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by Asaya Fujita

  1. ‘There were no performing arts for children in Japan’

Japan is considered as a country of traditional theatre. Certainly, Noh and Kyogen have 600 years of history and Kabuki has 400 years of history.
But there were no performing arts for children in these art forms. There were children as characters in the plays but they were usually those getting killed as a substitute for a master’s child, and those sacrificed to the slave trade, and nobody had imagined children being part of the audiences. There was such a thing called “Children’s Kabuki” but it was simply an imitation of Kabuki played by adults and was not suitable for children to watch. In short, it was not thought that children would need culture in the form of performing arts.

  1. Birth of the performing arts for children

About 110 years ago, the first performing arts for children were born. It was when Japan discovered theatre in Europe that portrayed the present age, after it had opened up the country following a long period of national insolation. Following the European model, the Japanese built modern theatres, started using actresses, who were never seen in the traditional theatre, and attempted to do a play with only words and without music. And among them, there was the first attempt to make a play to show to children. In 1903, Sazanami Iwaya, a pioneer of modern Japanese young adult literature, produced, in Tokyo, “Otogi Shibai”, a fairy play with the cooperation of Otojiro Kawakami, an actor, and his wife, Sadayako.. The
performance consisted of two plays – “The Gay Fiddle” and “The Judgment of the Fox” – produced right after these three came back from Europe where they saw theatre for children for the first time. This was a manifestation of their will to establish culture for children in Japan as well.

  1. The road was filled with difficulties

But it has not been a smooth path over the last 110 years since its birth to the present. Japan was a country where the Minister of Education and Culture had prohibited school plays, saying ‘it’s outrageous for schoolchildren to act powdering their faces’. It was because this country had a long history of theatre practitioners being discriminated against, being branded as sub-human; therefore, it was very difficult to place theatre in education. But a handful of theatre practitioners kept creating plays for children and a handful of teachers kept insisting on the fulfilling role of theatre in education and of practicing it.

To earn freedom to watch theatre and to act, Japanese children had to wait until 1945 when the fascist government collapsed due to the defeat.

  1. Characteristics of TYA in Japan

When Japan recovered from confusion after the defeat, one of the things that changed from the time before the war was culture for children. As for the performing arts, Japan had characteristics different from Europe and America, which were supposed to be the models. One of the characteristics was that all the theatre companies did not have their own theatres. So, the artists cooperated with schoolteachers and made a gymnasium into a theatre. This style of theatre artists creating an extraordinary piece of theatre in an ordinary space of a gymnasium has resulted in creating ‘gymnasium theatre’, which is peculiar to Japan. Also, for the companies that do not have their own theatres, audience organizations were founded, spreading all over Japan. These organizations of parents called ‘Oyako Gekijo (Parent and Child Theatre)’ and ‘Kodomo Gekijo (Children’s Theatre)’ were founded in the chief cities of Japan, and they made opportunities for members to watch plays a few times a year and created various other cultural activities. Supported by the school theatre program and the audience organizations, TYA in Japan was able to develop without having their own theatres. In the heyday of TYA there were almost 200 theatre companies. .

  1. New tasks for TYA in Japan

But at present, TYA in Japan is facing a new problem. The number of audiences decreased to 25% of the heyday at elementary schools, to 17% at junior high schools, and to 13% at the audience organizations. This is because of the dwindling birth rate. But it is inconceivable that the child population has decreased in the same percentages stated above. The problem is in the system where the expenses for a performance come from  the membership fees paid by the children as well as entrance fees. At schools and organizations with a small number of children, a company cannot perform without losing money, so, naturally, no company will perform at those schools and organization. In other words, 75% of children at elementary schools, 83% at junior high schools and, 87% at the organizations have been abandoned by us because of financial circumstances. In order to solve this big problem and for children to enjoy the benefits of performing arts, it is necessary to construct a new system including considering the expansion of public subsidies. We who are involved in TYA in Japan are now seriously tackling the task.

Translated by Kenjiro Otani



Yesterday and Today


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.


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.


History of ASSITEJ Japan Centre
1964 Mr.Ochiai and 7 other members attended the first World Children’s Theatre Meeting in London.
1965 ASSITEJ International was founded.
1978 Jun 10 members attended the 6th ASSITEJ Congress in Madrid.
1979 May ASSITEJ Japan Center (AJC) was founded as the 36th member of ASSITEJ.
1981 Jun 16 members attended the 7th ASSITEJ Congress in Lyon.
1984 Jun 17 members attended the Louisiana World Theater Festival in USA.
1984 Sep 14 members attended the 8th ASSITEJ Congress in Moscow. Japan became a member of Executive Committee.
1985 Aug International Symposium for TYA was held in Sado. 12 countries attended.
1987 Apr 18 members attended the 9th ASSITEJ Congress in Adelaide.
1987 Oct AJC issued the Asian TYA Festival Calendar and distributed it in Asian countries.
1988 Mar Asian TYA Meeting was held in Shodo Island with participants from China, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.
1989 Oct Asian TYA Symposium ’89 was held in Tokyo and Kofu with participants from Brunei, China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.
1990 May 22 members participated the 10th ASSITEJ Congress in Stockholm. Yohei Hijikata became a member of EC.
1991 Aug Japan-Sea Rim T.Y.A meeting was held in Sado with participants from China, Korea, Soviet Union, and, as a observer, North Korea.
1993 Feb 24 members participated the 11th ASSITEJ Congress in Cuba. Yohei Hijikata became a member of EC.
1993 Jul The first issue of the Asian TYA newsletter ‘CURTAINS

UP!’ was issued by AJC.

1994 Jul The second issue of ‘CURTAINS UP!’ was issued.
1995 Jul The third issue of ‘CURTAINS UP!’ was issued.
1996 Oct 15 members participated the 12th ASSITEJ Congress in Rostov. Yoshishige Kagawa became a member of EC.
1996 Nov The fourth issue of ‘CURTAINS UP!’ was issued.
1997 Nov The fifth issue of ‘CURTAINS UP!’ was issued.
1999 Jun 22 members participated the 13th ASSITEJ Congress in Tromso. Yoshishige Kagawa became a member of EC.
1999 Jun The sixth issue of ‘CURTAINS UP!’ was issued.
1999 Jul Asian International TYA Festival and Symposium in Japan was held with 11 theater companies from overseas in 13 prefectures, and Japan and Korea co-hosted Asian TYA Meeting in Tokyo and Okinawa.
2001 Jul The World TYA Meeting was held along with EC meeting.
2002 Jul 466 members participated the 14th ASSITEJ Congress in Seoul. Yuriko Kobayashi became a member of EC.

The seventh issue of ‘CURTAINS UP’! was issued.

2003 Aug Asian TYA Festival in Tokyo was held.
2005 Sep 70 members participated the 15th ASSITEJ Congress in Montreal. Yuriko Kobayashi became a member of EC.
2008 Jan The eighth issue of ‘CURTAINS UP!’ was issued.
2008 May 60 members participated the 16th ASSITEJ Congress in Adelaide.
2010 Aug International Meeting of TYA in Asia was held in Osaka with participants from Bangladesh, China, Korea, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam.
2011 May 100 members participated the 17th ASSITEJ Congress in Copenhagen/Malmo. Asaya Fujita became a member of EC.
2011 Jul East Asia TYA Festival in Tokyo was held.
2012 Jul The first ASSITEJ International Meeting was held at Kijimuna Festa in Okinawa city.

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