Report from the Secretariat on the 23rd EU-Japan Fest
This report covers activities in Europe from January to December 2015 and in Japan from April 2015 to March 2016.
During this period I made over ten trips, spending a hundred and several dozen days traveling in Europe. Looking back on these fifteen months, here I would like to report on what I discovered there, what I learned there, what feelings I experienced, what feelings I shared, what I achieved in working together with people, and on the future of hope that emerged from it all.
Thirty years of the European Capitals of Culture
“The mission of the European Capitals of Culture is to create opportunities through culture and the arts for individual human beings to engage each other, to consider and to discuss what it is to live.”
―Melina Mercouri, Greek Minister of Culture,
propsoing the establishment of the European Capitals of Culture
It is now thirty years since the inception of the European Capitals of Culture in Athens, Greece, in 1985. European Union membership has expanded from 12 countries to 28. Meanwhile, the EU was changed with the mission of union in the economic and political spheres, not the cultural one. As each member country pursued its own cultural policy, therefore, the European Capitals of Culture did not at first necessarily function smoothly under the bureaucratic leadership of the European Commission.
Though it was by no means smooth sailing at the beginning, the outstanding leadership of director Bob Palmer at Glasgow, UK, in 1990 made a success of an effort involving the entire region. And since the completion of EU market unification in 1993, the call for countries, not least Japan, outside the EU also to take part has acted as a detonator for broader involvement, and the European Capital of Culture has evolved further and grown deeper with each year it is held.
Now facing a mountain of important challenges including terrorism and refugees, European society finds itself in the ordeal of overcoming these difficulties even as they exacerbate further. In these circumstances it is valuable work to welcome artists arriving from around the world and bolstering transnational solidarity among fellow humans. This work cannot be tidied away as “a project of the 28 EU member countries”. Over 100 countries take part, and the work in fact constitutes an important mission in culture and the arts that the United Nations or the world’s great powers could themselves never hope to achieve. Here one may catch a glimpse of Europe’s potential.
European Capital of Culture Mons 2015: A festival held in adversity
Mons, Belgium, opened festivities on January 24. This was immediately after the assault on the political weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the time when stories flew about that the terrorist suspects had fled to Belgium and were in hiding there. Day after day the Japanese media ran news pieces about this heinous attack. People around the world expressed grief for the victims, and French President Hollande declared, “We are in a state of war.” He made clear the stance of confrontation with the terrorists. Touching down at Brussels airport at the time, I found before my eyes such an imposing security presence of heavily armed police as I had never seen before. “This is war”: It was very real to me.
The airport behind me, however, the view from the train window on the way to Mons was of tranquil towns and rural landscapes. The change was such that I succumbed to the bizarre illusion that I had returned to the routine of a peaceful town from watching a violent Hollywood film. The sensation lasted until I reached Mons. I remembered that before leaving Japan many friends had expressed their concern that I was off to Europe in the aftermath of a terrorist incident. But my worries were magnificently drowned out by the wild enthusiasm of the nearly 100,000 people who turned out that evening for events celebrating the opening of the European Capital of Culture. In every plaza and venue throughout the town was an outdoor concert, or some performance or a mapping projection or other event, indicating that the European Capital of Culture was now underway. Cheers rose from the crowd, and through the night people celebrated and enjoyed the opening of the festivities. No doubt but that all those taking part concealed in their breasts the fear of terrorism. Every face there, however, brimmed with smiles. And they were smiling in earnest. The weapon they carried in response to a cowardly act of terrorism was to act normally and strengthen human bonds, and it was resolve to do so that their smiles seemed to express.
Belgium had hosted the European Capital of Culture three times previously – in Antwerp in 1993, Brussels in 2000 and Bruges in 2002. Each of the past three was held in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders; Mons is the first host city in the French-speaking region of Wallonia. During the 19th century Wallonia flourished with its coal mines and was first in Europe to achieve an industrial revolution, but during the first half of the 20th century the industrial center of Belgium shifted north and heavy industry in Wallonia gradually declined. A long recession prevailed here during the prewar and postwar years, but more recently the region has united under the slogan Art & Technology in a massive effort to transform itself into a “digital valley” to rival Silicon Valley. The region has recently succeeded in luring the European offices of Microsoft and Google, and regional revitalization has gathered momentum. A reinforcement of this trend was the selection of Mons as European Capital of Culture.
