How German Theatre responded to Fukushima

Question: When you walk into a supermarket to grab some groceries for dinner, what’s the most important information for you? Price, obviously; brand, expiration date, amount of artificial sweetener, possibly; but how about the number of „becquerels“ contained in that product? My guess is that maybe becquerel is the last word that pops into your mind when you run errands. But after the March 11, 2011, triple catastrophe of a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, a 21.1m-high tsunami, and the following nuclear meltdown that discharged massive amounts of cesium 137 (equal to that of 168.5 Hiroshima atomic bombs), adding the results of a becquerel scan on packages of meat, mushrooms, rice, tea, or anything suspicious of radioactive contamination has become eerily prevalent in Japan.

The Japanese prime minister has described the catastrophe as the “biggest crisis since World War II,” and as is the case with all devastating disasters, it affected the day-to-day life of all citizens. And the crisis is still ongoing. This is why I felt both empowered and astounded to hear that one of Germany’s most prestigious theatre journals, Theater der Zeit, published an entire issue on the Fukushima incident last October, entitled In den Ruinen der Zukunft [In the ruins of the future]. Certainly, TdZ calls itself a “Journal for Theatre and Politics,” inheriting the politically engaged theatre tradition of the former GDR, but it otherwise is a theatre journal pure and simple, not any kind of political or environmental publication. Moreover, Berlin is 8.944 kilometers away from Tokyo, and it is not difficult to close your eyes, cover your ears, and ignore everything that has happened on those little Far East islands. Yet, the Germans didn’t. Which makes me want to hug every single person in this country and thank you for the sincerity with which you responded to the disaster.

At the same time, I am very curious. Curious to know why TdZ and the German theatre at large have reacted so acutely to this foreign catastrophe. It might be an obvious question to ask, but not every country reacted in the same manner — at least the British, for instance, did not, as far as I know. And also in my own country, as its culture is highly insular, not many people connect themselves with issues outside of Japan, or even outside of their community. So, I decided to meet up with one of the editors of TdZ, Dorte Lena Eilers, to ask why their journal engaged so deeply with the Fukushima disaster.

Dorte gave me four answers. The first one is perhaps obvious: it came out of a “basic empathy” for people that suffered horrible disaster. “Maybe we cannot reflect on it now, as it takes time to provide rational explanations for such catastrophes, but at least we can talk about it, however difficult it may be to put into words. And theatre is a good place to do this for that very reason: because it can deal with these huge issues artistically, for instance through poetry, or through dance or performance.”

Therefore TdZ offered itself as a platform for opening up discussions, also providing the bank account information of an art organization operating in the affected region so readers could take immediate action. The second reason Dorte provided was the “connectedness,“ a kind of solidarity that the Germans felt toward the Japanese: “Yes, Japan is miles away but nuclear power is also a major issue in our country. We can’t just ignore the problem as something happening somewhere else.”

Dorte’s third explanation came from more of an artistic standpoint. When these kinds of immense incidents occur, the existing rules of the state begin to tremor and collapse, and the mindsets of the people starts shifting accordingly. This is when “art and artists start to function politically, and we wanted to know what the Japanese artists were thinking.” In the issue, TdZ invited Japanese artists such as playwright/director Toshiki Okada and actress Sachiko Hara to explore their opinion on these matters, which by all means should have been a difficult task.

Last but not least, Dorte mentioned that the reason why TdZ considered the Fukushima incident so seriously is closely related to the German tradition in art. She continues that Germany is the country of “Dichter and Denker, poets and thinkers, and we have always followed this tradition. Especially after World War II, when everything collapsed, German artists became very critical and started making political art that questioned society; these were artists like Joseph Beuys and later Schlingensief. Theatre in Germany has always been like this, acting most strongly in calamitous situations. We go to the theatre next-door and think about the present issues. This is very normal in Germany.”

Perhaps, you, who are reading this article now, are by now mumbling, “Why is she saying this, it’s so obvious,” but let me remind you it is not, at least in Japan.

To say the least, there is a sort of a latent code not to talk about ongoing political and especially nuclear-related problems in Japan. To provide simple examples, one renowned actor who openly declared to be anti-nuclear after the incident was forced to leave his agent, saw most of his upcoming jobs cancelled without clear explanation, faced a radical decrease in income (one-tenth of what it had been), and is now working as an ordinary salaryman in a Tokyo-based solar energy company. Another example, one theatre-maker once confessed that, when he was making a theatre piece related to war criminals in World War II, a presumable extreme-rightist Yakuza type stalked him everyday, implying an assassination threat. Unlike the aforementioned actor who clearly proclaimed his anti-nuke position, this theatre maker wasn’t even saying anything against or for the Japanese wartime actions, he was just trying to open up a discussion.

The situation seems to be gradually changing in Japan though, as several prominent artists are taking the Fukushima incident very seriously, and are starting to open up a socio-political discussion through their craft and practice. Without doubt, the Japanese have a long way to go before, like contemporary Germans, talking about taboo political subjects in theatre is “normal,” but we will get there as long as the tormented Japanese strongly stand up, look forward, and continues walking on. As the great German philosopher Nietzsche metaphorically put it, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”