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Presenting the Theatre Museum's Ah, Shinjuku: City as a Spectacle exhibition

Minako Okamuro
Director, Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum

1. Shinjuku as a spectacle

When student protests were sweeping the country in the 1960s, Shinjuku was the hub of youth culture. In Shinjuku’s West Exit Underground Plaza, guerilla folk singers of Beheiren (Citizen's League for Peace in Vietnam) congregated and sang anti-war folk songs. Writers, artists, and hippies gathered at the classical music café Fugetsudo, and youngsters became intoxicated with modern jazz at clubs like DIG and Shinjuku Pit Inn. Nagisa Oshima directed Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, a film starring Tadanori Yokoo, Juro Kara, and even Moichi Tanabe, the founder of Books Kinokuniya. At the fountain square in front of the Shinjuku Koma Theater, Keiko Fuji—then still a newcomer—sang Woman in Shinjuku, and numerous media events such as the Kijima Norio Happening Show (details later) were staged. Kabukicho, a place that never sleeps, became notorious as the number-one red-light district, while the gay district in Nichome was starting to forge its own unique path. Shinjuku was a melting pot of diverse cultures, with obscene and chaotic forces whirling about in complex patterns. The town of Shinjuku itself aspired to be a theater, a spectacle, and a festival site that draws in happenings. Anyone who found themselves there was at once a player and spectator.

Juro Kara, with Odakyu Department Store in the background From the film Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (directed by Nagisa Oshima; Sozosha, 1969/©Oshima Productions)

The whole town transformed into a theater, and drama won a privileged place within Shinjuku. Since its founding in 1964, Kinokuniya Hall played a big role in creating Shinjuku, the town of theater. At the Art Theatre Shinjuku Bunka, which opened its doors in 1962, Shuji Terayama, Yukio Ninagawa, Yukio Mishima and others began putting on theatrical performances past 9:30 p.m., after film screenings were over. In 1967, a mini-theater called Underground Scorpion opened, and it was literally there that underground theater culture began to grow. On the second floor of Mon Cheri, a café near Waseda University, Tadashi Suzuki, Minoru Betsuyaku, Hiroshi Ono and others founded the Waseda Mini-Theater in 1966, where many legendary performances were staged. The Jyokyo (Situation) Theatre, led by Juro Kara, drifted its venue all over Shinjuku—Toyama Heights, Shinjuku Pit Inn, Hanazono Shrine, Sanko Park, Shinjuku Central Square, and Botanne Fukurokoji—producing striking theatrical performances while remaining an oddity of the town. Theater was ubiquitous in Shinjuku.

2. Shinjuku Mediapolis

In front of Art Theater Shinjuku Bunka (photo courtesy of Shinjuku Historical Museum)

In those days, Shinjuku was closely connected with television, newspaper and other media. For example, on May 18, 1968, just five months before the civil unrest at Shinjuku Station, the Nippon Television Network announced via newspaper advertisement that the Kijima Norio Happening Show would be broadcast live from the doorsteps of the Shinjuku Koma Theater. A huge crowd gathered that day and forced Kijima to evacuate to a coffeehouse after sensing danger, and the square in front of Koma Theater became a festival space at the hands of young people singing, dancing and lighting fireworks. The newspapers the following day reported this big event as a failure. Tracking down the truth will be difficult now that many people involved are no longer living. However, the question remains as to what extent this was a set-up and how much of it was an incident.

The following year in 1969, Soichiro Tahara, who was a director at TV Tokyo at the time, made the documentary Jazz Inside the Barricades: Extremist Students vs. Fierce Pianist. He turned Waseda University, in the midst of student protests, into a festival ground with Yosuke Yamashita's intense piano performance. Tahara went as far as to saying that "documentaries are all directed, meaning, everything is staged.” This is a philosophy that runs through all of Tahara's documentaries, but nowhere did these words ring more true than in Shinjuku, where the whole town comprised a theatre. Just as Diary of a Shinjuku Thief—a film that blends fact with fiction—could only have been set in Shinjuku, the boundary between reality and fiction could be crossed with such ease in Shinjuku at the time.

It just so happened that on November 1, 1968, immediately after the civil unrest at Shinjuku Station, the New City Center Shinjuku PR Committee released the Shinjuku Mediapolis Manifesto through Nippon Cultural Broadcasting. This manifesto declared "the desire to fill Shinjuku with 'media,' [and] in Shinjuku, anything and everything has the potential to become media." Shinjuku in the 60s joined forces and merged with media, exerting a peculiar presence between reality and fiction.

3. Loss of the Public Squares

The Jyokyo Theater in front of Hanazono Shrine (photo courtesy of Joji Ide)

After the center of youth culture shifted to Shibuya between the 70s and the 80s, Shinjuku seemed to gradually lose its energy. Of course, there were areas where cultures unique to Shinjuku were thriving: Shinjuku Golden Gai, Nichome, Kinokuniya Hall, DIG/DUG, Shinjuku Pit Inn, JazzSpot J, Studio Alta, the multinational town of Okubo—areas too many to list. Shinjuku has always been a town made of diverse cultures. Then why is it that it feels as if Shinjuku has changed? Did Shinjuku go wrong somewhere?

