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Supporting Japan-related programs in European Capitals of Culture

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[Vol.52] Secretariat Report

On the occasion of finishing all programs of 19th EU-Japan Fest (Jan. 2011 - Mar. 2012), Secretary General Mr. Shuji Kogi wrote an essay.

Shuji Kogi

Secretary-General

Introduction

The Great East Japan Earthquake. It’s now one year on from that day.
It seems so long ago, and yet it feels like just yesterday. The strong shaking we felt in Tokyo was beyond doubt the most violent this writer has ever experienced. Soon a giant tsunami, one beyond our imaginations, bore down on the entire coast of Tohoku, and a crisis of a gravity unprecedented in human history began to unfold. Before long we were dumbstruck by the shocking images arriving from the disaster zone in quick succession. Swept up in the wave, hundreds and thousands of cars, homes and even ships were tossed about like so many matchboxes thrown into a giant mudflow. The spectacle was a silent one as it developed. One could only look on in a stupor at what seemed like scenes from hell. Many lives were lost in the area mercilessly ravaged by the awful menace of Nature, and those left were dropped into an abyss of despair.
By mischievous coincidence, the previous day, March 10, had been the 66th anniversary of the firebombing of Tokyo. The innumerable incendiary devices dropped on Tokyo that day burned down the greater part of the built-up area. The number of dead in that single night exceeded 100,000. Standing amidst the wretched spectacle of this devastation, an officer of the occupation forces is said to have muttered to himself, “It’ll be 200 years before they build this back up.”
Tokyo reduced to scorched earth 66 years ago, the seacoast of Tohoku smashed by tsunami in 2011. The two traumas were overlaid in my mind. Whether the devastation of war or of natural disaster, how powerless we are before them.

 

Ganbare Tohoku!! set off with a single phone call

 

Tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed.
-Romans 5:3-5

 

The world was astonished at how most people in the disaster zone maintained their composure and confronted adversity with resolution. One year on, the grim fact is that most people remain in difficulty. However, Tohoku has gradually moved from a place of despair to one of hope, and continues to walk its long road.
In the immediate aftermath of the disasters, self-defence forces together with local police forces and firefighters began their unflagging rescue efforts. However, the damage was so massive and so widespread that one could barely imagine how the efforts would ever link up. The rescue operations needed were of every sort one could think of. Even as the media in no small part fled the scene for personal safety, numbers of volunteers from Japan and overseas passed them on their way out as they headed for the disaster zone. Amidst the confusion and darkness, there seemed a gleam of hope.

We too had many colleagues in the prefectures of Tohoku. In the wake of disaster, communications were in disorder and traffic interrupted, and we had no way of knowing whether they were safe or not. We redialed again and again, but our calls would not go through. Such news as we had only dashed our hopes, and we grew only more restless and forlorn.
After three days my cellphone rang. It was Yumiko Endo from Okuaizu in Fukushima prefecture. I leapt to answer it. Part of me was relieved to hear that she was safe, but I hadn’t a chance to breathe before word came over the phone of how dire the situation was. Aizu had begun taking in evacuees from the Hama-dori region on the Fukushima coast who had barely escaped with their lives. Local people were working all out to deliver relief material to areas cut off by road blockages. The situation was more harrowing, more staggering than we could have known from news reportage.
The action we then took may have been on a small scale, but Endo’s shocking words that “there’s not enough of anything” spurred us to call on volunteers and begin shipments of the relief materials they needed. And it did not take much time at all for our colleagues around the country to join us in this effort. The chain set in motion seemed to signal a series of counterattacks against the disaster from all sides.
Local volunteers in the forefront of the relief effort tracked the situation by keeping in touch and searched for survivors cut off where official relief efforts could not reach, and tracked the situation. We began to receive a series of lists detailing what supplies were urgently needed. From the newborn to the elderly, the list of urgent needs changed day to day. During the weeks it took for the expressways linking Tohoku to re-open to traffic, we moved supplies along a roundabout route through Niigata on the opposite coast from the disaster zone and on to a staging ground in Aizu, Fukushima prefecture, from where they passed in relay to the Pacific coasts of Fukushima and Miyagi as though stitching up segments of the divided roadways. Supplies forwarded from people all over Japan had pasted to them the logo Ganbare Tohoku!!
The log of messages on my cellphone contains a vivid record of these relief operations at work as volunteers worked through the night amid constantly changing circumstances.
“3-ton truck loaded with supplies now heading north on Fukushima Central, heading for Higashi Matsushima in Miyagi.”
“Now arrived Sendai Izumi. Heading next to Rifu by north road.”
“No letting up!”
Even now, the warmth wells up in me whenever I re-read these messages.

