From Artists In Tokyo

by Aya Ogawa

in Advocacy,Global Citizenship

I’ve been asked by many people what the situation in Japan is like now and how it is affecting artists there. As a New York-based theatre artist with many ties to Japan and former TCG staff member I wanted to share what I’ve heard with the greater TCG theatre community in the U.S.

We have all been shocked and troubled by the news about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, as well as the continuing developments as Japan struggles to control the nuclear power plants in Fukushima. I feel fortunate that all of my immediate family in Tokyo and all of my friends and their families are safe as well, for the time being. There are of course growing concerns about the radioactivity spreading, as well as how long it is taking resources to reach not only refugees but unaffected areas as well. Hours after the quake, most supermarkets in Tokyo had run out of bottled water and dry goods.

Shibuya, March 13, Photo Dr. Arnar Jensson for

The quake hit on Friday March 11, and in Tokyo most things came to a halt until Tuesday. Since the power plants, which supplied 30% of energy to the country, were down, there were (and still are) scheduled rolling blackouts in Tokyo and train services were severely cut. By Tuesday, most people were getting “back to normal” life, that is, going to work and school. However the conflicting reports from Japanese and international media about the extent of the threat of radiation leaks have caused a wide range of reactions, from panicked hysteria to calm stoicism. There is a growing mistrust in both the media and government. I have heard stories about how with such limited resources, refugee camps are run by volunteers and displaced people are working cooperatively and patiently. On the other hand there are other accounts of people in areas not struck by disaster who are buying out bottled water at stores and hoarding supplies. I’ve been corresponding with several artist friends of mine who are struggling in Tokyo to return to normal, whatever that means.

In an email dated March 17 to international artists, collaborators and theatres, Akane Nakamura, executive director of precog (producer and manager of numerous contemporary performing artists and companies in Japan) wrote:

…I stopped watching Japanese TV a couple of days again. Yesterday, I stopped reading twitter, because the excessive information was so distracting and causing me to lose my grip on myself. Reading reports by various foreign media actually made things worse for me. While the domestic media had been playing down the possibility of a nuclear meltdown, I was reading about dismal assessment of the situation on the Internet and receiving many many e-mails and phone calls from friends urging me to evacuate. The more information I had, the more I lost my peace of mind. As of yesterday, it was getting impossibly difficult to stay calm, because the information I was receiving was so insanely contradictory and the situation was changing so fast and so unpredictably every hour, even every minute. The last straw was an international call from a Swiss journalist. I didn’t know her, but she somehow got my contact and called my cellphone. She called me right after a relatively big aftershock and barraged me with questions. That was just too much.

So, after giving it a much careful thought, I came to the conclusion that my primary obligation and desire are to keep my artists and staff safe and help Japan to rebuild in the way I can–which is to do it through art. There is no one “right” way to deal with this extraordinary situation, and I’m sure everyone will do their part to help others in such times of dire needs. And last night, I made a really difficult decision to move to Osaka so that I could start working again. At this moment, I have yet to make a public announcement that my company will temporarily move its operation to Osaka/Kyoto. Because of the mounting frustration and anxiety, some folks in Tokyo are very critical of people leaving Tokyo (some have been called as “cowards” or “foolishly or illogically in panic”). That means we could potentially alienate our audience. For artists and creators, the most important thing (apart from taking care of their family and friends) is to continue their artistic work. This is the time when we need to make the best of our intelligence, imagination and wit! That’s our way of making a contribution!

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Yoji Sakate, playwright/director and artistic director of Rinkogun Theater Company, has shared his blog with me where he has been tracking his thoughts — I’ve translated the three most recent posts below:

March 16: I set our run-through to avoid the scheduled blackout. Though there was no blackout… Radiation levels have reached an all time high in Tokyo and surrounding 7 prefectures. In Shinjuku they say radiation measured 21 times what is normal. Is the situation getting under control? Are the experts actually on-site? Some say the situation is “worse than Chernobyl.” In any case, staying calm.

March 17: The official announcement was that there would be a “scheduled blackout from 12:20pm” so I scheduled rehearsal to begin at 9am and we quickly did a run-through. There was no blackout. I ducked out of rehearsal early to work on some scripts, since much of my time had been devoted to communication regarding the earthquake — but I wasn’t able to get any work done. I finally got in touch with a friend in Sendai and heard his story. The situation seems dire for those evacuees who have sought refuge in remote areas. I also learned that the entire whaling village of Ayukawa in Oshika Peninsula (which I had visited a number of times while I was writing my play Epitaph for the Whales) has been almost entirely washed away, save for a few concrete buildings. Many of the villagers had evacuated to higher ground, but there are also a large number of deaths. I received an email from an actor who was in War and Citizens about 2 years ago, who said that the current state as reported by the media reminded him of the air raid scenes in that play. Much of that play was inspired by Ayukawa.

March 18: Load-in and tech. We talked a lot about how to respond to the current situation. The facts should be communicated with accuracy. These are things that are happening in our own day-to-day lives. We can tell ourselves that it’s important to not get tripped up by information and carried away by emotion, maintain your own personal integrity and that’s enough — but reality keeps moving forward. There’s a lot of confusion over the massive blackouts. As a side note: I feel sorry that putting up The Attic International Remix Version can’t contribute to energy conservation, but because it does have the smallest set in the world, the electricity needed to operate the lights is 1/4 or 1/5 of what is usually used in a small theatre. This has been one reason we’re able to proceed with the production. The Fukushima nuclear power plant and the failure of the mobile police to cool the plants with water… How will the Self Defense Forces fare? The Association for Theatre Artists Against War has begun a fund for the victims of the northeastern Japan earthquake here: For donations coming from overseas, please stay tuned…

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As Akane wrote, there is no one correct way for people to respond to such uncertain and extraordinary situations. But I am inspired by my friends who continue to create art — not out of a need to cling to routine, but as a direct way of responding to the circumstances. It’s an incredible reminder that the imagination and human expression are necessities, especially in times of crises.

Akane also wrote in an earlier email: “I really beg you to donate money to disaster relief in Japan. Please set donation boxes at your performances on an ongoing basis, and please tell your audience, artists and community the significance of donations from all over the world.”

To that end I’d like to share some possible ways to send support:

The Nippon Foundation / CANPAN Northeastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund

Second Harvest Japan

The Japan Society Earthquake Relief Fund

From so far away, here in New York, I’ve been overwhelmed by feelings of despair, anger, and helplessness — but also heartened by the immediate responses of some organizations and people in finding ways to support each other and the survivors of this natural disaster. I hope you will participate in whatever way you can and join me in sending thoughts of safety, happiness, and good health to Japan.