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Supporting Japan-related programs in European Capitals of Culture

HOME > Column > Looking Back: The 15th Year of EU-Japan Fest

[Vol.24] Looking Back: The 15th Year of EU-Japan Fest

On the occasion of finishing all programs of 15th EU-Japan Fest (Jan. 2007 - Mar. 2008), Secretary General Mr. Shuji Kogi wrote an essay about overall our activities.

Shuji Kogi

Secretary General of EU-Japan Fest Japan Committee

Introduction

The world is undergoing violent change.
Pursuant to advances in globalization, problems of a global scale – problems which cannot be resolved by any one country – emerge one after another. Modern society has grown increasingly complex and while one can look down upon the world from a macro perspective, it has become exceedingly difficult to conjecture what is happening at a micro level. In this age, we are solely interested in everyday problems in the areas of economics, safety, health, the environment and the like, and the top news of the day causes us to fluctuate between hope and despair. Meanwhile, our desires are limitless, and we know not how to be satisfied. Therefore, no matter how long we wait, the day when our problems are completely solved will never come.
On the other hand, regardless of whether we are fortunate or not, regardless of whether we are rich or poor, the duration of our lives is limited. We all share in the same solemn fate. We have been born into this world and, in due course, we will leave it. Though we may appear subdued, the fundamental question of what kind of life we want to live is at the heart of who we are, and we are forever sending out a weak signal.
Fifteen years have passed since this committee was founded. If I were to express briefly what it is that we have worked to attain, I would say that, acting in concert with and response to this weak signal, we have supported artistic activities that encourage each and every one of us to think about, examine, and discuss what it means to be alive. It is difficult to really know how much progress we have made. Time and again we have been discouraged to find that after a long climb we are still at the foot of the mountain.
Below, I would like to share my thoughts regarding various matters I have encountered in the field.

What is Poverty?

After World War II, surrounded by mountains of rubble, the first building the people of Vienna wanted to rebuild was the opera house. When we compare this history with the road Japan has followed after the war, we are truly given a lot to think about.
In the postwar years, Japan accomplished a miraculous recovery, and without mistake is still an economic giant. However, in the shadow of our prosperity, nearly 100 people commit suicide every day. In schools and private homes a moral and spiritual poverty leads to countless incidences of bullying and acts of cruelty. In our pursuit of material abundance, what have we lost sight of? What have we left behind? What really is poverty? Perhaps the time has come for us to ask these questions anew.

Regarding the Relationship between Money and Art

Looking at activities in the arts, we can divide them into two distinct groups, those that overflow with energy and those that lack it. This is a rather rough division, one that does not take into account a project’s internal aspects or its essence. Knowing that this classification is superficial, I will venture to touch upon it here.
Certainly money makes us happy, and projects related to the arts are no exception. Activities blessed with bountiful funds, projects with a secure supply of capital (though certainly a rarity), appear to brim with energy. But there are times when I question whether this energy is coming from the art itself. This is because I have seen cases where projects lose their momentum at the very moment when government and corporate funding are discontinued.
A lack of funding takes our energy from us. This is true for artists as well. The system for applying for public grants is exceedingly complex, and many applicants are swamped in their effort to accommodate government provisions. The government has considerable powers with regard to the granting of subsidies. However, while government officials are rigorous in their demand for perfection in the completion of grant application forms, few are able to comprehend the quality of art itself. Accordingly, without the skills to measure art on their own, they often make their decisions using a borrowed measuring stick, looking to a project’s renown, its history as a recipient of awards and the like.
Recently, various seminars are being held with regard to the procurement of funding for art activities. When the subject is “How to write a good proposal,” or “How to approach corporate managers responsible for the funding of art and culture,” the hall where the seminar is being held is always full. I have attended a number of these seminars and I am always surprised by the enthusiasm in the room. But something is missing. I am reminded of employment seminars. The more celebrated the company, the more popular the seminar. These seminars focus on the individual employer rather than taking a serious look at the actual profession in question, and it is for this reason that “how to” books like “Mastering Interviews” are particularly valued. But such seminars fail to ask the more substantive questions. Is it not true that the consideration of fundamental matters such as “What is art?” and “What is a profession?” are lacking?
With regard to artistic endeavors, a truly large number of people lament a shortage of funds. In this context, artists like Takashi Murakami, who sees himself as an entrepreneur, have a certain freshness, a certain novelty about them. I have no contention with an artist getting rich after receiving warranted acclaim. But this is because there is something present in art that cannot be found or expressed in economic terms. Art commands a bird’s-eye view of society and of an era, and is capable of confronting that which it sees. In this way art is deeply concerned with all manner of values and viewpoints, and addresses the contradictions, anger, joy, and salvation that are to be found in society. Generally speaking, artists require no more money than is necessary because, for them is it not true that the joy of creation exceeds any material sufficiency?
In the final analysis, an abundance of passion and high quality are indispensable to art. So, before we lament a dearth of funds, should we not look to our own lack of passion?

Art as a Means of Community Vitalization?

