[Report from Secretariat] Looking back over the past year and three decade - EU・ジャパンフェスト日本委員会

[Report from Secretariat] Looking back over the past year and three decade

Shuji Kogi|Secretary General, EU-Japan Fest Japan Committee


2022, the third year of the pandemic. While we see signs of the virus being controlled, war starts in Ukraine. There are also localised battles in many other regions of the world, where a number of lives are being taken every day. At the very same time, on a global scale, environmental destruction is an issue that cannot wait. The question of what each and every one of us can do in such a situation has brought the importance of starting with “what can I do?”.

EU-Japan Fest is now in its 30th year of solidarity and action with the European Capital of Culture (ECoC). During this period, more than 32,000 artists and young people from Japan have been invited to 53 ECoC cities to cross the ocean. The years have passed in the blink of an eye. What has been accumulated cannot be overestimated or underestimated, but it has been 30 years of human solidarity transcending national borders. I feel a definite response to our work.

Looking back, I see in my minds eye a magnificent mosaic that took 30 years to create. Each piece is an artist or a youth. Transcended differences of race, language and religion, they have been meeting, talking and inspiring each other, taking action and breaking down the barriers that lie between them. Memories of numerous activities glittered and came together to form one spectacular painting. It will no doubt continue to evolve and deepen in new ways into the future.

Since ancient times, human activity has been a history of natural disasters and warfare. However, each time we have encountered these difficulties, we have overcome them. It seems that a way forward is born out of a dead end.

Kojin Karatani, a Japanese philosopher whose books have been translated in Rijeka, says of ‘hope’.

“Hope is not an optimistic outlook. It is not worthy of the name of hope unless it is something that can only be offered in the face of hopelessness.”

Accelerating globalisation poses many problems, but on the other hand it also generates solidarity across borders. This is where I have great hope. Pessimism is a matter of emotion. Optimism is a matter of will. The year past has made me think about this greatly.

Events and thoughts from January 2022 to March 2023

Changes in the situation in European countries regarding the pandemic, and Japan

Early in 2022, I headed to Europe. Although the lockdown in European countries had ended, there continued to be an extremely strict surveillance regime for COVID-19 infection. In Luxembourg, the first country I visited, on-the-spot antigen testing was mandatory on entry to restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner, not to mention the presentation of vaccination certificates. To Germany, a COVID-19 negative certificate, valid for 24 hours, was obtained once a day at the test centres in each city and was required to be presented everywhere I went.

On the other hand, Europe removed the requirement to wear a mask and it was this that highlighted the differences between Japan and the rest of the world. In Japan, wearing a mask had been the norm for more than two years, so I felt slightly bewildered. However, as I had been used to expressionless meetings by wearing masks, it was very refreshing for me to see their faces without masks with rich emotions.

Humans are not machines, nor are they manipulated by AI. I was truly happy to realise that it is a matter of course that human beings are human beings no matter how far they go. I felt as if conversations with them brought out my innermost thoughts and feelings one after another. 

Less than a month later, I revisited Europe. The response to the pandemic had changed dramatically. It was no longer necessary to present a ‘vaccine passport’ during EU entry procedures at Frankfurt Airport. The new measures were based on medical evidence relating to severe cases of COVID-19 being controlled. Antigen testing had also been abolished. The transformation astounded me, so different to just 1 month ago. I took my hat off to Europe’s rational thinking and their prompt action.

I returned to Japan on the 28th of February. At Haneda Airport, I waited for the PCR test and the officers to ask questions about the health situation. A full two hours passed before even we were able to enter the country. The fact that the same questions were asked repeatedly by different staff did not quite make sense. Japanese passengers who tested negative were transferred by bus to a hotel in Yokohama, where they were forcibly quarantined for three days. The room I was allocated had no windows and 80% of the area was occupied by bed. There was no space on the floor and I had to open my suitcase on the bed. During the quarantine period, I was prohibited from going outside the room, and was only allowed to open and close the door when I received my meals three times a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. The packed meals seemed to have been refrigerated and stockpiled in large quantities, and were delivered in cold. Not only that, some of them were rotten. The combination of fatigue from the long journey caused me to have an upset stomach and I was in a lot of distress. The Japanese quarantine office provided the hotel and the food. I was furious at what had happened.

