JSPS Quarterly
No.55 2016 Spring

Research and Life in Japan by a JSPS Fellow (37)

Dr. Barbara
Dr. Barbara Geilhorn

Study of Japan’s Contemporary Theatre after Fukushima

JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow, Waseda University, 2014-present
Lecturer, Japanese Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, 2009-2014
Lecturer, Japanese Studies, University of Trier, Germany, 2007-2009
Ph.D. (Japanese Studies), University of Trier, Germany, 2008

Hailing from Germany, Dr. Barbara Geilhorn is conducting research with her host professor Dr. Mikio Takemoto at Waseda University under a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellowship. We asked her about her research and life in Japan.

Q: May we start by asking you why you chose Japan to pursue your research?

Actually, this is my fourth long-term and my longest visit to Japan during my academic career so far. The first time, I spent one year at Waseda University during my master’s study at Freie University Berlin. I came to take a Japanese language course and conduct a research material collection for my master thesis on kyogen, a form of traditional Japanese comic theatre. My second and third long-term visits were during my PhD study at University of Trier on women performers of Noh, a major form of classical Japanese musical drama. Both visits were funded by German agencies. Now, I am back to Waseda University.

Throughout my academic years, I have tried to come to Japan as much as possible to maintain and refresh my relationships with colleagues and friends. Keeping in close and direct contact with Japanese people is crucial to advancing my cultural studies. For my study of contemporary Japanese theatre, to which I am currently devoted, Japan, especially Tokyo, is the most ideal place to pursue my work, because very few Japanese contemporary theatre troupes visit Europe. Although international tours of Japanese theatrical groups have been increasing over the last decade, there is obviously no way that I would be able to see a performance every week in Europe! More than just library materials, my research requires me to regularly observe actual Japanese theatre performances.

Q: How did you get to know your Japanese host researcher?

During my MA study, I became a member of a joint research project with Waseda University on Noh theatre during the Meiji period (1868-1912) and Taisho period (1912-1926). My current host researcher, Prof. Dr. Mikio Takemoto, was one of the principal investigators in that project. He is very open-minded and helpful to foreign students like myself, and provided me with a lot of helpful guidance in my research pursuits, including introducing me to many other Noh scholars. I kept close contact with him over the years after finishing my post-graduate field research in Japan.

Q: When and how did you come in contact with your research subject?

My current JSPS fellowship research topic is “Negotiating Nuclear Disaster—Japanese Theatre after Fukushima.” However, before starting my research on such a contemporary subject, I first studied the traditional Japanese theatre. These pursuits connected me with several Japanese theatrical themes, leading up to my contemporary subject.

When the triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident) happened in Fukushima, I was deeply shocked and concerned about the wellbeing of my Japanese friends and colleagues and the situation in the country as a whole. But, when I first came back to Japan in the summer of 2012 after that calamity, I could hardly perceive any change. It was as if a disaster of such enormous dimensions never happened. This caused me to wonder how artists had reacted to issues related to that immense natural disaster and nuclear catastrophe, so I decided to do my postdoctoral research on the activities of the Japanese theatre in the wake of Fukushima. Thus, my choice of topic was motivated by a combination of interest in socially relevant art and a desire to extend my area of research deeper into the field of contemporary theatre.

Q: Could you tell us more about your current research?

Many artists flocked to Fukushima after the earthquake in March 2011 to support local communities in one way or another. Some became active as volunteers who helped victims regain their livelihoods, others worked to clean up debris or rebuilding infrastructure. Actors and playwrights organized charity performances in Japan and overseas to collect money for the afflicted areas, and theatre companies toured evacuation centers and temporary housings to provide emotional support. In Tokyo right after March 11, there were few performances that did not take the disaster into account in some way. Directors changed parts of their running productions; a few months later, the first plays responding directly to the disaster were put on stage.

In my study, I have placed particular focus on the theatre in Fukushima, Aomori and the Tokyo metropolitan area so as to assess how theatre people have reacted to the disasters from different distances over time. Many playwrights and directors have supported my research through interviews or by providing me with print and/or DVD materials. I have chosen to analyze a broad range of plays, both documentary and fictional, performed by internationally known troupes, such as chelfitsch, down to school theatre in the stricken areas.

