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Supporting Japan-related programs in European Capitals of Culture

HOME > Column > Secretariat Report “The Past 20 Years, the Coming 20 Years”

[Vol.56] Secretariat Report “The Past 20 Years, the Coming 20 Years”

On the occasion of concluding all the programs of the 20th EU-Japan Fest (Jan. 2012 - Mar. 2013),
Secretary General Mr. Shuji Kogi wrote an essay.

Shuji Kogi

Secretary General

Introduction

A passing thought one quiet dawn. How many days have we left to live? Tens of thousands? Thousands? Only hundreds? Could it be they are counted in tens? All we know for certain is that for no one is it forever. The young face old age, and the old death. It is in no way pointless to think about how we will live out the days remaining to us — no, the days allotted us. The longevity that medical advances and a world at peace have made possible surely has some greater significance than merely putting off the time of our death.
However much globalization may progress, economies develop and material wealth we acquire, they do not forthwith remove the anguish human beings endure or bring spiritual riches. Even so do we find ourselves day after day amongst the tension of such chasing emotions as love, hatred, joy, sadness, anguish, thrill, jealousy, envy, despair and hope.
Somewhere deep within human beings the primordial question “What is man?” is constantly bred and rumbles on like a basso continuo throughout our lives. Keeping pace with this question are culture and the arts. Looking back over our work of the past 20 years, I am confident that even when culture and the arts have been helpless, never have they been powerless.

 

The historical effort of European integration

Both world wars that broke out in the 20th century had their origins in Europe, and both engulfed the entire world in their fires. Heeding the priceless lesson left our species by history’s greatest horrors, the political leaders of Europe set out on a long road towards the goal of “one Europe”. This exercise of unparalleled grandeur in human history is at last coming to fruition. In the 1990s the drive towards European integration that had been coming to a head since the aftermath of the second world war entered a momentous stage. And in 1993 the European Union appeared with twelve member states. The 20th century had been reckoned one of war, but at its end there appeared on the continent a vast zone of peace.

 

Birth of the European Capitals of Culture

European integration was a historical revolution that transcended the nation state. Of course, it required each country to yield much of its national sovereignty. One result was to bring into sharp relief under the EU flag much contradiction and strife. An example is the question of culture. Facing a new set of circumstances, on the one hand the foundations of traditional culture were about to crumble, but in a return to fundamentals and roots a remarkable energy emerged to create an original culture. To demolish culture, to preserve it, to create it. These different processes had been reckoned in sharp opposition to each other. However, each of these processes needed the others. It was at the same time essential for Europe to preserve its diversity of cultures.
The establishment of the European Capitals of Culture came in 1985. Rotating among the member countries of the EU, the objective was to develop creative activities and a dialog about culture and the arts. This was not inter-state propaganda. The aim was an extremely human one: for individual citizens, through culture and the arts, to engage with what it is to live, to enjoy this dialog and to build solidarity. The first European Capital of Culture was Athens, Greece. Tracing the origins of European civilization, no country raised an objection to this decision. Then in 1986 it was Florence, and others have since followed.
What sets the European Capital of Culture apart is its character as a project in culture and the arts in which the host region takes the leading role. The EU specifies an institutional framework and provides financial support together with the host country’s government, but has no authority with respect to what goes on. It is in the end the executive committee of the host city that spearheads the work, takes full responsibility and undertakes preparations with due weight attached to the regard of individual citizens. Worth noting are the penchant for high, world-class quality and the aim of, rather than popularizing culture and the arts, acculturating the people.

 

New developments in globalization

Along with the new freedom of movement of people, goods and capital within the EU after European integration in 1993, there was also a big change in how people conceived of the national borders of the member countries. Belgium, for example. The old national borders with France to the south, Germany and Luxembourg to the west, and the Netherlands to the north were no more; the new border was between the twelve member countries and the non-EU, and Belgians found a new boundary drawn well away from the country they lived in. This required of them a new European identity as well as a Belgian one.
With this new concept of “one Europe”, European Capitals of Culture began calling on countries outside the EU and around the world to participate. The globalization of their activities accelerated, and Japan would be an essential part of this development. In this new era of growing cultural exchange and collaborations in wide-ranging disciplines on a global scale, it is no mistake but that the concept and role of “international exchange” reached a turning point, a departure from its former grounding in festivals of this country and that.

