• shareshare
  • shareshare

Supporting Japan-related programs in European Capitals of Culture

HOME > Column > The 22nd EU-Japan Fest Secretariat Report “What Sort of Age Is This That We Live In?”

[Vol.73] The 22nd EU-Japan Fest Secretariat Report “What Sort of Age Is This That We Live In?”

On the occasion of concluding all the programs of the 22nd EU-Japan Fest (Jan. 2014 - Mar. 2015), Secretary General Mr. Shuji Kogi wrote an essay.

Shuji Kogi

Secretary-General

Introduction

Sensing the wave of globalization gradually encroaching, at the end of the last century we were in the grip of a vague anxiety. The imagery was overlaid with Americanization, and we were beset with misgivings that we were headed towards homogenization. The twentieth century was an era of an international society made up of nation states; each people had its own civilization in its own region, into which they were divided. Alarms rang over a “clash of civilizations”.

An anti-globalism movement arose that launched repeated attacks on international bodies, though in recent years this too has subsided. By no means is that to say that their thinking was wrong. However, globalization is not a trend that could be mounted by some set of international bodies and groups. It is like some tectonic movement that mankind is experiencing for the first time ever. We seem therefore to have realized instinctively the pointlessness of resisting the massive tide. It seems rather a human thing to think, in that context, about how to live and to act accordingly.

In the twenty-first century the globalization of markets is proceeding apace and our information networks are spreading on a global scale. As a result, we are plunging into an age in which mankind will for the first time in its history share a world civilization. Our cultures and economies are regulated and protected by the state. Depending on the time and place, however, they may slip past national borders and global activity begins. Just as their country of production is not at issue with industrial products, nor is their nationality at issue with artists. It is quality that we pay attention to.

There are several definitions of “justice”. There is a definition according to the Japanese government, and others according to other governments. Justice may take many paths, depending on who is advocating what objective. “Emotion”, however, has but one definition. It knows no differences in nationality, race or religion. It is something fundamental and human that transcends these and much else.

The European Capitals of Culture that we have been involved with these 23 years are activities involving “emotion” brought forth by human beings. Peoples from throughout the world have migrated to live in the 28 countries of the European Union and as its citizens are now building a new Europe. There are 260 languages in use in Europe that have speakers numbering in the tens of thousands. Japanese is among them.

With a view to European unity, the EU has particularly esteemed cultural diversity. At present those artists taking part in the European Capitals of Culture are of over one hundred different nationalities. The European Capital of Culture too has developed into a global activity.

European Capital of Culture Riga Began with a Human Chain

18 January 2014. An icy morning in Riga. Crowds of the city’s people flocked into the streets. Today it was to take part in the “Human Chain of Book Lovers”, an important event marking the opening of the European Capital of Culture. Latvia has a 500-year history of printing books, which are a treasured legacy in the culture of this country. But what was it that flushed people onto the streets to this event today in a biting cold? This line of people holding hands, the “human chain”, joined the city’s old library to the newly completed national library. At last began the relay of books. Book by book the old library’s collection was passed from hand to hand along a route of tens of thousands lined up over several kilometers and then shelved in the new library. The temperature outdoors was 20 degrees below. Ignoring the freezing cold, the human chain worked on silently. The people taking part wore smiles brimming with pride and peace. What could have been the history that lay behind this? People visiting from around the world were exposed to the ideas of the people of Riga embodied in this action.

The human chain had a history that the people of Riga will not easily forget. The time was in the last days of the Cold War, on 23 August 1989. On this day the re-independence movement facing up to the long, cruel Soviet regime of occupation formed a human chain of some 220,000 determined people stretching 600 kilometers from Tallinn in Estonia through Riga in Latvia to Vilnius in Lithuania. The route was lined with tanks mobilized to quash the demonstration, and the participants were quite prepared to die. A volatile staredown ensued. As the tension reached its limits, there suddenly appeared a pack of motorcycles, riders two up, hurtling between the lines. As the young passengers unfurled their national flags, a great cry went up among the citizens lining the way as though in response, and they too at once produced and unfurled the national flags they had concealed behind them. Amidst this flurry of tens of thousands of national flags arose a chorus of folk song. Before this enthusiasm, this anger, this hope, the column of tanks could do nothing, nor the security personnel with their machine guns. The mountain moved. With this roiling wave finally the three Baltic countries were on their way to independence again. Attaining their cherished dream of regained independence by means of this human chain and without spilling even one drop of blood, they came to call it the “Singing Revolution”.

