Nicola Grove talks to Radio 4’s John McCarthy about her recent trip to Japan to learn about the heritage of folk tales there and in particular the depiction and involvement of those with learning difficulties.
Listen to Nicola on Excess baggage and read all about Nicola’s fascinating adventure below.
Tales from Japan
It took about 3 years to organise the trip – but thanks to the kindness and support of many people (especially my storyteller friend Mrs Yumiko Mitsudo, Mrs Miyoko Saiki who invited me to perform at the Kamishibai festival and Professor Mamoru Iwabuchi – who found me the wonderful Miss Tanaka to interpret) I was on my way.I started off in Tokyo meeting the Japanese storytellers association and working with them on disability legends. Many Jack type tales, of the boy who is good hearted but not skilled, who often wins through in the end. A great range of telling styles, using puppets, Kamishibai (traditional picture storytelling) and co-telling – some very restrained and quiet, others uproarious.
Didn’t see much of Tokyo at all, but the impression is of crowded modernity cheek by jowl with the smaller hustle of markets and shops that I remember from a childhood spent in Singapore (which is maybe why I wasn’t fazed at all by the different scripts and shop signs that you can’t read). I was treated to a fabulous meal in a traditional pub – where you have a separate room, tatami matting, low table – amazing food – and the wonderful storytellers told stories, and one of the younger women did a traditional dance for me – with fans and flowers. One of the storytellers who works professionally, Sayaka San, has learning difficulties – she told an entire story in English, learned by rote but performed with such grace and feeling.Next day set off for Tsukuba, north of Japan and on the edge of the earthquake zone. Some signs of destruction. Tsukuba itself is a university town. I met Miwako Tanaka who is a phd student working with the Jinenjo community, who had elected to come with me and interpret. We were picked up by the Director, Yanase San, a lovely man, who set up Jinenjo (artistic residential community for people with Ids ), and 3 of the group – we rushed off to run a drumming and dance workshop in a community centre, in the morning for preschoolers and in the afternoon for people with profound disabilities, who share the space. Lunch was in a fast food restaurant – the whole menus everywhere are in pictures and photos (why can’t we do this?) which means that people with ID find it really easy to choose. The troupe are incredibly talented – dancers, musicians – and as this is what we are aiming for with our storytellers, really inspiring.
The community is on the mountain, quite isolated, near a village which is completely traditional Japan. They have an arts centre there which is a converted old factory. The art is amazing. The community live very simply and in an egalitarian way – and generously provided us with free accommodation and food. So quiet up amongst the forest. Japan is 70% forest which I didn’t know. Highlights were seeing fireflies come dancing to the lights of Yanase san’s car – I emailed my granddaughters to say I had met Tinkerbell, because JM Barrie must have had firefly as his inspiration. Also my own personal tea ceremony, after a gorgeous lunch, with a professor and his wife (the hostess) whose nonverbal son with autism is a member of the community. Best was when the artists did a performance for me, and I reciprocated with the story of Peter the wild boy. We use a puppet for this, and a young Deaf man with severe communication difficulties came and joined in and danced with the puppet – he just WAS Peter -who never learnt to speak) (I sent the puppet up to him at the end of the trip, for of course Peter seems to have wanted to return to the forest where he grew up!). I also helped run a workshop for housing associations that Yanase San was doing, so I was able to contribute something about the housing options in the UK.
From Tsukuba I went down to Shimane to research Kagura – the folk tradition in which Hyottoko is based. I was with friends from 20 years ago, the Nagafuchis, who so generously accommodated me and interpreted – I am glad to say that they just loved the experience and said that they had never seen a Kagura performance.
The dragon body workshop is on the edge of the hill in a dip, looking out to the sea. Two bodies are drying in the front courtyard, stretched on frames; the same paper as for the masks, glued around bamboo hoops, with the joins glued over so that there are no cracks. This is the workshop of Mr Oueda, and he is the only dragon body maker in Hamada (I take it there are other mask makers). His studio is open on the north and south sides, on the north to the sea port, and a cool breeze blows in, swinging the little chime bell back and forth. All the time we are talking there is the sound of the bell, and of the assistant sweeping up the bamboo shavings on the wooden verandah. In a storeroom are the painted bodies all on end. When unrolled they are concertinaed – I forgot to ask how they do this. We can smell the gluey smell of the lacquer. The colours of the body are stained with vegetable dyes – indigo and mordanted safflower (Benibana, a yellow flower that grows in the far north west of Japan which also gives oil) for the red. Originally the body was blue and brown then other colours were added. Even before that (makashi makashi) the actors wore painted kimonos. It was Mr Oueda’s grandfather who decided that fabricated bodies would be good. I wondered if he got the idea from China. Mr O bypassed this question or possibly I didn’t make it clear but said, laughing that when they performed in China they could not cut off the dragon’s head because the dragon is sacred! Mr O is thin, energetic, wiry quick talking where Mr K was slow and measured. He laughs a lot.
The paper body lasts only one day, more if no rain. Each weighs around 12 k, and is 7 metres long. The bamboo is local, he chooses it himself, plants that are 4-5 years old. Very pliable with no need to soak. We are charmed by Mr O, it’s even more interesting than the masks, I think because we really get to see and understand the process. Oueda means plant field.