Many of the lead programs at Mons featured contemporary art. In the areas of contemporary dance and digital art and music in particular, invitations went to dynamic artists from around the world, including Hiroaki Umeda and Ground Riddim from Japan, who thrilled their enthusiastic fans.
Eyes turned also to the glories of the past. Vincent van Gogh, one of the most important artists in the history of Western painting, began working as an artist in Wallonia, thus the exhibition “Van Gogh in the Borinage”. Fittingly for an artist known for his admiration of japonisme, it was the assistance of a Japanese museum that allowed the inclusion of three important works that were the talk of the show.
As well, a great many programs at Mons involved younger generations. Exchange programs between Japanese and Belgian children have achieved continuous development since European Capital of Culture Antwerp in 1993. The International Youth in Concert festival took advantage of these strong ties, as a Japanese girls choir took part along with youth choirs from both Flanders and Wallonia, and their limpid voices rang through the cathedral of the St Elisabeth Church. There were originally misgivings about the project, not unrelated to the difficult political situation in the two regions, which divide Belgium between them, but dedicated efforts on the part of Bernard Catrysse of the Flanders Center in Japan managed to bring it off. With local goodwill the Japanese children enjoyed homestays, a valuable experience they will no doubt remember all their lives. The cooperative relationship of long standing between professors at the Conservatoire in Mons and at Kindai University also produced exchanges between Japan and Europe that included working residencies by art students of the two schools. I am confident that the generations that succeed them will carry on these achievements of European Capital of Culture Mons.
The other European Capital of Culture: Plzeň 2015
Known throughout the world as the birthplace of pilsner beer, Plzeň is an ancient city of Central Europe that since the Middle Ages had been a key junction in the commerce between eastern and western Europe. The deep reserves of culture and the arts cultivated over its long history helped it secure the title of European Capital of Culture. Culture and the arts in Plzeň had matured sufficiently for them to receive and admit the new. For several years after the selection, the operating committee chair devoted tremendous energy to building the program. Along the way the central government’s fiscal difficulties seemed to imperil the operation, but the enthusiasm of those involved in Plzeň overcame these difficulties magnificently. Simultaneously highlighting the heritage of its past and looking towards the future in its engagement with the new, European Capital of Culture Plzeň called on artists from over a hundred countries and may be reckoned to have duly played its role as a global project.
Beginning with bonsai, kyogen, rakugo, calligraphy, shogi and aikido, the program included a broad range of Japan-related material, from the classical to the contemporary, including the performing arts, contemporary art, photography, cinema, and music and dance. In scale it was second only to neighboring Germany. In the background to that success were the closely coordinated efforts of the people involved on both ends, grounded in a long history of cultural exchange between Japan and Czechia. Like plants long rooted in the ground that all at once begin to flower with the arrival of spring, so did these efforts bloom magnificently with the opening of the European Capital of Culture.
European Capital of Culture initiatives tend to increase in size annually as the European Union itself expands in membership, but due to funding difficulties during the preparatory stage Plzeň was unable to procure the massive sums needed to construct new facilities. These difficult circumstances posed some fundamental questions anew to the people of Plzeň: What is culture? Who is culture for? What is it we want from culture? One project that emerged from this exercise of the city and its people putting their heads together was the Depo Creative Zone. Utilizing an expansive facility that was long a maintenance plant for city buses, Depo is an initiative in the new cultural creation where art and creative businesses coexist. With just a small budget they succeeded in transforming a decrepit facility into a large cultural operation. With full financial backing from the city of Plzeň, plus some central government and EU subsidies, Depo made a new start in 2016 inheriting the legacy of the European Capital of Culture and handing it on to the future. It is only the beginning for this effort at the educational, cultural and industrial sectors working together for their mutual development. Last February Martin Baxa, deputy mayor for culture, and Jiří Sulženko, program director for Plzeň 2015, visited Japan to describe the Depo concept to people involved with culture in Japan. They expressed their resolve that the European Capital of Culture would not be a transient event, but the beginning of a long-lasting effort. Depo is to persist in its challenge, calling on the many and varied talents found throughout the world from the dual perspectives of the local and the global. My heartfelt wish is that ten years hence, “the benefits of European Capital of Culture Plzeň will become ever more clear.”
Where does globalization take culture? What will be its role?