These were people we had met not through relief work, but through our work in culture and the arts. But they pulled together and acted exactly as called on by the circumstances facing them. Pausing to think it over again, I wondered just what it was that we were seeking to deliver. We were shipping supplies, of course, but the people sending them, the people hauling them and the people receiving them all had much in common on their minds. Looking back on it, I realized that what those boxes contained was the steadfast resolution of solidarity.

 

Art in adversity

 

Even if God had alloted me the most wretched of lives, I would stand up to that destiny.
-Beethoven

 

Had Beethoven had a smooth path as a court musician, he would never have produced so many symphonies that continue to stir people’s souls. The music he created in hardship and tribulation is even now, even in our own times, a thing of majesty, a source of radiance and light.
By what device do we protect our spirits when we humans are pushed to our limits? What is it that gets us through life? The arts are not necessarily able to play a role straightaway, of course. However, if art is not superficial but rather appeals to the human spirit, and there are people to respond to it, it will bring things about and be capable of achieving something.

Amidst the confusion following the disasters, there was a flurry of phone calls from people with the executive committees of the year’s European Capitals of Culture – Turku, Finland and Tallinn, Estonia. After repeated visits back and forth, they were now old friends to us.
The relationships of trust that we had built up over time overcame differences in circumstance, point of view, opinion and values. Confirming whether we at the secretariat were all right, they spoke with one voice: “Let us go on. Whatever difficulties there are, let us execute the programs planned for this year.” Their strong declaration seemed, amidst the pitch darkness, like a ray of light piercing from the heavens. We gazed into the skies whence this light fell with a feeling like that of prayer.

These two countries on the Baltic Sea each have a history of overcoming difficulty in the form of oppression and domination by a big power. In all ages, the presence of culture and the arts has always suggested to people a future of hope lying beyond the grim present. Sibelius’ symphonic poem “Finlandia” gave the Finnish people immeasurable courage and heart while they suffered anguish and heartbreak under Russian tyranny. In Estonia the half-century-plus of Soviet domination was grievous in the extreme, and during this time the country lost one-third of its population. On the other side of this hardship, they emerged to their “singing revolution”. Hundreds of thousands of Estonians joined hands and planted themselves in the path of tanks while singing in Estonian, the language that had been forbidden to them. With not a drop of blood spilled, they regained their national independence.
Meanwhile, just as we were conducting our dealings with the European Capitals of Culture, in Sendai a choral group started singing again amidst the rubble. It was the Miyagi Sanjo OG Choir. Though the choir itself suffered no loss of life, it goes without saying that its members had relatives, friends and acquaintances who lost their lives in the disasters. It was in these circumstances that the group was quick, as community volunteers, to begin singing at the schools and gymnasiums that were serving as evacuation shelters. What they witnessed here were people lost helplessly in tears and sorrow. Among the choir members and among the evacuees, cries went up spontaneously of “We want to sing!” and “We want you to come sing!” Not long afterwards, just as was asked of them, the choir began to sing again, in shopping districts wrecked and barely passable and making the rounds of evacuation shelters where so many had sought refuge. The “power of song” was by no means impotent. And then things took a new turn. It goes without saying that at the time the group had no reason to expect that half a year later they would be singing in the two European Capitals of Culture.

 

As for the young singers . . .

Whereas recovery is achieved by means of prompt physical support bringing back material and quantitative needs, restoration requires human will and effectiveness in fulfilling spiritual, qualitative needs over the long term. It takes mutual sympathy, aid and support. This was also at the root of the work involved in the Ganbare Tohoku!! project.
The network that we built here in Japan over the course of many years’ involvement in the European Capitals of Culture turned out to be the engine that launched us into action. It started with those supplies needed urgently being forwarded form person to person. However, the material will never be able to satisfy the spiritual. On the contrary, spiritual joy may go some way to make up for material wants. When primary transport networks were at last restored and distribution began to recover in disaster zones, what people needed changed form. Sometimes it was music, sometimes poetry, sometimes dance, and so on. In constant, ongoing discussion with people in local communities, we initiated a variety of programs.
Towards the end of May conductor Aarne Saluveer, president of the Estonian Choral Association, visited Japan. He came even when he barely had time to spare, just prior to the Festival of Song at European Capital of Culture Tallinn, at which he would conduct a chorus of 25,000 before an audience of over 100,000. The intermediary in this case was Hideko Arai of the Japan-Estonia Friendship Association. The personal connections she developed through her own considerable efforts in music exchanges between Japan and Estonia over many years since the 1990s provided a great push here. Flourishing choral activities have long been an intrinsic of Saluveer’s destinations of Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures, and they have long records of music exchanges with the Baltic countries. His visit coincided with the time when local choral groups and schools at last relaunched their activities, and the groups and students that took part in his workshops in various locales were earnest dedication itself. Taking instruction from a world-class choral conductor, they responded with a pervasive, keen alertness. As well as projecting from the lower abdomen with large voices, they were faced with a succession of meticulous demands. Saluveer was a leader of the “singing revolution” of 20 years ago. As the children responded to his firm instruction and their voices gradually grew beautiful and rich, the adults looking on showed expressions of relief.
Four months later at the International Music Festival of Youth held in the two European Capitals of Culture Turku and Tallinn, the Miyagi Sanjo OG Choir, as well as five other choral groups from Tohoku and Kyushu, sang with enthusiasm. “Finlandia” and the Estonian anthem “Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm”, which the Japanese choirs sang full of emotion, are each symbolic of the souls of their respective countries. The local audiences may have been rapt in thoughts of their own histories of hardship overlaid with Japan’s current adversity. The full-hearted jubilation and applause that resounded through the hall afterwards seemed to roil the very earth.