Our final visit is over the other side of town to the costume makers. Again a very simple little house by the port. Black kites are wheeling and squealing overhead, 4 of them, very close above me but impossible to photograph. There is a cool breeze off the water. We knock and the door is opened by an old lady, bent and shuffling. We enter and take off our shoes then step up to the raised floor. Inside the shuttered studio is an explosion of colour. On low frames are stretched the fabric – black velvet, onto which 2 women bent and on their knees, one young in a t shirt one elderly, are stitching gold threads in loops to form the shining spirals for the background of the dragon. The dragon’s head is made separately, solid, with red green and black eyeballs. The third old lady is machining a blue coat with butterflies, the blue to a red reverse with gold and rainbow embroidery. On the walls are exquisite finished items that have come in for repair. One at the back with an eagle, is 40 years old, weighing 30-40kg. There are 5 women working here. They assemble the garments which are made as piecework elsewhere and brought in. The three remind me of the Fates or Norns, or goddesses, there is something totally timeless here. The old lady does not want to be photographed but the young woman is OK though she averts her face. At one point the phone rings and I note it’s an old Bakelite type which feels just right…Kagura is still very popular but recruiting sewers is difficult, because the work is so hard. It takes 10 years training to become proficient. This is Mrs Hosokawa’s workshop (she has a second one elsewhere). Her name means small stream. And indeed the chattering of the sewing machine is rather like the sound of a stream tumbling – we heard one as we walked here.
Judges then announce heat. At this point I decide to sit on the grass which astonishingly is dry. Lady next to me asks in broken English where I am from and we get into conversation, I think she says she works with handicapped kids, which is pretty amazing! So we exchange addresses and she gives me her bag to sit on, and explains that we now have the second round. Names are called. I am pleased to see that the Okames that I thought were very good are there (21 and 27 both from Hokkaido), but 77 is NOT among the chosen Hyottokos, perhaps because he was just too suggestive, but a lot of the kids are which is great.
Hisayu Ohnishi San was a volunteer translator for the day from SGG Nara (Systematic Goodwill Guides). Taketari Yukari San organised the afternoon and took us round. Y. Sakai visited from Nishinomiya City with a group of colleagues especially to see my workshop.
Tanpopo is a 10 min taxi drive from Gaukuenmae station, two stops from Nara Kintetsu. The site is quite tucked away behind a high school.
It’s a large airy modern building, on 2 floors. Downstairs is a café, showroom where they exhibit and sell the crafts they make and t shirts designed by artists with disabilities from all over Japan. The workrooms are large and comfortable with shelves and shelves of materials – one is weaving, with small adapted floor looms, silk and flax, vegetable dyed and imported from I think Kyoto. Upstairs is a library, work areas and a meeting rooom. All the furniture is beautiful natural wood, very high quality.
About 49 people attend, not all every day, about 40 per day. People who attend have a mix of disabilities, some physical, some learning difficulties, two people also have visual impairments. 15 come from group homes, the rest live with their families. Group homes are just beginning here. We start with some discussion about our two organisations. Tanpopo started about 30 years ago. The new building is a recent move. The aim as with Jinenjo, is to enable people to express themselves. Then about 10 members come in for performance and my workshop. All are in wheelchairs except one young woman. There are about 6 storytellers, including Sayaka San. The first was Hideyo Ueno, a lady with cp who said six years ago that she wanted to tell stories. People thought she would not be able to, but she has proved them wrong. She looks to be in her forties. The other teller is Aiko Ita a delightful girl in her twenties.
The stories are told amazingly professionally. Aiko is poised, still (like Sayaka). She varies vocal tone, register, uses gesture sparingly but very powerfully. Her movements are strong and simple, and come from the motivation of the story. At one point she steps forward, kneels down, raises her hands in prayer, and then waits. To have that kind of confidence and control, as I tell her afterwards, shows such professionalism and skill (she covers her mouth laughing delightedly and bows).
Hideyo San is much more constrained because of her physical limitations, but it doesn’t stop her using her voice so well. She also gestures, and despite her vocal weakness, she can hold a line, maintain breath control to be able to deliver the story in paragraphs. Truly amazing.
They tell to a background of music on the CD, which is a really good idea, helps with establishing atmosphere. These guys have so much to teach us about stillness, economy of movement, and really getting into and being passionate about story. We need to be doing much more dedicated practice, taking our movement exercises seriously, and above all working on voice. For our part, I think we do more audience participation, and more workshopping, to use the story in a political context to empower people.
Whereas in Uk arts are seen as leisure not work (cf a service manager’s comment that if people want to do art they can do it in their spare time) in Japan art is seen as essential – everything is done aesthetically, and its much more valued. So that art gives people prestige.
I loved Japan – it is the most wonderful country the restraint, the dignity, the sorrow and caring (so evident in response to the earthquake, which was at the forefront everywhere, but very low key; utter commitment to helping and supporting; in the Hiroshima museum what hit me was the way in which tiny fragments of possessions were gathered and labelled and organised which meant that people could recognise them and know what had happened; this is unbearable when it is the scraps of a child’s shoe, a tin lunchbox…)
The transport is such efficient transport – railway officials HELP YOU CARRY YOUR SUITCASE DOWN THE STAIRS
The juxtaposition of the old and the new is striking; the valuing of tradition and of art and poetry (haikus are posted in cities in special boxes), Everyone does art it’s not something seen as removed from everyday life. the kindness and sweetness and creativity and courtesy of the people the wonderful food, the scenery, the fabulous modern TOILETS.
Japan and everyone, thank you for having me!