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EDITORIAL | A Closed National Theater is a Gamble the Arts Cannot Afford

The longer the National Theater is closed, the greater the risk that intangible cultural assets of these performing arts are not passed down to new generations.



Established figures in the traditional performing arts raise their concerns about the plight of the National Theater. February 16, at the Japan Press Club in Tokyo. (© Sankei by Tomoko Iizuka)

The National Theater of Japan should be considered sacred ground for Japan's traditional performing arts. Traditional culture should serve as a pillar of the nation. It is the mission of those living today to pass this heritage on to future generations. During difficult times, in particular, we must draw on its accumulated wisdom to protect Japan. 

However, the National Theater had deteriorated to such an extent that it had to close its doors at the end of October 2023. 

Unfortunately, bidding on a redevelopment project went awry twice, and currently, there are no prospects for reopening bids. Consequently, the planned reopening at the end of FY 2029 will necessarily be put off. 

Kabuki actor Tokizo Nakamura (right) and Bunraku performer Tamao Yoshida participate in the February 16 press conference at the Japan Press Club. (© Kyodo)

Japan's Traditional Artists Raise the Alarm

Kabuki actor Tokizo Nakamura has expressed strong concern about the situation, saying, "This is a very serious problem." 

Ten prominent representatives from various traditional arts, including bunraku puppet theater, gagaku court music, kokyoku old songs and traditional Japanese dance, recently held a press conference at the Japan National Press Club. They all pointed to the risks posed by a prolonged "vacuum" in the absence of the National Theater. 

The National Theater closed in October 2023. (© Kyodo)

Risking the Loss of Japan's Cultural Traditions

The performing arts constitute a form of culture that strongly reflects that nation's national character and customs. This is true for every country in the world, not just Japan. Moreover, these are comprehensive art forms. They can only become a reality when the piece being performed. That is when the performers, the physical theater, the music, the stage art, and the theatergoers all come together. 

They are also intangible cultural assets that are passed down from master to disciple and in many cases from parent to child. If the "gap" is prolonged, many young performers will inevitably be deprived of priceless opportunities to hone their skills. 

For example, while the National Theater is closed, performers will have no alternative but to use other available theaters. Unfortunately, only a few theaters have the hanamichi. This is the long, raised platform connected to the main stage essential for performances of kabuki or Japanese dance. From a long-term perspective, the closure of the National Theater may even impact the ability of threatened art forms to survive.

Yachiyo Inoue (right), a living national treasure of Kyoto dance, and Ryuichi Kodama, director of the Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum, attend the February 16 press conference at the Japan Press Club. (© Sankei by Tomoko Iizuka)

Preserving Japan's Culture Treasures

The National Theater of Japan first opened its doors in 1966. From the start, it was the venue for full performances of kabuki plays and other forms of theater. In addition, it provided a venue for the "revival" of plays that had been forgotten.  It was also responsible for the training of actors performing kabuki and other types of theater so they could carry on their tradition, as well as conducting research and collecting research materials. 

Yachiyo Inoue is a living national treasure and the fifth-generation head of the Inoue school of Kyomai (Kyoto-style dance). At the press conference in Tokyo, she expressed alarm at the situation. "Should cultural policy just be left for later? It's not the kind of small problem that can just be left to be taken care of later," she implored.


Perhaps it's time to go back to square one and consider why the theater is being rebuilt in the first place. Initially, the plan called for large-scale renovation. With such a renovation, the period during which the theater would be unavailable for performances would be shorter. No doubt, there will come a time when it will be necessary to completely rebuild the theater. However, perhaps there is a flexible way of thinking that would allow us to buy time until then. 

Replacement of the National Theater is not an urgent issue that needs to be taken care of in the next decade or two. It should be thought of as part of Japan's 100-year plan for the promotion of culture and the arts. 

Some major decisions need to be made if we are to preserve the performing arts we have today for future generations. 


(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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