The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
As the Yokohama Noh Theater ventures into the uncharted field of traditional arts production, attention focuses on its planning expertise
This is an operetta that premiered in London in 1885. It was created within the Japonism boom that occurred after the holding of a Japan Exposition. It was written by William S. Gilbert and the music composed by Arthur Sullivan. It is a knockabout play that takes place in a fictional country and includes satire of the British high society and the servant class. According to the History of Japanese Opera by Keiji Masui, there were frequently productions of Britain’s popular Gilbert and Sullivan plays in Yokohama, due to the city’s large British expatriate community. In 1887, two years after its London premiere, the Saliger Company came to Japan and gave performances of the play at the Yokohama Public Hall on April 28 and 30. Due to the fact that a “Mikado” appears in the play and the title, implying the Emperor of Japan, the title was changed to Sotsugyo Shita Sannin no Otome (Three Graduated Debutantes) and some modifications were also made in the script to avoid disrespect toward the Imperial Family. After that, performances of the operetta were banned in Japan until after World War II.
In the past few years the Yokohama Noh Theater has further broadened its scope by looking overseas through programs such as your exchanges with traditional arts of Asia.
    Since the time of our opening there has been an awareness at the Yokohama Noh Theater that despite our central focus on Noh/Kyogen we should be a center that strives to stimulate other Asian traditional arts as well. But, since our theater is a Noh theater, there are things that we can do and things that we can’t, we decided that for the latter we could work in venues outside our own theater.
    A significant turning point in these efforts came in 2000 with our 3-year ”Korean Traditional Arts Festival.“ This program originated when Yamamoto Tojiro sensei came to us after a Kyogen performance tour in S. Korea and said that there were traditional artists in Korea who wanted to perform in Japan, and could we talk with them about making it happen. The resulting program continued for three years. The first year we invited some of the very top class performers in Korea, and we also had Tojiro sensei performing. In the second and third years we had an exchange program in which top artists from Japan and Korea performed the same programs in Yokohama and Seoul. Our thinking for this project was that it would be meaningful audiences in Japan and Korea to deepen their mutual understanding by seeing the same programs of performances. At the time this project started, Korea was still a ”close but distant neighbor country“ unfamiliar to many Japanese, but word got around that the best Korean performers were coming and every day the afternoon and evening performances were all sold out. After that the ”Korean Boom“ began in Japan [sparked by Korean TV dramas broadcast by the national television station NHK] and suddenly S. Korea was a ”close and familiar neighbor country.“ Seeing this dramatic change impressed us anew with the power of culture.
    The different peoples need to understand the classic and traditional arts of their respective countries and ethnic groups, but if that is allowed to go in a direction where people come to think that their own country’s or ethnic group’s classic and traditional arts are the best, that is only a narrow form of nationalism. The classic and traditional arts of each country are full of the ethnic uniqueness and spiritual character of its people, and coming to understand those arts of a given country is a big step toward understanding the country itself and its people. I have come to the point where I now want to use the classic and traditional arts as a tool for promoting understanding of one’s own country and other countries in ways that make the arts a bridge toward mutual understanding between peoples and nations.
    In 2005, we gathered traditional dance artists from Japan, S. Korea, Bali and Thailand for a project in which we asked a contemporary theater director to help them create a collaborative work, and what we found is that the individuality and uniqueness of each country’s dance traditions is so strong that it is difficult to create a joint collaborative work. We are doing joint works with other Asian countries again this year, but this time I want to make it a sort of omnibus program in which the individual performances are connected by a Kyogen-style oratory in device known as kyogen-mawashi.
    Also, this year we are having a program titled ”Joint Performance of People of the Land“ (Daichi no Joint Performance) in which performances of works by a young performance group of Japan’s indigenous Ainu people will be held together with performances by a Canadian Indian artist. From Canada we have invited Santee Smith, an artist who uses her experience in ballet and contemporary dance to create works that explore and express her identity as a native Canadian.
    When I went to meet with her in Toronto, there was a native Canadian arts festival going on and I was truly inspired to discover the variety of wonderful aboriginal arts. Prior to that I had tended to look at the arts from the perspective of East and West, but that experience renewed my conscious that there is also a world of indigenous ethnic groups in each country. What these traditions all have in common is a ”lifestyle of coexistence with nature.“ The Japanese Ainu world is one of these traditions. So the program is titled along those lines.
    Before the performances, we will hold lectures to give the audience a better understanding of the respective cultural and historical backgrounds of these two ethnic groups, and the next the artists get together for a workshop. Thus, the program involves the audience and the artists in ways that promote deeper mutual understanding. With this as the foundation, we hope to move things in a direction that will enable the creation of a collaborative work between the Ainu and Indian artists. And then, hopefully, we can take the resulting work for performances overseas.

