Of All The People In All The World – Japan

21Sep10

Of All The People In All The World – Japan has been commissioned by the City of Setagaya, a ward in the west of Tokyo, and is being presented in the elegant gallery space of Setagaya Public Theatre. As I write, the show has been evolving for nearly a week and the starting exhibits prepared for last week’s reception have been mused over, refined and embellished to create a show which is now reaching maturity. For readers new to the phenomenon, OATP takes the concept of a single grain of rice as representing a single human life. With the help of mathematics and some neatly-tuned balance scales, human statistics from a range of sources are weighed out, titled and then displayed on sheets of white paper – becoming objects of wonder whilst often provoking conversations and in some instances consternations. By placing one pile next to another, the show acquires a narrative dimension and for us, (the performer/facilitators of Stan’s Cafe) the task is to develop a run of statistics that will be informative, interesting, witty and hopefully surprising. If the show is political then it is by implication. The piles of rice are titled as economically as possible but never display the numerical size and very rarely the source of the statistic. The meaning is as much between the piles as it is in the piles themselves.

For this performance we have a total quantity of rice that is equivalent to the population of Japan (127 million or just under two and a half metric tonnes). Extra rice was brought in at the last minute when we realised that the indiginous grain is rounder and heavier than the slimline shortgrain rice that we’ve been using in Europe and North America. In the image above you can see a small portion of the Population of Tokyo (foregrounded) with the Chinese nationals living in Tokyo just behind it. In the distance are the two biggest statistics currently in this show; People in Brazil living on less than a U.S. dollar a day (in front of the pillar) and (furthest away) the People made homeless by this month’s floodings in Bangladesh.

Of All The People… is not all gravitas, however; far from it. As visitors enter the space they take a single grain of rice which they are invited to carry around with them throughout their journey. The show works by comparisons and we are always reminded of relationships between the individual, the local, the national and international. Every grain of rice is identical and once you’ve had a chance to compare yourself to Issey Miyake, or one of Emperor Meiji’s six wives, one of the unemployed in Japan, one of the pilgrims at the beatification of Cardinal Newman or one of the men who walked on the moon, then the significance or fragiity of your grain of rice becomes more apparent.

The Rice Show has travelled widely in its 7 years but this is the first time we’ve performed the show in a country which is a major rice-producer and for whom rice is a staple food. We saw it growing in the fields as we swept in on the train. The Japanese character for rice is 米  – derived from the picture of 3 plants tied together in a sheaf. The three also indicates ‘many’.

Yesterday was a Japanese public holiday – Respect for the Aged Day. Despite being the aged member of the team, I still came in for work and set about expanding the section on ‘Centenarians in Japan’. Oft used in previous versions of the show, Japan is remarkable for having a dramatically aged-person-heavy demographic. Navigating the crazy youth-centric enclaves of Shibuya or Harajuku, we’d be forgiven for assuming otherwise, but it seems Japan has more people over the age of 100 than anywhere else. The veracity of our research was shaken a little last week, however, when it started to emerge in the press that the Ministry of Justice couldn’t account for 230,000 of them, and that in several cases the centenarians who had been claiming benefits were found to be preserved/mummified in the family home or in one instance a rucksack. According to Governmental records there are 884 people  still living who are over 150 years old. Shockwaves have rippled through a society that bases itself on old-school values of trust and honour, but these anomolies do not skew the general trend that pensioners will make up one third of the working age population by 2025. And with a death rate that has just overtaken birth rate for the first time, this adds up to an impending economic problem which must be addressed.

From my limited time here, I think the longetivity phenomenon must be in some way attributable to the Japanese diet. Last night I found myself eating sea urchin on a toast of black seaweed, crab-brain paste and squid slivers in a squid liver sauce, washed down with Sake and Green Tea. The tofu cheese in honey on the previous evening (another excellent adventure in the Senzoku district in the company of The Blue Men) was one of the finest things I have ever tasted – no question.  These may not be everyday edibles for the elderly of Japan, but certainly an indication of the attention and care paid to a diet of seafood and (of course) rice.

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One Response to “Of All The People In All The World – Japan”

  1. Co-incidentally, the verifiably oldest man in the world is 114 today. So Happy Birthday Walter Breuning, who is seeing his super-centenarian days out not in Japan, but America.


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