Countering Ageism and Eugenics in Theatre

Akiko Tachiki*


Pressure upon the elderly, that is the “duty-to-die” campaign due to mounting medical expenditures, is rife in ageing countries. Has ageism turned into an offshoot of eugenics, which we thought had been discredited after WWII? The article discusses two 2018 theatre pieces in Japan―the most rapidly ageing country in the world―which raise “No” to that campaign: A Thought on the Good Death Vibration by Shū Matsui and Nirai Kanai: Watershed of Life by the Performance Troupe Taihen. The discussion is aimed at clarifying the background to the new connection between ageism and eugenics, and how this dangerous liaison can be staged.
Keywords: ageism, eugenics, Japanese theatre, Shū Matsui, Performance Troupe Taihen, Sagamihara stabbings

Cynicism is rampant. Facts are countered by “alternative facts.” Politicians encourage tampering with statistics to avoid awkward situations, leaving undesirable facts to neglect or morphing them to sidestep the real problem. As a result, any pursuit of truth is bound to be hindered by information blackout. Mass media may claim they always strive to deliver the truth, but the quality of their reports is deteriorating because journalists are cowed by politicians and demagogues. This is especially the case in Japan, where some right-wing politicians have been known to assert with impunity that state approval should be withdrawn from any TV broadcasters who report unwanted facts or make problematic comments—unwanted and problematic only in their eyes.

In this socio-political climate, it is heartening to see some theatre makers creating theatre pieces incisive enough to unveil the truth, however discomforting the picture may be. Let me introduce two 2018 pieces which boldly address the current dangerous drifts in Japan towards the gross violation of human rights, especially of the elderly and the disabled. Both manifest a grave sense of unease emanating from the resurgence of eugenicist thinking.

Institutional Cut Off
Director Shū Matsui. Photo: Performing Arts Network Japan

A Thought on the Good Death Vibration (May 2018), a co-production of the Kanagawa Arts Theatre (KAAT) and the theatre company Sample, was written and directed by Shū Matsui, who runs the company. The play is a near-futuristic revamp of the novel Narayama Bushi Kō (A Thought on the Ballad of Narayama, 1953) by Shichiro Fukazawa. Its 1983 film version by Shohei Imamura won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in the following year. Fukazawa’s novel narrates a pre-modern Japanese folklore of senicide; that is, the killing or abandonment of the infirm and/or elderly who are regarded as a burden to the communities struggling at the minimum subsistence level.

Inspired by this, and driven by his trademark dystopic imagination, Matsui examined the value of human life and of living humanely by recasting the narrative in a dystopian sci-fi tale of a Big Brother state, which implements a harsh eugenic policy, including reproduction control through compulsory match making, genetic experimentations on human bodies and the termination of its members who are over 65 and in the lowest-income band.

A Thought on the Good Death Vibration (May 2018). Photo: Hideto Μaezwa

On the stage is a shanty settlement in a small valley made of rags and scrap wood. The residents there are abandoned by the state as unfit, and those over 65 there must “go on a voyage” to “end their physical life” under the state decree. The one who falls in that category is Tsuruo (Jun Togawa), a former pop star who was castrated by the state for holding a gig without permission to protest against the government’s ban on songs. Agonising over how to send Tsuruo on the “voyage,” his daughter, Nurumi (Miho Inatsugu), and grandson, Bypass (Shun’ya Itabashi), procrastinate their decision, believing that the state’s surveillance is lax in such a remote place. Then comes Zarame (Aoi Nozu) from the neighbouring settlement, still a low-teen girl but physically “enhanced” by the state to “mate” with Bypass and bear a child. The child will be taken away, and the compensation the parents receive will be the main source of income for these outcasts. Nonetheless, they enjoy a brief moment of calm, only to be disrupted by the emergence of mysterious Sasaki, an agent sent by the state to enforce the laws. It turns out that Sasaki is a love-child of Nurumi. Under the eugenicist policy, those born out of state control must be put to death, but Sasaki somehow escaped that fate and was eventually raised by the state. Now a heartless civil servant (marvellously played by the author/director Matsui himself), with no family affection, Sasaki brings the news that Zarame’s son from the previous matching was genetically experimented on by the Central Medical Institute “for the advancement of the race” and achieved “honourable ascension.” Tsuruo and his family decide and undecide before they start rowing on a raft into the ocean defying rough weather, but family members leave Tsuruo one after another. Alone, he drifts on the sea and is cast ashore on a strange land, where he is revered by the locals as a long-awaited god. The audience, however, is left wondering if his journey actually happened that way, as they see the rest of his family going about their lives back in the homeland as if nothing had happened. The detached tone of the playwright leaves a bitter aftertaste.

As the idea of institutionalised sacrifice for the society grossly erodes human rights, such basic values as family, love and even life are put into question. The storyline may be rather convoluted, but the piece captured the anxiety of the rapidly aging Japanese society and struck a chord with the audience. Euthanasia, even if for death with dignity of one’s own choice, is illegal in Japan, but the rapidly increasing national expenses on the elderly care has led the government to urge hospitals to cut cost and improve efficiency, so that the national healthcare service can become sustainable. Consequently, many families of terminal patients are now appalled by some doctors’ attitudes towards death, which raise the suspicion that they are now pressured into facilitating death instead of saving life.