 

 

Hailing Japan amidst “trade friction”

Post-war Japan sustained an astounding record of long-term economic growth and by the end of the 1980s had achieved economic power status. To the moribund European economies, “Made in Japan” sweeping the markets appeared a fearful portent; the growth of trade friction became a political issue, and a dark shadow fell over Euro-Japanese relations. “Economic animal” was the expression used to deride Japanese at the time and it appeared frequently in the Western press. On the one hand French premier Edith Cresson quite openly declared Japan “the common enemy” of Europe and America, and on the other more than a few prominent Japanese would crow, against the background of the country’s economic might, “We have nothing more to learn from the West.” “Strong and bitter words indicate a weak cause,” noted Victor Hugo, and nothing could be more apt. Having lost their level heads, Europe and Japan went on trading emotional barbs. “Trade friction”, however, was never more than an economic issue. The real issue lay deeper in the troubled background. It was clear that what was conspicuously missing from Euro-Japanese relations of the day was the human dimension of mutual understanding and respect.
This was the situation in 1992 when Belgian deputy prime minister and foreign minister Willy Claes visited Japan and made a request to Japanese foreign minister Michio Watanabe for assistance with European Capital of Culture Antwerp the following year. This call should have been recognized as an important opening, and not only in the sense of an opportunity to revisit Euro-Japanese relations, then at their lowest point since the war, and so it was unfortunate that the Japanese government failed to respond promptly.
It was Belgian ambassador to Japan Patrick Nothomb, deeply familiar with Japanese culture, who looked with distress on this state of affairs. Unwilling to let the opportunity pass, he acted swiftly. At his urging, Seiya Matsumoto, president of Pioneer Corp. and chairman of the Japan-Belgium Society, and other figures from the Japanese business and cultural worlds acted together to form the EU-Japan Fest Japan Committee to provide logistical support for activities at the European Capital of Culture.

 

 

EU-Japan Fest: Its beginnings in Antwerp

For several years prior to 1993 the executive committee for European Capital of Culture Antwerp, where the first EU-Japan Fest was held, conducted meticulous preparations for their program that included several rounds of research and talks in Japan. The committee sought to build into the program durable activities that would develop beyond 1993. “As European Capital of Culture, we wanted to reach beyond continental boundaries,” said committee chairman Eric Antonis, and European integration dramatically transformed the position of these activities with a new tack towards enlargement and deepening in the context of globalization. In his keynote at a commemorative symposium titled “East-West Culture and Common Values”, former Belgian premier Mark Eyskens examined the record and laid bare the dangers in Euro-Japanese relations: “Whereas Japan has been actively receptive to Western culture since the Meiji era, the West has remained indifferent to Japanese culture and ignorant of it.” His remarks included also a sharp rebuke to the Japan-led “international exchange” of the Bubble era as transient and one-sided, and a heated debate followed on the questions, “What is true exchange, and what do Japan and Europe aim for?”

 

From Lisbon 1994 to Weimar 1999

“There is no such thing as patriotic learning or culture. Each belongs to the world, each constitutes past heritage that receives the stimulus of the present to grow towards the future”
— Goethe

 

