Morihiro Niino*


In Japan after the 3/11 earthquake, the determination for solidarity and the sense of hesitation became the two key features which characterized the contrast between artists in the most affected north-east part of Japan called Tohoku and Tokyo, which also shook very hard but has undergone comparatively small damages. Those in Tohoku had to overcome the initial shock accompanied by the sense of inanity before starting their struggle to explore new routes of communication and new forms of representation to share their horrendous experiences. On the other hand, those in Tokyo were faced with the difficult task of choosing the appropriate moral stance in commenting upon the disaster and its effects. Morihiro Niino discusses several artists to elucidate this contrast. (Editor)

A different route for words

March 11, 2011. The day of the brutal earthquake, followed by the tsunami that swallowed many coastal towns in Tohoku. The day on which many lives were lost. The day on which radioactive contamination became reality due to the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Ever since, poets, novelists, playwrights, theatre practitioners, and critics have inquired what the relationship between the statements they make and society at large should be. A case in point is the poet Ryōichi Wagō (@Wagō2828) who started tweeting his new verses immediately after the quake and received a huge response from the public who were not interested in poetry before. Wagō was able to reach this audience because he gave form to the victims’ sorrow and anger, and released the pain to an unspecified group of people. Says Wagō:

So many things looked different after the earthquake. The devastation of Fukushima’s coastal region Hamadōri brought about by the incident at the nuclear power plant as well as the tsunami – I have been writing poetry for twenty years, but when you see those kinds of events, you feel that there’s a totally different route for words.[1]

What Wagō refers to as “a totally different route for words” accurately describes what many artists, critics, and thinkers felt after the disaster. The change in the relationship between the senders and the receivers of messages suggested the need for some utterly new route of communication. In Wagō’s case, he had no choice but to tweet his words to an unspecified number of people instead of his specific followers. His usual, refined style which receives steady acclaim from a tight literary circle was replaced by a language marked by violent emotional swings – a sort of language that could be shared by many. Twitter was the natural choice to accommodate such change in his language. “I think the disaster enabled such a space to establish itself — a sort of a forum in which whatever was buried deep in the heart can be directly communicated in a profound way that goes beyond the already available methods of communication.”[2] As life began to gain the appearance of normalcy, emotions gradually faded away, but Wagō continues to confront the agony and sorrow and tweet his words in the virtual space he has created for communicating with others. Those who followed his words on Twitter were able to share the agony and sorrow of those in Fukushima at home without travelling to Fukushima to listen to Wagō’s poetry reading. The virtual communication space he created in this way had a theatrical characteristic and left an unforgettable impression in the midst of the confusion that emerged immediately after the quake.

Wagō’s verses are not directly addressed to the dead to be mourned. His Twitter poetry spoke of the reality of the victims’ experiences using a language on a level different from that used in daily use. Wagō is not alone. The immediate concern of those who had anything to say after experiencing the extraordinary was not writing requiems, but finding a new language that could convey the bizarreness of the events. They thought that to speak about the cruelty and the harshness of the reality would be more effective in mourning the dead and sharing the pain of those in agony. Many of the plays that were written and/or performed after the disaster can be seen as attempts to establish a “totally different route for words” when the relationship between theatre and society was transformed.

Tohoku’s strife and Tokyo’s hesitation

It was not common in modern Japanese theatre to confound ethical inquiry with the aesthetic practice, but after the disaster which claimed so many lives and with the prolonged effects of radioactive contamination, it was no longer possible for many theatre people to separate the two. Separating the natural disaster from the man-made, however, is no easy task. Minoru Betsuyaku is a playwright who has always consciously dealt with both theatrical aestheticism and ethics, and his comments in an interview on August 2011 betray the sense of hesitation felt by many theatre people today:

I think the problems at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant which followed the massive earthquake and the tsunami changed things quite a bit. Japanese people are used to natural catastrophes. There’ve been many. But this time, it was a massive blow upon an already modernized nation, so it was a great shock. I think it may mark the end of such type of modernization through state-led development as was laid out by the former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka’s “plan for remodeling the Japanese archipelago” in the early 70s.

Yet it is too early to dismiss modernity because of the Fukushima nuclear accident and electricity shortage. On the contrary, it still lingers in a strange way. It is the interpretation of this that is most problematic. There’s no precedence that we can refer to. We don’t know yet how we should think of this, and consequently, are left in a limbo.[3]

There is a stark contrast between the “totally different route for words” which the Fukushima-based poet Wagō felt, and the hesitation that Tokyo-based playwrights felt – the hesitation which Minoru Betsuyaku referred to when he said he was “left in a limbo.” The residential location explains the difference between the two, but here I focus on how theatre people are trying to find a way to portray the reality after the disaster as they are caught between the two extremes: “totally different route for words” and being “left in a limbo.”

