In a seemingly near-perfect convergence of my two main interests in Japan — theatre and protest — performing arts groups have become the latest organisations to lodge their protest at Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s immensely controversial security bills.
The Anpo System Abolishment Shingeki Council was previously announced in May but has now grown to include over 100 groups, centering on troupes aligned with shingeki, the theatre movement that first emerged in the early twentieth century. Nine of the members who have joined the protest held a press conference on July 30th at the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture.
“For theatre people, it is paramount that Japan is a peaceful and free nation. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution [which renounces war] continues to shine around the world. We cannot forgive the dictator politics being advanced by the Abe government,” said one of the participants.
The same “council” was previously formed in 1960 at the height of the protests against the first renewal of the security treaty between Japan and the United States. The renewal was overseen by the then prime minister, Nobusuke Kishi, who is Abe’s grandfather.
You can see the current members of the council on the official website (Japanese only). It presently includes major shingeki companies like Bungaku-za, Haiyu-za and Mingei, as well as theatre venues from all over Japan.
This begs an obvious question: where are the new theatre practitioners? It seems strange to leave the opposition to the previous generation of troupes.
Why are the likes of Toshiki Okada not speaking out? They claim to speak for the Heisei-era under-forty generation in their work but appear to avoid asserting political commitments in public. However, perhaps the very act of coming together in solidarity to make a joint statement of protest is something alien to the generation who grew up after the Bubble collapsed.
If Japanese theatre is to make a significant contribution to the protests, we need to hear inter-generational opposition from major and popular directors (Yukio Ninagawa, Amon Miyamoto), writers (Hideki Noda, Toshiki Okada, Oriza Hirata), and critics. However, in the same way that many — if not most — theatre practitioners in Japan did not make overt political statements in public in the wake of the Fukushima crisis, we will probably have to wait again to see how they respond in their work instead. And any response is likely to be more oblique than didactic.