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Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010

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Help at hand: Amateur actors in the Team Kitayama group rehearse a scene in which a young Okuda Factory worker suffers a sudden eye problem. TOMOKO OTAKE PHOTOS

WEEK 3

Those at the sharp end act out plight of their small firms


Staff writer

An old man storms into an office, looking furious. He spots a younger man in a pale-blue worker's uniform — actually, the new president of a small auto-parts factory in Tokyo's Ota Ward — and confronts him.

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Tough talk: Tetsuhiko (right), lead character in the play "Hello, this is the Okuda Factory speaking," faces the character of his father, Takeo, founder of the fictional car-parts factory, as the two — played by real-life small-business owners — argue over their struggling family firm during a rehearsal the day before the show was staged on Nov. 14.

"So I've heard you will stop doing business with us from next month. Is that true?"

The man in the blue uniform, avoiding the old man's piercing eyes, retorts: "One thing that has become clear to me since my father fell sick is that this company is on the brink of bankruptcy.

"I've decided to let our oldest employee, Kajiwara-san, go, and I'll also be firing a fresh hire."

The old man gives out a big sigh. "Is that the first thing you do — cutting people? We are having tough times, too!

"You aren't answering my question," he continues, "I'm asking, 'Why would you cut all your ties with us?' "

So continues the acrimonious exchange between blue-uniformed Tetsuhiko, the second-generation president of Okuda Factory, and a man named Ishikawa whose company has long supplied Okuda Factory with metal castings, but is now being told that he will lose that business because Tetsuhiko is looking for a cheaper supplier elsewhere.

The two men — who appeared in a play staged Nov. 14 by Team Kitayama, a Tokyo-based amateur dramatics group — are fictional, and so are all the lines. But the harsh conditions afflicting businesses in Ota Ward — long known for its many small factories supplying high-tech machinery parts to major Japanese manufacturers — are all too real these days.

And no cast of actors could be more keenly aware of the pain and the tough choices such companies face than those in Team Kitayama — because almost every one of the 19 people on the stage were owners or heirs to factories and other small businesses in Ota Ward.

Teruo Kitayama, who has a business there selling work clothes, leads Team Kitayama and also acted in this play, titled "Hai, Okuda Seisakusho (Hello, this is the Okuda Factory speaking)," staged before a 600-strong audience at Rissho University lecture hall in the nearby Gotanda district.

Kitayama himself played the role of a veteran employee at Okuda Factory who, from a quality-control standpoint, opposes Tetsuhiko's plan to switch to a cheaper but less reliable supplier.

Kitayama, 63, said during a rehearsal late last month that the group of business people came up with the idea to "act out" real-life problems in 2006, when they discussed how to cope with major structural changes sweeping the nation's manufacturing sector.

"It was around the time when (then Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister [Heizo]) Takenaka was spearheading structural reform, leading to widening disparities between many businesses," said Kitayama, who, like the other actors, belongs to the Tokyo chapter of the 41,200-member National Conference of Association(s) of Small Business Entrepreneurs.

"We all shared a sense of anxiety, and were wondering what to do as the owners of small businesses. We had grown tired of inviting prominent speakers to offer advice. That's when we hit on the idea of digging deeper into these issues (by staging a play ourselves)."

The first drama they created was staged in 2007, and was themed on the issue of the work-life balance of staff at small businesses, where working conditions are generally tougher than at larger companies. That turned out to be exceedingly popular, Kitayama said, noting that as well as getting their message across, the participants "discovered the fun of being on stage."

With its latest play, Team Kitayama delves into such themes as finding successors to head their companies and transforming businesses in the present harsh economic climate to increase productivity and profits while also respecting and motivating each worker.

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Downs and ups: The Tetsuhiko lead character (right) in "Okuda Factory" — played by real-life business owner Shogo Tanaka — is confronted by a supplier he is axing named Ishikawa. Below: Actors portraying staff of the small and struggling car-parts maker Okuda Factory gaze up at a starry sky. TOMOKO OTAKE PHOTOS
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In fact, many businesses in the area have gone under since the asset-inflated economic bubble burst in the early 1990s. In addition, the yen's appreciation has prompted many firms they supplied with parts to move their operations overseas.

The script for the latest play was written — with input from business owners — by a staff playwright with Gekidan Dora, a Tokyo-based professional theater company. Director Fumio Sato, who also acts with Gekidan Dora, said the business owners' performances on stage really shone because they have rich real-life experiences.

For this production, Sato revised a play previously staged professionally by Gekidan Dora, but changed characters and parts of the storyline after he had interviewed Team Kitayama members and heard what their thoughts and struggles are in the real world.

"One of the biggest themes for small and midsize companies is how to steer their employees to do their best, and how to make them great places to work for the staff — as well as how to find the right relationship between the president and his or her workers," Sato said, adding that he has tried to use theatrical art to solve problems in society.

"Professional actors might have better acting skills, but the business owners' performance has a sense of authenticity that professional actors couldn't have. They can resonate with audiences in ways professionals can't."

But can acting in a play be more than a pastime or stress release for participants? Could it really help to solve tough problems afflicting the cast members — and spur changes in the way major corporations operate, or government agencies work?

Shogo Tanaka, who plays the leading role of Tetsuhiko, the second-generation factory owner in "Okuda Factory," acknowledged that things are harsher in the real world than what is depicted in the play. But he is adamant that the business people are not acting merely for fun.

"We have two clear purposes in participating in this production," said Tanaka, the owner of a building- maintenance and house-cleaning service in Tokyo's central Shibuya Ward. "First, we want to show the public through our play the problems faced by many of the nation's small businesses. Secondly, we want to improve our communication skills with employees. It is often the case that business owners have very poor communication skills."

In fact, 55-year-old Tanaka is the only member of the cast who has any experience on stage; he used to be a professional actor until he started his business at the age of 31.

"When we started this group, many of us struggled with vocalization and pauses between lines," he said. "But over time, and with a lot of practicing, members have really become better at acting.

"And at the end of the day, business owners aren't shy. They are actually brave. It was quite a surprise to me that they didn't flinch when they were on stage."



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