Seishin Hakujakuji no Shokugyo Kyoiku (Vocational Training for Mentally Handicapped Children), Seihakuji no Jittai to Kadai (Status and Issues Regarding Mentally Handicapped Children) and Fukushi no Shiso (Welfare Ideals).
How did the activities we see today in the Itoga Memorial Performing Arts Festival come to spread throughout Shiga Prefecture?
We had actually planned to have our once-in-five-years play last year, but we couldn’t get the funding. So, we decided to do a tie-up with the annual Itoga Music Festival and it happened to be the 10th anniversary of the Itoga Memorial Awards that recognize people working in the field of welfare for the handicapped and so people stated talking about making it a bigger event than usual.
Combining music and theater in this way would make it easier to finance and we could involve patients from other facilities besides the Azami Momiji Ryo facility in the performance. Professor Akihama wanted to see that kind of development, I believe.

But Mr. Akihama passed away suddenly, didn’t he?
Yes. After initiating this proposal, professor Akihama passed away suddenly last summer while on a tour to see how the eight participating groups from the different facilities were doing with their preparations. I had planned to help out after the script had been completed, but he passed away before the script was written!
Originally this was to be a work that only professor Akihama could have done. So what would happen after his death? We started asking ourselves, it was time for his former students to carry on what he had started. This was originally a program that professor Akihama had started and this year’s performance was to have been the culmination of some 30 years of efforts, so we knew he would have wanted the project to be carried through with.
Then professor Tanaka also passed away last autumn, so the program had suddenly lost its two biggest leaders.

So you took over as a sort of pinch hitter?
That’s right. As soon as my company had finished with its summer production, I planned a trip to see what the eight performance groups were doing. But, when I actually saw what the different groups of patients were involved in, I actually had doubts about whether or not it could all be brought together into one theater performance.
Although we used the series of Adventures of Robin Hood for the play they were doing at the Azami Momiji Ryo facility, the contents of the play were actually events that had happened at the facility and topics from their daily life. But this time we had to work in the other performers doing music or dance, and to do that there has to be a story line to connect the scenes into a whole. For connecting scenes into a story, a script of spoken lines is necessary, but we didn’t know if these patients could memorize and deliver lines. So I had to think about what kind of script they could handle.

It was a three-hour performance and I thought that the story was carried along very well with narrators like those used in traditional Japanese Kyogen theater.
The people who did most of the speaking of the lines in the script were the patients from the Azami Momiji Ryo facility who had experience doing the plays in past years and whom I have worked with for many years. In the case of the other players, I thought that if you use an interview format you could get them to deliver lines even if they couldn’t memorize them. For example, if you ask them “What’s your name?” or “What is your favorite thing?” they can answer, and that becomes effectively the same as reciting lines written in a script for the participants who have been doing music or dance.
The important thing is the response from the audience to those words when they are on the stage. It is the response. The important thing is that being on stage makes them seen by people, that the play makes them focus of the attention of other people. Whether it is laughter or applause or a questioning “Hey?” the important thing is that there should be some reaction and that the players experience the feeling of being the focus of people’s attention. When this happens, even children who are quite withdrawn can become more outgoing. They become more inclined to initiate action. I have been watching this process for 30 years, so I wrote the script with the aim of giving every player at least one line or one word to say.
Mr. Itoga used to say, “People become human beings when they are among people.” Within the confines of the a facility like Azami Momiji Ryo there are few occasions when the patients can feel that their presence is being appreciated by others. But when they have the courage to stand on the stage and deliver even one line it opens a new door and it expands their world. So our aim is to use any means we can to give them a chance to say something, say one line on the stage. We all work to get them to speak. We try to get them to stand once in the front line on the stage in a situation where the audience will respond to them. This experience is sure to bring a dramatic development in their behavior. That is what we tried to do.

You were also able to coordinate the costumes and makeup, weren’t you?
We are told that when the patients who are doing music performance they were never coordinated costumes or makeup. So they were all very excited to have costumes this time. But in the final dress rehearsal the day before the performance we had them in costume, but we saved the makeup until the actual performance day, because if we didn’t have something new it would just be a repetition for them.
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