Column & Interview

This page introduces columns and interviews about art and culture from various viewpoints by Arts Council Board members, professionals in the field, etc.


On "The Public": From Tokyo

Board member of Arts Council Tokyo / Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, The University of Tokyo
Tadashi Uchino

In my last column, “On ‘The Public’: From Berlin“, I wrote primarily about what might be called the public nature and social mission of the performing arts in Berlin. I argued that the operation of public theaters in Germany, and the selection of their programs, presumes a social component and is always conscious of either being “faithful to a social mandate” or engaging in “subversive reversals of the intended societal duty.” I also noted that although the economic and philosophical foundations of public theaters—and the various aesthetic issues derived from these—are now being influenced by globalization, the notion that “entertainment = commercial” is one that basically remains solidly entrenched. Although I did not make it explicit then, my point was that public theaters and the performing arts in Germany are what might be called an “institution” broadly recognized by the populace.

Well, then, what about the “public” as it relates to the performing arts in Tokyo, a city that will soon be hosting the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games and its accompanying cultural program? I would like to offer a few personal observations in this regard.

Japan is often thought to have pursued modernization based on Western models (in this case meaning continental Western Europe, often specifically Germany and France, and sometimes the UK), but even at the end of the “bubble economy” there were no proper systems of public funding or organizations that could be called public theaters except for classical performance. (A private organization established in 1987, the Saison Foundation—now a public interest incorporated foundation—was a pioneer in providing grants for the performing arts.)

Opened in 1990, the ACM Theater at Art Tower Mito was probably Japan’s first-ever public theater in the continental European mold. The theater was designed and constructed in accordance with the theatrical aesthetic of director Tadashi Suzuki, who led its resident theatrical troupe and staff. Suzuki later devoted himself to creating larger-scale public theater spaces and organizations in Shizuoka prefecture such as the Shizuoka Arts Theater and the Shizuoka Performing Arts Park, where director Satoshi Miyagi carries on this vision today.

In the meantime—as symbolized by the opening of the New National Theater, Tokyo in 1997—a number of public theaters were established that adopted an artistic director model that was (presumably) patterned on the public theaters of continental Western Europe. This took place in the context of improvements, following the establishment in 1990 of the Japan Arts Council, to mechanisms through which the state—that is, government bodies such as the Agency for Cultural Affairs—could provide public subsidies. Such funding, at least up until recent years, has continued to grow. At the same time, it must also be noted that this corresponded with a period of sustained domestic economic recession during which domestic markets and economic activity in the broad sense were contracting.

As a critic I have written previously that the notion of “the public” really demands further debate, and I cannot help feeling that our country’s performing arts world—one where criticism carries little weight—has slipped along indecisively without much open discussion about whether we should aim for European-style public theaters or some new style of public theater that conforms to the historical context of the performing arts in Japan. With some measure of self-reproach, I have to say it seems that, left to take care of themselves, things have ended up as one might expect. In a move modeled on European public theaters, some time after its opening the New National Theater, Tokyo added a Drama Studio in 2005 but on the whole, the default standard for nearly all public theaters in Japan—with the exception of those in Mito and Shizuoka—has been to lack both a resident theater company and a full-time artistic director. Not being full-time means not having authority over human resources and budgetary decisions; such an artistic director may have nominal artistic responsibility but cannot possibly really take such responsibility in the absence of human resources and budget authority. Still, there does seem to be a fairly large permanent staff at the New National Theater, Tokyo, which could perhaps be described as more fortunate in this regard than municipal public theaters. Nevertheless, seen from a distance, even the New National Theater, Tokyo with its apparently generous budget seems to reflect the nature of Japan’s administrative system: top management (artistic directors) frequently changes while bureaucrats (full-time staff) remain, bringing the same sort of problems with “bureaucratic control” that were once so much discussed in relation to the national government. The controversy back in 2008 concerning the replacement of the artistic director at the New National Theater, Tokyo brought this contradiction closer to the surface, but I wonder how many readers of this column even remember that episode.

