Feigning Ignorance as a Way of Tolerating the Intolerable: Stage Scene in Japan 2017

Manabu Noda*


The year 2017 saw the nomination of Shinzo Abe into the fourth term of his premiership, which emboldened right wingers in Japan to engage in even more divisive demagoguery and feeble evasiveness. Consequently, liberal camps lost the momentum they believed they had gained after repeated political scandals involving the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), mostly Abe himself. As for the general public, apart from staunch nationalists, the majority of those between 20 and 40 years of age was caught with indifference and apathy, which was most evident from their low election turnout. When dishonesty, demagoguery and dictator appeasement are fast becoming the traits of political cynicism, some Japanese theatre makers—mostly liberal and in their 40s—went soul-searching to contemplate on a few important questions. Is this the result of our own moral indifference—or even cowardice? What is it within us that has permitted this degradation of our democracy? Why have “fake news,” “alternative facts” and “post-truth” become a part of our everyday parlance? My paper will try to show how these artists staged their anxiety about the current, unnerving political scene, in which populist intolerance is combined with indifference, negligence—and even forgetfulness on the part of the younger generations. Their plays may not provide clear resolutions, but they theatricalize the way inhibition is being formed in their psyche.
Keywords: political indifference, populist intolerance, forgetfulness, Ai Nagai, Motoi Miura, theatricalization of inhibition, Japan 2017

1.  Introduction

Japan in the year 2017 saw the nomination of Shinzo Abe into the fourth term of his premiership. His remaining in power spurred on divisive demagoguery and feeble evasiveness among the politicians of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)—a rather familiar sight that we see these days reported from all over the world. Liberal camps lost momentum they believed they had gained after repeated political scandals involving the LDP politicians, mostly Abe himself. The majority of voters, and especially those between 20 and 40 years of age, were caught with indifference and apathy, which was most evident from their low election turnout.     

This paper discusses two plays from the 2017 Japanese theatrical scene. They are good examples of the grim political mood that pervaded last year, and the mood is still lingering even now. The first play, The Kūki, criticised unethical media collusion with powerful decision makers, while the second one, The Japanese, Who Forget, tried to reveal how the stifled political sensibility can be theatricalized in a more self-reflective style.

2. The Kūki, Nitosha Company
Artistic director Ai Nagai. Photo: The Japan Foundation. Performing Arts Network

The story of The Kūki, written and directed by Ai Nagai, the artistic director of Nitosha Company, unfolds at a Japanese TV station. Imamori (Tetsuji Tanaka), the executive producer of a popular news programme, is busy trying to stave off the pressure to water down the content of a special coverage. The feature—the result of long-term research—is designed to discuss the recent controversy over broadcasting regulations in Japan, comparing it with the state of play in Germany. A few hours before it is due to be aired, however, the company board, who has buckled under the pressure from the right-wing administration, demands editing the content; that is, changing a word in the Japanese overdub of the pre-recorded interview with a German journalist. But then this escalates into modifying the direct reference to the notorious Enabling Act of 1933 in Germany, which gave the Nazi Cabinet the power to enact laws without the involvement of the Lower House under the Weimar Constitution. Consequently, what started out as a “minor” tweak grows into a complete alteration.

Imamori, the executive producer, and Kinomiya, the newscaster, are rightfully indignant. Then comes Ōkumo, an ex-newspaper journalist and now the new anchor person of the programme. He tries to persuade his infuriated colleagues to be more “strategic.” Ōkumo flaunts his media nickname “Mr Impartiality,” but it soon turns out that his so-called impartiality is just another word for playing non-adversarial to big-name politicians. While Imamori is desperately trying to fight the pressure, Hanada (Hitoe Ōkubo), the mysterious video-clip editor, appears to be getting a kick out of all this.