I am writing this with the still fresh memory of having to part with three, very close ones in the last three years. It is true many doctors stand by their patients to the very end, but, from experience, I know how shocking it can be when the doctor proposes the transfer of the patient to a hospital with a palliative care unit. I cannot blame the speechless family if they began to question the doctor’s main motive. What is it really about, life or the balance sheet?

The “Good Death” in the title means good for the state alone. The way the state imposes its will on individuals in the play leads us to suspect that “due process” may be abused. The Japanese government has issued its guidelines for “the Decision-Making Process of the End-of-Life Medical Care,” which stipulate minute procedure before achieving consent among the patient and the family, but the sheer fact that such guidelines exist may prompt someone to wrest consents for the termination of treatment from the patient and the family for the public good, that is, saving the national health care system from default. Arguably, mass media is endorsing this sentiment, running an anxiety campaign over the perilous state of national medical care system and, at the same time, showing ways of preparing for one’s death. What next will be called into service to beautify death for this “duty-to-die campaign” in Japan—the traditional samurai spirit of bushido?

Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution”: Logo from the Second International Eugenics Congress, 1921. Caption and photo: Wikipedia
Labelling as Unfit

Lurking behind is some sort of analogy between ageism and eugenics. In fact, Japan has recently seen several atrocities on the weak and handicapped, especially in nursing homes for the handicapped and the elderly. In the Sagamihara stabbings in Kanagawa Prefecture (2016), nineteen residents of a nursing home for the disabled were killed and twenty-six others injured, thirteen severely. The perpetrator, then 26 years old, was a former caregiver of the facility. He reportedly espoused Nazi ideology and harboured strong eugenic hate regarding the disabled as a waste of tax money. He even claimed that people with heavy disability should be euthanised. While no generalised speculation should be drawn out of this, we should be vigilant against the spreading of eugenicist sentiments.

As a protest against the Sagamihara case and its implications, a powerful piece was created by a theatre company of disabled performers. Nirai Kanai: Watershed of Life by the Performance Troupe Taihen (Za Koenji, Tokyo, November 2018) was inspired by the tragedy in Sagamihara. Kim Manri, the troupe’s leader, with severe physical paralysis due to poliomyelitis which infected her at the age of three, has led the company for 35 years, with the aim to create performances of artistic finesse that only the disabled can achieve. Looking back on her life at a care home for the disabled from the age of seven to seventeen, Kim feels that the patronising mindset is still prevalent among many without disabilities; the mindset which expects a “thank you” from the “socially weak” after every hand of assistance. Just like kabuki, Taihen’s performance requires black-robed stagehands, but Kim thinks that their “assistance” is only an integral part of the society in which the disabled is as entitled to live a full life as the able.

Performance Troupe Taihen, Nirai Kanai: Watershed of Life (November 2018). Photo: bozzo

The creation of the piece has very much to do with the sensation Kim had when she visited Iriomote Island in Okinawa, where she decided to launch her own troupe decades ago, when she was in her 30s. She was struck by the contrast between the sense of liberation she experienced in the lush mangrove forest and the feelings of entrapment back in her care home. Humbled before nature, her world view was turned upside down. She realised that the huge forestry and the tiny ants living there both have their own independent outlook on the universe. There was no point in comparing the two. From the vantage point of a writer of poetic and philosophical depths, Kim looks back upon this realisation in the programme notes for Nirai Kanai: “Both are striving to live,/ In the exquisite cycle of life.” This sensation is very much alive in her piece, which is a homage to life in the cycle of the universe, where human beings and nature come together as one.

It is the story of bedridden Abotaka in a hospital ward for children. The eleven scenes trace her dream, in which she eventually attains the sense of liberation through encountering a different world. After the deafening sound at the beginning, the performers in leotards begin the spectacle. A man in a striped apron (Yusuke Koizumi) starts dancing like a bird pecking on a tree, followed by a beautiful solo by a man with a handicap on one leg. In the scene “Fairies of the Forest,” two women―one without hands (Ayano Watanabe) and the other only with the torso (Nozomi Mukai)―perform a beautiful duet, with a touching moment when Mukai crawls over the floor on her own and lays herself on the lap of Watanabe. The image of the two being together shoulder to shoulder is full of tenderness. Then, the performance develops into a corps de ballet of nine, each holding a brown root-like object. They jostle against each other like roots vying for more space in the soil, but, gradually, they start to rejoice in the sheer diversity of their physicality―and of their disabilities―until their movements grow into a sanctified harmony against the small shrine in the background, ornamented with rainbow-coloured ribbons. This finale was radiating with the joy and pride of the performers being there on the stage as undeniably present. It was a performance powerful enough to shake the spectators’ heart and mind, and to take them to a new realisation about life.