 

 

Solidarity cultivated over two decades

On 28 March 2012, just a few days before the end of our operating year, I had the opportunity to meet with Sandra Kalniete, member of the European Parliament and former foreign minister of Latvia, at EU headquarters in Brussels. Latvia’s capital, Riga, has been designated a 2014 European Capital of Culture. The local organizing committee and Japanese artists are already working with each other, and the Japanese representative to the European Union in Brussels, Ambassador Kojiro Shiojiri, introduced me to her.
Kalniete was that day screening the documentary “Children of the Ice” for her fellow MEPs. The documentary is about people from the three Baltic countries who, after the Second World War, were suspected of involvement in anti-government movements and exiled to distant Siberia during the period of Soviet domination. The people had initially greeted the Soviets enthusiastically as saviors liberating them from the brutal Nazi yoke. However, these hopes were mercilessly dashed in but a moment. The Soviets arrested Baltic nationals in waves on suspicion of harboring anti-government thoughts and sent them to Siberia. The number so exiled was well over 100,000. Kalniete herself was born to her parents in exile in Siberia. Many lost their lives as the exiles struggled daily with starvation and disease in that frozen land. After the screening she spoke to the parliamentarians present. “We must not forget our cruel history. However, we must also not forget that it is precisely because these great hardships fostered our strong will that contemporary Latvia and the Europe we have today exist.”
In the thaw that followed the death of Stalin, Kalniete’s parents succeeded in returning to their homeland of Latvia with their daughter of four-and-a-half years in tow. She later became known for her career as a popular front activist in the forefront of the movement for independence from the Soviet Union. Having herself overcome unimaginable hardship, after the Japanese disasters Kalniete took every opportunity to express solidarity with the people of Tohoku in their adversity and to offer them encouragement. Her efforts led that April to an exhibition of photographs about the Great East Japan Earthquake inside the European Parliament. And that exhibition would include a set of works from a photography project in which nearly 10,000 people, including many Europeans, had taken part. In each of these the subjects held up Ganbare Tohoku!! signs conveying their sympathy to Japan. The effort began with the call going out to our many colleagues involved with Japan at the European Capitals of Culture. I take a secret pride in how the transnational solidarity in culture and the arts that we have built over these 20 years extended even to people who have known these hardships.

 

 

Our goals for solidarity

 

What we wish for in our youth, we find in our old age.
-Goethe

 

The disasters of March 11 were a great misfortune. However, we Japanese must now go forward. Having seen for myself the hardships and development that the people of Europe have experienced and the many varied activities taken up in the disaster zones, what I would like in conclusion to offer as a foothold is the hope that the young people of today hold fast to their dreams.
When Weimar was designated European Capital of Culture in 1999, the 250th anniversary of Goethe’s birth, German President Roman Herzog praised the poet who laid the cornerstone of that city’s incomparable culture and spoke as follows:
“Finally, we need something more than mere political strategies and grand technological objectives. If we earnestly accept what it is that people require of culture and hope for it, our future will be a very human one. To this end, parents and teachers should be sensitive to children’s artistic talents and characteristics, and assist them if necessary. It follows that we should recognize the appropriate standpoints also of art forms that the great majority dismiss out of hand.”
In all times young people have been emotional. It is certain that as they mature they become acutely sensitive to the many contradictions and challenges present in society, and at last they often find their way obstructed by invisible social barriers and end with their dreams and ideals dashed and extinguished.
In all times and places their elders have told the young, “The future is up to your generation.” No doubt those who are young now will say it to the next generation when they have grown old. Meanwhile – and it is something I say in rebuke of myself – whereas we the elders are always sensitive to the shortcomings of youth, we are often dull to their strengths. What sort of future will we hand off to our youth? We need to take interest in what they think and do all we can to open the way to their achievement. The young are always observing the behavior of their elders, however trivial. We have no choice but to show our own mettle and act on our own for the future of our youth.
The future begins not tomorrow, but today.

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