Japan is about as from Ireland as it’s possible to get. Culturally and historically, we’re nothing alike, yet for years I have found that their experiences have often helped me to understand my own in Ireland.
In the 19th century the Great Hunger had about the same devastating effect as in Ireland as a low level nuclear bomb. It turned the nation upside down, it contributed to unprecedented emigrant numbers, and it was a force behind the near extinction of the national language.
Meanwhile, far away Japan had a thousand year long history of unbroken continuity before World War II and the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki rewrote the national script.
After the war that millenary history was broken as the nation embraced a new industrialism and tried to heal from the horrors that had befallen it (they are still the only country to have been attacked with nuclear weapons).
Japan had been powerful, Ireland has traditionally been powerless, but it’s how Japan responded to their unprecedented crisis that fascinates me.
They did what we did not. They studied the collapse and failure in their art forms, they looked directly into the ruination, they took from it what they could -- heartbreak, sorrow, anger, desolation, steely resolve -- and they created new art forms to express it including one called butoh dance.
Like many things in Ireland, in Japan what “butoh” means largely depends on whom you ask. But some traits have become observable.
The dancers are often near naked and often painted a ghost-like white, and their contorted bodies and grimacing faces have given expression to the confusion caused by the industrialization process and the devastation of the atom bombs.
But these are just the cliff note descriptors of an astonishing form of dance that plumbs the depths of despair and climbs the peaks of transcendence. Watching it, you understand that the dancers and the their nation are trapped and compromised, unable to resist all the powerful forces that shape and misshape their bodies, turning their human forms into historical artifacts.
The dancers move through absurd and sometimes frightening environments, cold landscapes filled with shocks and surprises, their eyes often rolled upward and their faces contorted. It’s only later that you connect the people onstage to the Word War II portraits of ordinary Japanese people crawling out of the devastated port cities, often naked, covered in ashes.
Butoh can be desperately slow and repetitive, lulling you into a near trance state or just boring the pants of you. Your discomfort can actually be a part of the performance. They want to bring you into an encounter with what is often hidden or unexpressed.
Nothing in Ireland does this. Nothing comes even close to doing this. We have lived in a perpetual terror of silence, in an endless flight from history, running to the pub or the pier and away from all the great severances of our history.
We have done this as long as I remember. If you want to clear a room of Irish people just ask them how they feel.
No one expects us to wallow in our own defeats, or theatrically claim we can no longer endure them, but a bit of honesty about what befell us, and why it did, and what we could do to climb out of it now would have been healthier than the blanket culture of denial and shame that took their place.
There was a deep cultural silence after the Great Hunger, a turning away, that reminds me of the post war Japanese. But instead of contemplating the hard lessons of our history we walled them off, like a Mother and Baby home, placed them outside the realm of daily life and walked away from them.
The Japanese have convinced me there is value in looking yourself in the face, even if it breaks your heart or sears your spirit. Because – as I was reminded watching Takao Kawaguchi perform signature dance pieces by butoh founder Kazuo Ohno at the Japan Society last weekend – great beauty can be found even in the most unlikely places.
There are cracks in out national glacier now. In recent years the Quinnipiac University opened Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, the first museum in the world dedicated to the commoration and study of the Year One that Irish history travels to and from.
In years to come perhaps new art Irish forms will be also inspired by the study that occurs there. In the words of James Baldwin, you cannot fix what you will not face.