Eventually, restrictions on entry of foreign visitors to Japan were eased from October 2022, although much later than in other countries around the world.  The long-lasting ‘isolation of Japan’ finally came to an end.

Artistic and cultural activities in the midst of a pandemic

COVID-19 began to spread globally in March 2020. Governments were immediately forced to respond. The Japanese Government positioned arts and culture as “unnecessary and non-urgent” and artistic and cultural activities were quickly forced into self-restraint.

Meanwhile, the German Minister of Culture declared that “art and culture are the life-support system of man”. Chancellor Merkel then explained to the public, “the maintenance of artistic and cultural activities is the top priority of our government”. Those statements must have been a strong reflection of the German people’s thoughts on art and culture. Immediately after that statement, according to a Japanese artist living in Berlin, grants were given to freelance artists of any nationality: €6,000 (approx. JPY870,000) from the City of Berlin on the 25th of March, and €8,000 (approx. JPY1.16 million yen) from the German Federal Government on the 27th of March for their immediate activities. Artists’ activities are an important ‘life-support system’ for the lives of citizens.

On the 13th of January 2022, the European Capital of Culture opened in Novi Sad, Serbia, a year late. Following a mild outbreak of COVID-19, for the first time in a long time, many citizens took off their masks and gathered in the city centre for a grand ceremony. The National Theatre, the venue of the event, was filled with great enthusiasm under the banner of arts and culture. Officials from all over the world, not to mention Europe, gathered altogether. Although there were concerns about delays in the preparations for Kaunas in Lithuania and Esch in Luxembourg, originally scheduled to take place in 2022, they were both successfully opened on the 22nd of January and the 26th of February.

An awareness of the people of Europe I learned again through the war in Ukraine

On the 24th of February 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. On that day, I was in Timișoara, Romania, the ECoC for the following year. In the morning I had a meeting at the office of the ECoC, where I learned the news. The possibility of a Russian invasion had been reported in Japan for some time, but for us Japanese, the invasion had started unexpectedly.

However, the Romanian people were as calm as ever. They were not upset, even though they share a border with Ukraine. Weren’t they afraid?

We all want peace. However, I realised that people who have survived in Europe, historically a region of repeated warfare, have always unconsciously prepared for the fact that war is bound to happen. I felt that the people of Europe were always prepared for that day. They prepared instead of making empty arguments about whether peace or war is good for them.

On the same day, a meeting was held with the female conductor of the local boys’ and girls’ choir. She spoke with a bright look in her eyes about her plans for the following year’s exchange with Japanese children, but at the same time she said, “Actually, I’m very busy at the moment.” She showed a slightly stern expression. “This is because we are about to start receiving evacuated citizens from Timișoara, also our sister city, Chernobyl.” she explained calmly. I was surprised at her attitude, as if to say, ‘If this happens, we have to act’. I did not meet anyone who was shocked that war had broken out in a neighbouring country. Panicking and voicing your fears in an emergency situation will not solve anything. Instead, I learnt from them the importance of starting now to do what we can.

That afternoon, I headed for our next stop, Luxembourg. On the runway at Timișoara Airport, I saw numerous military helicopters roaring off one after another. Many passengers in the airport lobby gazed at this spectacle with folded arms and grim expressions. The war had begun.

Why is it that the people of Timișoara were prepared for war, but a sense of fear was not transmitted from them? The reason behind this sense of security is the mighty NATO, of which there are 30 members, including the US. It is a military alliance with three missions: collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security.

