Energizing the Performing Arts Through
Noriko Tsuchiya, Eiko Tsuboike (Institute for the Arts)
According to the Study of the Status of Dispatch and Reception in International Cultural Exchange (NLI Research Institute), a survey of international cultural exchanges from 1990 to 2000, in 2000 there were 181 projects involving visits to Japan, and 131 projects involving Japanese dispatched overseas. These figures represent increases of 60% and 249% respectively over 1990. These and other indicators point to significant expansion, especially from the late 1990s.
The high rate of the yen during Japan’s “bubble” economy of the mid-1980s enabled invitations in the performing arts that had previously been prohibitively expensive. Around this time stage musicals also suddenly grew in popularity, and sponsorship of such events by private-sector corporations added further impetus to the trend.
During the 1990s, a variety of shows from other countries were invited to Japan entertain audiences who raised on stage musicals. Public support for arts and culture also increased, which led to enthusiastic engagement in international exchange projects by public theaters such as the Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theater, the Setagaya Public Theatre, the Aichi Arts Center, and others. Recent years have seen a number of anniversary projects commemorating past exchanges with other countries, and not only have there been more invitations to performing arts productions from abroad, but there has also been glut of opportunities to introduce Japanese performing arts overseas under Japan Festivals and other large-scale cultural programs initiated by the government.
- Rapid Increase in International Cultural Exchange Through Commemorative Projects
The 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan provided the occasion for the Year of Japan-Korea National Exchange in 2002. The same year saw the celebration of the 30th anniversary of normalization of relations between Japan and China, with Year of Japan and Year of China programs and other such memorable events. Other commemorative events celebrating exchange between nations have also taken place over the past few years, including the 400th year of Dutch-Japanese relations in 2000, the 150th anniversary of U.S.-Japan relations (2003–2004), the ASEAN-Japan Exchange year (2003), the 40th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and the ROK (Japan-Korea Friendship Year 2005), EU-Japan Year of People to People Exchanges (2005), the 150th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and Russia (2005), Australia-Japan Year of Exchange (2006). A number of events are also planned in this Japan-Brazil Exchange Year (2008), which marks the 100th anniversary of Japanese emigration to Brazil.
In 1988, during the Takeshita Cabinet, international cultural exchange was one of the three pillars of Japan’s foreign policy, and the government has actively sought to engage in cultural exchange with other countries ever since. This led to the phenomenon of large-scale cultural projects in which the government and private sector collaborated in forming operating committees to oversee a large number of events designated to provide a comprehensive introduction to Japan. In the United Kingdom, approximately 100 programs were held during the 1991 Japan Festival in the U.K. This was held over a four-month period to commemorate the British Japan Society’s founding centennial. This paved the way for the Year of Japan in France (1997–1998), which involved some 350 events including the exhibition of the Kudara Kannon, a National Treasure from Nara’s Hôryuji Temple. The Year of France in Japan (1998–1999) similarly involved some 600 events, including the exhibition of “Liberty Leading the People” by Delacroix. In 2001, the United Kingdom was again the site of another such program, JAPAN 2001, involving some 2000 events, while the Year of Germany in Japan in 2005/2006 also featured many German performing arts. Commemorative projects of this sort have been held with nearly 20 countries so far.
This kind of large-scale cultural program has been the impetus for major increase in overseas performances of Japan’s performing arts, which had previously tended to be limited to festivals and other such events in Europe and America. Many stage productions are at last being dispatched from Japan throughout Asia. This has been furthered not only by grassroots exchange among artists, but also by active support from The Japan Foundation. Locations in Asia amounted to no more than 17% of the areas where arts organizations were sent from Japan in 2000, but by 2002 this figure had risen to 38%, approaching Europe (at 46%) (according to the Performing Arts Exchange Yearbook, 2002 edition, by the Japan Center, Pacific Basin Arts Communication). This major increase was partly due to overlaps with major cultural programs taking place that year.
The Japan Foundation has set up Performing Arts Japan for Europe and Performing Arts Japan for North America to support festivals, performances and promoters working to introduce Japanese performing arts in these regions.
As for exchanges with Asian nations, there are private grassroots activities as well as government-to-government programs. One such example is the small theater in Tokyo, Tiny Alice, where a theater festival has been held for nearly 30 years featuring small companies from South Korea and China. There are also exchanges among artists including Asia Meets Asia, an annual event since 1997, with performances and forums for theater artists from Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, as well as the Asian Dance Conference, a biennial forum that has been run by the International Theater Institute since 2003.
- International Coproductions
Since the 1990s, international coproductions in the performing arts have been undertaken vigorously. Rather than touring a ready-made package, these are combined efforts by artists to create new works transcending the barriers between nations, companies, and languages.
