Theatre for Children and Young People in Postwar Japan


A review of Negotiating Democracy: A Cultural and Theoretical Analysis of Theatre for Children and Young People in Postwar Japan, by Michelle L. Solberg.

Michelle L. Solberg’s dissertation investigates the major movements of theatre for children and young people in postwar Japan. Focusing on the first three decades of the postwar period, Solberg examines how theatre for children and young people became “an instrument of democratization efforts, political organizations, and grassroots citizens’ movements” (p. 1) and how they redefined “Japanese identity through a return to popularly imagined roots in the form of fascination with the rural and radical experimentation with ‘traditional’ form” (p. 3). The formation of theatre for young audiences during a time of industrialization, urbanization and educational pressure are also discussed in this dissertation.

The dissertation is conceived in six chapters, including an introduction and conclusion. Four main chapters discuss the postwar development of theatre for children and young people chronologically. Following discussion on the period immediately after the defeat of World War II in Chapter Two, Chapter Three looks at the transformation of the shingeki (“new drama” that introduced Western-style elements of realism into the Japanese theatre) companies after its dominance during the Occupation period. Chapter Four covers the emergence of puppet theatre companies, television, and commercial ventures and their influence on theatre for children and young people during the impact of the 1960s Ampo protests. Chapter Five examines the youth theatre movements in the late 1960s and the early 1970s.

Chapter Two opens with an analysis of the Theatre Tōdō’s December 1945 production, Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play Blue Bird. Solberg argues that it was the first example of public newspaper advertising that connected postwar children’s theatre and the democratic principles expressed by the General Headquarters (GHQ) during the occupation of Japan. She delineates how the production represented the ideal figure of Japan promoted by both the GHQ and Japanese intellectuals to “institute and disseminate the ideology of democracy in the wake of the war” (p. 33). Solberg explains that the GHQ used the same methodology as the Japanese prewar censors to control its ideology, focusing on the notion of childhood to undo the prewar conception of the family state under the emperor system. Blue Beard, originally staged at the Moscow Art Theatre, was the revival of Tōdō’s prewar repertory as well as a well-known piece in the United States. Tōdō, after completing groundwork with Blue Beard, developed touring performances of Western works at theatres and public schools in remote regions, and these events were categorized as the “Theatre in the Classroom” movement. She describes how theatre performances were performed at schools that did not have a proper venue by transforming the ordinary space into a performance space. Quoting Ōno Yukinori’s opinion, Solberg states, “the movement was an important part of the educational objectives of the GHQ” similar to the audiovisual education “promoted by the GHQ in the early postwar period as a means to promote peace education” (p. 68).

The author then deepens her discussion of the GHQ censorship in early postwar productions of theatre for children and young people. She discovered six plays classified as child plays among 8,300 censored scripts at the Waseda University’s Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum. In this chapter, she analyzes Kenji Miyazawa’s plays: Kaze no matasaburō, a play featuring a young boy at a rural school having an adventurous trip over the world and Starvation Camp, a one-act comic operetta about a selfish general and ten starving soldiers in the Asian tropical battlefield. Solberg postulates that the realistic descriptions of starvation and the non-ethical actions regarding food rationing in Starvation Camp—combined with the prewar conceptions of childhood in Kaze no matasaburōled to both dramas being a target for the GHQ censors. She argues that the GHQ contrastively preferred European and American democratic dramas performed by the shingeki and puppet theatre companies, which attributed to the dominance of shingeki companies in the following decade. Through a discussion on the 1948 Japan Arts Festival (sponsored by the Art Division of the Ministry of Education), Solberg demonstrates that theatre was used as a tool under the influence of the American Occupation reforms. She notes that the GHQ’s support of politically leftist shingeki was dropped once the Cold War period began. With the breakout of the Korean War, shingeki became a target of the Red Purge.

Chapter Three focuses on the 1950s when shingeki became a dominant style in theatre for children and young people. Solberg argues that it was also a period of professionalization of children’s theatre companies centering around shingeki companies such as Haiyū-za. Divergence between the right-wing conservatives and the left-wing radicals reflects difference of genre and audience in Japan’s postwar stage. Solberg delineates the key role of the commercial Mitsukoshi Theatre, which staged youth theatre of shingeki and kabuki by examining adaptations of American works for children staged during the Occupation period. Mitsukoshi, according to the author, even after the Occupation’s censors ended in 1950, staged works well-balanced with the GHQ censor policy. Solberg also analyzes Kinoshita Junji’s Twilight Crane as an example of early nostalgia-based plays for children audiences and she regards this anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist production as attempting to shift the notion of Japaneseness. After the Occupation ended in 1952, productions of youth theatre at Mitsukoshi halted. Solberg lists the three reasons for this change: (1) humanitarian, to avoid staging the Ichikawa Girls Kabuki featuring teenage girls; (2) political, to avoid staging leftist shingeki plays during the Red Purge period; and (3) commercial, to stage lucrative works like traditional music. Despite the halt of children’s theatre, Mitsukoshi continued to stage ideologically less controversial works from non-shingeki companies, such as Tōdō and New Children Theatre.