To interject a sudden question, where do we Japanese come from? According to student of human history Yosuke Kaifu, “The ancestors of modern humans who left Africa 50,000 years ago proceeded east and branched north and south of the Himalayas 38,000 years ago. They crossed the Tsushima Strait and arrived in the Japanese archipelago situated at the very end of the Asian continent. A bit later they also arrived via the Taiwan–Okinawa route and the Sakhalin–Hokkaido route.”
Globalization has proceeded apace in the 21st century, and to consider the detrimental negative aspects of the trend is to worry deeply. Considering that globalization was already taking its first steps 50,000 years ago, it makes one feel a bit more magnanimous. Pessimism is a question of mood, optimism one of the will. Is this not the sort of attitude we should take when thinking about the culture of today?
Recent years have seen a debate in emerging countries about the origins of culture. There are more than a few example in which a feeling of pride in the culture of one’s own country coupled with governmental policies exalting national prestige develops into international disputes.
Taking those 50,000 years as our yardstick, however, the questions we ultimately ask about culture have to do with the process of its development, the outcome of its maturation, the degree of its quality. This then ties into the value of culture.
I mentioned above how European Capital of Culture Plzeň saw much Japanese culture in full bloom. However, we must not overlook how these forms of culture were conveyed from Japan and are the result of vast amounts of time and the passions of local people poured into them. To put it another way, it would be closer to reality to say that forms of Japanese culture have established themselves as parts of Western culture. On reaching its destinations, “Japanese culture” makes contact with local traditional cultures and, stimulated by them, experiences further growth.
As an example of globalization of culture, take haiku, which continues to gain devotees in countries around the world. A 17-syllable poetic form with a distinctive 5-7-5 syllable count originating in Japan, haiku is the world’s shortest instance of fixed-form poetry. Matsuo Basho is known for taking the form to new artistic levels in the 17th century and is now a poet with many devoted fans throughout the world.
The requirements placed on Japanese haiku include a limit on the number of orthographic elements and the inclusion of a seasonal reference; outside Japan, however, haiku has blended into local cultures with their linguistic and cultural differences and is composed according to different rules, e.g. as three-line poems of unrestricted syllable count. Some Japanese haiku composers have greeted the appearance of such transmogrified styles that in Japanese circles are impermissible by railing against them as heretical. Such dissent is only natural, but my own view is that we should candidly welcome the wonderful stimulus that haiku has provided poets overseas. Herman Van Rompuy, the former president of the European Commission who is known as a devotee of haiku, surely got it right when he said that Japan is haiku’s country of origin, but haiku is a philosophy of the world. If it’s all about preserving the form, don’t we lose sight of the original wonder? After all, the value of Basho’s haiku lies in their recurrent exploration of his own philosophy of life from season to season.
Meanwhile, the “Western culture” that has arrived in Japan since the 19th century has blended into Japanese society over the past century and a half and become part of contemporary Japanese culture. In classical music pedagogy the violin lesson book devised by the Japanese educator Shinichi Suzuki is known for its “Suzuki method” and has now become an essential component of music education in countries around the world. And in 2016 Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara’s latest album reached the top of the charts in America, the birthplace of jazz. Such examples of the globalization of culture are just too numerous to mention.
By the by, the term “borderless” is sometimes used to signify globalization, but just what does this word refer to? It is not only the national boundaries of geography; differences in religion, generation, ethnicity, civilization and regional culture too constitute borders.
Tomoya Murazumi, a leader of The Room Below, who last year took part in an art fair in 1998 European Capital of Culture Stockholm, gives an opinion exploring the notion of borders more deeply. The group was established in Ishikawa prefecture in Japan to publicize the high degree of artistry among artists suffering from mental disorders. “The reason I took part in this international contemporary art event,” he says, “was to clear away the borders between the disabled and the able-bodied. The sole theme in contemporary art is the question of how to depict our contemporary world. A disability is not recognized as a handicap for a contemporary artist any more than is ethnicity or gender.”
The European crisis is a global crisis. What role can art play?