Referring to several performances, I will discuss the depth and scope of the effects of the East Japan Earthquake on theatre.

Kiru Annya to U-ko-san. © Yasuhiro Akai (SUBTERRANEAN)
Kiru Annya to U-ko-san. © Yasuhiro Akai (SUBTERRANEAN)

The Fukushima-based theatre company Gekidan Manrui Toriking Ichiza staged Kiru Annya to U-ko-san (premiered in Tokyo, June 2011, and in Sendai, September 2011) from the victims’ perspective. The young playwright Pelican Oonobu was near the coastal area of Fukushima prefecture’s Soma city when he encountered the earthquake. “Alarmed at the splashes of water on the other side of the coastal highway, I turned the steering wheel and headed towards the mountain path.” That is what saved him, says Oonobu. “I couldn’t write right after the earthquake,” he recalls, “I just couldn’t.” Then he goes on to explain that he wrote the piece to come to terms with the earthquake disaster and nuclear accident. This short piece is about a son of a newspaper shop, “Annya” (a local term of endearment used to refer to an older boy/man), who scatters cut-up shreds of newspaper all over town, and two women who are searching for a childhood friend U-ko. Focusing on the 1970s when the Fukushima nuclear power plant was built, Oonobu looks back at the history of the region while placing the thoughts for those who went missing in the future. He portrays the anger and sadness of the people in Fukushima from their side.

Yume Truck Theatre (Dream Truck Theatre) on a caravan tour in Tohoku. 29 April 2012, Kamaishi, Iwate. Photo: Yujin Ishikawa. © Save the Children Japan
Yume Truck Theatre (Dream Truck Theatre) on a caravan tour in Tohoku. 29 April 2012, Kamaishi, Iwate. Photo: Yujin Ishikawa.
© Save the Children Japan

The financial base of theatre companies in the Tohoku region which was hit hardest by the quake is not necessarily stable. The companies acted swiftly after the quake to establish the Sendai Performing Arts Reconstruction Assistance Centre after the disaster struck. The Sendai-based playwright and director Yujin Ishikawa adapted the works of Kenji Miyazawa, the pre-war poet from Tohoku, and with his theatre group OCT/PASS toured the evacuation centers where those who had lost their homes were living. Another Sendai-based company Sankaku Flasko, together with theatre people from Osaka stagedAto Sukoshi Matte (Can You Wait a Bit More) by Megumi Ikuta (premiered in October 2011, Osaka; and in February 2012, Sendai, the largest city in the Tohoku district). Through the conversations of people who are stranded in a dark shop after the power cut following the earthquake, the piece depicted in a subdued tone the cruelty of life and the hope of recovery. It was received sympathetically by the audience in Kansai especially because they had experienced the Hanshin Awaji Earthquake in 1995.

Tokyo also shook violently, causing major disruption to the lives of those in the metropolis for some time: traffic was severely disrupted and houses were damaged in the areas affected by liquefaction. The Tokyo-based playwright Satoshi Suzuki wrote Husbands and Wives (premier in Tokyo, November 2011), a comedy of a couple living in downtown Tokyo immediately after the massive quake on March 11. The couple are panic-stricken after the shake, but in the confusion establishes a newfound relationship with their neighbors、 and develop a sense of solidarity with those in the severely affected region. Suzuki depicts the lives of those in confusion with humor and hope.

The work of another Tokyo-based playwright, Takeshi Kawamura, wrote and staged Rojō 3/11 (In the Street, 3/11, Tokyo, December 2011) is about how the homeless and those living shady, unstable lives in the metropolis form a sense of solidarity with those in affected areas.

Yet another Tokyo-based playwright, Keralino Sandrovich – the plume de nom of a Japanese playwright – criticized the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the government officials who fell far short of the damage-limiting requirements with black humor in his Would You Take the Buttock, Madam? (Okusama Oshiri-wo Douzo, premiered in Tokyo, July 2011). The piece expresses his outrage at TEPCO, which continued to speak about “an unexpected incident” even after the meltdown.

The overview above is far from exhaustive, but even from these few examples it can be seen that playwrights who had not been enthusiastic about depicting solidarity, have begun to take up the ethical question of solidarity with the victims. On the other hand, plays which criticize the failure of the government’s electricity administration or its incompetent crisis management are still scarce. As the Fukushima evacuees’ life in exile become prolonged and the question of whether to restart the nuclear power plants turns into a political controversy, theatre people will continue their struggle to combine their pursuit of aesthetically viable representation with the social desire for strengthening solidarity with others.