“Nailed to the earth by the inescapable force of gravity,” wrote Kim, “our form of resistance is to embrace. Let us embrace everything that comes from over the ocean, no matter how evil, and turn them all into good.” What goes up must come down, every leap necessitates a fall. Gravity discriminates no life on earth.

The Meaning of Life

There is a parallel between the Sagamihara stabbings that victimised the disabled and murder cases that victimised the elderly. In the same year, a professional caregiver was arrested for the 2014 serial killings in a care home for the elderly. Alarmed by the sheer inhumanity of the Sagamihara stabbings, Yō Hemmi wrote Moon, a novel in which is disclosed the stream of consciousness of the gender-unspecified disabled person named Kī-chan, who feels “like a lump of rice cake on the bed, completely unable to move, to see, or to talk.” The horror of the novel culminates when the urge for “purification through eliminating the unfit” goes out of hand within Sato-kun, a former caregiver of the home. He goes on a killing spree, asking each of the target residents, “Can you speak? You can’t? Do you have a heart? A human heart? . . . Let me confirm, are you heartless?”

Yo Hemmi, the author of Moon. Photo: Counetrpoint press

In one interview, televised by the NHK, Hemmi passionately talked about his views defying his own illness, now in a serious stage. “This world, this country has no future,” snaps the novelist. “It is sickening to have to witness the blurring of the line between good and bad, when nothing is more futile than trying to draw a boundary between the disabled and those who are not. We all have disabilities, without exception.” His view strongly resonates with Kim’s pride and dignity.

Should we see in the current ageism those old eugenicist horrors revived in a new form? Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a cultural gerontologist, thinks the answer is definitely a “Yes”:

Old, frail and disabled people seem to be the collective target of a new eugenics rhetoric. The “duty-to-die campaign” implies that such people are likely to be a “burden,” unworthy of resources. If you are not active, engaged, productive, autonomous, close to the ideal healthy (middle-class) “youthful” person, you should somehow bow out.

In a more descriptive tone, Kathleen Goley and Herbert Hendin detect a trace of eugenicist discourse in the advocation for euthanasia in our ageing world under increasing financial pressure:

The postwar revulsion to the holocaust, and to the role of physicians in implementing it, discredited the euthanasia movement. A significant minority of advocates, however, while not stressing the eugenic aspects of euthanasia, continue to see it as a necessary social remedy for the increasing number of old people, the inadequacy of nursing homes, and the economic cost to families and society of caring for the elderly. (7)

Charmaine Spencer, a lawyer and gerontologist, points out the danger of the ageist discourse internalised within the elderly:

Some older adults express the wish to die. This may reflect a desire for control over their lives, but it may also be a response to an ageist society, people’s concerns about being a “burden,” and to the larger society’s implications that it wishes to be “rid” of such “burdens.” Ageism is an undercurrent in ethical discussions in health care about resource allocation, and qualitative and quantitative futility. To date, much of this discussion has been in the context of persons with developmental disabilities, eugenics and children. (42)

It is only natural that we see the rapid growth of this sort of pressure on the elderly in Japan, the most rapidly aging country in the world. Recognised cases of abuse by nursing home staff have been on a steep rise. According to a survey by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, reported cases of abuse―physical, psychological, economical, or in the form of neglect―rose from 273 in fiscal 2006 (starting in April in Japan) to 1,640 in fiscal 2017, while established cases among them rose from 54 to 408 in the same period.[1]

Matsui’s A Thought on the Good Death Vibration establishes a parallel between ageism and eugenics. Kim’s Nirai Kanai tackles eugenics head-on by letting the troupe’s physical poetry glorify diversity. These two pieces are good examples of how theatre in Japan 2018 addressed the meaning of life, and thus to counter the gnawing sense of unease imposed upon us by rampant political cynicism in this increasingly opaque world.

One clear thing, though. No one is “unfit” enough to live fully to the very end. The blame should go to the eye of the beholder who draws the line between the fit and the unfit.


[1]See also “Elderly Abuse a Growing Problem in Aging Japan Society,” Apr 11, 2019.


Foley, Kathleen, and Herbert Hendin, editors. The Case Against Assisted Suicide: For the Right to End-of-Life Care. The Johns Hopkins UP, 2002.

Morganroth Gullette, Margaret. “Taking a Stand against Ageism at All Ages: A Powerful Coalition.” On the Issues Magazine, Fall 2011.

Spencer, Charmaine. “Ageism and the Law: Emerging Concepts and Practices in Housing and Health: Advancing Substantive Equality for Older Persons through Law, Policy and Practice.” Paper Commissioned by the Law Commission of Ontario, Canada, August 2009. 


*Akiko Tachiki is a critic/journalist for dance and theatre. She also teaches as a university lecturer based in Tokyo. She has been contributing to numerous Japanese media including Dance Magazine, Dance Art and Theatre Arts, as well as several newspapers since the 1980s, including a nationwide newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun. Internationally, she is a correspondent from Japan for tanz magazine in Berlin, Germany.

Copyright © 2019 Akiko Tachiki
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