29.01.2011 - ODG

“Through enhanced cultural exchanges, Kabuki can help UNESCO mission” (FACE-TO-FACE TALKS / Irina Bokova and Kikunosuke Onoe) – ‘Asahi Shimbun’, Japan

Editorial article based on a discussion carried out between Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, and Japanese Kabuki theatre star Kikunosuke Onoe when she visited Japan in November 2010. The article was published in English on ‘Asahi Shimbun’ of Japan on Saturday, 29 January 2011 in partnership with the International Herald Tribune. It follows here below, as published in on ‘www.asahi.com’.

Irina Bokova, Director-General of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, chatted with rising Kabuki star Kikunosuke Onoe when she visited Japan in late November at the invitation of the Japanese government. They talked about culture, education and other topics.

Following are excerpts from their discussion, which was arranged by Norihiko Yonehara, an Asahi Shimbun staff writer.

* * *

Irina Bokova: First I would like to welcome you and thank you for this wonderful opportunity to have this discussion with you. I'm very happy because you represent an ancient old tradition in the Japanese theater, which is known around the world and which is also an UNESCO Intangible Heritage. It is just from Nov. 25, five years ago (in 2005), that Kabuki theater was described as the "world's intangible heritage."

I have lots of questions, but maybe before that, if you will allow me just to say some thoughts of mine concerning the Intangible Heritage and what we at UNESCO see as a very valuable and richness of humanity.

I believe that nowadays in the very globalized and interconnected world, people sometimes need to feel stronger under the pressure of the uniformity and globalization and modernity. Nowadays, everything is open and they feel lonely and they start to search once again about their homes, about the previous generation and the cultures that they represent.

And, I believe by helping them preserve this culture and this identity and passing it also to the next generation, we at UNESCO, we help people be more assuring to themselves, and at the same time to be involved also, with other cultures and other peoples, without losing own selves. And I think it's something very important that we do to the world.

And frankly, Japan is very well-placed for such a dialogue and for such a debate, because you have your wonderful ways of combining the ancient tradition with modernity.

Kikunosuke Onoe: We believe that we should never forget that one can carry on the tradition, protect the traditions, and at the same time we should also be creating a new theater.

We discussed (William Shakespeare's) "Twelfth Night" from the viewpoint of this combination of modernity and heritage. As one of our attempts or experiments, we realized a collaboration in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night and Japanese Kabuki under the direction of Yukio Ninagawa, who is today the master of modern theater in Japan.

And so, in March 2009, we were performing this performance in the United Kingdom, which was itself a challenge. But at the same time, it was a new experiment for us, while at the same time also keeping to the 400-year-old tradition of the Kabuki format.

As we perform in Kabuki, we also remind ourselves that we should never forget the spirit of challenging, of taking on challenges.

I would like to hear your impressions of Kabuki theatre.

Bokova: First, I think it's fascinating to see such nation with a long tradition to art. And then I ask myself the question: why? Why has it been kept for 400 years, this tradition? I believe it is so because it's about some eternal human values and experiences. It's about love. It's about betrayal. It's about important things in human lives. It's about family. It's about truth. And, I believe this is what has kept the tradition until the present day. And, because it was conceived as a people's theater, as a theater in the street by people and it is kept until today.

Just one word if you will allow me. I find it fascinating that you turn to Shakespeare. Shakespeare is not a modern art, not a modern author. Shakespeare also is already a number of centuries old, but is very contemporary in the messages. And, I think it's fascinating that you make this turn to Shakespeare, Kabuki Shakespeare with a modern message, once again about human values. I find this fascinating.

Onoe: As you put your thoughts into words, now I understand the significance of it without a doubt. But, when I was working on that piece I was simply thinking of doing my best at the time, and that I was only grateful that I was given this opportunity to come across the Shakespeare piece and the opportunity to actually put it on the theater. But, having heard your words, I now understand the significance of this opportunity.

In response, UNESCO, of course, is carrying out lots of activity, not just related to the "world's intangible heritage," or "world heritage," but other activities as well. And, I wonder if Mrs. Bokova may explain which areas are you really focusing on and really emphasizing at UNESCO?

Bokova: Well, I think that apart from culture and heritage, both tangible and intangible heritage and everything that is related to cultural industries, to education for arts, artistic education and cultural diversity. One of our main areas and priorities, no doubt, is education. Education is what makes people what they are. Education is about them defending the world. Education is about giving them access to knowledge, to information, to the arts, to science. And, in the present-day world, in this very connected globalized world, we need that every child, every human being shall be given an access to education, a quality education, an education all along his life, education that will help him be a citizen of the world.

Onoe: I think Kabuki, of course in certain respects, is a form of art, a form of entertainment for the public. But also I think it has certain aspects of education. There is a masterpiece, "Yoshitsune Senbon-zakura" (Yoshitsune and the thousand cherry trees), and the message it carries is: "Do not deceive people." "Your evil deeds will come back on you." And I think this format of theater served to convey this message to the general public by also citing historical facts.