Not only are there essentially no theatrical directors (artistic directors) with the kind of total authority enjoyed at public theaters in Germany, short-staffed municipal public theaters in Japan frequently end up outsourcing their productions to external companies. The result is that it is difficult to see the kind of clear division between commercial theater/theaters and public theater/theaters that is found in Europe and the USA. I cannot help but see here a situation that overlaps with the globalization of the sort of privatization encountered in neoliberal criticism: one in which public funding (tax money) is directed to private corporations (who execute the budget). Public works, of course, remain fundamentally what they always have been, and it is not as if there are legal issues here, but globalization and neoliberalism have brought great change through the entry into domains previously thought the responsibility of the public—the most obvious example being the military—of private corporations that then work to dominate them to secure profits and accumulate capital through a commercialization of the public. The downside of this sort of thing has long been noted, and criticized, but one never hears of reforms being made.

Seen in this light, nearly all of Japan’s public theaters were positioned from the beginning as the sort of public enterprises for which the public would not be expected to provide complete support. In terms of the university organizations with which I am familiar, they were treated not so much like national and public universities as like private universities. I do not know whether this was the result of a conscious decision by some person or organization or was simply a pragmatic decision at the time of the bubble’s collapse that committing to personnel expenses for lifetime employment was impossible but that annual subsidies and grants could be managed. I suspect the decisions were probably case-by-case, but we must recognize that the result in any case has been a blurring of the distinctions between public theater/theaters and commercial theater/theaters.

An easy-to-understand example can be found at the public theaters in Berlin, where—because tax monies are used—the price of admission is kept fairly low even when opera is on the program. What about in Japan? Although I have not investigated the issue myself, surely statistics must be available somewhere that describe the difference in admission prices for commercial theater/theaters and public theater/theaters. If tax monies are being invested then I think admission prices should be held in check accordingly, but I cannot help feeling that this is not the case. (Please let me know if I am mistaken.)

Another example relates to how programming at public theaters is evaluated. Instead of appraisal by the media and experts (including researchers and other intellectuals as well as people in the industry) in public discourse spaces as seen in Germany, there seems to be an over-reliance in Japan on attendance figures alone. This leads to a loss of distinction with commercial theater as public theaters are frequently reduced to putting together programs that—irrespective of any “social mission”— follow the trends of the day and are built around “popular” artists or, frequently, celebrity entertainers.

I should note that I am not suggesting here that Japan adopt a Western European-style public theater system like that in Germany. Certainly there was a time when I dreamed of such a thing, but after a quarter century of large-scale financial subsidies and the appearance of public theaters around the country, no one—aside for a few exceptions like Mito and Shizuoka—has sought to adopt such a system and one rarely hears anyone lobbying for it. At the same time, we must consider the historical fact that the European system of public theaters was cultivated during a period stretching from the formation of the nation state to the advance of imperialism, and was a kind of “public” that served (only) the dominant bourgeoisie. I am perfectly aware that there are a lot of people who talk longingly about the situation in France or Germany, but I think there is little to say these days beyond that this is simply impossible. In the absence of any great push or lobbying effort on behalf of such a shift, or any unified effort to secure permanent funding during the past twenty-five years in which public subsides have been set up and public theaters established, this would certainly be difficult to accomplish now. The unmediated transplanting of systems from countries or regions with different historical backgrounds might work in the midst of a revolution like the Meiji Restoration, but otherwise seems impossible.

At the same time, neither am I saying that the status quo is fine, or that there is nothing to be done. This is because I understand that now, at a time when this condition that we call “globalization” or “post-modernity” is moving forward ever faster, people are broadly conscious that we are entering a new phase in world history. That the public theater system in Berlin and Germany has itself, as I wrote in the previous edition of this column, responded to this situation by stimulating the independent scene is a classic sign that this is so. On the other hand, although it may seem counterintuitive, I think there is still the potential for Japan, which has set up public subsidies and established only public theater buildings run by weak organizations, to create and share an ideal of the “public” that both meets the times and copes with the country’s geography and history. This, I recognize, is a utopian proposal. I suspect, however, that many people share the understanding of the times described by American critic Fredric Jameson in the following quote, and are sympathetic to the notion that Japan was always thus:

