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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What's the deal with being an actor in Tokyo? Part 2

Part 2 of an English-speaking-ex-pat acting primer for Tokyo
By Benjamin Johnson


JAPAN – In Japan they speak Japanese. So I shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of English theatre. But perhaps the problem is not the language barrier, but the arts industry, and perhaps the very business practices of the second-largest economy on the planet.

The largest English theatre company in Tokyo (their website says this will be their 112th season) is Tokyo International Players. They have four shows in their current season spanning a year, but unfortunately, each show only runs for four days… And the short run is a regular phenomenon with English and Japanese shows in Tokyo. They’re also actively seeking volunteers for all positions, which translates as: there is no money in English theatre in Tokyo.

As for Japanese theatre, the average run is also four days, with more high-profile shows (including casts of TV stars) running a scant two weeks. They appear to be heavily subsidized by sponsors and donations, with most non-Broadway Musical shows concentrated in the small area of Shimokitazawa. The economics of rehearsing for a couple weeks to do four performances is mysterious at best, and indicates that theatre audiences have not been developed as much as in western society.

A recent article in the Japan Times points to a company that has begun premiering shows in the UK to try and help sell their shows at home. The same strategy seems to work for the big musicals (Wicked, Annie, Lion King…), but says little for the potential growth of homegrown shows.

On the opposite end, the (“Broadway musical”) The Drowsy Chaperone opens in Tokyo this coming January (possibly with English subtitles for tourists…). Originally premiered at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2001, after eight years and a successful New York run, it’s finally crossing the other pond.


As for making a living as an actor in Tokyo, or as an artist of any kind for that matter, “difficult” does not begin to describe the scene. As I mentioned in the previous post, agencies provide the actor with a “garauntee” of how much a specific job pays. But no one actually knows how much the agency makes, and I’m told by everyone I meet that asking is considered impolite, and could lead to less or no more jobs. So much for actor’s rights…

Japanese signing idol Ami Suzuki was the biggest music star in Japan in 1999, selling millions of CD’s and DVD’s, but despite this she made very little per month, plus less that half of one-percent of CD sales. When the president of her recording company was subsequently indicted on fraud charges, and details of her compensation exposed in court and reported in the news (despite threats), she was blacklisted by the industry and is just recently making a comeback as an independent artist, eight years later. And this is not an isolated phenomenon…

Moving further into mainstream, a recent article in the New York Times exposes a more sinister problem in the fabric of Japanese society, which is that Japan’s success as an economic force may be built on the back of the unpaid overtime of it’s entire work force. The article also points out that the practice of, “working oneself to death”, is so common in Japan there is a word for it, karoshi, and it’s not just an expression that means “to work a lot”.

Back to theatre, it would seem that the culture of unfair business practices towards artists (and employees in general), a potential theatre market that’s too busy working unpaid overtime, and a general complacency about the whole situation, has left one of the most intimate and personal forms of artistic expression, theatre, relegated to the side-lines. There is however, always hope.

An article in the Washington Post points to a growing movement in the younger Japanese, who are not interested in job promotions, or marriage, or taking on more responsibility of any kind, as a reaction to the suffocating atmosphere of the Japanese business culture, and that sad character: the salaryman. (Not to mention that Japan chose not to ratify the International Labour Standard of equal compensation for women). But perhaps the winds of change are coming to Japan, and a silent revolution could be brewing as we speak. Theatre, for it’s part, could play a vital role as a window on society, and a voice for the chorus of silent protesters, but book your tickets early, as it may only run for four days...

On a final note, perhaps there is a solution to the language barrier of English theatre in Tokyo, and that is: to reflect the reality of life in this city. English signs are everywhere, and every Japanese studies English in high school, although not enough to really understand well, but it presents the option of mixing the languages, (as most of my conversations are on a daily basis). Outside of the language, theatre is communication, and maybe that quintessential struggle should be on stage, as it is in the street…

8 comments:

Paul Rekk said...

I'm willing to admit that I may be missing a vital part of this study, but I'm afraid I don't understand why a healthy English-language theatre scene in Japan would be expected. We don't have a healthy Japanese-language theatre scene in the U.S. (or in Canada, I'm assuming). Hell, the States don't even have a 'healthy' Spanish-language theatre scene, and that's something I could understand the reasoning behind.

Granted, the business practices in the arts in Japan is a fascinating (albeit scary) read, but to the greater point of the piece -- an English-speaking-ex-pat actor should expect to not get a lot of work, I would imagine. You don't move to Japan to speak to the mass population in English.

Michael Wheeler said...

Hey Paul,

I don't think Benjamin, expected a thriving English language theatre scene in Japanese society. I asked him (through the comments section of a different post actually), to write a couple of pieces on what it was like for a Westerner who is limited by his ability to communicate to act and create theatre there (Okay not in those words, but that was what I was hoping for.). So these posts are his report on that experience.

I am hoping to have more pieces from other artists in other places in the world. Some of them them will be by authors who can communicate fully with the culture and some will not. Obviously, this fact will change the context of the pieces significantly.

Paul Rekk said...

Ah, gotcha.

I missed that conception and was reading it as a "how can we bring English-language theatre to Japan?" piece. My mistake.

Lindsay Price said...

This has been a great read. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Japan seems like, I don't know - 'strange' is completely the wrong word, it's just so far from what we know. I'm loving a peek into someone's first hand experience.

Matthew said...

Yes, thank you for your thoughts/insight into English theater in Japan - very interesting.
I just helped out working props with the Nagoya Players (another English-based theater co.) and it sounds like they run a similar set up to the Tokyo company. Nagoya Players originally started by serving the universities - offering English plays/short scenes, etc... and this was quite successful (both in influential and financial terms). But from what I am told, the pool of funding for this kind of English program in a university dried up - so the Players morphed into more of a community theater for the Expat and Returnees (Japanese who study English abroad) groups. Their most recent production, "The Boys Next Door" (very good show) reached around 800-900 people in total - not bad, but just a drop in the population bucket really. I do think that English theater can play a role in helping to spark discussion on the many social issues that Japan faces, but doesn't face, if you know what I mean. I think English theater has never been afraid to explore the good bad and ugly of humanity. Sadly, the superficiality of Hollywood (in English) seems needed here. So, maybe Japanese are ready for some deeper material - good plays that can probe deeper into the Japanese Psyche.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

So rude. So disrespectful. So disappointing.