Goethe championed the “universality of culture” and his words still resonate, even two centuries later. EU-Japan Fest would show up again at subsequent European Capitals of Culture: Lisbon, Portugal (1994), Luxembourg (1995), Copenhagen, Denmark (1996), Thessaloniki, Greece (1997), Stockholm, Sweden (1998) and Weimar, Germany (1999). The enthusiasm of the host cities for sharing with countries throughout the world the values of culture without national borders extended as well to the traditional culture of Japan. Let me give a few examples. Lisbon featured a joint performance by Gregorian chant and Shingon sect Buddhist chant choirs that proved a sensation of “music of the soul crossing oceans”. When kabuki played in Stockholm, it was positioned not as the traditional culture of Japan or culture peculiar to Japan, but as one of “the leading performing arts of the world”. Here was an attitude not seen before in international exchange. The receptivity to kabuki, seen in the seven public lectures and the production of a special program for Swedish national television, in advance of the performances transcended the dimension of international exchange and made for a program with depth.
European Capitals of Culture keenly tracked gifted young Japanese artists in such fields as the fine arts, performing arts, design, photography and architecture. Dancer Saburo Teshigawara (Copenhagen 1996) and architect Kazuyo Sejima (Stockholm 1998) were among the many outstanding talents thrown into the limelight at European Capitals of Culture who parlayed that success into activity on a global stage. What was asked of them was not their nationality, but the quality of their work.

 

European Capitals of Culture grow to eight cities in 2000

Eight cities were designated European Capitals of Culture in 2000, of which Brussels, Avignon and Santiago de Compostela hosted the 8th EU-Japan Fest. Brussels, where immigrants comprise a majority of the population, organized a Zinneke Parade featuring new creative work based on the traditional cultures of the nations of the world, not least Japan. This exercise in the “creation of new traditions” by 3,000 artists provided an important stimulus to how culture would work in the 21st century. La Beauté in Avignon was an art exhibition mobilized by the collective effort of France. In conjunction with it, famed city of silk Lyon implemented a grand project featuring in every part of the city the performing arts of countries along the old Silk Road that traversed the Eurasian continent. Invited from Japan were kabuki led by Nakamura Kankuro, dancers Saburo Teshigawara and Kim Itoh, and the traditional Iwate dance Kurokawa Sansa. The French imagination, taking in the whole of the world, and energy in execution were prodigious.
Other European Capitals of Culture that year included cities in non-member countries: Krakow, Poland; Prague, Czech Republic; Bergen, Norway; and Reykjavík, Iceland. In this millennium year combining the first year of the new millennium with the Christian celebration of the Great Jubilee, however, they were overshadowed by the tumult of these celebrations around the world. Harsh criticism followed that the original sense of the European Capitals of Culture went unreflected in their activity, and a subsequent rethink of how they should work led to numerous reforms in the European Capitals of Culture.

 

From Porto 2001 to Liverpool 2008

European integration accelerated in the 21st century. With ten new members in central and eastern European in 2004 and the addition of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, membership in the EU grew to 27 countries.
The European Capitals of Culture during this period were in 2001 Porto, Portugal, and Rotterdam, the Netherlands; in 2002 Bruges, Belgium; in 2003 Graz, Austria; in 2004 Genoa, Italy, and Lille, France; in 2005 Cork, Ireland; in 2006 Patras, Greece; in 2007 Sibiu, Romania, and Luxembourg; and in 2008, Liverpool, UK, and Stavanger, Norway.
During this time the EU-Japan Fest program also experienced a broadening and deepening with each year. Although fragmentary, a few examples follow.
One example of the European Capitals of Culture showcasing unique regional cultures from around the world is Porto featuring Ryukyu kumiodori in 2001, this being a traditional performing art dating from the Ryukyuan dynastic period in what is now Okinawa. At the time there were few opportunities to present kumiodori even in Japan, but the National Theatre Okinawa specializing in kumiodori was completed in 2004, and Noho Miyagi and Kishun Nishie, who both appeared in Porto, were designated living national treasures in 2009 and 2011, respectively. One may say that at the very least the acclaim they won overseas boosted their careers back home.
Japanese architects too have frequently been commissioned important work by European Capitals of Culture. Selected in a competition among architects from throughout the world, Toyo Ito contributed a novel and ambitious pavilion in the historic old town of Bruges in 2002 on the theme of “coexistence of tradition with the future”. Taking up the challenge of redevelopment in a derelict urban section of Liverpool, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima of Atelier Bow-Wow in 2008 created an outdoor theater to serve as public space. Both works grew out of observation and deep consideration of fundamental local character.
Photographers from European Capitals of Culture have continuously taken part in the “European Eyes on Japan” project to photograph each of Japan’s prefectures. And in 2005 thirteen Japanese photographers undertook the photography of the 25 member countries of the EU. Each of these efforts to enter the lives of local communities in Japan and Europe and highlight the vibrant lives of their members contributed to bringing them closer together.