In places where art flourishes, it lends a certain appeal to the community. As a result, the number of tourists grows, leading to a vitalization of the local economy as well. One example of this is France where, in keeping with the will of the people, the government has long supported the culture of the arts. This was made a part of state policy and, over time, France has become a cultural nation, a role much coveted by the rest of the world. This is manifested in the arrival of more than 80 million tourists a year, the largest number of people to visit any country in the world. This cultural strategy has made a large and steady contribution to the French economy. France’s consumption tax is 19.6%, meaning that the tax revenues derived from money spent by visitors from abroad reaches colossal proportions. But, in France’s case, the promotion of art was not intended as a means to achieve economic ends. This was merely the outcome.
Recently, as Japanese municipalities face tightening financial conditions and increasing depopulation, the residents of regional cities have begun to call for the revival of local society. As a part of this effort, I often hear of projects in which art is being used as a means of local stimulation. While this appears novel at a glance, I am left with a feeling of discomfort. By nature, art is concerned with people’s inner riches and spiritual values. It cannot be assigned a numerical value, and it is generally not compatible with commercialism. Meanwhile, “community vitalization” pivots around the anticipation of economic vitalization. It is interested in whether or not a profit can be made, and is not of a character that can readily be linked to the spiritual culture of art.
Just as human relations born solely out of the promotion of one’s own interests cannot be expected to grow deep, as long as art is supposed to have an economically vitalizing effect, it will not be genuine. Only when art takes the time to become a part of local life, and becomes rooted in it, can it then be linked to and lead to local activation. If we hurry to attain results, we will not find them. I often hear people lamenting depopulation. But I fail to see population density as a particularly rosy alternative. There is a need to return to where we began and think more about the true meaning of and potential for community vitalization through art.

The Human Resource Development Illusion

When conditions can no longer be improved by the power of money and material things, then there is talk of developing human resources, of cultivating talented and motivated individuals. Certainly solutions to most of the world’s problems rest on our shoulders. But, in these times of distress, who will take up the lead in developing these human resources? On all sides one hears talk of cultivating individuals as the first step in local regeneration. This appears as a standard item in the pledges candidates make when they run for mayor in Japan’s regional cities and towns, but strong-willed and highly pro-active individuals are needed to address and accomplish the exceedingly rigid reconstruction that is required. I repeat myself when I ask the simple question, who will take up the lead in developing these human resources, in cultivating these individuals? In government administration, where the title “public servant” is becoming obsolete, it is exceedingly difficult to hope for the existence of someone who will take on this leadership role. And a mere rearrangement of the chairs on the deck of the Titanic will not keep it from sinking. Mayors’ talk of developing human resources is nothing more than a putting off of the problems at hand and a substitution of one problem for another. It is nothing more than a grand illusion.
So what means is there as an alternative to the development of human resources? There is no alternative but to unearth these individuals. Through the work of this committee, we have had the opportunity to meet a large number of wonderful people. One among them is Satoh Kentaro, a sculpture who returned to his birthplace in Niigata Prefecture several years ago and began to create a sort of Shangri-la called “The Cosmo Dream Stage.” Without relying on government aid, but with the help of friends from the area and from around the country, he built an art museum and a hall where people could gather. He also initiated the exhibiting of local art and countless other community activities.
There is also a local group called the “Yacchiku Matsuyama Domain” in the Matsuyama Township, in Shibushi City, Kagoshima Prefecture. Established twenty years ago, year after year this community enterprise “discusses its dreams and makes them come true.” In the annual “Fall Battle” festival, a spectacular castle is built in one night, and the town bustles as its population increases ten-fold. The members who comprise this local group are truly colorful, and a wide variety of people from the township participate without regard to social position. For the past several years they have welcomed music groups from within Japan and from overseas as well, and the “Youth Music Festival” has evolved out of this. Unadorned, unaffected, they welcome European music groups into their lives and enjoy these activities with great spontaneity.
These are but a few examples of those we have met in our work. It is truly heartening to encounter their independence. In this respect, they share something in common with the way in which Fukuzawa Yukichi lived his life, “supporting his country rather than relying upon it.”
One more of our committee’s activities is “European Eyes on Japan,” a project wherein active European photographers take photographs of modern Japan. This project has been underway for nine years now and thirty of Japan’s forty-seven prefectures have been photographed. When these European photographers visit Japan, the works that have sprung from their divergent perspectives have been the source of surprise and discovery for the local people as they go about their daily lives.
Essay contests are also held in connection with the exhibition of the photographs taken. Local residents are encouraged to write about individual photographs and truly deep and compelling essays have been submitted as a result. Probing into the circumstances to be found in common scenes from daily life, not a few of these essays have had the power to move our souls. And therein we catch a glimpse of a soaring spirituality that differs from Japan’s culture of ranking everything. So, before advocating “the development of human resources,” encounters with the uncut diamonds that lie scattered throughout Japan must come first.

Conclusion

The programs supported by this committee as a part of the activities of the 15th EU-Japan Fest, were implemented in Europe, Japan and throughout Asia, and numbered some 550 in all. Some among them are neither particularly noteworthy nor would they receive high praise. But most of these projects are evolving towards the goal of independence. Our committee supports these activities with the help of donations from private corporations. The funding from these corporations is like water poured on a wasteland, sprinkled on seeds buried in the soil. Sprouts appear, they become seedlings and grow into trees. And I hope from the bottom of my heart that one day, under their own power, they will evolve into a vast forest.
I hope too that I will continue to have the opportunity to meet passionate, talented and strong-willed seeds. In the meantime, in the belief that this wasteland will become fertile and forested some day, we will continue to pour water on it. Perhaps in the very fecundity that emerges in this natural environment we will find the spiritual riches that our modern society lacks.

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