Belonging to two cultures: an interview with Richard Emmert, a Westerner in Japan

In the latter part of 2015 I saw a demonstration of Noh Mask making at the Japan Foundation in Sydney.  Not only was it an interesting and thoughtful evening, it was also a really eye-opening experience.  It makes me feel really fortunate that I have access to the events and facilities that organisations like the Japan Foundation hold, and I would really encourage anyone interested in Japanese culture (or anyone just wanting to tap into another culture) to check them out.

… We are all human … in the end, all cultures need to try to bridge what divides them

Anyway, the Noh mask carving demonstration was presented by celebrated craftsman and artist, Hideta Kitazawa and Noh performer and researcher Professor Richard Emmert of Musashino University, Tokyo.  Both men and their work were fascinating, Kitazawa because he has built his career around an artform of cultural significance (he talked about how the younger generation don’t take up Noh mask carving as a profession because of the lack of money in it, with most people in Japan taking it up as a hobby only, and many in retirement), and Prof. Emmert because he is a westerner who was so taken by the Japanese culture that he chose to devote his profession around the Noh Mask aspect of it.

Artist Hideta Kitazawa at the Japan Foundation, Sydney

Artist Hideta Kitazawa at the Japan Foundation, Sydney

I can kind of understand that, but for many people, being a fan of some part of a culture only goes so far.  I don’t even know if what I am about to explain is comparable to what Prof. Emmert has done.  I mean, I know people take part in things like Salsa dancing, enrol in French language classes, whatever, but Prof. Emmert went a million steps further and totally immersed himself in a very specific aspect of Japanese culture, and therefore probably knows more about Noh masks than probably many Japanese people.  This is a 100% example of getting outside the world you live in.

I was really fortunate to get access to Prof. Emmert and to ask him a few questions, and if there’s anyone reading this who needs inspiration to follow your gut, embrace your curiosity and go see the world, I hope this serves as inspiration :)

Where are you from originally, and what is your cultural background?

I am from a small town in Ohio in the United States. It is actually a Swiss Mennonite community. Both my parents were about 3rd or 4th generation Swiss Mennonites, depending on how you count.

What is it about the Noh performing arts that you love and admire so much?

I think I am most interested in the intense concentration and quiet energy that informs all noh. It can be see in all aspects of performance, the chant, dance and musical instruments.

Have you always had an affinity for Japanese culture?  How did it begin?

Not that I was aware of. We did have a Japanese girl stay with my family for a year when I was 12 years old or so, but I would not say that I necessarily fell in love with Japanese culture at that time. However, I always did wish to go abroad sometime and when the opportunity arose to go to Japan, I took it. That is when I was 20 years old and in college. I took my junior year abroad going to Japan for 14 months.

I am most interested in the intense concentration and quiet energy that informs all noh

You are the founder of Theatre Nohgaku – why is it important that this art form be preserved, developed and continued as more than just a cultural artefact, but as a current, living form of art and performance?

The fact is, it is highly respected among many people in Japan, although it is not necessarily popular. Like any traditional art form, I would say it is important that opera continues, or classical music continues, or aboriginal music continues. And there are after all 1500 professional noh performers in Japan making their living from doing noh and so it is a living art form. Moreover, I think it is a unique theatrical experience which myself and many whom I teach also believe is the case.

You also run workshops for current performers – how do the styles and techniques in Noh theatre translate for Western performers? What skills and techniques do they use from Japanese theatre (Noh) for their own Western performances?  Are they able to inform their craft and their performance, or are they very different to each other?

I think the main thing that Western performers learn from noh is concentration and timing. Almost anyone who is a stage actor realizes the importance of this in their art. By studying noh, many Western performers learn to adapt this in their bodies to make their own performances, particularly those on stage, much stronger. Perhaps the traditional singing style or the traditional movements themselves are not what performers use, but in the process of learning this, they learn posture, and in the control of that they learn concentration and timing.


Prof. Richard Emmert at the Japan Foundation, Sydney

Have you ever had a “lost in translation” moment in your time in Japan?

In terms of everyday life, many things have happened over the 40+ years that I have been here, and there have of course been times when I misunderstood or was misunderstood. But Japan or the Japanese are hardly monolithic in its thinking, so when you say Japan or Japanese are one way, it doesn’t always seem to be the case.

What’s your favourite aspect of Japanese culture?

That too is hard to say. I guess I would first have to say noh. After that I think one can say the food. And you also cannot forget the cleanliness and safety of life in Japan.

You’ve embraced a country and culture not originally your own.  What lessons can you give to someone who feels like a “stranger in a strange land”?  How should someone bridge a cultural divide, and what are the benefits of learning and being part of another culture?

In the end, I assume we are all human. I have been close to people of many different cultures and realize that in the end, all cultures need to try to bridge what divides them. I guess I also feel that people who truly try to do that will also make the world better.

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