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Friday, April 30, 2010

Floor manager bids Kabuki-za adieu

Time to move on after 13 years working to improve hospitality at landmark theater

Staff writer

When the Kabuki-za Theater in Tokyo's Ginza district closes its doors Friday after nearly 60 years, its floor manager will be bidding farewell to a place where he was devoted to providing the best of hospitality for the past 13 years.

News photo
Time to say goodbye: Simon Yoshizumi, Kabuki-za floor manager, stands in front of the theater in Tokyo's Ginza district on April 16. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

"Kabuki is a living museum with about 400 repertories in which actors beautifully embody the lifestyles and relationships of Japanese people from the past. . . . I want more people to know that splendor,"said Simon Yoshizumi, 37, the floor manager of the Kabuki-za who will move on to another line of work when the theater shuts its doors.

The Kabuki-za Theater, a registered Tangible Cultural Property of Japan, will be demolished and replaced by a new high-rise office and theater complex scheduled to open in 2013.

During the 13 years he worked for the theater, Yoshizumi, whose mother is British and father is Japanese, attended to many overseas VIPs to deepen their knowledge of kabuki, including Britain's Prince Charles, who visited Keio University in 2008 to view kabuki performances by students.

Yoshizumi's first real encounter with kabuki came while he was working as a butler at Hilton Nagoya in the early 1990s.

Back then, all Yoshizumi knew about kabuki, even though he was born and raised in Japan, was that it was "a Japanese culture with a long history."

But Bando Tamasaburo V, the famed "onnagata" male actor who specializes in female roles, was among the many VIPs he served at the Hilton and opened the door to the world of kabuki for Yoshizumi.

Invited by Tamasaburo, who Yoshizumi described as "one of the most striking customers I served," Yoshizumi went to see him perform in "Sagi Musume" ("The Heron Maiden"), and was overwhelmed by the beauty of his movement.

"It was art. The performance was at such a high level," Yoshizumi said.

Introduced by one of the employees of the Kabuki-za, Yoshizumi began working for the theater in 1996, just as kabuki began to regain its popularity after decades of struggling to attract audiences.

"From the 1960s to the early 1980s, Shochiku Co. tried to make a profit by selling discount tickets to large parties. People were packed into buses and came from the countryside to the theater," he said.

That was a time when Japanese were craving new things, given the rapid growth of the economy. As Western culture started to play a larger role in people's lifestyles, kabuki was considered "old," Yoshizumi explained.

"Kabuki was forgotten. So the promoter continued to depend heavily on group customers," he said. "And the theater staff who dealt with the audience saw those visitors merely as 'people who were there to see kabuki,' not as customers."

Yoshizumi described his shock when he found out how the staff carried out their work. Each employee worked by their own set of rules, wearing what they liked, taking breaks for as long as they wanted and some even being rude to visitors.

"When a visitor asked an employee where the bathroom was, the worker would just point their finger in the direction of the bathroom and keep talking on the phone," said Yoshizumi. "Back then, there were many customers who said they loved kabuki but disliked the Kabuki-za."

Determined to make it a better place for visitors, Yoshizumi asked a theater manager to allow him to experience different jobs in all of the theater's departments to understand how the duties were carried out and what the employees were thinking.

Starting with the cafeteria in the basement, Yoshizumi worked in each section for two or three months before starting to make changes.

He asked the employees to keep a daily report to share problems they had with other staff, while he also conducted interviews with all the workers.

He started an initiative to clean the theater, which he described as "very old and dirty," and communicated with visitors to learn their needs, collecting tickets at the door and standing in the lobby during intermissions.

"I asked the staff to learn the basic principles of service. Each of them had very strong personalities. So, I told them that once they acquired all the basics, they would be invincible (as staff)," he said.

Though he admitted there was initial resistance, they gradually began to change as they started to get good feedback from customers, he said.

"The Kabuki-za is a much friendlier place now," he said, adding that young visitors have increased dramatically in the past decade.

Thanks to Yoshizumi's reforms and the efforts of kabuki actors such as Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII, who has appeared on TV shows and performed kabuki in Tokyo's Shibuya district to attract young audiences, the Kabuki-za has been turning a profit over the past decade.

Asked what he will do after leaving the theater, Yoshizumi said he hopes to spread the Japanese culture of "wa" (harmony) to the world.

"I plan to export Japanese traditional art overseas, such as artisans' works. Also I'd like to deliver kabuki-related entertainment overseas," he said, adding that he wants to make kabuki as accessible as ballet and opera in the West, where going to performances is part of the lifestyle.

Admitting that he was disappointed when he found out about the demolition of the famous old building, Yoshizumi said, "I'm sad, but I want to say thank you (to the Kabuki-za)."

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