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Top>Opinion>"No Light" - Nobel Prize-Winning Writer's Drama on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident


Shinya Takahashi

Shinya Takahashi [Profile]

"No Light" - Nobel Prize-Winning Writer's Drama on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident

Shinya Takahashi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: German Theatre, German Literature, History of Japanese-German Cultural Exchange

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The literature of light, death, and regeneration

On his deathbed, Goethe is alleged to have said, "Mehr Licht!" ["more light!"] Although he apparently only meant that he wanted more sunlight to be let into his room, asking for more light is common among people approaching death. Goethe's poem Selige Sehnsucht [Blessed Longing], written in his later life, represents the mystery of death and rebirth by holy flames: "Stirb und werde!" ["To die and be reborn!"] through "Flammentod" ["death by burning"]. He also considered man's greatest yearning to be a desire to encounter this mystery. Since ancient times, the Japanese, too, have seen gods within light. The highest Buddha in Shingon teachings is Dainichi Nyorai, the Sun Buddha, and the supreme deity in Shinto is Amaterasu-omikami, the Sun Goddess. After last year's Tohoku earthquake disaster and Fukushima nuclear accident, the hopes of worshippers at the first sunrise of the New Year were more urgent than in the past as they prayed for the recovery of their home towns and country. When Japan had just lost the Pacific War, a time of crisis comparable to last year's tsunami, the poet Mokichi Saito, who came from my home province of Yamagata, reflected deeply on wartime patriotism when he wrote, "Though but small, I wish to fly like the phoenix from these ashes." Saito's feeling of having burned to ash in the hellfire of a country in crisis and of wanting to be resurrected as a bird from the ashes must resonate with the wishes of many Japanese today. The Japanese sought the eternally burning firelight of nuclear power but consequently became a nation spreading deadly radiation. From an international perspective, not only TEPCO and the Japanese government but the entire Japanese nation needs to take responsibility for this nuclear accident.

Special edition of German theatre journal, "Post-quake Japanese Theatre"

When I stayed in Berlin in the fall of last year, I was asked the same question by editors of a German theatre journal, university professors, and acquaintances: "What is the level of radioactive contamination in Tokyo now?" I just answered vaguely, "Officially it seems to be OK." Following this question, I also then received words of praise from everyone. They said the composure of the Japanese immediately after the disaster and their calm response later was wonderful. I was then asked how the Japanese were able to adopt such an attitude. This was a really difficult question to answer accurately. At the same time, what has come across from related articles in Germany's mass media is a sense of distrust not only in TEPCO and the Japanese government for concealing information about the nuclear accident but also in the Japanese people who have been relatively inactive in the anti-nuclear movement. Because of this, the October edition of Germany's leading theatre journal Theater der Zeit ran a special feature on "Post-quake Japanese Theatre." I also contributed to this feature by introducing Tatsumi Hijikata, Shuji Terayama, Kenji Miyazawa and Hisashi Inoue to German readers and reporting on the activities of ARC>T (Art Revival Connection Tohoku) which has been supporting theatres in Tohoku since the earthquake. This special edition also included an essay by stage director and playwright Toshiki Okada, who is well known in Germany, too, about people's need for fiction in order to cope with the harshness of reality. Actress Sachiko Hara, who is active in the Hanover State Theater, also gave an interview about the German translation of Hisashi Inoue's play Shonen-kudentai 1945 (Little Boy - Big Typhoon) set at the time of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The title of Hara's interview, "Kioku seyo, kougi seyo, ikinobiyo!" ["Remember, Protest, Survive!"], repeats the words of Inoue. He drew on these words for young male characters who survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, but they also resonate meaningfully with those of us living in Japan after the Fukushima nuclear accident. People involved in German theatre have taken a great interest in Japan's post-quake theatre. It is the duty of us scholars of German culture to respond by taking the revival of Japanese theatre to Germany, however long it may take.

Nobel Prize-winning writer Jelinek's new play, Kein Licht

The main focus among German theatre-goers when their theatre season opened last fall was on Nobel Prize-winning writer Elfriede Jelinek's new play, Kein Licht [No Light]. The play's title seems to allude to Goethe's Mehr Licht! The play describes the harsh conditions immediately after the Tohoku earthquake and nuclear disaster, where one is seeking light but not finding it anywhere, through a sort of strangled dialog between two violinists. When the play opened at the Cologne State Theater in October it included a performance by Sachiko Hara. In Japan, the play was performed in December in Dorama Riidingu - Doitsu Hen [Dramatic Reading - German Compilation] under the direction of Nei Hasegawa and staged by the International Theatre Institute. The play itself is due to be shown this fall at the international performing arts festival, Festival/Tokyo. Jelinek's father was Jewish. Seized by guilt due to having survived the Nazi persecution of Jews, he became mentally ill and died in hospital. The anguish suffered by Jelinek ever since due to feelings of self-condemnation at having abandoned her father in a mental institution is somehow mirrored by the guilt of the victims of the quake and tsunami who have lost family members. According to Shigeru Gorai, scholar of religion and folklore, the Japanese have since ancient times regarded anguish in this world as the path to the world of light of the gods or Buddha. In one theory of astrophysics, the universe began with the Big Bang and will end with the Big Crunch, so in the end all of us may return into the light. I would like to believe that the student of mine who committed suicide recently has also returned into the light.

Shinya Takahashi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: German Theatre, German Literature, History of Japanese-German Cultural Exchange
Born in 1954 in Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture. Graduated in German Studies from the Faculty of Foreign Studies, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies in 1978. He withdrew from the German doctoral program at the Graduate School of Humanities, University of Tokyo in 1984. From 1986-1987 he studied German Literature at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Freiburg (through the German Academic Exchange Service). He was an assistant at the University of Tokyo and lecturer at the University of Tsukuba before joining Chuo University as a lecturer in 1990 and then taking up his current position. From 2006-2007 he was a visiting scholar at the Institute of Japanese Studies, Free University of Berlin.
Books: Co-writer of The Cheerful Apocalypse - Austrian Cultural Research [Youki na mokushiroku - osutoria bunka kenkyu], Reading Celan [Tseran wo yomu to iu koto], Chuo University Press.
Papers and reviews: "The Development of Berlin Theatre since German Reunification" [Doitsu touitsu igo no berurin engeki no tenkai] (Chuo University Bulletin), "Memory of Terrorism and Video Art" [Terorizumu no kioku to eizou geijutsu] (Bulletin of Japanische Gesellschaft für Deutschstudien) and others, along with an article on post-quake Japanese theatres which appeared in German theatre journal Theater der Zeit
Articles published in Theater der Zeit