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Drama and exhibition portray the real lives of Japanese women in UK

This photo taken on April 22, 2022, shows actors in the drama "Tsunagu/Connect Live." The actors are Meg Kubota, left in the back, Yuki Sutton, right in the back, and Tomoko Komura, center in the front. (Photo courtesy of Ikin Yum/Kyodo)

LONDON (Kyodo) -- Artists have been shining a light on the lives of Japanese women living in Britain since 1945 so that the wider community can get a better understanding of the pressures faced by an often overlooked minority group.

    A theater company has been using exhibitions and drama based on an oral history project called "Tsunagu/Connect" to show the highs and lows the women experienced as they navigated new lives thousands of kilometers from their home country.

    Kumiko Mendl, artistic director of New Earth Theatre, said she was keen to learn more about women's lives like her own Japanese mother, who came to Britain in the late 1950s, married a British man, and embarked on a new life.

    Sadly, Mendl's mother passed away when she was 7, but that has made her all the more interested in learning about the migration experiences of other women in similar situations through the decades.

    She was quick to counter lazy stereotypes of Japanese women and show their lives are a lot more complex.

    Mendl told Kyodo News, "Immediate stereotypes (of Japanese women) that spring to mind include 'the ideal mother' or 'young geisha.' So little is known or documented about Japanese women here and hopefully this contributes to the history."

    "There are stereotypes about Japanese women because people often don't know 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 backgrounds and parts of the country."

    In 2020, Mendl and her team at New Earth Theatre -- which presents and develops work with British East and Southeast Asian artists -- secured funding to start recording the experiences of 30 Japanese women who have lived in Britain since the end of World War II.

    A team of volunteers interviewed participants about why they came to Britain, their first impressions and the practical issues of living in a foreign country.

    The stories document the interviewees' changing relationships with both Britain and Japan and unveil the shifting views of Japan in Britain over many decades.

    This photo taken on April 22, 2022, shows actors in the drama "Tsunagu/Connect Live." The actors are Tomoko Komura, left, Yuki Sutton, 2nd from left, You-Ri Yamanaka, 2nd from right, and Meg Kubota, right. (Photo courtesy of Ikin Yum/Kyodo)

    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 staged in London in February and March to explore the women's unique and complex experiences.

    Visitors were treated to photos and audio from the women interviewed and a short intergenerational film of children and young people interviewing their mothers about their lives in Britain.

    There were also a series of exhibition plinths made from a fusion of British and Japanese furniture and containing items 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, typically 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 the women's histories.

    Mendl said, "There's a certain amount you can do with interviews and objects in an exhibition, but we really wanted to bring those alive and make them tangible and move the audience. We wanted to bring different audiences to engage with the project. We have had a great mix of people coming along which is great. As a theater company, we are bringing hidden and marginalized stories to the public."

    Performed in a promenade format, the audience followed the four performers around an exhibition hall where different scenes involving multiple characters were acted out.

    The performance showed the benefits many women have enjoyed in Britain, including greater freedoms, while some of the challenges they have faced include racism and sexism.

    "There are some quite stark and uncomfortable scenes and that is part of the stories we have uncovered, but there's lots of positivity, the fact that these women have chosen to live here and have not gone back to Japan. There's a lot of affection for this country and we wanted to present both sides. The women were able to be themselves here and didn't have to conform so much and would have struggled in Japan," said Mendl.

    Audience members were impressed by the performance and said it was important that the women's stories are heard.

    Jonathan Wakeham said, "The production felt very tender and intimate. It was great it was all women's stories because that is quite rare. Often, this kind of topic is always explored through politics and economics and this was from the heart and about family and belonging. I really liked the balance of it being very funny, very angry and very touching all within one space."

    Another audience member, Lucy Basaba, said, "I found it thought-provoking and vital and very necessary in terms of the conversation about representation. We rarely hear stories from the Japanese perspective."

    Mendl says the plan is now for the exhibition to be toured around Britain and ideally offer workshops for school children based on the project. The performance has also been 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.

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