Students from Oxford Spires Academy
Students from Oxford Spires Academy

Schoolchildren act out Japanese folk tales

Schoolchildren from Oxford acted out ancient Japanese stories under guidance from the Creation Theatre last week, in an event organised by Oxford University’s Research Centre for Japanese Language and Linguistics in the Faculty of Oriental Studies.

The 'Old Japanese in Action' outreach event was held at Oxford Spires Academy state secondary school to encourage students in Years Eight, Nine and 10 to engage with some of the oldest Japanese literature, history and culture from the 8th century AD.

Oxford's Professor Bjarke Frellesvig, who organised the event with colleagues in the Faculty of Oriental Studies, gave a talk to introduce the students to ancient Japan and the Japanese language. Katie and Josh from the Creation Theatre then gave a demonstration to students with dramatic performances of Old Japanese poetry and literature.

Students then split into two groups to perform a folktale, the Tale of the fisherman Urashima, and a ritual from the Shinto religion describing 'how to drive away a vengeful deity', The tale of Urashima follows the fisherman as he goes with the daughter of the seagod to live in her palace then returns home to visit his parents, taking with him a casket he is not allowed to open. He does open the casket which makes him age quickly and die.

The Shinto text describes myths surrounding the establishment of the institution of the emperor and his court, and battles between good and evil gods.

'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,' said Professor Frellesvig.

'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 we have worked on for a long time.

'It was very worthwhile for us and the students clearly enjoyed themselves and said afterwards that they had learnt a lot.'

Staff at Oxford Spires Academy said: '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!'

'Old Japanese in Action' was organized to celebrate the success of the five-and-a-half year AHRC-funded project, 'Verb semantics and argument realization in pre-modern Japanese', which is coming to an end this month. The event is also part of 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).