‘Drink the sun, walk while eating the moon’

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I was delighted to be part of a delegation spending a week in Tokyo exploring arts and ageing. The aim was for us to learn, share and make connections with others focusing on practices, partnerships, impact outcomes and evaluation. I was fortunate to be sharing the tour with colleagues from across the UK all doing fantastic work with older people and we learned a lot from each other during the week.

Japan has a declining population, with the proportion of elders set to increase so that by 2050 almost 40% of the population will be over 65. This has sparked discussion about what this will mean for the Japanese economy and society; the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Cultural Olympiad offer an opportunity to engage with artists and arts organisations in shaping responses to this demographic change.

One of the highlights of the week for me was our session at the Saitama Arts Centre, just outside Tokyo. We were introduced to the work of the renowned theatre director Yukio Ninagawa who has been artistic director here since 2006 and the founder of Saitama Gold Theatre. Saitama Gold is a theatre company comprising people aged over 55, people who were not professional actors but then undertook full-time professional training. Ninagawa’s vision was of a company, neither ‘amateur’ nor ‘professional’, but whose performances would be ‘based in the personal histories of people of age’. As artistic director he was interested in how these elders would express themselves and their stories. The company currently comprises 33 members, aged between 63 and 89, with an average age of 76. We were privileged to meet two of the current actors who talked of their life-changing experience at a mature age from engaging with Saitama Gold and then, when I didn’t believe it could get any better, we were taken into the rehearsal space and had the privilege of meeting Yukio Ninagawa and watching a short rehearsal of the opening scene of Saitama Gold’s production of Richard II.

“Drink the sun, walk while eating the moon” were dancer and choreographer Yuki Aoki’s instructions to a group of homeless men, encouraging their self-expression through dance. Yuki Aoki spoke about his motivation for giving up a successful career as a dancer to work with homeless people and other groups, including older people in care homes. A very moving and powerful presentation and his passion was clear to see. Other presentations explored a range of creative workshops – how can design principles be used to solve social problems? In what ways do we and can we continue to learn as we age? And how can music and dance in particular benefit older people?

The many group discussions we had with Japanese colleagues over the week, together with the impressive ‘Future Session’ event with about 100 people from across sectors, left me feeling positive about the future for arts and ageing there. Time and again we were hearing from people from different sectors about the need to address the quality of life for older people, whether in care homes or in the community. There is also understandable concern about the number of people likely to be living with dementia and opportunities to create dementia friendly communities are being pursued.

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The two topics we discussed on our last day were evaluation and research and collaboration. It was good to see universities represented in these discussions and it may be that links between universities in Japan and the UK can be forged and research interests shared. The need for academic research to be made more relevant and widely available to those in practice was discussed. The question of demonstrating clear evidence that the arts have positive impacts on health and wellbeing of older people was discussed again and it seems that the pressure is on to prove clinical improvements in individuals who participate not just improvements in quality of life.

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