Looking at Kagurazaka from Shinnai Alley (28)

Shinnai Overseas Performance Tours 17: The Baltics
Northern European Beauties: 2011 Tour in the Baltics

First, since it seems that many Japanese do not know what countries are in the Baltics and where they are located, I would like to briefly describe the location of the three countries and explain about the character of each of the countries before describing my 2011 tour of the Baltics.
The three Baltic countries face the Baltic Sea. Listing them starting from the north, they are Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, three small countries that are almost the same size. There are no high mountains; the land is almost flat. The highest point in each of these countries is about 300 meters above sea level.
The Baltics were occupied by the Soviet Union during the Second World War. They won their independence in 1991. Although the three countries seem somewhat similar, their ethnicity, history, language, and culture are different.
But is it possible that a commonality across the three countries is that there are many beautiful women? The ratio of women to men in the population is 100 women to 85 men. That makes me jealous, as the men there have a high probability of marrying a beautiful woman.
Our performances in the Baltics started in the northernmost country, Estonia. Estonia is close to Finland, and the Estonian language and customs seem to be influenced by those of Finland.
Our first performance was in the Estonian capital, Tallinn. With the Kuruma Ningyo puppeteers and the shinnai performers, we held workshops on puppetry and shinnai for university students in this city of which the historic center (Old Town) is a World Heritage site. Whatever country we go to, students there are curious and enthusiastic about our arts.
We performed the same two works in all three countries: Sakura Giminden no Jinbe’e no Watashiba and Yaoya Oshichi. Unfortunately, the languages of all three of the Baltic countries were so difficult that the performances had to be done entirely in Japanese.
In Sakura Sogoro, Sogoro asks Jinbe’e to carry him on Jinbe’e’s boat so that he can go to the Shogun to petition on behalf of the farmers in his town. If Jingbe’e helps Sogoro, he will have broken the law and most likely will be executed, but he decides to help Sogoro even at the risk of his own life.
Sogoro was a self-sacrificing person who stood up for the poor farmers, trying to get justice for them. The shinnai version of his story is mainly spoken lines, with only a small amount of singing. The content of this work is difficult, but, even so, the audiences in the Baltics seemed to understand and be moved by the story. Sogoro’s selfless actions are meaningful beyond nationalistic borders.
The story of Yaoya Oshichi was probably easier for the audience to understand because they could see the puppets portraying the actions of the characters. For example, when Oshichi climbs a fire tower to alert the fire company that there is a fire, the audience was greatly delighted to see how the puppeteers manipulated the puppet so that it could do that.
Because there were so many spoken lines in this work, I asked Kondo Yosuke (Tsuruga Iseyo’dayu), an actor, to do the narration. Thanks to his contribution, the audience found it easier to understand the story.
Next we went to Riga, the capital of Latvia. The historic center of Riga is a World Heritage site, with cobblestone streets lined with elegant shops. It is really fascinating, and is said to be a mini-Paris. The cuisine there is sophisticated, and there were many stylish restaurant.
Riga is such an attractive city. I want to visit there again. I like it so much that I can imagine living there permanently.
At the time of our visit, the then Japanese Ambassador to Latvia, the Honorable Mr. Osanai and his wife, both wonderful people, extended their generous hospitality to us. Thanks to Ambassador and Mrs. Osanai, I was able to return to Riga the following year for another performance. From those experiences, we became friends. Our friendship continues at the present time.
By the way, the second performance in Riga was a collaboration of shinnai, Japanese traditional dance, and the puppetry of the Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo troupe. The work that we performed was the Dojoji portion of Hidakagawa (Anchin Kiyohime). In this story, after Kiyohime falls in love with Anchin, he runs away and Kiyohime races after him, eventually getting to the river called Hidakagawa. To catch up with Anchin, she has to cross the river, but the boatman refuses to help her. So Kiyohime jumps into the river. She becomes a snake or dragon so that she can swim across the river. Because of her obsession with Anchin, Kiyohime becomes terrifying.
The audience reaction to the Riga performance was very enthusiastic.
Well, the last place we performed was Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Vilnius has a special close relationship with Japan. During the Second World War, Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consular officer stationed in Vilnius, acting contrary to instructions from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, issued visas to Jews who were being persecuted by the Nazis, saving their lives by enabling them to escape to the Far East.
His courageous behavior is still highly respected by people everywhere. The Jews who got visas from Sugihara crossed the Asian continent and then the Sea of Japan, finally arriving at Tsuruga Port in Fukui Prefecture. The story of how Sugihara risked his career to give humanitarian aid is one to be proud of. Because we artists were grateful to have been given the opportunity to perform in Lithuania, we tried especially hard in the concert.
With the Ambassador from Japan to Lithuania, I visited the Mayor of Vilnius, bringing him a letter and some gifts that the Mayor of the city of Tsuruga had asked me to deliver. Vilnius and Tsuruga have a close sister-city relationship.
The audience in Vilnius was large. From our point of view, we had a good impression of them. We were glad to see that they appreciated our traditional Japanese performance.
I purchased a few souvenirs made of amber.
Although the history of the Baltic countries has been harsh, it seemed to me that the people in each country we visited loved their country and were strongly united. They enjoyed their lives, even though the they were not affluent and the conditions in which they live were still somewhat severe. With such a strong spirit, true beauty may be fostered…..

(From Kagurazaka Community Magazine, October-November 2017, issue #94)

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