The Kūki (2017) by Ai Nagai. Ōkumo (Katsumi Kiba, left) and Imamori (Tetsuji Tanaka, right). Photo: Nobuhiko Honda

Unethical journalism? Yes, definitely. Censorship? No doubt. It is a form of self-imposed censorship that comes from the media’s eagerness to play safe. But the more troubling question is this: Who are they trying to please? If the media is convinced that they have the truth on their side, they should have nothing to fear, even the politicians in power. But, alas, we are now living in the post-truth age, and the media executives are keenly aware that many of their target viewers are now populism prone. And some can be menacing. It is revealed that some newsroom workers in the play have received threatening calls bordering on sheer blackmailing on their private cell phones.

Even more unnerving is the fact that some Japanese media have developed inhibition as a result of this. Inhibition can easily degenerate into political cynicism and power appeasement. The Japanese keyword in the title of the play, kūki, means “air,” but in its modern, figurative usage it means something like “the situation or context you are supposed to read in everyday social transactions.” Kūki is a discursive force that calls for conformity in family, working place, community and society. Being unable to read the kūki implies nonconformity, unsociability, being the odd-ball, party pooper or wet blanket in the group. The Kūki presents a picture of media journalists suffocating. The eagerness to feign ignorance as a way of tolerating the intolerable pervades this corrupted and corrupting air.

The executive producer quits the station after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. In the closing scene, he comes back to the TV station to see his ex-colleagues. Kinomiya, the newscaster, has chosen to compromise, and been promoted as a result. So has Hanada, the video-clip editor, who is revealed to have been the mole in the newsroom, being a member of the Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), an ultranationalist association. In fact, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in reality a special advisor to the association’s parliamentary league. He also finds that Tange, who was Director of the program, has also left the company and is now working as a courier.

The Kūki has received multiple awards including the “Best Stage in 2017” by the critics of IATC Japan. The following year, Nagai followed it up with its sequel The Kūki ver. 2. The play satirizes the kind of journalists who are eager to play in the elite circle of powerful politicians in the hope for an insider tip that may lead to an exclusive story. In the play, we have two big-club journalists who are eager to prep politicians who expect tough questions from journalists at the press conference. The story is based on a true story.

3.  The Japanese, Who Forget (Wasureru Nihonjin), Chiten Company
Artistic director Motoi Miura. Photo: The Japan Foundation. Performing Arts Network Japan

The original script of The Japanese, Who Forget was written by Shuntarō Matsubara (b. 1988), who said he was inspired by the ethnographer Tsuneichi Miyamoto’s book entitled The Forgotten Japanese (Wasurerareta Nihonjin, 1960), and Maurice Blanchot’s text, L’Attente, l’oubli (1962), both centring on the notion of oblivion. Motoi Miura, (b. 1973), founder and artistic director of the Chiten Company based in Kyoto, condensed the very long original text into a 90-minute performance.

On stage is a boat situated at the centre of an area which is cordoned-off by ropes. The performers inside the area are all slide-walking sideways as if they were in a pen, sometimes doing the invisible-wall mime routine on the way. Those who stray out of the zone suddenly become disoriented and start moving in a sluggish manner, but they return to their slide-walking routine once back in the cordoned space. Apparently, they are on the borderline between social cohesion and anomie, yearning for a sense of belonging but feeling stifled by what the communality entails at the same time. They seem to want to break down the invisible walls, but when they step across the border, they lapse into total disorientation.

The Japanese, Who Forget (2017). Photo: Hisaki Matsumoto

The structure of the play is dispersal and fragmented. There are hardly any dialogues. The lines are interspersed with the chants of “wasshoi,” the unison call often recited in Japan by a parade of people carrying a portable Shinto shrine on their shoulder. In the performance of The Japanese, Who Forget, the performers’ lines are delivered in a manner philosophical, desperate, accusatory, mechanical, or monologuish, interspersed with the calls of “wasshoi.” This “wasshoi” business in Japan is generally supposed to function as an oral token to reconfirm communality, but, in the play, it sounds more like a hysteric, compulsive cry of desperation. There is nothing festive about them:

Dai: Hey, hey, no disaster (wasshoi), no war, however big, can escape oblivion forever, can they (wasshoi)? We’ve all been forg (wasshoi) forgotten already, so what (wasshoi)? I see, pardon me, why? why? (My translation, underlines and italics.)

