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A revolution is sweeping through Japan's Takarazuka Music School


Oct. 22, 2020

For more than a century the Takarazuka Music School has transformed thousands of young women from unpolished amateurs into accomplished singers, dancers and actors who perform to sell-out audiences with kitsch adaptations of everything from Japanese manga to classic western novels.
But the school, based in the Japanese hot spring resort from which it takes its name, is not just in the business of nurturing talent.
Founded by Ichizo Kobayashi, an industrialist-turned-politician and president of Hankyu Railways – the performers’ employer to this day – the school combines coaching in the performing arts with a demand for absolute discipline and obedience, tethered to its motto: purity, honesty, beauty.
But a revolution of sorts is sweeping though the school’s spotlessly clean corridors. Earlier this month, it said it had scrapped several longstanding and unwritten rules that have governed the behaviour of new recruits for decades.
They include bowing to passing trains on the local railway line in case its passengers include older students; adopting a sombre facial expression that requires them to lower the corners of their mouth, and limiting their vocabulary to a simple “yes,” “no” and a few other sanctioned phrases when in the company of senior trainees.
After graduating, students join one of five groups that together make up the Takarazuka Revue, a fixture of Japanese theatre since its first performance, as a girls’ operetta troupe, in 1914, a year after Kobayashi opened the music school.
Its lavish, Broadway-style productions at theatres in Takarazuka and Tokyo attract around 2.5 million people a year – almost all of them women – with the most febrile adoration reserved for headline stars who play the lead male and female roles.
Despite reported opposition from some traditionalist students, the school says its has dropped outmoded rules governing interactions between juniors and seniors, and eased the requirement that all women have black hair to one that allows them to keep their “natural” colour.
But Tatsuya Kusaba, an essayist and expert on Takarazuka’s history, disagrees with critics who say the rules blurred the line between discipline and bullying.
“They have been in place for such a long time with the consent of the students themselves, so I don’t think they’re a bad thing,” said Kusaba, who has been a Takarazuka devotee since watching his first performance as a five-year-old more than half a century ago.
Yet by the school’s own admission, the changes reflect growing awareness of harassment in Japanese society – mainly targeting women – in entertainment , at the workplace and, according to a recent damning report by Human Rights Watch, in the sports world.
“We want to preserve good traditions, but we also need to change so we can fit in with the times,” Naoya Horiuchi, a school official, told the Kyodo news agency.
Media reports speculated that pressure for a relaxation of certain rules had built after the discovery that some younger students were cutting back on sleep to do extra homework in an attempt to impress their superiors.
Despite the school’s reputation for fierce discipline around 1,000 women aged 15 to 18 apply every year, with just 40 invited to spend two years training for the right to become one of Takarazuka’s “brilliant gems”.
Patrick W Galbraith, who teaches Japanese popular culture at Senshu University in Tokyo, attributes the strict code of conduct to its founder’s desire to dissociate Takarazuka from the unseemly behaviour associated with kabuki and other forms of traditional theatre.
Kobayashi, he said, had envisioned the school as a place for “wholesome family entertainment” and as a finishing school for women from “good families”.
“The school promised to not only keep them safe, but on the straight and narrow,” he said. “As Kobayashi saw it, Takarazuka and its school served to socialise young women into a life of discipline and vertical relationships, as well as to prepare them to become good wives. Keeping them supervised this way also ensured that they could perform, free of scandal, before they married.”
While well-documented cases of harassment in Japan’s entertainment industry had influenced the school’s decision to ditch some of its archaic rules, Galbraith believes the school’s ethos will remain intact. “Hierarchy, disciplining performers and threatening punishment for transgressions – they are not going anywhere anytime soon,” he said.
Kusaba concedes that the changes were inevitable, but worries that by ditching longstanding rules that engender respect for authority among younger students, the school was abandoning an important part of its identity.
“The more the school attempts to modernise – or liberalise – the more it risks losing some of the qualities that make it special, including the strict hierarchy among students,” he said. “I want Takarazuka to continue being what it is now – a place where women can realise their dreams.”
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