Lost in translation – Lukas Perman facing intercultural challenges in Japan

Lukas Perman Flyer

MS: Lukas, you are one of the first European performers who had the pleasure to perform in a Japanese musical theatre production. What were your greatest challenges?

Lukas Perman: As you already mentioned I had the pleasure to be part of an all Japanese production of the “Phantom of the opera”. It was a very exciting experience even though I sometimes felt very much like the characters in “Lost in Translation”. Obviously, prior to the engagement I started preparing myself by learning the language, which was a big challenge, since Japanese is totally different in its structure from all the romance languages. But this approach was very interesting to me and allowed me to get some insight on their mindset already beforehand. I obviously tried to start conversations by initiating small talks and so forth. But learning a language takes time. Our language is anyway only a small part of our communication. I find it more important to take on some specific forms of behavior, which Japanese people use during conversations. As a European you always carry with you some kind of “protection”. The protection of your looks which always set you clearly apart from the locals and justifies some of your odd behavior. But after some time they also expect you, to take on some of their cultural values and habits, like for example some rituals of courtesy. In Japanese culture these are very important. You can find them a lot within the language as well. There are many different layers of courtesy depending on rank, hierarchy and gender. A translator and friend of mine once told me, that he would never be able to speak to the emperor because he doesn’t know all the forms of courtesy which are required when speaking with nobility.

MS: If I understand you correctly, you noticed most of all, that hierarchies in Japan are way more important than in Austrian culture. If you take a look at your own culture, how would you describe it?

LP: We in Austria have a very open society influenced by humanism and the enlightenment. But I also have to say, that Austria is heavily influenced by the Catholic church. The Christian belief system, predominantly among the people living in the country side, brings a very devout behavior and mindset along, to put it in a provocative way. Among the people living in the more urban areas I don’t see this as much. The youth here is very progressive and stands up for their rights and for democracy.

MS: Taking a look at Japan once more, you spent about two years there. What made this experience special for you?

LP: I was able to experience some inner peace in Japan. Not knowing and understanding the language in the beginning; not to understand the body language of the people and everything that came with it; in the microcosm of the theater world for example there can be a lot of gossip. And exactly all of this gossip I wasn’t able to understand, which felt very peaceful in itself. I couldn’t understand the news and so I had a lot of time to focus on myself, lots of energy just for myself and I experienced this as very peaceful. The most important thing regarding social interaction was for me to value and to respect each other. I spent a lot of time with my Japanese colleges after rehearsals and after the shows to do stuff together. It really was this appreciation and respect for each others differences which helped me to build up trusting relationships.

MS: The theater industry obviously has its own subculture and I remember it from when I worked as a performer on stage in different productions, how culturally diverse the teams were. Where can you see the most conflicts among colleagues from different cultural backgrounds when working in musical theater productions in Austria?

LP: The big issue is usually that everyone has their opinion how things should be done. Even if you are very disciplined, you will always enter a new production with some kind of expectations. You are insecure, since you are stepping on new grounds where you are bringing your whole self into the game. The biggest challenge in my eyes is to value
that which everyone brings to the table as creative input and contribution. In the musical theatre production of Romeo and Juliet we had about 30 performers on stage, from 15 different nationalities. Everyone has his own cultural background and on top of that his own personal story, which he carries along. To be able to see this as diversity and positive contribution is a big challenge. And looking at the world right now, this topic is more important than ever.

MS: Do you see this effort of opening up as a challenge or is this something that you practiced enough, so it became second nature to you?

LP: It is still a challenge, because you are getting comfortable. You want to stay safe and in your comfort zone. But I also have to admit that once in a while I got myself into a tricky situation. Once, on a concert tour through Japan, I insulted our guitarist which was totally embarrassing to me and which I didn’t mean and had not seen coming. I was the only European on the tour and I had a very good translator along. The guitarist had something very European about himself. I was convinced that he had spent some time abroad, that he understands my body language and I had a trusting relationship with him. I thought he was an excellent musician and let him know about that on multiple occasions. Once during a rehearsal he made a mistake. With a simple gesture I wanted to make a joke about this, believing he would understand the irony in it. In the very same moment he didn’t seem to register it all. When we went on a break he came towards me and started yelling, which is very strange for Japanese. My translator really had a hard time keeping up with translating. He felt completely insulted, and couldn’t understand how I could have done this to him in front of the whole band. For me this would have been more a sign of trust and confidence, but for him it was totally the opposite. This is for me a classical example of intercultural misunderstanding.

MS: How did you react in the situation?

LP: I was totally shocked, I apologized and tried to tell him how much I value him as a musician. I think this helped him understand that it had to do with a communication problem. At the end of the tour I gave him a nice good bye present. I was really embarrassed by it. I think we both learned something from this situation. And on top of that I also had the feeling that we were able to create again a great feeling within the group and to have a great concert.

MS: Dear Lukas, thank you so much for your time. I wish you much success and many fun projects.