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  • Jane

Theatre and its Role in Restoring Japanese American Women’s History

Since the 1970s and 80s, there has been a surge in academic interest surrounding women’s history with many of the world’s most significant historical events being retold through the perspective and experiences of women. This year, I had the opportunity to research and piece together an overview of the ways in which Japanese women have been portrayed and their profound influence throughout history. It was only when I came across the existing scholarship centered around the history of Japanese American women, in particular the work of UCLA scholar Valerie Matsumoto and the Densho Archive which is home to an uncountable mind of primary sources about the life of Japanese Americans, that I realised just how much these women’s historical presence and experiences are unknown to mainstream society.

Throughout time, there have been several Japanese American women who have achieved much success, including novelist Etsuko Suigmoto and star of the 1957 film ‘Sayonara’ Miyoshi Umeki to name a few. Despite this, much of their lives and achievements are only known to the Japanese American community themselves and not to the wider world. To change this, we got to ask ourselves: how can we best present these important figures and their lives to a larger audience?

For many, the theatre is a form of escapism, a multi-sensory experience which can be enjoyed and bring a story to life. Music also aids this story telling by conveying often raw emotions whilst making difficult topics feel more accessible and palatable. Altogether, this highlights how the theatre has the potential to serve the perfect medium to restore history, something which many budding playwrights and producers have already discovered.

Most recently, Burnt Lemon Theatre, a female-led theatre company, have taken the initiative to create a live retelling of the extraordinary life of Japanese American wartime radio broadcaster Iva Toguri, more famously known as ‘Tokyo Rose’. Toguri was a controversial and infamous figure who was often sexualised and categorised as a ‘femme fatale’ in American popular media but one who had significant impact.

Using a Japanese all-female cast, the company is not only retelling history but making history by putting Asian women at the front and centre of the project. Furthermore, in opting to tell Tokyo Rose’s story through ‘electric sound’, Burnt Lemon Theatre is helping to immerse a modern and younger audience. Back in 2015, the musical ‘Allegiance’ also helped to bring the personal experience of Japanese American actor, George Takei to an American audience. First performed in San Diego and centred around the life and struggles of a Nisei family forced into an incarnation camp, ‘Allegiance’ successfully captured the hearts and minds of its audience. Earlier this year, the musical was reimagined and performed in Japan illustrating not only its popularity but importance.

Ultimately, both cases illustrate how useful the theatre is in putting Japanese American history and more precisely the importance of Japanese American women into the spotlight. The more that productions about Asian history are created and performed, the more chance Asian actors are given the opportunity to perform and find success. With time, it can be hoped that the history, not just of Japanese American women, but all women can be retold with such delicacy, authenticity and love like these theatre productions have.

Graphic by Emily Mogami

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