[W]ith decolonization […] those subaltern others—who could not speak for themselves, let alone rule themselves—now for the first time, as Sartre famously put it, speak in their own voice and claim their own existential freedom. Now, suddenly, the bourgeois subject is reduced to equality with all these former others, and a new kind of anonymity reigns throughout world society as a whole. This is a good anonymity, which can be opposed with some ethical satisfaction to the bourgeois individualism whose disappearance we have hitherto greeted with such mixed feelings. Billions of real people now exist, and not just the millions of your own nation and your own language.
(“The Aesthetics of Singularity,” New Left Review 92, p129, 2015)

Is it that the sort of transition described above never took place in the Japanese language sphere, where (so it is said) bourgeois individualism never took root? Or, conversely, is it that Japan was that way from the start? In any case, with the development and spread of social media and other systems that increase visibility, everyone now seems to recognize, particularly since the dawn of the new century, that, like it or not, there are many real, incomprehensible “others” all over the place even among those who, though not numbering in the “billions,” speak and write the same Japanese language. I feel a tremendous attraction to, and see enormous potential in, the category of ethical identity that Jameson calls “good anonymity.”

As we confront this situation we are, in Jameson’s terms, vulnerable individuals/subjects who have lost their family, region, nation, and national identity and been thrown out into a vast domain crawling with countless anonymous individuals/subjects. Because, of course, we are unable to bear such individuality, we seek salvation in “the regression into older group or religious structures, or the invention of pseudo-traditional ethnic identities, with results ranging from genocide to luxury hobbies.” (Ibid., p130). Jameson understands this dialectic between egoism thrown out into a vast domain of anonymity—this could also be called, in the manner of Giorgio Agamben, the “individual/subject” exposed to “bare life”—and pseudo-collectivity to be the building blocks of reality as is relates to postmodern agency. The discussion here may have taken a turn for the abstract but from the phenomenon of “petit nationalism” in the 1990s to the calls in recent years for exclusionism and a “return to Japanese tradition” that seem to have a certain ability to attract people despite lacking any empirical basis (What period’s tradition do we return to? Which tradition? Whose?), I see a Japanese expression of the global situation that Jameson describes, and indeed some of you may have read the above and already wondered whether it referred entirely to Japan.

Seen in this light, I think the “public” as it relates to the visibly omnipresent “good anonymity” that is now being actualized/realized should be thought of as another name for forums where the other can stand up just as it is without being robbed of its otherness. It cannot be denied that the theatrical form, through its historical regularity, was and is a medium that promotes a “regression” to “older group or religious structures,” and that shamelessly produces/invents and shares “pseudo-traditional ethnic identities.” This may not be much of a sin as long as it is for “luxury hobbies”—that is, paying high admission fees to be emotionally moved with others—but we must surely think long and hard about its potential to cultivate a mentality that can be triggered to swing in the opposite direction toward “genocide.” Accordingly, therefore, I wish I could conclude decisively that theater is a form that cannot become a forum for “good anonymity,” but I would like to hesitate, at least for now, and not go quite that far. What is “good anonymity” in the Japanese context, even though, or perhaps because, this context is doubtless divided and full of holes? What could it be? Surely the mission of the public is to provide it with a forum.

For now, there is difficulty in trying to define “good anonymity” by what it is rather than what it is not. In terms of what it is not, although this may be self-evident, it is not a nameless young aspiring actor or someone who feels estranged from society (this would surely be a mere regression to the pseudo-community of “the alienated” that characterizes the traditional modern). No, we need to think that the others in a community (one that, though divided, can therefore be quickly summoned together)—that is, those who do not, at the least, belong to the dominant categories of nationality, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality—have the potential for generating “good anonymity.” Of course, with respect to such others, structural forces will inevitably kick in that seek to collect them in pseudo-communities, to reach agreement with them, and rob them of their otherness. Is it possible to resist such forces, or to leave those exposed to bare life just as they are? As a tentative conclusion I would like to state here that the “public” is a place where it is possible to continue asking this question, and that this potential still exists, too, if faintly, in the fiction of theater.