LONDON (Kyodo) — Artists are shedding light on the lives of Japanese women living in Britain since 1945 so the wider community can better understand the pressures faced by an often overlooked minority group.
A theater company used exhibits and plays based on an oral history project called “Tsunagu/Connect” to show the ups and downs women experienced as they navigated new lives at thousands of kilometers from their country of origin.
Kumiko Mendl, artistic director of the New Earth Theatre, said she wanted to learn more about women’s lives, like her own Japanese mother, who came to Britain in the late 1950s, married a Briton and embarked on a new life.
Sadly, Mendl’s mother died when she was 7, but that made her all the more interested in learning more about the migration experiences of other women in similar situations over the decades.
She was quick to counter the lazy stereotypes of Japanese women and show that their lives are much more complex.
Mendl told Kyodo News, “Immediate stereotypes (of Japanese women) that come to mind include ‘ideal mother’ or ‘young geisha.’ So little is known or documented about Japanese women here and there. hope it helps the story.”
“There are stereotypes about Japanese women because often people don’t know about them or the stories behind them, necessarily. We wanted to hear from as many women as possible and get a range of experiences from different decades and people from different horizons and parts of the country.”
In 2020, Mendl and her team at New Earth Theater – which presents and develops work with British artists from East and Southeast Asia – secured funding to begin recording the experiences of 30 Japanese women who have lived in Britain since the end of the Second World War. .
A team of volunteers interviewed participants about their reasons for coming to Britain, their first impressions and the practical issues of living in a foreign country.
The stories document the evolution of the interviewees’ relationship with Britain and Japan and uncover the changing views of Japan in Britain over many decades.
They show how some Japanese women have paid an emotional price to find freedom in a kind of “third” space where they are neither entirely British nor Japanese.
Two exhibitions were held in London in February and March to explore the unique and complex experiences of women.
Visitors were treated to photos and audio of the women interviewed and an intergenerational short film of children and young people asking their mothers about their lives in Britain.
There was also a series of display pedestals made from a fusion of British and Japanese furniture and containing objects symbolic of three themes: culture, relationships and belonging. These included Japanese passports, a kimono, Japanese food, an English-Japanese dictionary and a child’s umbilical cord in a box, usually given by Japanese hospitals to new mothers.
In April, the group also decided to stage a dramatic performance at Shoreditch Town Hall based on the exhibition and women’s history.
Mendl said, “There are a number of things you can do with interviews and objects in an exhibition, but we really wanted to bring them to life, make them tangible and move the audience. We wanted to get different audiences to engage with the project. We had a great mix of people, which is great. As a theater company, we bring hidden and marginalized stories to audiences.
Performed in the form of a walk, the audience followed the four performers through an exhibition hall where different scenes involving several characters were played out.
The performance showed the benefits many women in Britain have enjoyed, including greater freedoms, while some of the challenges they have faced include racism and sexism.
“There are some pretty harsh and uncomfortable scenes and that’s part of the stories we found out, but there’s a lot of positivity, the fact that these women chose to live here and didn’t go back to Japan. There’s a lot of affection for this country and we wanted to showcase both sides. The women were able to be themselves here and didn’t have to conform so much and would have struggled in Japan,” Mendl said.
Audience members were impressed with the show and said it was important for women’s stories to be heard.
Jonathan Wakeham said: “The production was very tender and intimate. It was great that it was all about women’s stories because that’s quite rare. Often times this kind of subject is still explored through politics and life. economy and it came from the heart and was about family and belonging. I really liked the balance of being very funny, very angry and very touching, all in one space.
Another audience member, Lucy Basaba, said, “I found it stimulating, vital and very necessary in terms of the conversation about representation. We rarely hear stories from the Japanese perspective.
Mendl says the plan now is for the exhibition to tour Britain and ideally offer workshops for school children based on the project. The performance was also filmed and she hopes it will be streamed in the near future.
The London Metropolitan Archives and the Museum of London will also archive the recordings for future historians.