Views from outside

Lastly, I would like to introduce two performances which drew attention, one for inviting a foreign director and another for choosing a foreign play for drama reading.

Romeo Castelucci, The Phenomenon Called “I” (September 2011) for Festival/Tokyo. © Yohta Kataoka
Romeo Castelucci, The Phenomenon Called “I” (September 2011) for Festival/Tokyo. © Yohta Kataoka

“What can we speak about?” was the thematic question posed by the organizers of Festival Tokyo 2011, challenging theatre makers how they could face the reality of the disaster. The opening show,Miyazawa Kenji / Yumenoshimakara (Kenji Miyazawa: From the Yumenoshima Island, September 2011, Tokyo) was a performance in two parts based on the collection of poems Haru-no Shura by the pre-war poet Miyazawa Kenji from the Tohoku district. Part One was written and directed by the Italian director Romeo Castelucci, Part Two by Norimizu Ameya.

Castelucci evoked the scenes of the devastation brought about by the tsunami in Part One entitled The Phenomenon Called “I”. A large number of white plastic chairs arranged in rows were tied together on a rope and were pulled across the stage. The spectacular sight of hundreds of white chairs pulled in one direction to a solemn chorus had a ritualistic quality, which made it clear that it was meant to be a requiem. However, to my taste, the depiction of the power of nature which causes tsunami and landslides and radiation seemed too vivid. I wondered whether I would have been able to watch the performance had I been the victim or had lost family or friends in the disaster. While it may be a rather naïve reception, the same question still remains within me.

In Part Two entitled Ji Me N (ground), Ameya made references to three films: The Planet of the Apes2001: Space Odyssey, and a Japanese film Nihon Chimbotsu (Japan Sinks, 1973). The piece also touched on some historical figures — Madame Currie, for example — Ameya himself, and people in his personal circle ( his daughter and friends including Castelucci). Themes like defeat in WW2, science, radiation, and apocalypse were woven into the performance. Ameya himself made an appearance and sat with his bottom in a pit dug into the ground, reminding the audience that Tokyo had also been contaminated with radiation, be it just a trace.

Drama reading of Kein Licht in Tokyo, December 2011. Courtesy of the Japanese Center of ITI
Drama reading of Kein Licht in Tokyo, December 2011. Courtesy of the Japanese Center of ITI

The drama reading of an Austrian playwright, Elfriede Jelinek’sKein Licht (No Light, sponsored by the ITI Japan, dir. Nei Hasegawa) took place in December 2011, three months after the performance above. The reading of the text that was just premiered in September 2011 attracted huge attention because it was a piece written by the Nobel laureate, who was stimulated by the East Japan Earthquake and the accident at Fukushima nuclear plant. Another reason for the attention was that the performance in Cologne shown alongside Demokratie in Abendstunen (Democracy in the Evening Twilight) was even taken up by the regular ARD news and had stirred public interest.

Although labeled as a drama reading, the piece was closer to an actual stage performance with the actors not only moving around on stage with the script in their hands, but with music, images, and lighting. No Light is a dialogue between the first violin and the second violin exchanging huge amounts of text while they play the violin. The text contains references from philosophy, and the topics range from natural phenomena through music to quantum physics. On stage are several step ladders and four men in cheap plastic raincoats and rubber boots (parody of the protective gear worn at the site of the nuclear accident). Two actors climb up the stepladders with the script in one hand, and deliver their lines at breakneck speed. The remaining performers move and musicians paly impromptu in response. While some of the audience were taken aback by the quaintly accented delivery of the lines, the combination of the voice, movement and music was reminiscent of a live jazz performance, making this a brilliant performance which conveyed the shock of the nuclear accident through the words of Jelinek.
(Translated by Chieri and Manabu Noda)


[1] Ryōichi Wagō & Hiroki Azuma, “The Power of Language Reconsidered after the Incident in Fukushima,” Shisō Chizu Bēta (Map of Thoughts Beta), 2 (2011), p. 187.
[2] Ibid, p. 190.
[3] Betsuyaku in a dialogue with Hideki Noda entitled “The Earthquake and Theatre,” Theatre Arts, 49 (2011), p. 48.


*Morihiro Niino is Professor at Rikkyo University, Tokyo, where he teaches comparative cultural studies, modern German theatre, and the reception of European culture in Japan. He is a member of IATC Japan and editorial member of its quarterly the Theatre Arts. He is the author of Theatre in Berlin after 1989 (2005), and translated numerous plays including those by Rene Pollesch, Falk Richter, Dea Loher, Marius von Mayenburg, and George Tabori.

Copyright © 2012 Morihiro Niino
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Caught between Solidarity and Hesitation: The 3/11 Earthquake and Theatre in Japan