A few years ago, when I was on the outskirts of Kaunas, Lithuania, I encountered a NATO military exercise involving more than 10,000 troops. An endless formation of tanks caused an earth-shattering roar to be heard. The exercises were a frequent part of NATO’s efforts to strengthen its defence posture in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. On the 24th of February, at the time of the Russian invasion, US Marines, already considered the most powerful in the world, were said to be standing by on the border between Ukraine and Romania.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, ‘deterrence’ has been widely referred to in Japan in recent years. The idea is that it is vital to build a fighting posture that makes the enemy country believe it has no chance of winning an invasion. It is that preparedness is the key to maintaining peace. Many of my European friends sometimes ask me in unison. “Is Japan really safe? Russia could attack tomorrow from the north, or North Korean missiles could be launched at the Japanese mainland. And, moreover, China’s invasion of Taiwan is envisaged in the next few years.” I had to flinch in front of their serious and worried expressions.

Japan has enjoyed 78 years of peace since the end of World War II. Why this has remained possible is rarely considered or discussed in depth. While the tragedy of the last war must not be forgotten, the reality is that many Japanese people believe that war can be avoided or even that peace can be maintained if we do not have an army.

It reminds us of the reality of “permanently neutral Switzerland.” Switzerland is not an unarmed neutral country, but an armed neutral country. I have visited Swiss cities and witnessed first-hand the Swiss civil defence. The Swiss have a universal conscription system. Every home was stocked with arms and ammunition, and nuclear shelters were placed all over the country. Some of the highways in Switzerland are used as airstrips for military aircraft in the event of an emergency. The European countries believe that a thorough defence system is as essential for the protection of human life as it is for art and culture.

First European Capital of Culture in Serbia

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Balkans were also known as the ‘powder keg of Europe’. While the conflicting interests of the powers were intricately intertwined and nationalist movements in various regions were intensifying, the World War I was triggered by an incident in Sarajevo. Then, after World War II, the long-running Cold War between East and West finally came to an end. However at the same time, conflicts began in various parts of the former Yugoslavia. The fighting began in 1991, scorched many areas and it was not until 2001 that peace was finally restored. Although the scars of war cannot be easily removed, Serbia has made tremendous efforts towards reconstruction. This is also evident in artistic activities.

In 2019, Novi Sad hosted ‘the European Youth Capital’, paving the way to being selected as the European Capital of Culture for 2021. Serbia is not a member of the EU, but the EU’s decision to host the ECoC every few years in two EU member states as well as one non-EU country led to the decision to host the event in Novi Sad. Borders do not originally exist for artistic and cultural activities.

Novi Sad, one of the leading university towns in Serbia, is a city with a passionate commitment to creating for the future. As the decision to host the European Capital of Culture in 2016 was made, preparations have begun for the year 2021. Their eyes were not only on the Balkans, but also on artists from all over Europe and Japan. I immediately visited the region, and staff from Novi Sad also came to Japan every month to prepare the programme.

Every time I visited Novi Sad, I stopped at the foot of the bridge on the Danube. There is a picture on the wall of the bridge destroyed by NATO air strikes in 1999. It still reminds us of the cruelty of war. That is why it is of immense value to host the ECoC, bringing together artists from all over the world under the banner of art and culture.

On the 13th of January 2022, the ECoC opened in Novi Sad after a one-year postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As mentioned earlier, art and culture transcend national and ethnic barriers at a single stroke. The abysmal history may be a lesson, but it is not an obstacle to the creation of a common value for humanity towards the future. Most of the leaders of Novi Sad are of a generation that grew up witnessing the horrors of war. This is why they are so determined to push forward in creating a new future.

Kaunas, European Capital of Culture Lithuania

Kaunas is the second city that Lithuania has hosted the European Capital of Culture. The last time was in Vilnius in 2009. In that year, the Lehman shock caused the world economy to shrink and Japan was also affected considerably. I was worried about whether the EU-Japan Fest activities would receive support from Japanese companies under these circumstances. The chairman of EU-Japan Fest committee at the time, Mr. Tsukuda, then-chairman of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd., instructed me to go to Vilnius to see the situation. I immediately jumped on a plane.

When I arrived in Vilnius, the airport was dark and quiet. I was told that the Lithuanian national airline had gone bankrupt a day earlier. What was really going on with the activities of the ECoC? I visited the ECoC office in a state of anxiety and found that, contrary to my expectations, the staffs were full of optimism.