This year there will be a large variety of commemorative events celebrating the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Port of Yokohama, and the Yokohama Noh Theater has organized an exhibition for June titled ”Noh Costumes that Crossed the Seas.“ Can you tell us something about what this exhibition involves?
    Since the opening of Japan at the start of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), many Noh masks and Noh costumes from the Edo Period (1603-1867) and earlier were taken overseas by collectors and found their ways into the collections of museums in North America and Europe. One such collection of Noh costumes is in the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich, Germany. This is a museum occupying the mansion of the wealthy portrait painter Lenbach of the Bismarck era, and since it is not a museum specializing in Asian art, its curators didn’t really know the value of the Noh costumes in its collection. This collection was discovered by the Noh costume researcher Yamaguchi I mentioned earlier. When we heard about this, we made a plan to bring the collection back to Japan for restoration and, while it was here, to make re-creations of the costumes and use them in a Noh production.
    Studying the costumes some old records were found revealing the interesting fact that they had been used at the time as costumes for the operetta Mikado (*). Because the title referred to the Emperor of Japan, it was considered disrespectful of the Imperial Family in prewar Japan and thus banned from being performed here. In fact, however, it had actually been performed in Yokohama’s ex-patriot district in 1887 under the title ”Sotsugyo Shita Sannin no Otome“ (Three Graduated Debutantes). Considering this fact as well, we decided to produce a performance of Mikado.
    The operetta will not be held at the Yokohama Noh Theater but at the Yokohama Kaikou Memorial Museum that was built in 1917 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Port of Yokohama. This is one of the representative buildings remaining in Yokohama that was built in the pseudo-Western style of that period, so don’t you think it is interesting that it should be the site of a performance of an operetta that reflected the Japonism movement that had such a big influence on Western culture a century or so ago?
    We also plan to hold the exhibition of Noh costumes in Germany, and we hope that it will promote an understanding of the fact that Noh costumes are not just expendables but meaningful works of art in themselves and also an understanding of the cultural and historical backgrounds. We won’t be able to put on a performance of Noh but we will provide a video for the German audience to watch.

What kinds of things do you plan to do for the future?
    We have two key words that will be guiding our plans for the future. They are ”soft power“ and ”multiculturalism.“
    Soft power is a concept of international politics put forward by Joseph Nye, who is designated to be the next U.S. ambassador to Japan. It proposes that when a country wishes to exert influence on other countries or the international community, it is important to not depend solely on the traditional ”hard power,“ exemplified by military power, but to also employ the various forms of ”soft power,“ as exemplified by the arts and culture. It assumes that the arts and culture have the power to change the world.
    The arts and culture also have the potential to be used as tools to combat the problems such as poverty, the environment and stimulating economic growth that face today’s society. I want us to promote projects that use the arts and culture as a means to address these social issues. It does not have much appeal if we just ask potential sponsors to provide funds simply for ”art for art’s sake.“ From now on we have to be able to say to them, ”Art can be used to solve such-and-such a problem.“ I want to be able to show them specific plans that demonstrate ways that art can change society.
    Also, I believe that the classical and traditional arts are very useful for promoting mutual understanding between peoples in today’s globalizing world. Because discovering the cool or fascinating aspects of another country’s culture can turn people’s opinions and sense of value around 180 degrees. That is the meaning and value of ”multiculturalism.“
    As part of these efforts, I want to provide the means for people of various ethnic backgrounds living in Japan today to be able to show their arts and culture to audiences, such as the Japan-resident Koreans, Chinese, Brazilians and Vietnamese. There must be many such people living in Japan today who have the ability to perform their unique ethnic arts. I want to search these people out and give them opportunities to perform and develop their arts. A lot of regional ”interior culture“ also exists in Japan, and I want us to provide the opportunities for more people to realize and appreciate this culture.
    In the classical and traditional arts exist a precious core that represents the essence of the performing arts and spiritual substance of their respective country or ethnic group that have been nurtured over many generations. The important thing for us is to think how we can present these arts with positive impact and without destroying that precious core.
    It is important to realize that, unlike producing contemporary arts, the traditional performing arts represent a vast accumulation of essence from the past. In that essence it is possible to find new potential for the future. To present them in a way that makes that potential accessible requires a lot of knowledge that enables one to present them within the proper framework and, basically, I believe that a true producer is someone who has the ability to put forward missions and concepts and then do the simulations necessary to bring them to the stage successfully.
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