Saturday, April 2, 2011

"Action louder than words: Puppet troupe celebrates expression in all its forms"

Image borrowed from

Here's more about Deaf Puppet Theater Hitomi from The Daily Yomiuri Online, 4/1/11; article by Atsuko Matsumoto / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer:

Hundreds of waving hands fill the air, making the audience appear to be twinkling to the performers on stage.

"It's so beautiful that I get goose bumps. Just so beautiful. When I see those hands from the stage, I feel privileged to be one of the chosen," Osamu Yoshioka signed during an interview with The Daily Yomiuri in early March.

Though he is now spokesman for Deaf Puppet Theater Hitomi, Yoshioka started out in the audience.

"It was Orpheus, July 31, 2002. It was a Wednesday at 7 p.m.," Yoshioka signed, using his photographic memory to recall the details, while fellow troupe member Keiko Yanase interpreted, giggling as she looked at him.

"I was surprised to see the audience that night. It was made up of people who can't hear and those who can, adults, children, foreigners and many others. Once the play began, everyone in the audience shared in the thrill. I was amazed," Yoshioka recalled his first experience with the company's performances. That was the first time he even heard of the troupe.

"It was a completely new experience for me. It used to be that whenever I saw a Japanese movie or play, there was no guarantee there would be any closed captioning. I felt very alone when everyone else would burst into laughter. Later I had to ask why it was so funny and then finally I laughed--alone. But [what amazed me about] that performance by Deaf Puppet Theater Hitomi was that everyone in the audience seemed to be moved simultaneously," Yoshioka added.

It wasn't too long until the former iron-works welder decided to enter the world of puppeteering.

Formed in 1980 as part of the renowned puppet company Hitomiza, Deaf Puppet Theater Hitomi is the world's only professional puppet troupe comprising both deaf and hearing members. It has since performed more than 2,500 times at 650 cities around the world. In 1988, it toured 13 cities on the U.S. West Coast and later performed in locales as varied as France, Egypt, New Zealand and Cambodia. The performers also received awards in the former Czechoslovakia and Hong Kong.

For the upcoming Tokyo shows, six members--three who can't hear and three who can--will act as puppeteers with the other production staff.

They usually rehearse the show with a member who can use sign language. But when there's no one available in the studio, they use a whiteboard to communicate with one another.

"Sometimes, we don't even use the whiteboard. Instead, we express ourselves using gestures, which are more like body language than sign language. But more than anything, we communicate with feelings," Yoshioka signed.

Yanase, a founding member of the troupe, recalled the beginning of her career, saying she never was particularly worried about working with deaf members.

"Of course I knew I'd have to learn sign language, but I don't think there's much difference between working with people who can't hear and working with those who can," Yanase said.

"Sometimes, we fight while rehearsing, and I say quite harsh things, like 'No, you can't hear!' Some people said they were shocked by this and asked me, 'Is it OK to say things like that to deaf people?'" she said laughing.

"But it's the same in society in general, because people who can hear have things they can and can't do. We're here as a troupe and each of the members brings with them their own strengths," Yanase added.

Over her 30 years in Deaf Puppet Theater Hitomi, Yanase has seen a slow change in the audience's attitude.

"Some people who came to our show were impressed with the performance only because some of us were deaf," she said. "We didn't want to always just be seen as a charity case."

She says that because of this, the troupe once deleted from its flyers a sentence highlighting the collaboration between deaf and hearing performers in the hope that audiences would come to their shows just to appreciate the work of a professional theatrical troupe.

"But then it's true that our troupe comprises members who can hear and those who can't, so we put the sentence back on the posters," she added.

Sitting next to her, Yoshioka added jokingly, "I feel grateful that people are coming to see us. I often get attention when I'm not doing anything at all!"

Yanase said, "People used to come up to me and say, 'Wow, deaf people really work hard, don't they?' I nodded, saying to myself, 'Well, I work hard, too! We all work hard!'"

Offstage, the troupe has held about 170 workshops over the past four years, mainly at schools across the nation. The contents of the workshops vary from sound creation and puppet expression to sign language and physical communication. Some of them are aimed at teachers at schools for the deaf, while the workshops have attracted a variety of age groups.

According to Yoshioka, when children who can hear spend time with deaf children, they are pleasantly surprised by their experience.

"Because many of them had never had opportunities to meet deaf kids, they're timid at the start. But through the workshop, they learn methods of communicating other than speaking or sign language, such as facial expressions and writing. They had always thought they needed sign language to communicate with deaf children, so we helped them discover various other ways," Yoshioka explained.

The latest production is based on Nigerian Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard.

"We have all sorts of fans around the country. But in deciding which play to work on, it's important first to know what kind of message we want to send our audience," Yoshioka signed.

Both Yoshioka and Yanase agreed there are many things they'd like to do with the troupe, including collaborating with international performers and taking the latest production to Africa, the birthplace of their source novel.

Asked about his happiest moment as a puppeteer, Yoshioka said, "I often think [before the curtain rises]: 'If I blow this performance, I'll quit.'"

"But when I see that applause after the show, I say to myself, 'No, no. I take back that thought from an hour and a half ago.' The audience saves me."

Deaf Puppet Theater Hitomi will perform "Mori to Yoru to Sekai no Hate eno Tabi" on April 8, 7 p.m., April 9 and 10, 2 p.m. at Space Zero, a five-minute walk from JR Shinjuku Station. The same production will tour to other cities in May, June and July. For more details, visit

For tickets, visit

1 comment:

Sam Pugeda said...

It is great to hear that this group is successful. I currently go the Rochester Institute of Technology which is known for its national deaf program, so I get to meet and interact with many deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Although communication can be a bit tough, in the end, all you need is emotions and body language to convey what you want to "say". Thank you for posting this article!