The Power of Performing Arts in Japan

April 15, 2019

Students at a Shinto shrine called Kasuga Taisha in Nara, Japan

Students at a Shinto shrine called Kasuga Taisha in Nara, Japan
A handful of students take in the view at a Shinto shrine called Kasuga Taisha in Nara, Japan. The shrine preserves performances of offerings to respective deities, which the class witnessed while visiting there.

ALL 3442: Performing Arts in Japan took Professor Maki Isaka and 25 students across the world to experience live Japanese theatre. In-person, real-time performances gave students an authentic look into the culture, history, and society of Japan not available to tourists.

Performing Arts Through a Japanese Lens

“This course will be one of a kind. I have not heard of anything like it for any college or university across the US,” enthused Marran after the course received approval from the LAC. 

The course gives students the opportunity to experience and appreciate, in person, live performances of Japanese theatre. Japan’s performing arts highlight a wide variety of activities that represent everything from religious ritual to dance to popular cultural forms like martial arts or anime. “I think it’s critical to understand theatre as-is. Not detached from its ancestors or distant cousins, and not isolated from its environment,” emphasizes Isaka. Theatre both supports and expands beyond religious and cultural institutions. 

While the course centers around Japanese theatre, it clearly had broad appeal as it drew students from a variety of academic disciplines. Out of the pilot group of 20 students, only a handful are working toward an ALL degree, with others are pursuing majors in everything from music performance to biology to psychology to computer science.

Over three weeks, students traveled to the cities of Nara, Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo. They visited playhouses, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines to experience traditional theatrical performances. Shinto shrines are structures that house one or more divine beings, called kami. There, students observed an offering performance for the respective deities at the shrines. “We were extremely lucky to do several private workshops and, believe it or not, a live, private recital by top-notch performers,” says Isaka. 

Thoughts from Students

“Spending time in Japan deepened my understanding of Japanese culture, but to my surprise, it also deepened my understanding of my own culture,” shares Bailey Johnson-Cavanaugh, a senior studying biology, society, and environment with a minor in ALL. She also notes that her Japanese has drastically improved, realizing that previously unintelligible phrases are now clear. The regular class discussions of the motifs in Japanese performances “have deepened my understanding of art on a global scale,” cites Johnson-Cavanaugh. Now, it has become easier for her to explain how cultures interact, trade artistic ideas, and influence one another. 

Senior Jackson Mullett, whose studies focus on East Asian history and Japanese, has always had an interest in art and how ideas are shared through imaginative expression. This experience gave him the chance to understand the historical craft of theatre. For him, it meant embracing traditions, cultures, and values that were unfamiliar. Todaiji temple, home to Japan’s largest Buddha statue, was the setting for the classes’ New Year’s Eve celebration. Mullett describes the road lined with sconces of fire that lead up to the significant figure: “It leaves the viewer breathless at the sight of this sacred place, and I will remember this moment for years.” Unraveling preconceived notions allowed him to embrace new experiences and values that have stuck with him long after stepping off the plane. 

Nate Murphy, a junior majoring in biology and minoring in microbiology, was no stranger to Japanese culture. His mother and father grew up living abroad in various countries while their parents served in the USAF. Yokota Air Force Base, located in Fussa, Tokyo, Japan, was one location where they lived as children. Upon returning to the US, Nate’s parents and grandparents incorporated bits and pieces of Japanese culture, namely through art and music, into their household. Growing up, Nate was exposed to Japan through artistic hand-me-downs, stories, and photographs, all of which influenced his ambition to one day visit the country in person. “I wanted to see what they [my parents] had seen and shared with me.” This seminar offered the perfect opportunity for him to connect with that desire. After one post-performance discussion, he told his classmates that none of the performances they witnessed could be recreated just as they had experienced them. He opined, “The best way to understand any work of art, a monument, a shrine, or a ceremony is to view it in the context of the history, religious beliefs, social norms, and more of the culture that produced it,” he explains.  

Reflecting for the Future

This course would not have been possible without the support of a handful of committed scholars, University departments, and international institutions. From the Learning Abroad Center to the Association for Performing Arts Studies, both the class and Isaka are grateful for the production and execution of this global seminar. 

Students actively engaged with the performances and each city’s unique culture through discussion sessions, papers, and daily journaling. Both Isaka and the students have shared how much this trip shifted their worldview. They are more open-minded, process events more deeply than before, and will take their experiences with them wherever they go. 

After a successful pilot, Isaka hopes this will become a recurring course moving forward.  

This story was written by an undergraduate student in CLAgency. Meet the team.