by: Katie Tsai

Over the summer, I had the pleasure of interviewing the founders of Japanese Drama Project, Kuniko Shoji and Masaki Saito. Recently founded a few months ago, Japanese Drama Project is a performing arts organization based in New York City that exposes Japanese theater culture to the western world.

KT: Where are you from? More specifically, what is your background regarding education and theatrical experience?

Shoji: I was born in Tokyo. When I was a child, I really loved watching live theater and actually, started to join some student productions while attending my university. I got into it so much and after graduating, I started my career as an actress in Tokyo. I didn’t have a chance to get any professional acting experience, but it was a way of training for me. I had one teacher that I worked with and I learned everything about life with her. It was really hard for me because there was no private time for myself; I worked at coffee shops in the mornings and then worked with my teacher from the afternoon to midnight. After a year, I was so tired that I gave up my acting career in my early 20s and worked in an office to keep myself away from the theater. However, when I was 33 years old, I decided to come back and become an actress because I became ill and I realized that you only get one chance at life and I wanted to cut to what I really wanted to do. After finishing my treatment, I came to New York City to pursue acting at 38 years old.

Saito: I’ve always wanted to perform and act in several languages ever since I was a kid. But, financially, I could not afford to do both at the same time so I put aside acting and started to learn a few languages. I started my career as an actor pretty late, around my mid-twenties. I started acting in a Japanese theater company for 3 to 4 years, but it didn’t satisfy me a lot because my dream was to act and perform in several languages. Coming here to New York City challenged me a lot and my dream got bigger and bigger. I took my chance and started learning western acting techniques in an acting school called HB studios in Manhattan. Kuniko and I just finished a 2-year international program there and then founded this organization to perform modern Japanese plays. What I thought about this project was that it’s unique because I had never heard of this kind of company before.

KT: How did you create JDP? What was your motivation and inspiration and were there any struggles along the way?

Shoji: Since I came to NY, I had been doing some auditions, mainly in musical theater. There are a lot of chances in NYC but there is still a lot of type-casting in auditions. As a Japanese actress, I know that the chances are limited because of this specific image that Western people have. Especially in NYC, they need people who have blonde hair and blue eyes and I am never like that. I experienced some confusion regarding my identity because they are so different from me. I always ask myself: what are my strong points and what is my beauty? To survive in the theater industry, I had to find my strong points and I don’t want to always follow what the directors and producers say. They only have specific images of Asian people. I think we are responsible to offer them a chance to see other possibilities. I noticed that even though there are a lot of great playwrights in Japan, they are not noticed and performed in NY and I think if we perform them, it will be a good chance to know and understand each other.

Saito: I don’t think I would call it a struggle, but ever since we founded this project, it’s been like “oh my, we’re so busy.” There is always a lot of stuff to do. Even when we are done with our stuff, new things pop up. Or, if something comes around that I’ve done in the past, and then it comes back and I have to deal with it again. The first time [Shoji] asked me to participate in this project, I took it and I loved it. But, it sometimes feels like I’m doing something else rather than just an acting. I’m not saying I hate it, but there’s always a lot to do.

KT: Are the productions in English, Japanese, or both? How does that work?

Saito: It’s an experiment. We try to perform plays in both japanese and english. We perform the same play in Japanese and English in the same day. We use the translated text version and original version because the plays we perform are originally written by Japanese playwrights and there’s also a translated version of it. The reason that we show famous Japanese plays is that almost none of them have been recognized by people around the world and it’s a shame to not know something really great and beautiful.

KT: What is your vision and mission for Japanese Drama Project and what does it mean to you?

Shoji: I just want to introduce the core of beauty in Japanese culture through our project. I hope our project gives Japanese or Asian women inspiration to discover their own identity and beauty.

Saito: Like I said earlier, I think we would love to introduce this to a group of people that have never seen the beauty of modern Japanese dramas before. I think I’ll be glad if we could help American theater culture to blend this different concept with whatever they have in the past, mix them together, and create something brand new. When it comes to seeing something new, people get surprised and try to understand what it is and blend it with something they already have.

KT: How are you reaching out to audiences, raising awareness, and promoting your project?

Shoji: Everything that I think is good for promotional possibilities, such as sending out press releases to advertisements. We also use social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.

KT: What does that future look like for JDP?

Shoji: I would like to perform in productions twice or three times a year. I want to also collaborate with other companies.

KT: Your website says “Short Play by Kunio Kishida.” Does it have a name and what is it about?

Shoji: It’s called Paper Balloon and it’s a dialogue between a wife and husband.

KT: What is your favorite thing to do, in general, or in JDP?

Shoji: I like observing people and analyzing their psychological behavior because I was a psychology major. I also like to write blogs in Japanese.

Saito: I love rehearsing because I always see the process and progress of it. Also, whenever I get a reaction or response when I post information about new things about this project on Facebook or the homepage, it feels like our project is growing so that makes me happy.