Over the course of my study, covering both affected zones and the Tokyo metropolis, I have found that the aspects which artists choose to address depend heavily on their location, to name but one crucial factor. Productions originating in places far away from the disaster zones, such as Tokyo, tend to address issues related to 3/11 more from a national perspective. For example, Okada Toshiki’s Genzaichi (“Current Location,” 2012) is a highly political intervention even though he refers to the calamity in a rather subtle and indirect fashion. On the other hand, performances from the disaster zones, such as Onobu Pelican’s Kiruannya to Ukosan (“Kiruannya and Uko,” 2011), often raise questions of immediate relevance to people living in the disaster area while attempting to provide a space for processing trauma triggered by the catastrophe. Theatre can also help to generate empathy among people and prevent the Fukushima disaster—which is still ongoing for many victims—from being forgotten.

Q: That is very gripping, but what is the ultimate goal of your research?

My goal is getting insights into the contemporary Japanese theatre scene in general, more particularly how it reacts to the triple Fukushima disaster. So far, I have selected several theatre plays for in-depth analysis and am currently preparing journal articles. Right now, I am working on an edited volume about cultural responses to the Fukushima calamity together with a colleague from Nagoya University, which will hopefully be published this summer.

I am especially interested in the social and political relevance of the theatre with regard to recent developments in Fukushima. My research will show how Japanese theatre people express their criticisms and sensitivities on the stage. Although their approach might be less outspoken than is common for western theatre, it is nevertheless successful in getting its message across and should not be dismissed as less political or even uncritical. On the contrary, in post-disaster Japan, where direct criticism risks being rejected as fukinshin (indiscrete), this rather subtle, indirect approach can be considered more effective.

Q: How is your research environment facilitating your study?

My host institution, Waseda University, offers one of the best facilities in Japan to study theatre. Besides seeing as many theatrical performances as possible, I spend a great deal of time in the university’s theatre museum and other libraries on the campus as they possess extensive research materials on the Japanese theatre and lots of secondary literature as well. I enjoy going to theatre festivals, which in Germany I normally would not be able to attend as they are held in the middle of university semesters. For example, while at Waseda I’ve had the chance to go to Festival/Tokyo and TPAM in Yokohama twice. Both are important theatre festivals as they give you a good perspective of recent trends and up-and-coming troupes in both Japanese and international theatre.

Q: What do you do outside your research work?

I greatly enjoy watching performances, even those outside my research topic. I will continue to see Kabuki, Noh, traditional musical performances like shamisen as long as I remain in Japan! During my last stay I practiced some Noh under the guidance of Uzawa Hisa, a senior female performer. That gave me a good opportunity to not only write about Noh but to also gain some basic experiences in performing it. Now I am studying sanshin (3-string shamisen), an Okinawan instrument that is often likened to a banjo.

Generally speaking, I am happy to have regular chances to meet my Japanese friends. Besides, I like going for walks in Tokyo neighborhoods, such as the Nezu area, where you can get an idea of the city’s atmosphere in earlier times. And of course I like Japanese food. I am particularly a fan of noodles of every kind. In the summer I enjoy eating cold soba, dark noodles made from buckwheat flour. My favorite is tororo soba with grated nagaimo (yam). In winter I prefer udon (thick wheat flour noodles) in hot soup, which is very tasty and warms you up on a cold day.

Q: Please give some advice for young researchers who may be thinking about doing research in Japan?

Take up the challenge of learning at least a little Japanese before coming to Japan or during your stay there. Besides, I would like to encourage you to look for an activity you can do only in Japan such as participating in one of your university’s athletic or cultural clubs. In my case, this has been the Noh club. Doing so is highly enjoyable and gives you two advantages: one is a chance to communicate closely with Japanese people, the other is to learn about Japanese culture, which in many cases can only be learned in Japan.

Over the course of our interview with Dr. Geilhorn, we were very impressed by the way she has immersed herself both mind and soul into Japanese culture. Her research on Japanese theater is as timely as it is unique. That she would choose to investigate how the theatrical community has and continues to respond to the tragedy that struck Japan’s Fukushima area bespeaks in vivid tones her fondness and compassion for the Japanese people. From an academic perspective, it is also indicative of her willingness to go down uncharted paths that lead to new discoveries, in her case both cultural and societal. We are very pleased that her research on unique aspects of Japanese theater is going well and that papers on it are in the making. We hope that her work will enjoy wide dissemination, as it will warm the hearts of the affected people in Fukushima while giving the Japanese theatrical community recognition for something wonderful, yet not well known internationally, that they are doing. All of this, while delving deeply into the theatrical culture of Japan.

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JSPS Quarterly No.55 2016