They were determined that in times like these, arts and cultural activities must remain in order to fuel spirit. During my stay in Vilnius, I went to concerts, operas and theatre performances every night. All the venues were full and I could feel the enthusiasm of the citizens. During the global economic downturn, the country’s unemployment rate exceeded 30%. The Lithuanian Government made all arts and cultural programmes free of charge for the unemployed. This was in the hope that during the period of unemployment, people could use the extra time they had to enjoy art and culture to the fullest.

Meanwhile, in Hibiya Park, Tokyo, long queues of unemployed people were forming every day for free distribution of food. The difference between Lithuania and Japan came to my mind. Either in wartime or under the Great Recession, it is not only food that supports people in need. I once again understood that art and culture also give great courage and energy and bring smiles to people’s faces. Since then, the Lithuanian economy has gradually recovered and artistic and cultural activities have become more active than before.

Thirteen years later, Kaunas 2022 – The European Capital of Culture was successfully opened on the 22nd of January 2022. The concerts and performances took place all around the city and the city was filled with the joy of overcoming severe lockdowns and other hardships during the pandemic.

Kaunas also has historical links with Japan. The German invasion of Poland started World War II on the 1st of September 1939. Four days earlier, the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara was posted to Kaunas to open a Japanese consulate. There, he learnt of the persecution of the many Jews fleeing Poland.

At the time, Japan had extremely close diplomatic relations with Germany and Italy. After much anguish, Sugihara issued visas to persecuted Jews against the policy of his home country. He saved 5,000 lives. The Japanese Consulate in Kaunas was subsequently closed in August 1940. In September of the same year, the Tripartite Pact between Japan, Germany and Italy was concluded, and Japan finally pushed forward into World War II. The Japanese Foreign Ministry consistently refused to acknowledge Sugihara’s humanitarian acts after the war. After his death, and in the face of criticism from abroad, Foreign Minister Kono (then) finally made a public apology in 2000 and Sugihara’s honour was restored.

The consulate in Kaunas, where Sugihara served, has been preserved as a memorial after the war. Sugihara’s achievements are acknowledged alongside with the Swedish diplomat Wallenberg, who saved many Hungarian Jews in Hungary during the war. Since Lithuania’s re-independence in 1991, relationship with Japan has grown year by year. The second ECoC is expected to accelerate development between two countries.

What we can do for the next generation

There are many things we adults can do for the young people who will be the future leaders of society. It is of course important to expect more from them, but it is even more important and essential for us adults to encourage them. Each of their actions may be small, but if they increase in number, society as a whole can achieve something. The great rivers that flow into the oceans start with a single drop of water deep in the mountains. If it is too difficult for one person to do it alone, I believe we can gather a group of friends and create a circle of action.

Children gradually get to know the unknown in the course of growing up. Eventually, they develop various dreams and aspirations. It is only when these become concrete goals for them that they need the love and supportive action of adults.

With the severe restrictions on activities during the three-year pandemic, it was the children who suffered the most: before COVID-19, it was normal for them to play outside with their peers and to talk freely with their friends. However, they were deprived of many freedoms during that period. For the elderly, three years may have been a small part of their lives, but for the children, it must have been the large part of their short lives so far. Despite these circumstances, fortunately there were many adults in the cities of the ECoC and in Japan who continued to act with ingenuity and commitment for the sake of the children in the difficult conditions.

One example is ‘Youth Music Exchange Programme’ organised between Galway, Ireland, the 2020 ECoC and Higashikawa Town, Hokkaido, Japan. It was scheduled for September 2020, but cancelled due to the pandemic. Despite the obstacles, everyone involved did not give up on making it happen. Most of all, the students fulfilled their ambition of performing in Ireland. They had been practising for two years with a strong determination.

In 2022, with the pandemic stabilizing somewhat, there was a possibility that the programme could be realised. Accordingly, Higashikawa Town set up a town-wide cooperation system, and the Irish side, led by conductor James Cavanagh, began to prepare for receiving Japanese students. The leaders visited each other in advance and made concrete preparations. It has led to the creation of a more fulfilling programme. In addition, the inclusion of students who had graduated in the past two years, as well as newly enrolled brass band members, added significant meaning to the programme.

