In an address to the Japanese people on February 27th, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe requested sporting and cultural event organizers to postpone or cancel events in the following two weeks in order to stem the spread of coronavirus infections. While many games, events and concerts have been canceled or postponed, not everyone is silently complying.
Among the dissenters, Hideki Noda, playwright, director, actor, and artistic director of Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, released a statement challenging the recommended closures. Due to Noda's position as a respected cultural figure, his statements have sparked a heated discussion online.
His statement, published on the website NODAMAP, is as follows (translation by grape Japan):
"In response to a request to refrain from performing due to measures against coronavirus infectious disease, I'd like to express my opinion as a theater performer wishing to continue theater performance. I believe that the scheduled performances should be carried out on the premise that we will take all possible measures in consultation with infectious disease experts and gain the understanding of the audience. Theater is an art that can only be realized with an audience. It's not something like a sporting event that can be carried out without spectators. Once the theater is closed, reopening can be difficult, and this can spell 'the death of theater.'
"Of course, I don't object to the fact that infectious diseases should be eradicated. But we shouldn't set a bad precedent for theater closures. At present, I'm worried that theater actors who are working hard even in this difficult situation will get a reputation as 'selfish artists.' Please remember that there are many theater-related people who make a living from their performance income. The cancellation of a theater performance should be the last and most bitter decision to make, and only after doing everything possible. 'The show must go on, no matter how difficult it is.' It's an overused expression, but I think it's the essence of theater."
His statement was lauded both within and without the Japanese theater community.
Musician Keralino Sandrovich: "Hideki Noda released a statement and Oriza Hirata (in a now deleted tweet) expressed his solidarity with him. I express mine too."
Playwright Kenichi Tani: "Hideki Noda released a statement wishing for theater to continue. Of course, I express my solidarity with him. However, the difficulty of the situation is apparent in the fact that Mr Noda, artistic director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Theater, chose to release his statement not on the theater's website but on NODA MAP. The Tokyo Met has canceled all shows. They probably had to, as a theater belonging to Tokyo municipality."
However, his position was also met with heavy criticism.
For example, Shu of Theater Unit Kyoshu, with permission from his friend Kyohei Suzuki, reposted his Facebook post which he strongly agreed with:
"To summarize, Suzuki says that various experts on coronavirus have yet to reach a consensus so he questions what criteria Noda has for judging the 'possible measures' to take. Furthermore, he feels Noda can't guarantee the health of his audience members and could subject them to the risk of infection. Finally, he says that 'there are surely many other alternatives (to keeping theaters open) and exploring these would help both audience members and society gain a better understanding.'
Essayist and playwright Shunichi Karasawa, in reaction to an Asahi Shimbun article reporting Noda's statement:
"As one of the theater people in the trenches, I really understand his feeling that he wants the show to go on. However, I also have the fear of 'what would happen if people got infected and severely ill from my own play?' That would really be 'the death of theater.' I worry that it's actually articles like this which will cause the reputation of 'selfish artists' to spread."
On the one hand, there is something to be said about "the show must go on." There is a real concern that "stopping the show" will not only mean a temporary cessation of art and personal income needed for survival, but also a risk that art itself will receive a blow from which it will not be able to recover. At the same time, the coronavirus has created a serious health crisis which must be addressed.
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