Twenty-five years after the Singing Revolution. 2014 was the centennial of the First World War. The previous century has its own place in history as one of wars, and it was conflict in Europe that triggered both of its world wars. That nightmare has reappeared in our own times. It is not hard to imagine that for the tiny country of Latvia, which shares a border with Russia, the Crimean crisis that developed out of last year’s political upheaval in Ukraine posed a severe threat.
“World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.” These words are from an address by Robert Schuman, then foreign minister of France, in 1950 as the countries of Europe worked towards its union. How big a contribution do culture and the arts have to make to world peace? They may be powerless, but they must never be helpless. And so all the more important is the role entrusted to European Capital of Culture Riga to operate across generations and across peoples to join the people of the world together with culture.

In July 480 choral groups from 73 countries around the world, including Russia and Ukraine, took part in the World Choir Games. Among them was the Tokorozawa Fény Children’s Choir from Japan. The group had participated in the International Youth in Concert music festival held in Pécs, Hungary, at the 2009 European Capital of Culture and has also actively welcomed and hosted overseas choral groups visiting Japan. Urged by executive chair Diana Civle on her visit to Japan the year before to take part in the next year’s World Choir Games, the group’s members were filled with notions of “bringing people happiness through song”.

Awaiting Latvian Ambassador Normans Penke on a visit to their school prior to departure were the Latvian national flag, a banner welcoming him in Latvian and the beaming faces of the children. Ambassador Penke spoke passionately to a full assembly about the history and culture of Latvia. A country barely known to the group’s community became one familiar to them. Japan and Latvia are indeed neighbors, separated only by Russia. The singers seemed, in a childlike way, to be acquiring an inkling of the significance of taking part in the World Choir Games.

As the history of the Singing Revolution indicates, the significance of holding the World Choir Games, which rotate every other year among the five continents, together with the European Capital of Culture in this country where song and destiny are so intertwined added considerable value to the Games. The grand finale, in which 20,000 participant singers all took the stage together, swept the entire audience into a vortex of feeling as though the earth itself was rumbling.

This was not all that the Japanese contingent experienced. During their trip they scattered to stay with different Riga families to experience Latvian domestic life as a member of the household while paying singing visits to various locales, including senior citizens homes and orphanages. When they performed “Anata wa doko ni” (Where are you?) entreating disaster recovery at a church, they reported, the sight of tears flowing in an audience unfamiliar with the Japanese language made them aware of the bottomless power of song and stirred something in their breasts. These experiences made real for them the sense that young people not only in Latvia, but everywhere in Europe and around the world, are stepping surely onto the path towards a shared future of hope.

Plans are already taking shape for a Latvian choir to visit Japan next year. Members of the two choirs are on the way to speaking directly to each other. Through song citizens of the world have begun to share a common awareness. This heritage of the European Capital of Culture is one of deep significance.

Japanese artists and groups were invited from Japan to take part in many other programs in Riga. One of these was the Festival of Paper Objects. What the local organizer focused on was washi, or traditional Japanese paper, with its markedly longer and thinner fibers than Western papers, its toughness, and the distinctive textures evident in such varieties as Mino, Awa and Echizen. From an artistic perspective, this attention bestowed on novel work crafted from washi material placed traditional culture in a new light and raised the global profile of traditional Japanese papers. In digital art, contemporary dance and other fields of contemporary art with relatively short histories, Ryoji Ikeda, Contact Gonzo, Hiroaki Umeda and Ko Murobushi were among the featured artists working internationally who captivated the people of Riga. The program reconfirmed for us that at issue during our time of globalization is not an artist’s nationality but the quality of his work.
Meanwhile, Riga demonstrated once more that some things that we have taken to belong to Japanese culture have traveled overseas, evolved over time and now gained global visibility. Half a century has now gone by since bonsai and aikido began to attract attention in Europe. What started out as superficial appreciation shifted gradually to a focus on their philosophical aspects, and now their significance in terms of spiritual culture is accepted. It makes one think that it is important for us Japanese, now more than ever, to appreciate and take in this fact.

