More efforts needed to secure next generation of performers

The number of young people aspiring to enter the world of traditional performing arts, such as kabuki, noh and bunraku, has been on the decline. Greater efforts must be made to secure and develop human resources in this area in order to pass on Japan’s proud cultural heritage to future generations.

The Japan Arts Council, which operates the National Theatre and other facilities, conducts a program to train people to become actors and performers in traditional performing arts. There are not enough successors among the children and disciples of the families that have traditionally handed down these arts for generations, so the program seeks applicants from the general public and provides them with training.

The program was launched in 1970, initially to train future kabuki actors. It has since expanded to offer nine courses. Trainees are taught by leading performers over a period of two to six years, depending on the discipline. After completing their studies, they join a family or relevant organization and take the stage.

Thirty-three percent of kabuki actors and 57% of bunraku performers were once trainees in the program. Takemoto Aoidayu was taught Takemoto gidayu-bushi, a musical narration style used in kabuki, in the program and has since been designated a living national treasure. This illustrates the importance of the program, which has opened doors to traditional performing arts by attracting a wide range of people.

However, the program has seen fewer applicants in recent years. In some years there were more than 10 kabuki trainees, but since fiscal 2019, the number has dwindled to five or fewer.

This fiscal year, the course for musical instruments, or narimono, initially had no applicants, so the deadline for applications was extended. In an unusual move, Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Shinsuke Suematsu at a press conference encouraged people to apply to the program. After these efforts, the course reportedly secured several trainees.

Japan’s traditional performing arts have been added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list and are highly regarded overseas. A shortage of human resources must not result in the decline of these valuable assets.

It is important to strengthen efforts to increase interactions with young people and expand the fan base. In Tokyo and other urban areas, there are places where people can experience traditional performing arts firsthand, as well as workshops designed for youths and parents to appreciate the arts. It is hoped that such opportunities will be expanded to regional areas.

If there are more opportunities in which famous performers provide training on occasions such as children’s kabuki events at local festivals, it might help promote traditional performing arts among young people.

Cooperation with entities that have had no deep connections to the traditional performing arts would also be effective. The Japan Arts Council said it plans to work together with relevant organizations to enable young people to encounter traditional arts at facilities where training camps are held. It is crucial to continue to exercise such ingenuity.

Some people say that traditional performing arts have a closed-off image and are difficult to approach. To dispel the concerns of applicants and their parents, it is hoped that more information will be provided about traditional customs and other aspects that cannot be seen from the outside.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 16, 2022)