Essay Series 2018 #02
Mika Eglinton (Asian Women Performing Arts Collective) / “Woman x Asia x Performing Arts”

Nguyen Trinh Thi "93 years, 1383 days" at Shitamachi Art Festival Nguyen Trinh Thi "93 years, 1383 days" at Shitamachi Art Festival

The second in our series of essays exploring the themes of actresses and women is written by theater researcher Mika Eglinton, who is also active as a member of the Asian Women Performing Arts Collective alongside artists, producers, translators, scholars, and film directors from countries in Asia.

About the Essay Series:
Kyoto Experiment 2018 focuses on female artists or artists and companies that identify as female. Bringing the words “woman” or “female” to the fore in this way encourages us to realize a wide variety of perspectives that offer a cross section of contemporary society, from the unease we feel from everyday conversations and customs to broader issues of gender seen in social and historical contexts. This relay-style series of essays presents texts by specialists from different fields that problematize feminism not as an issue only for women but for society as a whole. We hope that they will provide opportunities for audiences to gain deeper insights into the festival programs. (The articles will be published approximately once every two weeks.)

Woman x Asia x Performing Arts

Who is a “woman”? What is “Asia”? Where is it located? And who decides? In Orientalism (1978), Edward Said, the pioneering figure in postcolonial studies, depicted the imaginative geographies in which the non-West has been represented as a subordinate Other or woman by the gaze of the West that exemplifies male agency. Forty years on from when its first publication exposed the latent sexual and political maladies responsible for the racial discrimination and imperialism in the “Oriental tastes” seen in such works of art as novels and paintings, globalization continues to accelerate while, conversely, nationalism is also on the rise around the world, and the European Union has been shaken by the shock of Brexit. Do such barometric dichotomies of West/East, Occident/Orient, male/female, or independent/dependent still have meaning? If so, are women in Asia doubly othered and feminized? How can the performing arts, which are a mirror of society, reflect the phenomenon that is “women” in Asia, a geographically and historically fluid place where it is impossible to identify the etymologies, an example of what Benedict Anderson called an “imagined community”?

These questions also underlie the Conference for Asian Women and Theatre, formed by the late Koharu Kisaragi and Rio Kishida in the 1990s as a “plaza” where the three “minorities” of Asia, women, and theater met, as well as the organization it subsequently inspired, the Asian Women Performing Arts Collective, launched by the likes of Shirotama Hitsujiya and Mikuni Yanaihara in 2012. Forming partnerships with female playwrights, directors, translators, researchers, film directors, producers, and other figures related to the performing arts in Asian nations, the Asian Women Performing Arts Collective cultivates networks through on-site surveys and aspires to build a platform based around Asia, women, and the performing arts. On the other hand, it is a group of individuals whose opinions differ even on the issue of feminism. As such, this text is not representative of the Asian Women Performing Arts Collective so much as merely the personal views of one member, myself, who identifies as a feminist. For example, just in terms of surveying theater reviews and theater history as an aggregate of these, European and American men still account for the majority of opinion, making it easy to confirm the overwhelming scarcity of discourse related to women living in Asia today. Notwithstanding the signs of change that have emerged through the recent #MeToo movement, in the closed theater world that has internalized and naturalized patriarchy, before we denounce sexual harassment, we should recall our tendency to overlook our sharing and recognition of the ideology of female subjection by men that runs through its core.

“Heroine of Tragedy” at Futaba School Auditorium, Shitamachi Art Festival

Recording the voices of women often lost in our society that is still firmly rooted in a Western androcentrism, visualizing these, and then discussing the social problems that surround the women, the Asian Women Performing Arts Collective has traveled around Asian countries with diverse ethnicities, societies, languages, cultures, and histories as well as the Asia that exists within Japan, such as Echigo-Tsumari and Shin-Nagata in Kobe, according to its aim of activating the performing arts. At the Shitamachi Art Festival, held in the multicultural port area of Shin-Nagata in November 2017, Yanaihara extracted the bittersweet experiences of Vietnamese migrants and refugees, and adapted them into “Heroines of Tragedy”, in which two women, performed by the famous Vietnamese actress Lê Khánh and Tomoko Ando of the Asian Women Performing Arts Collective, conversed in different languages. In parallel, I curated the inclusion of “93 years, 1383 days” by the filmmaker Nguyen Trinh Thi, who runs Hanoi DocLab in Vietnam. This film documents the bone-washing and reburial rite of bốc mộ, in which the remains of the artist’s grandmother, who was born in 1912 and lived through Vietnam’s century of suffering, are exhumed by all her relatives late at night, cleansed, and then transferred to the family grave. This footage emerged from the darkness inside a traditional old house that survived the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

Starting off as a study group about Hasegawa Shigure, the playwright and novelist who was born in the Meiji period and worked tirelessly for the empowerment of women in the turbulent Taisho and Showa eras in Japan, as well as her contemporaries, the Asian Women Performing Arts Collective’s “Chronicle Project” aims to (re)discover pioneering female artists. Following an international meeting in June 2017, the project formally launched at TPAM in February 2018. Who is a woman? What is Asia? Continuing to pose these questions to ourselves, we also asked participants for their ideas about who was the “first” female theater artist as well as when and where she was born, what she did, and why she was important. These responses were then charted on a map and chronology that we made—a process of (re)appraising the female pioneers frequently forgotten, concealed, or distorted by male-centric history in which we hope to produce ways of thinking and imaginative geographies that differ from Orientalism.

Asian Women Performing Arts Collective (Ajokai) “Chronicle Project” Exhibition


Recommended Reading

Mika Eglinton, “The Feminism of Top Girls: The Work of Caryl Churchill,” in A Cultural History of British Love and War, 1951–2010, ed. Yasuo Kawabata et al (Tokyo: Keio University Press, 2011)

Akiko Ogata, The World of Female Arts: Hasegawa Shigure and Her Milieu (Tokyo: Domesu Publishers, 1980)

Kazuko Takemura, Feminism: Frontiers of Thought (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2000)


Mika Eglinton

A theater researcher, critic, translator, and dramaturge, Mika Eglinton specializes in early modern and contemporary British drama, with a particular emphasis on productions of Shakespeare in “Asian” contexts. In addition to teaching British and American studies at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies, her translation and criticism appears in both English and Japanese in such media outlets as The Japan Times, with a focus on visual arts in its broadest sense of encompassing the performing arts, cinema, and contemporary art.