European Capital of Culture Umeå as a Sami Accomplishment

Umeå is a Swedish city located near the Arctic Circle at latitude 64 degrees North. It is some 800 kilometers north of Riga, the other European Capital of Culture.
Within Sweden the process of selecting the European Capital of Culture was a turbulent one as the hosting year of 2014 approached. Gothenburg, the country’s second-largest city after Stockholm, was considered the favorite, but among other cities also seen as strong candidates were Malmö, which boasts striking growth of leading-edge companies and of culture and the arts, and the academic town Uppsala, known for the oldest university in Scandinavia. Overturning almost all expectations, however, in the end it was tiny Umeå, Sweden’s eleventh city, that was selected. A major factor was that Umeå lies within the area historically inhabited by the Sami, an indigenous people of Scandinavia.

Emphasis on cultural diversity and decentralization is basic EU policy and proved important criteria in the European Capital of Culture selection process as well. The Västerbottens county museum in Umeå depicts the Sami way of life, nomadic and raising reindeer, and in 2000 Umeå University established the Center for Sami Research for the centralized preservation and study of Sami culture.

Meanwhile, there are said to be six to seven thousand languages in the world, but those with extremely small numbers of users are in danger of extinction in the near future, harried by the vigor of such wide-ranging languages as English and Spanish. While various efforts are underway around the world to curb the danger, the Sami language is one of those threatened with extinction.

There were exchanges between the Sami and the Japanese Ainu as another indigenous people of northern regions. On the occasion of hosting the European Capital of Culture the Sami appealed to people involved with the Ainu to work together on joint projects in music, language, design and other fields. Exhibitions of Sami culture would appear in Riga as well, and exchanges with the Ainu began with the assistance of people concerned in Umeå, partner city of the European Capital of Culture. In April 2014 Michael Lindblad, a leader in the Sami culture movement, visited Japan from Umeå together with Simona Orinska, a butoh artist who had been active the previous year incorporating Ainu music and dance in Riga, and the two began to explore what cultural exchange might take place in future. Given the differences in national conditions and environments, these efforts face a difficult future, but it was of deep significance for the European Capital of Culture to turn attention to cultural diversity and indicate the possibilities for global solidarity.

Umeå would be Sweden’s second European Capital of Culture after Stockholm in 1998. That previous hosting featured the first kabuki performance in Sweden. That kabuki was presented not only in the dimension of an introduction to traditional Japanese culture, but as one of the world’s great performing arts provided great momentum in kabuki’s later development in countries around the world. Architect Kazuyo Sejima, contemporary dancer Saburo Teshigawara, Dumb Type, and wadaiko drumming unit Yamato were among many other artists who used their experience in Stockholm to develop their careers on a global level. European Capitals of Culture have made major contirubtions to various forms of culture and art crossing borders to find new lands.

The efforts of Lars Vargö, former Swedish ambassador to Japan, were a considerable contribution to Umeå. As well as a diplomat, Ambassador Vargö has long been an active haiku composer and has more than twenty publications on haiku. He found a tremendous response with the address he gave on haiku at a literary festival in March. In 2013 he also provided active support for an opportunity to link European Capital of Culture representatives visiting Japan for preparations with Japanese artists. His efforts have resulted in much activity that one may hope to continue to develop beyond the European Capital of Culture, including Japanese musicians’ interaction at the UxU summer music festival and guitar museum in Umeå, the “From Hokusai to Manga” art project, and the inclusion of a program of Japanese cuisine in the food festival.

