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Japanese, US Rice Farmers Meet in Farming Musical

August 13, 1991

TOKYO (AP) _ A musical with the message that shared values of American and Japanese farmers can transcend a bitter trade dispute over rice is drawing large, approving crowds in rural Japan.

Audiences weep and laugh as the bicultural cast of ″Labor of Love″ air complaints Japanese and Americans often express, but rarely to each other.

″Wherever you look, everything’s Japanese,″ sing members of a rice- growing Cajun family in Lousiana.

″We supposedly won the war, but Japan’s buying Rockefeller Center, Columbia Pictures. ... You guys come over here and buy everything, but we can’t buy nothin’.″

The musical, a joint presentation of a Japanese theater troupe and one from Seattle, is a rare artistic venture into U.S.-Japanese relations as the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor approaches.

Its theme reflects the widespread belief here that if Americans understood the efforts of Japanese farmers to preserve their traditional lifestyle, they might stop demanding that Japan lift its protective ban on imported rice. The play also expresses deep sympathy for similar problems of American farmers.

Washington wants Japan to lift the ban on rice imports to help counter a perennial trade imbalance. Japanese farmers argue that their tiny plots, averaging less than two acres per family, cannot compete with large U.S. growers.

Rice would account for less than 5 percent of trade between the countries if the market was opened, but is a symbol of the frustration Americans face in trying to penetrate other Japanese markets.

The musical is about Kenichi Suzuki, a young Japanese rice farmer who goes to Louisiana on an exchange visit and falls in love with Alicia Thibodeaux, spunky daughter of his Cajun host family.

Her father is unimpressed by the visitor, who kicks up his heels in new- found freedom and evinces no enthusiasm for farming.

Suzuki’s family arrives and the men start trading jibes about the rice ban and other issues: auto workers, Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. When a storm blows up, however, they put aside their differences and rush to harvest the rice.

In the second act, roles are reversed as the Cajuns visit the Suzukis in the terraced mountains of northern Japan.

The musical ultimately focuses on the love of family and the land shared by all farmers. The families discover they are in the same struggle to keep their land in an age of declining profits and waning government support.

For both, farming is ″a labor of love.″

Touring Japan, staying in traditional inns and performing in Japanese has been a series of shocks and similarities for the nine American performers.

Learning her Japanese lines in less than a month was ″the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do ... but it’s very, very rewarding,″ said Kristie Sanders of Seattle. ″The people here give and give and give. Their attitude is great.″

″We can’t communicate too much, but we say a lot with smiles,″ said Patrick Ryan Sullivan of Titusville, Fla.

Japanese cast members went from door to door, drumming up audiences in towns that hadn’t seen a live theatrical performance in more than 10 years. The Japanese were impressed when the Americans stayed late after a performance to help pack up the set.

Theatrical affection oozed from the Americans. The Japanese actors gradually discarded their stiff formality and started hugging back.

″We were surprised when they hugged us,″ said Kinji Oyamada, who plays Kenichi, ″but now we’ve grown used to it.

After the two companies, Furusato (Hometown) Caravan and One Reel of Seattle, agreed on the joint project two years ago, they planned to concentrate on the differences between the families. Visits to both countries yielded the opposite conclusion.

″The feelings were the same on both sides,″ said Katsuhiko Ishizuka, the co-director. ″Instead of differences, I found similarities. When problems arise, like in this musical, it’s because of differences of personality, not culture.″

Ishizuka says he has no illusions about easing grass-roots anger over trade issues.

Reports of 50,000 farmers in Tokyo demonstrating against opening the rice market raised fears among the U.S. cast that they would receive a hostile reception.

Oyamada said, however: ″The applause for the American cast was bigger than for us.″

After the tour of Japan, the cast will adapt the musical for U.S. audiences.

The U.S. tour begins Aug. 30 at Bumbershoot, the Seattle Arts Festival, and includes Pullman, Wash.; San Francisco; Iowa City, Stuttgart and Little Rock, Ark., Houston, and Lafayette and Crowley, Louisiana, where signs along the highway read: ″Don’t buy Japanese cars. They don’t buy rice from us.″

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