The Setagaya Public Theatre is especially active in this area. It promotes collaboration between theater producers in Japan and other Asian countries, such as The Red Demon in 1997, produced by Noda Hideki with Thai actors under the Asian Performing Artist Exchange and Training Program with The Japan Foundation. Other international collaborations include The Elephant Vanishes (2003) with the British company Complicite led by Simon McBurney (their new coproduction, Shunkin, will be staged in 2008), Les Paravents directed by Frédéric Fisbach of France, and the dance work Asobu directed by Josef Nadj.
In the Year of Japan-Korea National Exchange in 2002, the New National Theatre, Tokyo produced Across the River in May , co-written by Hirata Oriza and the young South Korean playwright Kim Myung-Hwa, and co-directed by Hirata and South Korean director Lee Byung-Hoon. The play attracted a great deal of attention as a full-scale collaboration between Japan and South Korea, and won the Grand Prize at the Asahi Performing Arts Awards. In 2007, there was a Japan-China production of Lost Village , co-written and directed by Hirata and Li Liuyi. The theater also plans another Japan-Korea project to coincide with diplomatic events in 2008, Yakiniku Dragon by Chong Wishing and Yang Jung Ung.
The Japan Foundation is playing a vital role in international collaborations with its support of projects. They have also produced some innovative works of their own, including Lear (1997), a coproduction with China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand; Memories of a Legend (2004), with Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan; and Performing Women - 3 Reinterpretations from Greek Tragedy (2007), with India, Iran, and Uzbekistan, etc.
Drama reading projects requiring a relatively small budget have also proved a successful means to introduce overseas performing arts. The Setagaya Public Theatre stages these events three to four times every year to expose audiences to foreign dramas. There is also the Japan-U.K. Contemporary Play Exchange, a collaboration between Itami Ai Hall and Scotland’s Traverse Theatre, and a drama reading project by Japan-Korea Theatre Communications Center in Japan and the Korean-Japan Theatre Exchange Council in South Korea, held alternately in Japan and Seoul. In addition, The Japan Foundation also actively introduces Japanese contemporary plays through translations and on the Performing Arts Network Japan website ( http://www.performingarts.jp ). Japanese play readings at overseas theaters have also been on the rise in recent years.
- Private-Sector Promoters Hosting International Productions
Another recent trend is the involvement of private-sector promoters in overseas productions. Kyodo Tokyo, for example, a private-sector promoter known primarily for popular music concerts, has been hosting many overseas entertainment productions for about fifteen years. Since the 1990s, the popular music market in Japan has been centered on J-POP (Japanese popular music), so that performances by major musicians from other countries no longer have the same impact they used to. This promoter sought a replacement, and was quick to introduce Japanese audiences to new, highly creative forms of entertainment that have a strong musical element together with powerful visual appeal.
The Broadway show Blast , which highlights sensational performances by a marching band, was a great success playing to full houses in Japan in 2003. It was also Kyodo Tokyo that invited Stomp , highly acclaimed for its unique performances making dynamic use of common tools and implements as rhythm instruments, and Villa Villa from Argentina. Another private-sector promoter, Hayashi International Promotion, has started engaging in similar activities with its invitation of Riverdance , a combination of Irish dance and Celtic music.
In 1992 Fuji Television Network hosted the Canadian company Cirque du Soleil. Formed in Montreal in 1984, Cirque du Soleil integrates acrobats, music, costumes, and theatrical design in a distinctively dynamic and fantastic stage production. Assisted by Fuji TV’s advertising, the tour of their Fascination show around eight cities in Japan, including Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo, Yokohama, and Sendai, attracted audiences totaling 710,000. Since then, Cirque de Soleil has staged regular, long-run performances all sponsored by major corporations. In the fall of 2008, a permanent theater, Cirque du Soleil Theater Tokyo, will open in the Tokyo Disney Resort.
From 2000, with private-sector promoters and television networks in on the act, overseas productions have been coming to perform in numbers reminiscent of Japan’s economic “bubble” period. Other factors include lower ticket prices, now costing 10,000 yen on average, and a well-established following among well-traveled women in their late 20s and 30s who have enjoyed productions of this type on trips abroad.
Another major factor is that overseas entertainment has also become fashionable in Korea, primarily among the newly affluent levels of society, so that productions visiting Japan can also be booked for performances in Korea. This sector appears likely to become even more active with high-growth locations in the broader emerging Asian market such as Shanghai and Taiwan.
In March 2008, Akasaka ACT Theater (1,300 seats) will open under the management of a private TV network. Its opening presentations will feature overseas entertainment such as ABBA Gold and Riverdance . This trend looks set to continue.