The city of Komatsu in Ishikawa prefecture has a long history of exchange with Umeå, and no mistake but that its assistance provided a major stimulus to the region’s culture in such forms as design entrepreneur Teruo Kurosaki’s moss garden project, Rica Ohya’s selection for a term as artist in residence, and the high-quality activity of multimedia artist Yoko Seyama.  Umeå abounds with cutting-edge work in the field of design, and hosting the European Capital of Culture is expected to lead to further development of its activity on a global level.

Thoughts on Proprietary Culture

As I touched on at the outset, as globalization proceeds, business and culture slip past borders and leap into the wider world. It is the role of politics and diplomacy to safeguard national borders, and however much globalization may proceed, the nation state is needed to continue to play a certain role. On the other hand, an artist plays an important role as well in breaking down the walls that exist between human beings and erasing borders. Both of them are necessary.
It is now 23 years that I’ve been involved with the European Capitals of Culture. During this time much “Japanese culture” has progressed to gain a global profile. We must not overlook that much of what we Japanese call “Japanese culture” – bonsai, haiku and much else – is developing into global culture.
It is known that Felipe Gonzalez, who served as Spain’s prime minister for sixteen years beginning in 1982, would seek relief from his busy work in tending bonsai trees. When the Japanese prime minister visited his official residence during his term, straightaway Gonzalez showed his visitor a number of the bonsai crafted by his own hand. In all they are said to number more than four hundred. Meanwhile, the Japanese prime minister, who had no grounding in bonsai, was the recipient of a torrent of commentary on the art by Gonzalez.
It is the same with haiku. In the midst of the East-West standoff following the Second World War, the Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld, known as the great diplomat who devoted himself to world peace as Secretary-General of the United Nations, took refuge from his days of anguish in haiku. And the former prime minister of Belgium who also served as first president of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, known as a haiku composer, says, “The origin of haiku is in Japan, but haiku is now a philosophy of the world.”
On the other hand, such fields considered part of Western culture as classical music, ballet and oil painting came to Japan at the end of the nineteenth century, but now in the twenty-first have established themselves within the culture of Japan. To hazard the definitions,

Japanese culture” is culture that developed in Japan and is now acclaimed globally, and
The culture of Japan” is all culture present in contemporary Japan, whether of European or Chinese origin.

 

“There is no such thing as patriotic learning or culture,” posited Goethe. “Each belongs to the world.” There he speaks the very essence of culture.

Culture and Danger

Albert Einstein, who pronounced his Theory of Relativity during the First World War, left us these remarks: “If my theory proves to be correct, Germany will claim me a German, but France will say that I’m a Jew. However, if it proves wrong, France will say I’m a German, and Germany will say that I’m a Jew.”

It is a fact that there exists a tendency, in reaction against globalization, to attach great value to the culture, customs, language and people of one’s own country and to scorn the culture, customs, languages and peoples that arrive from other countries, and that it leads to hate speech and other xenophobic activity. It is clear that cultural diplomacy and cultural transmissions in an age of globalization that value only the advantage of one’s own country never serve either one’s own country or the other. I sense a danger in these times in cultural diplomacy grounded in stereotypes. If the state is to be involved in culture, what is needed is a standpoint that values the diversity of cultures from a global perspective. It is possible both to respect another and to take pride in oneself.

Conclusion

“Here I am man, here such dare be!”

– Goethe, Faust

It is important both to survey the world from a global, or macro, view and to look squarely at one’s own foothold in the local, or micro, field, and to act in both. As our world becomes ever more information-intense, I am embarrassed sometimes to find that I do nothing but criticize what goes on in the world. When ever did I become a critic? One must not forget to criticize society, but also take care that at some point the definition of “society” does not drift from what is near to what is distant from oneself.

In the limited lifetime that is available to me, I hope that with both the friends near to me and those with whom I commune from a distance I will be able to see far ahead, even if I am powerless, and to act, even if only in small ways, steadily on one thing at a time. I wish to act, not to criticize. I wish to think out what I can do for the next generation and to execute it surely.

In wrapping up my work for the year 2014, I would like to express my gratitude to the many people who helped me and herewith submit my report.

▲Page Top