Bokova: I find this extremely interesting, because I also believe that finally, art has meaning and if (it) brings a message and some values. We talk about education for sustainable development, and I know that Japan is very much a place where they support this activity. It's exactly about putting some content in education. Education has meaning, not only that children will learn how to write and read. It's that they learn about values and the way they have to learn to be citizens of their own societies and their communities. And, I think that this is what's also art, and in this case Kabuki also brings, which I really find it fascinating that this tradition of 400 years still is living and is very well respected and accepted.

Onoe: Just like education, in general, is undergoing major changes from time to time, there has been change in the way Kabuki has been taught and inherited initially. It was really taught from word of mouth, so to speak.

As Kabuki became popular, more and more of its history, written materials started to appear. But initially, that written text only described the words for yourself, for one. So, from out of the whole scenario, only one actor's words were excerpted. So it's called, virtually, "kakinuki" (excerpts). So, you would try to memorize your lines, and then the actors come together and they read through the whole scenario and that's who you learned it (from).

And then, time passes and in the present day we've got videos--well actually, images that you can look at. And there would be images, you learn and there would be formats--you get actual forms.

But then, of course, you have to also learn the feelings that are being (expressed by) each of those movements, and that can be learned only by listening to the more experienced actors, people who came before you. So, that is what you will not be able to learn by simply watching the images.

So, the type of education that we receive today, in Kabuki, is that we first learn the movements, the forms by watching the images, the videos. And then we learn more about the feelings and the emotions within those movements, from the whispering of more experienced.

I again feel that connecting or communicating values and education and such, really has to be from people to people. It has to be communicated by words.

Bokova: I just watched a little bit of your "Twelfth Night" on the computer, just a while ago, and it's really extremely interesting.

I just want an answer to one question. How can you totally enter into the woman's emotions and mentality and voice and gestures and just in a moment to turn once again into a woman, or do you turn into somebody? I don't know where you learned this? Did you learn that from your father, from your grandfather? Because, I know it's a tradition of acting. I don't believe you can learn that at school. You learn it from life. I'd like to have an answer to this question.

Onoe: I feel very much that our art is really supported by forms or moves or emotions. So even before, really, as a very small child, and this applies to all actors, I think, we learned "Nihon buyo" (Japanese traditional dance). And, through this process of learning the Japanese dance, we learn the movements of women, the movements of brave warriors. So, through those motions, learning those motions, we gradually built up ourselves physically.

And so, I feel a sense very much that it probably is a very physical body-based art. And, upon having built that body or physique, we can then learn the sentiment, the feelings of women and etc. And in Japanese, we have this expression of "shinshin ichinyo" (the mind and the body as one). We say that if the body is healthy, the mind will also be healthy. We also say that "the body expresses the mind." And so, we approach things from the body as the base. And so, we build muscles and the skeleton, and from there we can learn the mind.

You emphasized that education is very important, and I wanted to ask if you could relate perhaps, some of your personal experiences as to why you think education is so important.

Bokova: I believe that education is important and I follow mostly my mother's example. If I may say so, I feel it's a kind of a model. My two grandmothers were illiterate. One was illiterate because she came from a very poor family and the other because it was not considered important that girls go to school.

And, my mother graduated only primary school before the war, and because she came from this poor family, after the war she continued her secondary education. When married with children, she completed her college education. She became a doctor, medical. She became a professor in radiology, working in science. And, she's a wonderful example of what education can bring to people.

Onoe: I think having someone more experienced, close to yourself, a role model close to yourself, someone you admire, is important. And it isn't an exaggeration to say that in my case as well, I admired my father, who led me into the school of Kabuki.

Bokova: After all, we were and we have some common values of truth, of loyalty, of integrity, of respect for human dignity, of love, of taking care of our children, of giving them the best of our knowledge, of taking care of our environment, or keeping the biodiversity, of keeping nature. We talk about climate change. I think these are some things so important nowadays that we can find some common solution to the common problems. I think this is the most important thing.

Onoe: I would like to say that this has been a great opportunity for me to think about education in various ways. Our form of art really is based on communicating from mouth-to-mouth, although we do have some books. But essentially, it's about learning from other people ahead of us.

We are in this form of art, which is about expressing feelings of the minds of the people. And as we say, the form expresses the mind, so we really have to continue to cherish the form, the moves. By doing so, we will be able to protect tradition of Kabuki and further develop the art.

UNESCO has been working on the environment, culture, education, etc. Now, we also hope that we can play a part in protecting a culture. We also are engaged in cultural exchanges, to some extent. I'm going overseas to perform, but with the hope that we can further play a role in the realm of culture to connect the world more than today. We could also play a role in education.

* * *

Irina Bokova has served as UNESCO director-general since November 2008. Born in 1952 in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, she studied at the Moscow states Institute of International Relations. She was Bulgarian foreign minister from 1996 to 1997.

* * *

Kikunosuke Onoe is one of Kabuki's rising stars. Born in 1977 in Tokyo as the first son to Kikugoro Onoe VII, he made his debut as a Kabuki actor in 1984. He succeeded the current name, Kikunosuke Onoe V, in 1996.




<- Back to:
Back to top