 “We will go with everyone we have practised together with…”

The event was set to take place in September, but new obstacles emerged. The war in Ukraine had led to sharp inflation and the air fares had soared up to three times what they had been before COVID-19. However, the passion of the adults to make the pupils’ dreams come true at any cost moved things along. On the 18th of September 2022, in front of a packed audience at Galway Cathedral, a concert by pupils from Higashikawa Town and Galway started. Amidst the applause, there were smiles on the faces of Mr. and Mrs. Kunibe, the 28th committee chairman, who had worked so hard to raise the funds for this programme. For the students from both countries, it was an experience they will never forget. Next, it will be the turn for the Irish youth to come to Japan. Preparations have already begun. 

Art and culture living on through the ages

Most civilisations and cultures, both Eastern and Western, did not exist from the beginning. The origin of Western civilisation is said to be Greece. Even today, Greek philosophy has a great influence on the world. However, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, ancient Greek philosophy and tragedy disappeared from continental Europe for centuries. During that time, it was the Muslim world that learnt Greek philosophy and passed it on to future generations with great care. In the Middle Ages, a Latin translation by Islam reached Europe. It is said that the Greeks were also greatly influenced by the Egyptian civilisations.

Goethe had the following words to say about the communication between human and art.

There is no such thing as patriotic art and patriotic science. Both art and science belong, like all things great and good, to the whole world, and can be furthered only by a free and general interchange of ideas among contemporaries, with continual reference to the heritage of the past as it is known to us.

On the 21st of January 2023, the opening ceremony of the European Capital of Culture took place in Veszpréme-Balaton, Hungary. There were more tensions between the Hungarian Government and the EU than ever before due to the difference in their positions towards Russia in relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the February before. I was therefore concerned about the Hungarian Government’s response to the ECoC as it was an EU-led event. However, when I attended the actual opening event, I realised that my concerns were unwarranted.

The day after the opening ceremony, a concert entitled ‘Hungarian Anthem 200′ was held. I myself was concerned that the programme might be intended to “boost Hungarian national prestige”. However, contrary to my expectations, the first piece played by the local orchestra was, to my surprise, the German National Anthem. It was a section of the piece composed by Haydn and premiered in 1797 as the ‘Emperor’s Hymn’ to Emperor Franz II of Austria, which later came to be quoted as the German national anthem. The song subsequently lived on in war-torn Europe throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1991, on the occasion of the reunification of East and West Germany, it was officially established as the German national anthem. The music far transcends the political conflicts between nations and the rise and fall of states.

During the Cold War, the two sides in East and West Germany interpreted and utilised Beethoven in different ways. It is interesting to note that in the East it was music of national prestige, while in the West it was music of symbols for freedom. Today, however, Beethoven’s ‘Symphony No. 9, 4th mov.’ has become the EU anthem as a symbol of European unity. The fact that the finale of the ‘Hungarian Anthem 200′ was also this piece made me realise once again the greatness of the music.

As the war in Ukraine continues, we feel we are being asked once again, “What can art do for peace in the world?” Artists cannot stop the war. Furthermore, amidst the ravages of war, it is even more difficult to continue artistic and cultural activities. Nevertheless, art and culture have a history of surviving not only in times of peace, but also through hardships.

One thing that comes to mind is about the Nazi officers in the Holocaust. During the day they fulfilled their mission of the Holocaust, while at night they were cultured people who enjoyed Bach and Mozart. The idea is that artistic culture can do nothing if it is superficial, but if it appeals to the soul, it can achieve something, no matter how long it takes. Whether in times of peace or in times of emergency, art and culture is an entity that can enrich people’s hearts and minds forever more.

Thinking about the next 30 years through the past

Psychologist Pinker says: “We are living in the best time in history”. He says that this was based on the rational thinking of human beings. He defines rationality as the use of knowledge to achieve a goal. There is a temporary regression, but it certainly makes sense given the trends of the past few centuries. The 20th century, the century of war, had two world wars, which together cost more than 80 million lives; in the 21st century, regional wars are still being fought in Ukraine and other parts of the world. However, humanity may have learnt a few lessons from past history. It has barely prevented the war from escalating into a third world war. The future is always uncertain. That’s why human wisdom and passion are so important.