 

From Vilnius & Linz 2009 to Maribor & Guimarães 2012

The four years beginning in 2009 saw one event after another that caused grave damage to the world economy. In 2009 there were as yet no signs of any relief from the global recession that first arose in America with the Lehman shock the previous year. The following year the confusion touched off by the fiscal crisis in Greece shook the entire euro zone and prompted concerns about its effect on the global economy.
In the face of these global headwinds, much was expected of two Baltic cities hosting the European Capital of Culture, Vilnius, Lithuania in 2009 and Tallinn, Estonia in 2011. This was due to the record in these countries of the people using the power of music to seize victory. It happened in August 1989 during the Cold War. People demanding freedom and independence lined the roads from Tallinn to Vilnius. Numbering 2,200,000, they covered a distance of 600 kilometers. The iron will they demonstrated as they sang their folk songs led to the collapse of Soviet domination. This was the “singing revolution” that will go down in history.
Man cannot live on bread alone, they say. Economic adversity presents people with many trials. It is at just such times that questions are raised about the true value of culture and the arts, which sustain people spiritually. In Vilnius over 15,000 people expressed their daily thoughts and experiences in haiku. In Linz 2009, in Austria, against the background of 30 years of digital art, Ars Electronica built a new base of operations and involved many Japanese artists.
A major pillar of the European Capitals of Culture has been the attention paid to youth, not least the International Music Festival for Youth, which was held at Pécs 2010 in Hungary, at Turku 2011 in Finland, at Maribor 2012 in Slovenia and at Guimarães 2012 in Portugal. The festival gathers choirs from Japan and other countries and, through homestays and other programs, has deepened exchange beyond music. We are confident that the bonds developed there will prove a valuable asset in the future to be shared by all these young people.
Artists from many European countries responded with support to the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011 that was a heavy blow to all the world. In doing so they proved that the solidarity in art fashioned over many years was as well a solidarity among fellow human beings.

 

In conclusion

The EU has expanded from just 12 member countries in 1993 to 27 today. While the EU faces many challenges and has not rid itself of pessimistic forecasts for its future, one fails to find any disagreement with the view that there is no turning back from the history of European integration. The world after all now shares a common destiny.
These 20 years EU-Japan Fest has been held in 30 European Capital of Culture cities in 22 countries. Each year it is an opportunity for Japanese and European artists to come and go with greater frequency, and their total number over these 20 years is in excess of 27,000. More than a few have gone on to pursue global careers. In some cases experience in a European Capital of Culture has led to the development of strongly rooted activities in locations around Japan.
In this era of globalization, what is asked of artists is neither their nationality nor the color of their skin. It is the quality of their work. Art that moves the soul has no borders. And never has it been more important to preserve the diversity of culture. Thinking back to the origins of our species, we realize that while all of us come from the same line, a multitude of languages and cultures has emerged over many, many years among our various regions and peoples. We are not permitted the choice of an hermetic nationalism or an abstract, rootless cosmopolitanism.
Whether our future is one of prosperity or adversity, we must hope that art will be there to illuminate our lives. What then can adults today be doing, what should we be doing for the young people who will follow us? The small things are a fine place to start. The young ones will have a moment when their aspirations for art change into goals. If adults are able to heed the sensibilities of the young ones and provide their work in the arts with due support and discipline, no mistake but that our future will be one worthy or humanity. For my part, I will etch this in my heart and work on one action and then another over and again into the coming 20 years.

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