The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Culture > Unique Shakespeare Performed in the Tohoku Dialect “Hamure: Hamlet in Northern Japan during the final days of the shogunate”


Unique Shakespeare Performed in the Tohoku Dialect
Hamure: Hamlet in Northern Japan during the final days of the shogunate”

Kate Yamaji
Production Manager, Shakespeare Company

The Shakespeare Company has been granted the opportunity to conduct a lecture and performance in order to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the Waseda University Alumni Association. The event will be held at the Okuma Auditorium of Waseda University on June 19th (Saturday), 2010. In this article, I would like to discuss the history of our theater group and to introduce the work “Hamure: Hamlet of Northern Japan during the final days of the shogunate” which will be performed at the event.

Profile of the Shakespeare Company

The Shakespeare Company was formed in 1992 by a group of people who agreed with the dream of Kazumi Shimodate (Theatre President)-“Let's build a wooden theatre like the Globe Theatre here in Tohoku.” It was a unique start to have audience first, before the performance. However, a large amount of time and money is required to create a theatre. At first, when the decision was reached to create a theatrical performance, President Shimodate himself embarked on his second period of foreign study in England. A year later, he returned to Japan with the concept of performing Shakespeare in the Sendai dialect.

Mr. Kazumi Shimodate, President of the Shakespeare Company & Professor of the Department of Language and Culture, Faculty of Liberal Arts, Tohoku Gakuin University

One of the factors which lead President Shimodate to this rather simple idea was the richness of language that he enjoyed in the many Shakespeare productions in England. Although all the performances were performed in English, they utilized various ways of speaking by royalty, peasants and tradesman in order to appeal to many different classes of people. This characteristic is sometimes difficult to recognize when seeing Shakespeare in Japanese in Tokyo. Another factor which led to President Shimodate's idea involved a popular ramen noodle shop in London. When he visited the shop, he found the soup to be lukewarm and unappetizing. President Shimodate is a diehard lover of ramen, and he pondered the meaning of such unappetizing ramen being able to attract crowds of customers in London. Eventually, he realized that when performing Shakespeare in Sendai he should serve with tastes to attract local audience, rather than duplicating original performances. He decided to deviate from the traditional language of translation and to incorporate various ways of speaking that would be familiar to his audience. During his childhood, President Shimodate was raised surrounded by employees from throughout the Tohoku region who had gathered to work at his family's business. This linguistic experience was very useful when attempting the translation into local dialects.

At first, the use of regional dialect was opposed by members of the theatre group, particularly by members who had acting experience. A number of intense debates were held, and members expressed opinions such as “the use of local dialect clashes with the image of Shakespearian drama,” “such local dialect is too countrified,” and “it's too eccentric.” It had become the custom of the performers to strive to speak their lines in standard Japanese when performing. In opposition to such opinions, President Shimodate brought several pages of local dialect translations to rehearsals every week. When reading these translations, members without acting experience displayed a never-before-seen power. By using their own local dialects of Aomori, Akita and Miyagi, these inexperienced members exhibited a passion and reality unlike the written lines, and their performance had a compelling effect upon other members. Eventually, even before performance was ready, the concept of using local dialect had gained the support of the local media and already existing audience group.

Performance of Macbeth of Osorezan in Edinburgh, 2000

Thanks to a push forward from such supporters, our first production was released in September 1995. It was "Romeo and Juliet", performed entirely in Tohoku dialect. We performers saw how waves rippled through the crowd upon hearing our lines, and we experienced the murmuring of the crowd as they happily mimicked and repeated nostalgic dialect that was spoken during the performance. For the first time, the performers standing on stage understood the meaning of the project that President Shimodate had started.

Since then, although our pace has been quite slow, a total of 7 Shakespearian works translated and produced by President Kazumi Shimodate have been performed until now. Main venue has always been in Sendai, but performances have also been held throughout Tohoku, in Tokyo and in Edinburgh (England).

Introduction of the play “Hamure: Hamlet of Northern Japan during the final days of the shogunate”

A new version of As You Like It, set at a hot spring inn. Performed in 2008 at Naruko Hot Springs, Waseda-Sajikiyu.

