Old Japanese in Action

13 June 2014

Research Centre for Japanese Language and Linguistics
Creation Theatre
Oxford Spires Academy

students performing at Old Japanese in Action
Click images for a larger version


students at Old Japanese in Action The Research Centre for Japanese Language and Linguistics in the Faculty of Oriental Studies organized an event called Old Japanese in Action in collaboration with Creation Theatre and Oxford Spires Academy, which took place at Oxford Spires Academy on 13 June 2014.

Old Japanese in Action was organized to celebrate the success of the five-and-a-half year AHRC-funded (at close to £1 million) project, 'Verb semantics and argument realization in pre-modern Japanese' (VSARPJ) which ran from 1 January 2009 to 30 June 2014 (five and a half years). The event is also part of another project which has emerged from the VSARPJ project, namely the Oxford Corpus of Old Japanese (a long-term international collaborative research project which is developing a comprehensive annotated digital corpus of all extant texts in Japanese from the Old Japanese period (8th century).

students at Old Japanese in Action From Oxford, Professor Bjarke Frellesvig, Dr Kerri Russell, Dr Stephen Horn and Professor Jennifer Guest took part. We were also joined by Mr Dan Millichip, a former undergraduate student, and Ms Zixi You, a current graduate student, who have both been involved in the project at various points. An academic visitor from Japan, Dr Takehiko Maruyama, also participated. From Creation Theatre, Ms Katie Ell, and Mr Josh Ward took part. And Ms Rebekah Finch from Oxford Spires Academy was instrumental in helping us organize the event.

This event was designed to introduce, in an engaging and interactive way, Year 8-10 pupils to some of the oldest Japanese literature, history and culture, from the 8th century AD, the Nara period; in linguistic terms the language of this period is known as Old Japanese, hence the name Old Japanese in Action. A number of texts, including epic poetry, folk tales in poetic form, imperial edicts, and rituals, were selected to introduce students to the range of literature available at that time (view booklet).

The event started with a lecture and PowerPoint presentation about ancient Japan and the Japanese language of the time, given by Professor Bjarke Frellesvig, to set the stage and give some background (view presentation).

This was followed by a demo performance of a short text by Katie and Josh from Creation Theatre, with some help from unsuspecting members of the audience.



After that, the students were divided into two groups, led by Katie and Josh, in order to create their own theatre performance of an Old Japanese text, under the direction of the Creation Theatre Team. In order to do this the children had to think about the form and content of the texts in a creative way. It was the first time for all of them to read or know about Old Japanese poetry and literature, but their engagement with the texts was very impressive.


students at Old Japanese in Action students at Old Japanese in Action


While many of the students were shy at first, through warm-up games and encouragement from Creation Theatre the students really engaged with the material, offered suggestions for how to be more playful with the texts, and created performances that were humorous and enjoyable to watch.



One group performed a folktale, the Tale of the fisherman Urashima, who goes off with the daughter of the seagod to live in her palace, then returns to his home to visit his parents, taking with him a casket he is not allowed to open, but which he subsequently does open, as a result of which he soon ages and dies. This is a well-known and popular Japanese folktale which exists in many later versions, but the students used one of the earliest attested versions, which is found in verse form in an 8th century poetry anthology. They engaged inventively with the tale and its themes and came up with interesting perspectives and takes on it, as well as some good jokes to put in.


students at Old Japanese in Action students at Old Japanese in Action


The other group chose a very different text, a ritual from the native Shinto religion, describing "How to drive away a vengeful deity". The text is dramatic and includes descriptions of the myths surrounding the establishment of the emperor institution and court, as well as battles between good and evil. The characters in this text include vengeful deities, the two deities that pacify the unruly deities, and the Sovereign Grandchild, who would become the first emperor of Japan. Students also acted out clouds, rocks, tree stumps, a peaceful palace and various gifts for the emperor. The story of the ritual was enacted with dramatic intensity to good strong effect, with touches of humour for added entertainment.



