As seen in any country in the world, traditional folk performances and plays from ancient times toward modern ages had been involving children and young people. Japan was no exception, and children and young people used to be among adult actors and audiences in our traditional performances such as “Kagura” and “Noh-Kyogen” formed in medieval times as well as in “Kabuki” born in early modern ages. Especially in the middle of the 18th century, at the dawn of modern Japan, Kabuki played by only boy-performers became popular for a short time in the early Meiji Era.
It was Sazanami Iwaya (1870-1933) known as a pioneer of Japan’s modern juvenile literature who produced the first performance of children’s play in Japan called “Otogi-shibai (Fairy plays) in Tokyo in October 1903, after coming back from his stay in Germany. He had gotten the help of Otojiro Kawakami, an actor (1864-1911), and his wife Sadayako Kawakami, an actress (1872-1946), who had also returned from their tour in Europe. Their “Otogi-shibai” consisted of two plays translatetd by Iwaya himself: “The Gay Fiddle” and “The Judgment of the Fox”.
Another assistant of his was Takehiko Kurushima (1874-1960) who worked as a co-producer. He was known as the father of storytelling in Japan, and in 1906 organized Otogi Club (Fairy Story Club) for storytelling in order to develop children’s culture in Japan. With this purpose he also founded an attached troupe to Otogi Club and performed Otogi-shibi. This troupe of his had been performing matinees of Children’s Day Show on Saturdays and Sundays for 12 years (1909-1920) at the Yurakuza Theatre in Tokyo which was the first western style hall built in Tokyo.
Through the two wars of Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese, Japan’s capitalism had been swelling on. After the World War I, Japan enjoyed a period of democratic tints called “The Taisho Era Democracy”, influenced by the West. During that time children’s culture developed in various fields including children’s theatre: it grew from old Otogi-shibai into modern “juvenile story” play, and “school play” was advocated to have dramatic activity grow in school education.
Shoyo Tsubouchi (1859-1935) and Kaoru Osanai (1881-1928), both of whom were known as great leaders of our modern theatre, were among those who eagerly propelled children’s theatre movement.
However, this period of the Taisho Era Democracy was short lived, and Japan entered the so-called “dark chasm” under militarism and fascism, so that children’s theatre movement was suppressed and controlled almost to die out.
POST-WAR AND FUTURE
After the World War II, Japan was newly born under the new Constitution characterized by democratic sovereignty and renouncement of war. New days came to our education and culture for children, and theatre for children as well as that by children themselves began its fresh start.
Today we have more than 100 theatre companies for young audiences with over 8 million audiences a year in Japan.
In spite of these figures, the companies are critically suffering income decrease caused by less children in number because of a low birthrate in our recent society, and by diminished performances in number because of a five-day-a-week school system.
Furthermore, the unique independent spectators system in Japan called either “Oyako-gekijo” or “Kodomo-gekijo” which once had over 500,000 members at its best has now been falling down to about 200,000 members.
While in our national budget, the budget for culture seems increasing in figure. However, it is almost two third of that in Korea, and less than one forth of France. In our local government budget, the budget for culture has been decreasing year by year. As a result, we clearly notice that children in local areas have much fewer chances to enjoy theatre performances.
On March 11th, 2011, the great earthquake and tsunami, which we had never experienced, happened in Japan. Many people passed away. We are consistently facing with the threat of leak of radioactive materials from the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. We expect that theatre for young audiences in Japan will have serious damage in the future.