What distinguished Shinjuku in the 60s was its "public squares." The ground floor of the new Kinokuniya bookstore building, which was built in 1964, was named Hiroba (the Japanese word for square) and designed not to be a mere passageway but a place where people mingled. The West Exit Underground Plaza, on the floor below the Shinjuku West Exit Plaza completed in 1961, was a gathering place for young men and women who were in the midst of the student movements (or who had no classes due to the movements), as well as guerilla folk music performers, particularly around 1968 to 1969. However, on International Anti-War Day on October 21, 1968, the so-called Shinjuku Mayhem incident occurred, where demonstrators clashed with the riot police around the East Exit. In the Shinjuku West Exit Plaza also, on June 29, 1969, gas bombs were used at folk gatherings that drew a crowd of 7,000, and 64 people were arrested. On July 24 of the same year, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department announced that the Shinjuku West Exit Plaza fell in the category of roads as defined by the Road Traffic Law. There were even signs that read as follows: "This is not a public square. This is a passageway. Please keep moving. Shinjuku West Exit Police Station." Shinjuku's public squares were forbidden from being what they were all of a sudden.

There's no denying that the situation surrounding the Shinjuku Station area at the time was a product of those days of conflicts over the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty and protests against the Vietnam War were stirring. However, collisions between forces trying to create public squares against those seeking to clean up the city were at its most intense in Shinjuku in the 60s. Does this mean that Shinjuku failed to become a public square?

4. Arata Isozaki's legendary Metropolitan Government Office plan and the future of the multicultural Shinjuku

Hideki Sunagawa states that "Shinjuku draws peripherality and further builds up its image of being a peripheral city. It recognizes the clash between those who are making movements and those seeking to eradicate it.” (Social Anthropology of Shinjuku Nichome: Regarding the City from the Gay Community) This observation is an interesting one because it leads to the vision of a city that does not have centers and peaks, but instead is composed of complex, interconnected peripheries—or, perhaps, the idea that the center is everywhere, just as theaters once existed all over Shinjuku.

The now legendary "Plan for the New Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office Building (hereinafter the Metropolitan Office Plan)," which architect Arata Isozaki proposed but was never realized, was one in accordance with the idea above of how Shinjuku ought to be. At the start of the "Basic Principles" in the Metropolitan Office Plan, Isozaki stated that the building would not be a skyscraper. Isozaki continues, "The building model that we propose for the new Metropolitan Government Office, which will be the city hall, is an intricate-body model […] it will be formed as a three-dimensional latticework of vertical and horizontal passages." The center of this building plan featured a "Festival Plaza," which had been designed as the central public square for the entire city. That is to say, rather than having the building's peak in the center, Isozaki had a flat square in mind for festivities. Did this not imply Isozaki’s idea for an urban space as a rhizome or alternatively meshed design, where each section was integrated as a vital piece of the multilayered whole? Was this not an attempt to revive Shinjuku as a festival site?

Perhaps, it is possible to apply Isozaki's vision of the city as a complex body to the future of Shinjuku, a town that holds chaotic energies and contains both light and darkness, formal and informal—in other words, to design Shinjuku as a communal place in which individual people and cultures are interwoven in a webbed pattern. The movement to clean up Shinjuku will accelerate towards the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Nonetheless, as long as Shinjuku aspires to be different from other homogeneous cities and be a festival site where diverse people and cultures interconnect and coexist, I believe that this town is still full of possibilities.

Special exhibition: Ah, Shinjuku: City as a Spectacle
May 28 (Sat.)–August 7 (Sun.), 2016
June 1 (Wed.), June 15 (Wed.), July 6 (Wed.), July 20 (Wed.)
Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Second Floor Exhibition Room
Opening hours:
10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. (until 7:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays)
Free admission
Organized by:
Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum/Collaborative Research Center for Theatre and Film Arts
Sponsored by:
Shinjuku Ward
In cooperation with:
Arata Isozaki & Associates, Shinjuku Historical Museum, Kinokuniya Company Ltd., Kara-gumi, Kara-zemi☆
Planned with the assistance of:
Akio Miyazawa (playwright/director/critic), Shigeru Matsui (poet/Associate Professor at the Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences), Satoshi Otsuka (architect/stage designer)

Minako Okamuro
Director, Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum

Director of Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum. Professor at the School of Culture, Media and Society, Waseda University. Ph.D. in Aesthetics (University College Dublin). Studied at Waseda University's Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences in the doctoral program on Aesthetics (Theater Studies). She specializes in modern drama, particularly Samuel Beckett, history of drama, TV culture studies, and TV criticism. She is co-editor of Samuel Beckett!—Criticism in the Future, Reconsideration of 1960s Drama, and publications. She has held posts such as director of the Japanese Society for Theatre Research, member of the Fuji Television Broadcasting Program Council, member of the selection committees for the Television category of the Galaxy Award and the Confidence Award Drama Prize.