Island Mentalities: The Women Bridging Britain and Japan at Tsunagu/Connect

New Earth Theatre, 'Tsunagu Connect Live', 2022
New Earth Theatre, 'Tsunagu Connect Live', 2022

Tsunagu / Connect

From: 23 Apr 2022

To: 30 Apr 2022

Shoreditch Town Hall, Council Chamber
380 Old Street

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‘Chopsticks? I didn’t expect English people could change so much in 40 years,’ says Kumiko, remarking the rise of ramen shops in her local community. She is one of over thirty Japanese women, all of whom have settled in Britain since 1945, whose stories comprise Tsunagu/Connect. 

Part-oral history project, and part-verbatim theatre, Tsunagu bridges Britain and Japan by storytelling. Co-creators Kumiko Mendl and Kazuko Hohki lead an impressively-credited crew, composed almost entirely of women. It’s a long-awaited production from the New Earth Theatre, which showcases British East and South East Asian artists. By day, the Shoreditch Town Hall freely exhibits objects and oral testimonies to the public. By evening, the space and stories are transformed into an immersive promenade performance. 

We are ushered in by four Japan women – tour guides, or perhaps, flight attendants – who multi-role through vignettes from Showa-era Japan to the bedsits of 1980s London. Making nods to the first migrants in the late nineteenth century, the production nevertheless centres on contemporary immigration dreams and nightmares. Beyond their direct instruction, clever sound and light design (from Tingying Dong and Nao Nagai, respectively) are all we have to move across the hall, geographies, and time. 

New Earth Theatre, 'Tsunagu Connect Live', 2022

Oral testimony voiceovers overlap with the cast’s speech. They bustle between the small, standing crowd, picking up pieces from the exhibition plinths as props. Manga and British Commando Comics both serve as material artefacts of everyday experiences, domestic objects often marginalised in elite histories of exchange. 

Tsunagu is an excellent companion to the Queen’s Gallery’s Japan: Courts and Culture, currently on show down the road. (For those who can’t access the performance, or its accompanying free events, interviews are available on Soundcloud and the Earth 2 Air podcast – a permanent audio archive of histories excluded from the dominant narrative).

New Earth Theatre, 'Tsunagu Connect Live', 2022

Two 1940s schoolgirls secretly indulge in classical music, playing a Western record illegally imported into wartime Japan. Overlooked by the obligatory Ho-an-den, a shrine carrying the Emperor’s photograph and Imperial Rescript on Education, the criminality of their act is undermined by their childhood dreams of ‘Scotland’. It’s also the only vignette performed entirely in Japanese.

The series unearths plenty of surprising histories. You-Ri Yamanaka plays an elderly woman, recalling her sea sickness on HMS Empire Windrush. Better known in Britain for its Black and Caribbean passengers, Tsunagu speaks to the ship’s final journey, which departed from Yokohama in 1954.

Other tales are more tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at the outdated orientalist stereotypes of Japanese women. One is forced to endure the hostile environment of her boyfriend’s parents’ household, sitting awkwardly on a chair that only the white family members can see. Elsewhere, the women club together to chant ‘fuckity fuckity fuck fuck’ to Heathrow Airport’s racist border police. 

In an episode of ‘Colourblind Date’, a City banker boasts of his gap-year-yellow-fever, whilst a reclusive IT consultant divulges in his Japanophilia. But it is Keiko who is disappointed to find that, despite his accent, her Mancunian hunk is no David Beckham or Prince Harry. Instead, he ‘looks Asian’. It’s a subtle nod to how stereotypes are lodged on all sides. 

New Earth Theatre, 'Tsunagu Connect Live', 2022

Tsunagu centres on these contemporary experiences of dislocation. Yuki Sutton, of the critically acclaimed Tokyo Rose, is the obvious choice to play the child leaving her mother in Japan. ‘The gap is important,’ her fundamental instruction when fashioning the underwear one’s kimono. It should be pointed at precisely 45 degrees at the neck; any less, the woman is a child, any more, she is loose. 

Knowing how to tie your kimono doesn’t prepare her for dealing with the claustrophobic bedsits of West London’s property market, nor life in Japan today. There’s an implicit point about intersectionality, and how Japanese women are doubly bound by stereotypes of gender and race, both at home and abroad.

New Earth Theatre, 'Tsunagu Connect Live', 2022

We also see how tradition need not clash with, but become part of, contemporary experience. Tomoko Komura performs her modern benshi, storytelling for silent films, alongside We are Ninja (not Geisha), the post-punk music of her 1980s London outlet, Frank Chickens. Exploring these complex, two-way flows is at the heart of the Tsunaga project itself. 

Yet Japan’s strict citizenship requirements today reinforce such binaries. Dual nationality is permitted only for young people under 22, after which point people must choose, forcing difficult decisions onto many Japanese residents and diasporans. 

These ideas about nationalism and identity, what it means to be either or both British and Japanese, resound in the same island mentality many ascribe to post-Brexit Britain. In the face of these restriction questions, Tsunagu asks ‘what price must we pay to create a third space, neither one nation nor the other, where we finally have room to be ourselves?’ 

At the centre of the exhibition, a pinboard with two maps charts these individual connections between Britain and Japan. It is this duality – of being both British and Japanese, women and Japanese, exhibition and theatre – that Tsunagu captures perfectly.

Images Ikin Yum.

Thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron) for this review. Jelena is an audio producer and freelance journalist, who makes content at the intersections of intercultural political history and the arts. They are the producer of EMPIRE LINES, a podcast which uncovers the unexpected flows of Empires through artworks.

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