Later in the same chapter, Solberg introduces the emergence of many groups for children’s theatre and their activities, including publications and school performance tours in the early 1950s. She explains that the movement was related to increasing criticism against the low quality of theatre for children and young people. Solberg establishes a connection between the movement and the writings of author and critic Aoe Shunjirō, who borrowed Russian childrens dramatic theory by Henrietta Pascar and Natalia Sats. Shunjirō was opposed to the use of child actors and placed responsibility on the adults to nourish their child’s sense of dramatic appreciation.

Solberg argues that shingeki became more mainstream after the visibility of numerous actors on television and once the public’s acceptance of less politically-driven performances began to influence theatre for children and young people. This shift produced several landmark productions such as the Haiyū-za’s production of Samuil Marshak’s Twelve Months. Solberg analyzes the meaning of the production for postwar Japan from political and economic perspectives and emphasizes that the work, echoing Aoe’s sentiments, was a fantasy play based on the Czech folktale where adults performed the roles of children. Mentioning the demography of the audience, she claims that the play initiated the Family Theatre movement at the Haiyū-za.

In Chapter Four, Solberg introduces the concept of furusato, which refers to rural nostalgia and ideological nativism rejecting “externally imposed identities” (p. 129). The concept invited aesthetic choices while allowing artists to reject shingeki, which was believed as having qualities that were too Western, too intellectual, and too commercialized. Instead, this nostalgia was more inline with the new left angura movement, connected with the Ampo protests. She also pinpoints the historical delay of theatre education in Japanese schools, which did not treat theatre as a subject taught in the classroom and ignored cultivating the aesthetic sensitivity of children.

This chapter also examines a new generation of artists: Sanetō Akira, Fujita Asaya, and Tada Tōru. Each artist experienced the atmosphere of war as a child and held strong antipathy towards war. Solberg explains that Sanetō and Fujita developed a folklore theatre genre while Tada aimed to create works with strong child protagonists explicitly critiquing “both ‘war mongering’ and the perceived inequalities of ‘democracy’ as it was implemented in the United States and by the United States in Japan” (p. 141). She discovers how these artists reacted against the political shift during the Cold War and how they tried to support children’s rights.

Chapter Five examines the formation and centralization of two key organizations in the youth theatre movement: Parent and Child Theatre, formed in Fukuoka in 1966, and The Japan Union of Theatrical Companies for Children and Young People (JIENKYO), formed in Tokyo in 1975. Solberg argues that the Parent and Child Theatre originated from the citizens’ movement, which arose from the people’s concerns with rampant consumerism and the highly stressful, exam-oriented educational environment. These two ideas became a driving force in children’s theatre of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Solberg also explains that popularity of the movement arose from its safe content, as many parents expressed concern over the graphic nature of sexual and violent content of the late 1960s avant-garde theatre. She argues “[w]ithout the label of ‘politics’, the movement was a way to participate in the public sphere of the new democracy, engaging in new forms of civic and social activism and discourse on children’s rights, through theatre and performance” (p. 193). Her discussion of JIENKYO explains how the largest and most influential organization was born and how it produced theatrical performances and other activities while maintaining ties with the Parent and Child Theatre movement.

In Chapter Six, Solberg demonstrates that the “theatre for young audiences in postwar Japan is the manifestation of the project of democratization” while concluding that the “lingering memory of the war, the political circumstances of its aftermath, and a strong desire to never repeat the mistakes of the past” were all major themes found in children’s theatre (p. 206). This dissertation successfully explores how theatre for children and young people grappled with the impact of modernity and postmodernity in the development of children’s performances and theatrical activities. The theatre community continued to stage plays from the West as well as place an emphasis on tradition and the local community. Solberg’s narrative examines the theatre and its movements as cultural productions and posits a cluster of theatrical movements in postwar Japan that were mirroring the socio-political movements in the country after the war. As Solberg points out, theatre for children and young people in Japan has been a neglected field of research in Japanese and Western scholarship. This dissertation is a valuable resource by creating a comprehensive discourse around postwar theatre for children and young people in Japan. Translations of the Japanese language materials and interviews with the Japanese artists of the field make this dissertation vital, preserving their direct testimony of the postwar history of theatre for children and young people.

Yoshiko Fukushima
Associate Professor of Performance Studies
Department of Languages, Humanities Division
University of Hawaii at Hilo

Primary Sources

Archival research in the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum at Waseda University
Interviews with artists and critics
Production programs, publicity materials issued by the theatre companies and organizations
Websites posted by the theatre companies, organizations and government agencies
Video recordings of the theatre productions

Dissertation Information

University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2013. 271 pp. Primary Advisor: Manon van de Water.

Image: Japanese children, seeing a Marine for the first time, eagerly reach or chocolates offered them by SSgt Henry A. Weaver, III. National Archives Photo 127-N-139887.


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