ROUND TABLE 1: Ms Asako Hirokawa

How to enjoy theatre with everyone

The motto of the NPO Theatre Accessibility Network (TA-net) is “Let’s enjoy theatre with everyone!”

Based on the idea of the social model of disability, Ms Aasako Hirokawa, the chairperson of the TA-net aims to remove social barriers, which prevent the people such as disabled, senior, and parents with children from going to the theatre.

The social model of disability has initially generated through the disability rights movement in the UK. The concept is that the disability is produced by the society in the way of negative attitude or system in regards to the disabled people rather not by the individual impairment.

Hirokawa studied in the UK in 2009, and was thus inspired by way of anyone with or without the disability can enjoy the theatre. After coming back to Japan, she immediately formed the TA-net with her colleagues and acquaintances working in theatre.

Since then, the TA-net has developed the accessibility support system for the people having difficulties to access theatre, for instance providing drama texts, written communication, sign interpreting, subtitles, audio guide, wheelchair seats, a nursery in theatre and so on.

In particular, the TA-net is focusing on the three activities; - providing the support information of the theatre through their website and mail magazine - studying and implementing the support system in theatre with the enterprises/makers, theatre and presenters- consulting to install the support system by requests from theatre, presenters, or audience members.

What are the barriers to prevent the access to art in Japan?

The TA-net was formed in 2012 and grew their presence nationally and internationally through their annual symposiums, a frequent participation of other group's talk and discussion, monthly study group and weekly mail magazine. Their clear vision and activities foster positive response from some private and public foundations and technical collaborations with the enterprises/makers. However many Japanese theatre and presenters remain passive or cautious to take the accessibility support.

Hirokawa opened the discussion with the question of how to facilitate the accessibility support system among Japanese theatres. According to the TA-net survey in 2014, 70% of the Japanese people with hearing difficulties wish to go theatre if there is an appropriate support. Indeed the technical development of the digital subtitle, and portable tablets made the system easier to install.

Despite the demand, Hirokawa noted that many Japanese theatre and presenters hesitate to install the accessibility support as the main concern lies in consideration of other spectators who don't need the help. In fact, they are afraid that the other viewers might be annoyed by the Japanese subtitles (because of native language), opening up the drama texts in theatre, the light from the mechanical devices, etc.

Mr Kiichi Kaiko understands the argument that not many people notice the needs of the accessibility support because it is hard for the non-disabled people to imagine a proper technical system and device for every different type of the disabilities. He recalls how essential it is to raise a voice, to find out the kind of support each disabled people need and want.

Mr Hidenaga Otori pointed out that the Japanese public grants' system is also not appropriate to support this type of activities because they mainly assume to support theatre companies or artists for their production. He suggested negotiating with the foundations in order to adjust their grants’ scheme and to ensure the budget for the accessibility support within the artistic production. Mr Naoya Fujita also approved that an institutional system could impose accessibility support in theatre.

Hirokawa referred to the Disability Discrimination Act enforced in April 2016 in Japan, This text reinforces the social duty of theatres and enterprises to provide the support for disabled people. Nevertheless, this first legal step was not enough as the most of people still don't even acknowledge the law was issued and extra time is often required to change the cultural reference and habits.

Several cases implemented in different countries were evoked, for instance, the way accessibility became a necessary condition to apply to the public grant in Edinburgh, Scotland. Further, an award for “access in the art” was created in New Zealand and Australia to encourage practitioners to introduce the notion and implement systems to host disabled people. These cases demonstrate the possibility we may have to raise a visibility of the needs of the accessibility support through large public events.

Then we argued the accessibility in cinemas. Mr Shintaro Fujii referred to France where most of DVDs offer provide French subtitles for the people having difficulty with hearing. As this is a not common practice in Japan, the TA-net has been working on the case, advocating and creating a dialogue with film industries to provide Japanese subtitles for the movies at the movie theatre, but the results are not yet tangible. The motivation from the film industry remains quite low as to provide subtitles takes more cost and effort. Particularly in the movie theatre, the biggest problem they face to have these Japanese subtitles is the fear to decrease the other audience members who don’t need it.

This led to the question of how the art can secure the accessibility support for everyone, and how the people who don't need the accessibility support could accept it. For instance, many types of the social engaged art exist in Japan today, they attempt to involve every participant in it, however the risk to exclude a part of participants unintentionally remain. We need to have a more critical point of view about the fact that the participatory artistic practice might discriminate a part of people.

Mr Naoya Fujita made an opinion and indeed it considers as difficult and uneasy to include people who can not stay quiet during the artistic practice. Hirokawa objected that there were several options and referred to the "relax performance day" implemented in the UK allowing punctually to enjoy the performance with children or disabled individuals who can not stay quiet. This initiative has begun in Japan recently too. This event-based approach could be a starting point of mediation, a way to examine how the artistic practice includes these people and their reactions.

Referring to the social model of the disability, MS Barbara Lisicki, a trainer of Shape Arts in the UK used the argument that when people complained that an exceptional dealing with the disabled people in art can be a reverse discrimination, we have to think that it is much more problematic if they are not allowed to access to art at all.

In Japan, we can note that social progress has to be done and be further dealt with and amongst people who have to change their set of mind, maybe to be more generous to share the space and time with the others who need a different type of support and help. We could consider artistic practice itself to be a trigger to change the situation.

Photo: Ryohei Tom​ita

* See AGENDA for personal biography