Culture The Arts

Tonda Puppetry Troupe

July 8, 2014


Tonda Puppetry Troupe

Tonda Puppet Troupe (冨田人形共遊団 Tonda ningyō kyōyūdan) is a locally famous Nagahama area group that has been doing traditional bunraku performances and puppetry workshops for almost 200 years.

There is actually a decent English language Wikipedia entry about Tonda Puppetry, so you can learn more about the background over there, but a few highlights to give you some idea: Tonda Puppetry has been designated as an official cultural treasure, they still put on a few shows every year sometimes as workshops with local elementary children, they’ve performed overseas many times, and for over a decade they’ve been hosting an annual summer program for foreign college students.

The college exchange runs from June through July every year, giving international students a chance to study traditional Japanese culture while staying with local host families. Neither the program director and head of Tonda Puppetry, Abe Hidehiko, nor the host families are fluent in English, so it is a truly immersive language learning environment, which is one of the primary reasons students are drawn to the program.

At the end of July, the students are challenged with the task of performing a traditional bunraku puppet show in front of a local public audience. Over the course of their stay, most of their time is devoted to preparing for this final performance. 4 days a week are set aside for practice, but every Friday, Mr. Abe plans regional day-trip outings giving them a chance to explore other areas of Japanese culture.

We recently had a chance to stop by the puppet theater on one of their practice days to meet this year’s group and learn a little more about the program. Mr. Abe explained that he aims for around 10 – 12 students to participate each year, as 2 are needed for the play’s musical accompaniment (played on shamisen), two play narrator like roles, and the others are needed for puppets. One puppet requires 2 or 3 people for the full range of movements, and they can weigh up to 5 kilograms!

the Tonda Puppetry program offers a unique window into Japanese culture in addition to the immersive language learning.

This year’s group includes 8 members, 6 from various US univerities, and two from Italy by way of London. In the early years of the program it was sometimes difficult to find students, but now thanks to the program’s international recognition and help from alumni, they have a steady pool of applicants. Most join as part of a Japanese language program or related major, but arts and culture are often what attracted them to the language in the first place, and the Tonda Puppetry program offers a unique window into Japanese culture in addition to the immersive language learning. The language immersion is very real as there are no native/fluent staff to assist them locally for most of the stay, and if you’re familiar with Biwa-cho or northern Nagahama, then you know it’s a very traditional Japanese small-town, relatively isolated from any big cities or international communities. But despite what may seem to be a restrictive environment, during our chat they all had nothing but good things to say about their time here. The program keeps them busy most of the week anyways, and small-town Japan has offered plenty to see and do when they’ve had time to explore.

As a side note- this last bit struck a chord with me based on recent conversations I’ve had with local residents about launching Be Wa. When we explain the project, we often get a reaction of bewilderment about what could possibly draw foreigners or tourists to Shiga. But for new visitors, I think these less-travelled areas are often preferred or even sought out, especially when they need a break from the big cities, and Shiga has plenty of traditional small-town culture that is just a short train ride from the bigger tourist stops. For example, and on the topic of the Tonda Puppetry Troupe, Nagahama is one of the few places where all three forms of traditional Japanese theater are represented: Noh, Bunraku, and Kabuki. These 3 forms of theater represent the linear progression of traditional Japanese performing arts, and it is quite rare to find all 3 in the same place. We’ll probably cover the other two in future articles here, but kabuki is represented in the child-kabuki of Nagahama’s Hikiyama Festival, and Noh was practiced historically in the region and is now featured in local museums and sometimes performed for local events.

For anyone interested in this year’s summer performance, it will be held on Sunday, July 27th at 1:00 pm at the Nagahama Cultural Center. Tickets are 1,000 yen in advance, or 1,200 yen at the door (child admission is free). You can purchase advance tickets via the Nagahama Cultural Center at 0749-63-7400. More details here in Japanese.