Macbeth of Osorezan. Performed in 1999 at Bodaiji Temple, Mt. Osore.

The Shakespeare Company adapts each work by replacing the original story with a time period and location from Tohoku history. Our company selects locations which has "Tohoku Soul" to inspire the image of the work. For example, Much Ado About Nothing was set in the Jomon Period, Macbeth was set at Mount Osore during the 11th century, and As You Like It was set at a hot spring inn during the mid 1950s. In addition to performances at theatres, performances were also held at the localities which served as a background for the story. In this way, the works absorbed various views of the world.

This brings us to the work Hamlet. In this story, the King of Denmark dies a mysterious and sudden death. Immediately after the King's death, the King's younger brother and the King's former wife are married. The King's son Hamlet views this marriage with suspicion and seeks revenge for his father. Our performance of the work “Hamure” is set during the final days of the shogunate in the Tohoku region of Northern Japan, and area which is enveloped in the Boshin War. At the background of the story is the issue of Japan being pressured by Western powers to open the country and the sorrow of Tohoku clans being overwhelmed by a new government army led by an alliance of the Satsuma and Choshu clans. Against this background, the story depicts the suffering of Hamure, the first son of the former clan leader of Sendai.

Hamlet is considered to be the finest example of theatre in the world and commands extreme popularity. President Shimodate and other members of the script conception team spent a long time considering how to alter the setting of this masterpiece. Eventually, they focused on how the rigidness of Hamlet depicted in the original work is greatly influenced by the tense political relations between Denmark and surrounding countries. The script conception team searched for impact created by a major turning point in Japanese history and selected the final days of the shogunate for the new setting. The script used in the initial 2006 performance included numerous episodes of actual individuals who were active in Tohoku at that time in history. In the renewed 90 minute version which will be performed at Waseda, the only remaining character from our history is “Tamamushi,” a member of the Sendai clan that led the plan for an alliance between Mitsu Province, Dewa Province, and Echigo Province. Tamamushi acts as a spokesman for the spirit of Tohoku people.

Hamure: Hamlet (Koichi Iwazumi) and Ophelia (Nami Hoshi), 2006.

The event starts with a lecture (30 minutes) by President Shimodate. Waseda University was the base for activities of Dr. Shoyo Tsubouchi, who was a pioneer of Shakespeare translation in Japan. As a tribute to him, President Shimodate will share his insights into what message we can receive today from Dr. Tsubouchi. The key word for the lecture is “diversity of language."

In conclusion, details of the memorial event are listed below. Our theatre company is looking forward to your attendance of the performance.

Event Overview
125th Anniversary of the Waseda University Alumni Association “Hamure:
Hamlet of Northern Japan during the final days of the shogunate”
Date & Time:
June 19th (Sat.), 2010; Performance from 4:30 PM (venue open from 3:30 PM)
Waseda University, Okuma Auditorium
Free, all seats non-reserved, no reservation required
<Part 1> Lecture “Message from Shoyo Tsubouchi” (30 minutes) by Mr. Kazumi Shimodate, President of Theatre Group
<Part 2> Performance “Hamure: Hamlet set in Oshu during the final days of the shogunate” (90 minutes)
Script/Staging: Kazumi Shimodate
Cast: Koichi Iwazumi, Nami Hoshi, Others
Waseda University, Cultural Affairs Division, Cultural Planning Section
Tel: 03-5272-4783 (Mon. to Fri.: 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM)
E-mail: art-culture@list.waseda.jp
HP: http://www.wasedabunka.jp/
Shakespeare Company Homepage :

Kate Yamaji
Production Manager, Shakespeare Company

Has participated in activities since the start-up period of the Shakespeare Company in 1994 as a performer and a costume designer, later expanded her role to directing and management and lead the production of performances in Tokyo and Edinburgh. Moved to Tokyo in 2001 and continues to support the company in production management. Born in Sendai and raised in Iwate. By living in the Midwestern United States and in Kyoto during school days, raised a high interest in the charms and cultural background of languages in a variety of regions and people.