As culture grows ever more globalized and borderless, the series of terrorist attacks that erupted in France and Belgium have delivered a shock to the people of Europe, and some media outlets have even spoken of a “clash of civilizations”. At the time of the terrorist bombing at the Brussels airport, I was in the departures lobby of the Bilbao airport in Spain. That day I would be changing planes in Munich and Copenhagen, and then arriving in Aarhus, a scheduled European Capital of Culture for 2017, by a domestic connection. Certainly, the airport lobby televisions at each transit point were reporting on what was happening in Brussels. Ten days after the attack I was back in Japan and felt an irresistible sense of unease at the banner newspaper headlines there like “Brussels in panic” and “Explosives made in Muslim country?” and “All Europe on high alert”. Every airport I passed through on that day was operating at normal levels of security, I sensed no anxiety among the other passengers arriving and departing, and all the rest of Europe too remained calm. It goes without saying that neither was there any over-reaction at all in Denmark, where I stayed several days. Rather, I sensed even in that state of affairs that people were seizing an opportunity to overcome all manner of differences and achieve solidarity. The duty of news reportage is to communicate the facts objectively without exception. I cannot consider that the media captured the essence of the incident in this manner of reportage that one might even term over-reaction. The simplest way to understand what happened is as a crisis arising from “European-style freedom”, and in its background not the radicalization of Muslim countries, but the Islamization of radical factions within Europe. The polemicist Jacques Attali offered the view that the terrorists had taken advantage of French society’s delay and ineptitude in integrating immigrants and of the despair felt by its youth. “This is not a clash of civilizations,” he further argued. “It is a clash of civilization and barbarism,” and urged the public to respond rationally.
Art is a means of bringing about the coexistence of opposing value systems and of exploring true freedom. An artist need not attack others, but may open his heart to them and build relationships as human beings. I am confident that an artist is capable of contributing without limit in his creative ideas and actions to a receptivity to diverse cultures and value systems within the community and one’s daily routine, and to enhancing tolerance for others.
European Capitals of Culture and expanding global partnerships and solidarity
Beginning with Antwerp in 1993, EU-Japan Fest has to date supported European Capitals of Culture held in 37 cities in 25 countries. Looking back over these 23 years, not even in Europe is there any other country or organization that has been involved in every one of each year’s European Capital of Culture without exception. That we have been able to continue this work for such a long time without any government backing has been due to the dedicated support of private-sector firms in Japan.
One of the business leaders who has served as our operating chairman said something I will never forget.
“Companies may work hard day after day, and ten years on may enjoy greater prosperity. When that time comes, however, if there were no poets in society, no musicians, no philosophers, no painters, and no young people full of courage, would there really be any meaning in life then?”
Economic crises such as the collapse of the bubble economy and the 2008 financial crisis, as well as such events as the unprecedented Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, have from time to time appeared to signal us to stop work at the EU-Japan Fest Japan Committee, but we have each time started over again and overcome the obstacles before us. Courage, passion, creativity: these are the values shared by the businessmen and artists who have been involved with the Committee’s work, regardless of any differences in perspective.
Underlying all this, of course, are the high ideals of the European Capitals of Culture and the work we have done together with them. In February 2016 twenty representatives of nine European Capitals of Culture gathered in Tokyo. During their stay they attended the Committee’s General Meeting and also held a series of discussions with many artists and groups about their future activities. Meanwhile, one may reckon that through meetings with such public bodies as the Japan Foundation and the Arts Council Tokyo, they gained a deeper appreciation of each other’s activities and opened the way to greater cooperation in future.
At the first EU-Japan Fest, in Antwerp, the Committee sponsored no more than twenty programs. With each following year we then added support for programs in ongoing development from past host cities and deriving from them, as well as preparatory work for future host cities, and in our 23rd year of operations the number of programs with our support numbered 800 in all. It is the continuous backing of Japanese businesses, and the budgets of the European Capitals of Culture and local arts institutions, that have supported this expansion and growth. The self-supporting efforts of Japanese artists and groups that participate have also been significant; not only have they of course sought grants from public bodies such as the Japan Foundation and the Cultural Affairs Agency, in recent years they have also utilized crowdfunding and undertaken other promising avenues in engaging positively with the challenge of achieving autonomy in their activities.
We consider the distant future of our activities to lie in the 22nd century. The support we provide to the current generation of young people will, no mistake, influence the next generation. Consider the longings and aspirations in the hearts of these young people.
There is always necessarily a time when their aspirations become goals. We must not ever overlook those opportunities. We elders have a responsibility and a duty to pay heed to the possibilities of young people and to encourage them. It is important for these instances of encouragement to stack up one by one. It is through our passionate ideas and small actions that the baton passes from one generation to the next, and so shall we arrive at the 22nd century.
Today is our first step on the way to that 22nd century.