Why “Fiddler on the Roof” Has Been a Hit in Japan For Over 50 Years

In 2018, Tokyo’s Nissay theater marked the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Fiddler on the Roof, the theater’s most popular American musical. Japan is a country that lacks not only a significant Jewish history, but also a broader history of immigration in general that might make the story relevant to those with a similar experience. There’s no “old country” for most Japanese people to be nostalgic for, no sepia-toned photos of a lost world across the ocean. So, why does the musical have such a significant appeal to the Japanese? The answer lies, in part, not in the language or the religion, but in the sense of tradition. It’s about father-daughter relationships, and that resonates with the Japanese. In Japan, young women had to follow what their fathers said, especially when it came to arranged marriages. So, the story of a Jewish father losing power in the family life and young women beginning to make their own decisions resonates with the Japanese. The play opens with a song celebrating tradition, but the bulk of the show is about the difficulty of maintaining those traditions. Then, it ends with the family — filled with a mix of hope and fear — taking off for a whole new world, where the old rules don’t apply and the new rules aren’t yet clear. So, perhaps Fiddler on the Roof resonates in Tokyo because while they stay put in their country, the new world has come to them in the form of modernization and westernization, upsetting much of their tradition.