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Thursday, Oct. 6, 2005

You cannot force them to sing it in Japan, or to listen in London

Special to The Japan Times

"In this 60th anniversary year of the end of the war . . . I thought it was the right time to ask about Japan's current movement toward constitutional revision -- especially the revision of (war-renouncing) Article 9," said 53-year-old Ai Nagai, founder of Nitosha (Two Rabbits) Theater Company, as she explained why she wrote her new play "Utawasetai Otokotachi (Men who Force Singing of the Song)."

News photo
Playwright and founder of Nitosha Theater Company Ai Nagai; right: Keiko Toda as Michiru Naka in Nagai's "Utawasetai Otokotachi"
News photo

She continued, "We learned at school that Japanese citizens are guaranteed popular sovereignty, fundamental human rights and pacifism . . . However, a core facet of being Japanese -- the right to freedom of thought -- is now being so easily forgotten that it makes me feel extremely apprehensive."

The play, which opens Oct. 8 at the Benisan Pit Theater in Ryogoku, takes place at a high school graduation. When new teacher Michiru Naka (Keiko Toda) loses a contact lens before the ceremony, she asks her colleague Haijima (Yoshimasa Kondo) if she can borrow his glasses, but he refuses. Naka is told that Haijima is the "problem teacher" who refused the previous year to sing the "Kimigayo," the traditional national anthem. Headmaster Yoda (Ryosuke Otani) and other teachers have been trying to persuade him to sing it because if he doesn't, everyone will be punished by the Ministry of Education.

Nagai, winner of the prestigious Turuya Nanboku Memorial Award, among others, is renowned for scripts that brilliantly and hilariously tackle societal problems, especially her masterpiece "Ranuki no Satsui (Murderous Intent Because of Ra)" and "Three Sisters of the Hagi Family," a version of Chekhov's "Three Sisters." In "Utawasetai Otokotachi" she turns a dramatic spotlight again on realities of modern Japan, exploring collective punishment for individual acts.

In the play, as in real life, the education authority threatens teachers with reprimands, salary cuts and enforced "self-examinations" if they refuse to sing the "Kimigayo" and raise the Hinomaru, the traditional national flag, at official ceremonies.

In a recent interview with The Japan Times, Nagai stressed this topic "is just a cue for examining the realities of Japanese 'democracy.' " Speaking firmly but calmly, she explained, "Have we really practiced our right to freedom of thought in Japan since the war? Never. How many people can express their individual opinions in a group if those opinions run against the mainstream? . . . If a student refuses to sing the 'Kimigayo,' then the class teacher, not the student, will be punished by the education authority. This is a typical example of the Japanese system, and I think it shows a complete lack of respect for individual thought."

Nagai's views are certainly a compelling enough reason to see the play. But the production at the Benisan Pit is only half of the "drama" surrounding "Utawasetai Otokotachi" -- for the other half, we go to west London and the cutting-edge Bush Theater, where the play was to be staged with an English cast.

The plan took shape in 2002, when the Bush's artistic director, Mike Bradwell, came to Tokyo and re-connected with Nagai, who he had met before. They decided to collaborate on an undetermined script that would be simultaneously staged in London by the Bush Theater and in Tokyo by Nitosha. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

Thrilled at the chance to present her work to London audiences, Nagai choose a topic that would daringly reveal the "real" Japan behind its mask of harmony. The result was "Utawasetai Otokotachi," but when she sent the first draft to Bradwell, his first questions were, "When did this 'Kimigayo' problem happen? 50 or 60 years ago?"

As Bradwell put it in a recent e-mail interview, "To sing the national anthem in English schools would be branded as culturally elitist and possibly racist, and English audiences would not understand why the teachers did not complain to their union or take industrial action against such bullying by the education authority. For us, the topic simply has no resonance because I don't think that we have any parallel situation."

Thus with his simple questions, both suddenly realized the huge cultural gap between their countries.

Stressing that it had never been the Bush's intention to stage a play by Nagai as a short-run cultural curiosity, Bradwell said he always wanted to give it a lengthy run as part of his theater's season. He further explained, "although I fully realize the importance of this play to Japanese audiences -- and I hope it provokes a strong reaction -- I think it is fair to say that there have been anti-establishment plays in England at least since Shakespeare, and in Europe at least since the Greeks."

Despite initial disappointment, Nagai and Bradwell have far from fallen out. Nagai agrees with his decision and admits it would probably be outrageously complicated to make English audiences aware of the work's background -- from the Emperor system to re-emerging nationalism, group thought, collective responsibility and more.

That said, Nagai's play is an exciting prospect for Japanese audiences, and probably non-Japanese as well. She says that she has set out to create a serious social drama that is also entertaining and funny. This is entirely in line with Bradwell's belief that the purpose of theater is to provoke and to entertain. To successfully do both takes real skill.

Though Bradwell and Nagai may be like minds apart this time, both have learned a lot from this experience. After the play closes, Nagai is going to London to sit down with Bradwell and try to truly bridge the communication gap so she can return with an idea that one day soon will be realized on the Bush Theater's stage.

"Utawasetai Otokotachi" runs Oct. 8 to Nov. 13 at the Benisan Pit Theater, a five-minute walk from Morishita Station on the Oedo and Toei Shinjuku subway lines, or an eight-minute walk from JR Ryogoku Station. Afterward, it tours 11 theaters in Japan. For more details, call Nitosha at (03) 5638-45873 or visit www.nitosha.net

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