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Aichi, where the cultures of eastern and western Japan converge, has been a melting pot for the arts and entertainment since the Edo period (1603~1868). This historical background has provided a fertile climate for a youth-oriented popular culture to blossom in the area.

While people usually think of Tokyo as the setter of popular trends in Japan, the young people of Aichi have broken free of established values to create a home-grown cultural scene of their own, which is now spreading to other prefectures and even other countries. Such cultural exports are taking place in a growing number of fields.

Turning a warehouse into a theater

Aichi as a cultural base

The feeling that something is about to begin

Turning a warehouse into a theater

Osu is an old neighborhood in Nagoya that contains an eclectic gathering of shops selling computers, new and secondhand clothing, drapery, and antiques, all clustered around Osu Kannon, a large Buddhist temple. Just one block off the district's bustling thoroughfare is a quiet road offering a lively scene of a different kind. This is the home of the Nanatsudera studio, a small theater that serves as a showcase for the region's aspiring drama companies.

Actors sparkle onstage, but once offstage they turn into ordinary young people.
Aichi has several world-class performance venues, including the Aichi Arts Center, capable of staging full-scale opera productions, and commercial theaters suitable for performances by world-renowned theatrical troupes. Nanatsudera has none of the architectural grandeur of these performance halls. From the outside, it looks like a run-down factory or warehouse--certainly no landmark. And in fact, the theater is a former warehouse for industrial products that has been partially renovated.

As guests enter, they take off their shoes and put them into plastic bags. Granted, this is Japan, where people customarily remove their shoes when entering a house. But taking off one's shoes to enter a theater is probably unique to Nanatsudera. While the theater officially has a seating capacity of 90, there are no individual seats. Audience members squeeze in, shoulder to shoulder, on wooden benches facing straight ahead.

The owner of the performance space, Toshiyuki Futamura, comments, "We can pack in quite a few people in there. Even though it's supposed to seat only 90, we've squeezed in up to 240." It was with the wish to provide young, local playwrights and actors with their own forum for expression that Futamura renovated the warehouse in 1972. "In the late 1960s," Futamura explains, "young people started forming underground troupes in Tokyo. The same thing happened in Aichi, but there were almost no small venues that unknown performers could use. So we decided to create a theater of our own."

When Nanatsudera opened, young, energetic artists from around the prefecture thronged its gates. Over its 26 years, not a few troupes that grew up here have gone on to perform in Tokyo, Osaka, and even overseas. In Futamura's words, "Nanatsudera is a departure point for young theater people from Aichi."

Aichi as a cultural base

It may be hard to trace the differences between Tokyo and Aichi drama companies to the disparities in the two regions' social and cultural milieus, especially as Japan is a small country. But as theater is a human art form, the climate in which a playwright or performer was raised will inevitably have some bearing on the resulting work.

Electric Lady Land is known as Aichi's rock hall of fame. Every evening, the stage comes alive, with music performed by amateur bands.
Futamura continues, "In terms of sheer numbers, Aichi may have fewer troupes. But we have some very distinctive acts that you won't find in either Tokyo or Osaka. A prime example is Shonen Ojakan (The Young Lords), who got their start at Nanatsudera and are now taking their act overseas. A unique fin de siéle mood pervades their script, while the actors move with an eccentric energy. Aichi has long been a point of confluence between eastern and western cultures, and it's possible that this continues to inspire the work of theater people in Aichi today. I think that it's by keeping their eyes on both cultures and absorbing their various influences that they've been able to create a completely new world on stage."

The rich popular culture that flourished during the Edo period in Aichi acquired its unique properties by skillfully blending influences from east (Tokyo, then known as Edo) and west (Kyoto and Osaka). In Futamura's view, the unique cultural landscape that sprung up here is still alive among today's youth.

Of course, the landscape has changed considerably over the past two centuries, particularly in comparison to Tokyo. Soh Kitamura, a playwright and stage director who began his career at Nanatsudera and continues to work from Nagoya, explains, "Maybe it was different 20 years ago, but nowadays there's very little gap in cultural standards between Tokyo and Nagoya. This is because information flows so much more freely through society. That being the case, it's definitely easier to work in Nagoya; lower real-estate costs make it cheaper to set up theaters, and it's conveniently located midway between Tokyo and Osaka. Nagoya has all the trappings of a big city, but there's also something laid back about it. It doesn't have Tokyo's clamor, and it's a much better place to live and work." Kitamura says that no matter how frequently he ends up performing in Tokyo, he has no intention of moving out of Nagoya.

The feeling that something is about to begin

The power and creativity of Aichi's younger generations are manifesting themselves in the musical arena as well, particularly in indie-label rock and pop music. Nagoya alone has over 10 live-music venues where amateur musicians can embark on the road to stardom. The clubs are distinctive in character and encompass a wide array of genres from rock to jazz. These venues can also be classified according to the purposes for which they were established.

Hordes of young people gather at E.L.L., their hearts quickening in anticipation of witnessing the birth of a new generation of music.
Electric Lady Land (E.L.L. for short), located just one or two minutes' walk from Nanatsudera, is a venue of long standing that is known as Aichi's rock music hall of fame. Established to nurture local amateur acts, "E.L.L. is the gateway to the big time," claims owner Mohei Hirano. And true to Hirano's words, since its opening in 1976 E.L.L. has launched the careers of countless young musicians, including The Yellow Monkey, Bakufu Slump, and Naomi Tamura. Many artists who are at the top of Japan's music scene today got started here.

Of course, E.L.L. does not limit its performances to musicians from Aichi Prefecture. "Tokyo and Osaka bands that play here," says Hirano, "often claim Nagoya audiences are the hardest to please. To put it another way, if you can make it in Nagoya, you can make it anywhere. Aichi has a long history of leading the nation in a variety of art forms. Maybe it's this background that gives the local youngsters a more critical eye." With their discerning eyes and ears, the young people of Aichi Prefecture are extraordinarily curious about new music and know good music when they hear it, regardless of whether the artists are famous or not. Though most of the acts at E.L.L. are amateurs, the seats are always full, and often it is standing room only.

"When people come to this club," says Hirano, "they come with a sense of anticipation that they're going see the next generation of pop music. In other words, they come here to find the leading edge."

For years, Hirano has dreamed of establishing a unique, home-grown sound for Aichi and propagating it throughout the world, and he says he intends always to keep E.L.L. a stage for amateur musicians. "Ten or so years ago, a number of groups from Fukuoka, in Kyushu, broke into the popular music scene at around the same time. Each artist had a different style, but there was also an indefinable thread running through all of them. This sound was dubbed 'mentai rock.' [The name was taken from mentaiko, spiced cod roe for which Fukuoka is renowned.] And I'm sure we can do something along the same lines here in Aichi. If Fukuoka's got mentai rock, then we can offer the world 'kishimen rock!'"[Kishimen are flat noodles for which Aichi is famous.]

With the power and energy of young people looking for something new, E.L.L. is jumping again tonight. And this power and energy are not only making themselves felt at E.L.L. but at all of the theaters and live-music clubs around Aichi. The high-voltage atmosphere inside these venues is nurturing a new wave of youth culture.

(Photos by Kiyoshi Inoue, Text by Masaki Yamada)