We forget, because we are forgotten, tit for tat. Oblivion in The Forgotten Japanese is repetitive. Repetitive oblivion? I know it sounds rather like a contradiction in terms, but their lines suggest that the “wasshoi” pressure needs to be renewed every time the repressed memory—or sense of guilt—is about to surface. In the play, oblivion-related words are often combined with the wasshoi calls, as if oblivion were made possible only through collective anomie:

Yoh: Our motto, “We shall not repeat” (wasshoi), to be replaced within a year by “We shall not forget.” Once again, “We shall not repeat” (wasshoi), to be replaced within a year by “We shall not forget.” No mistakes are the same, they’re different every time. Who? Who?

Yuk: Aghh, it’s aghh (wasshoi), aghh (wasshoi), all I can say is aghh . . . (wasshoi). How dreadful (wasshoi), and I’d done everything to forget (wasshoi), forget. Who? Who?

Sie: Hey, you all! Don’t you feel ashamed to make us remember what we have struggled to forget (wasshoi), forget (wasshoi)? Why? Why?

Later in the play, they go on board the boat, rant like those in the Ship of Fools, and eventually try to lift it like a portable shrine, inviting the audience to join. We have a brief moment of excitement, but the uplift, both physical and emotional, soon degenerates into apathy and helplessness, deserting the boat on the edge of the marked area as if run ashore and abandoned. Those on stage are back in their initial state, left on the borderline between show time and reality, in an undecided and ambiguous state, not knowing which way to go, or whether they are still inside or outside.

So, what are they trying to forget? What makes them crave so desperately for the state of oblivion? The script indicates their sense of unease. Starting from the kind of unpleasantries that we encounter every day, the list extends to Japan’s war responsibility, its imperial system and, most specifically, post-Fukushima trauma. After the 2011 earthquake which caused the tsunami and the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, we thought we must change. Now that we had gone past the point of no return, it seemed obvious that we had to move forward in the spirit of solidarity. However, that didn’t happen, as the crisis was eaten by the familiar agenda of economy and diplomacy. The play seems to suggest that we have decided to forget about the things we felt so keenly back then.

5.  Conclusion

Nagai’s The Kūki points at the exterior object of apprehension. The play’s accusatory tone is directed outwards, pointing at the political milieu that is suffocating journalists. Chiten’s The Japanese, Who Forget, on the other hand, shows the flipside of these exterior threat. It is more about the act of apprehension itself rather than the object apprehended, showing what it feels like to be an inept political agent in a populism-prone culture. The play is self-reflexive, embodying the symptoms that indicate collective desperation and political forgetfulness that ensues. The Japanese, Who Forget seems to suggest that oblivion is just another way of feigning ignorance as a way of tolerating the intolerable. The two plays, told from opposite viewpoints, hinge on the same issue of democracy endangered by populist bigotry. 

NOTE: An earlier version of this paper was presented at IATC’s 2018 World Congress conference Performing Arts Today: Freedom and (In)tolerance, which took place in St. Petersburg, Russia.


*Manabu Noda is Professor at Meiji University, Tokyo, Japan. As a theatre critic and researcher, he has written on British and Japanese theatre, acting and theatre history. He is currently editor in chief of the Theatre Arts (IATC Japan) and on the editorial board of Critical Stages (IATC). His English publications include “Immersion as the Inscription of Theatre-Maker’s Reading: Complicite, The Encounter,” in Contemporary Drama and Performative Space: From Playwriting to Immersive Theatre (2018); “Trying to Give Shape to an Unending End: Post-3/11 Theatre in Tokyo,” Critical Stages 6 (2012); “From Articulation to Synthesis: Stage Passions from the Eighteenth to Early Nineteenth Centuries in England,” in Aufführungsdiskurse im 18. Jahrhundert (2011); and “The Body Ill at Ease in Post-War Japanese Theatre,” New Theatre Quarterly, vol. 23, no.3 (2007).

Copyright © 2019 Manabu Noda
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