When the EU-Japan Fest Japan Committee was established as an NGO in 1992, there were only 12 EU Member States; conflict had just begun in Yugoslavia, which bordered the EU, and Basque and IRA terrorism was frequent within the EU. Thirty years later, the EU has expanded to 27 countries and a vast zone of peace has spread across the European continent. Peace has come to the former Yugoslavia – Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia – and long-standing terrorism has ceased in Spain, the UK and Ireland. By 2022, these countries had all hosted the European Capital of Culture.

As mentioned above, art cannot stop war. However, art and culture have the power to soothe people’s hearts and minds at any time. Considering the 30 years of peace that have passed so far, I believe that the war in Ukraine will also have a day of resolution.

Melina Mercouri, former Greek Minister of Culture, is the one who called for the creation of a European Capital of Culture. She said, “The mission of the European Capital of Culture is to create opportunities for each and every human being to face, think and talk about ‘life’ through art and culture. That is the mission of the European Capital of Culture.”

Their activities started in 1985. ‘The EU-Japan Fest’ has been part of this solidarity since 1993. It has now developed into a literally global artistic activity, with artists from more than 100 countries and regions taking part. When considering the next 30 years, the role of solidarity and action across borders will become even more important.

On the occasion of Novi Sad in Serbia being chosen as the ECoC, I took the opportunity to visit the Balkan countries; Kosovo, Albania, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. In doing so, many European friends introduced me to people I should meet there. I also learnt that transnational grassroots and solidarity in the arts is more advanced than I had imagined. It warmed my heart that NGOs from EU countries were working in solidarity with local artists in different parts of the country in a long, war-torn region. The ongoing divisions in the world are the result of conflicting interests between nations.

I am convinced that the solidarity we have built with our European colleagues over the past 30 years will further develop and evolve over the next 30 years. Our solidarity cannot do what we can do at the national level, but I am convinced that we can create a new future at the global level.


The ongoing war in Ukraine is casting a dark shadow over the world with the slight possibility of a third world war depending on future developments. Here is a passage from a speech made by Robert Schuman, then – French Foreign Minister, to the French National Assembly in 1950, in which he called for European integration.

“World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.”

Is creative endeavour, as Schuman preached, a task for politicians alone? It is clear from the history of the 20th century, the century of war, that this is not the case. Each and every citizen bears a small part of the responsibility for the tragedies that have engulfed the world in war. Hitler, too, was born out of popular fervour. Japan’s militarism in the past also had the poor masses at its base. Bush’s war in Iraq, initiated by fabricated intelligence, had the overwhelming support of the US public behind it. Crowd mentality by citizens is sometimes a driving force that leaves its mark on history.

Global society is a situation that has emerged for the first time in human history. It is like a magnificent mosaic painted by the eight billion people living on the planet: each of the eight billion pieces of the mosaic has its own drama and way of life. The macro perspective alone cannot explain what is happening in the world. There are different facts and truths that exist on a daily basis in the micro realm from those reported by the media in a few lines of headline news (or they ‘believe’ they are reporting the facts).

When the pandemic began, people faced up to their difficulties and there was a lot of solidarity and mutual help all over the world; even during the earthquake and tsunami disaster in East Japan 12 years ago, there was an unimaginable outpouring of support from inside and outside the country. Two months after the beginning of the war in Ukraine, I was impressed by the large number of Polish citizens were taking in numbers of refugees from Ukraine. Many of these aid operations cannot be promoted at the national level alone. They are also the result of the choices made by citizens as human beings.

As we live day by day, there are both everyday and fundamental challenges that stand before us. Whether we are aware of them or not, from the moment we are born into this world until the moment we leave it, all human beings are living in a struggle between these challenges. No matter how much science, technology and economics developed, I hope that the world of the future will be accompanied by a sense of humanity.

To conclude, I leave my writing with a few words that have supported me in times of anxiety over the last 50 years.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?

(The Talmud, the Mishna Chapter 1)