Participants' comments

Students' comments

"I've learned a lot about the old Japanese language and how it originate."

"I've learned much more about japan as a whole. I really liked the people from Creation theatre because they taught us lots of new ideas about drama as a whole. I learned new games for warm ups and also learned what 'Break a Leg' means."

"I enjoyed today and found it interesting. I have learned about Japanese literature and physical drama."

"This day was amazing, not because I didn't have to go to 4 lessons, but because I learned lots of things and the teachers were AMAZING."

"The day has been amazing. It was not only fun and exciting but informative, all at the same time, which is extraordinary. I learned a lot, and I got to explore a field which I had not experimented with before."

"I enjoyed this experience a lot. I have learnt a lot from this, including confidence skills and it is ok to mess around and be loud sometimes, which I will remember forever!"

"I have learnt about Japanese literature. Also, I learned how to effectively use physical drama."

"I learnt how to convert texts into plays."

"It was really cool, the whole activity gave us more experience within languages and drama."

"It was a great experience and the activities were really fun. It was a nice mixture of language and drama."

"I really enjoyed that everyone participated and the leader was really encouraging to make us put on two performances."

"I had a really good time during this workshop as I learnt some new facts about Japan as I have always loved their culture and we were treated with respect and were all made to laugh."

"Today in the Japanese project, we performed a story about a fisherman going through an interesting journey of his life. Today we got to have an experience which we would never have got to experience so thanks to Creation theatre and the university."

"I enjoyed the experience as it was fun and different and the culture input is really interesting."

"Overall, I enjoyed the experience especially, learning various things about professional acting. The culture aspect was also very interesting."

Oxford Spires Academy Staff comments

"I hadn’t realised how much drama can make stories come to life. It was a very engaging workshop which not only brought out some directing skills in some students to the point that [one of the students] was offered a work placement – and that despite the fact that he is only in year 8, but also I am certain built confidence in the more reserved students who took part. A wonderful experience and credit to all the people who organised this."

"The Old Japanese theatre event really brought together the worlds of ancient culture and dramatic technique for our students. They had an amazing time studying both aspects and have learnt so much about exploring texts that are more unusual, through drama. They have also built in confidence through their work with Creation Theatre and we look forward to further work together."

"The students at OSA thoroughly enjoyed their experience. They were fascinated by the historical perspective of language and particularly enjoyed the introduction to Japanese culture. The staff at Creation Theatre did a fantastic job of engaging students in the texts and introduced students to fun drama activities. Students very much came into their own when asked to interpret the texts for performance and had great fun working as a team to bring the texts alive. The final performances were excellent and students were buzzing about the experience. All said they would love to do it again!"

University of Oxford Staff comments

"It was very impressive and rewarding to see the level and quality of engagement with the old Japanese texts among the students, as well as their inventiveness and enthusiasm for the dramatization. We certainly got a new and fresh perspective on this material which we have worked on for a long time. It was a very worthwhile event for us." -Prof Bjarke Frellesvig

"It was wonderful to see the students explore these ancient texts as they found creative ways to represent them on stage. I think they gained some vivid mental images of ancient Japan, as well as a new understanding of self-expression through movement (not to mention comic timing!)." -Prof Jennifer Guest

"I think it is safe to say that over 13 centuries of time, Mushimaro’s Story of the Fisherman, and the Liturgy to Drive away Vengeful Deities had never before received such energetic and imaginative treatments. Fifteen pairs of fists pounding on the auditorium floor really made it seem as if the trees and stones had risen up to defy the gods arriving from heaven. It gave me chills to see it." -Dr Stephen Wright Horn

"After months of planning it was amazing to watch Old Japanese in Action come together the way it did. For us, this was very much an experiment. It was exciting to watch the team from Creation Theatre and the students engaging with the texts and working together throughout the day, especially when the students offered suggestions for how the texts could be interpreted and played with. The final performances were simply brilliant." -Dr Kerri Russell