Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.
– Mahatma Gandhi
“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself. ”
― Martin Heidegger
A few months ago, a new type of pneumonia, the coronavirus, broke out in China and quickly spread around the world. In the midst of a spate of serious media reports, these were the words that flashed through my mind. As of March 17, 2020, there were 177,000 people infected and 7,044 dead worldwide. Meanwhile, influenza infects tens of millions of people each year, 250,000 to 500,000 each year, and pneumonia kills 4.5 million people each year. The problem is not the scale of the infection. The reality of the virus and how it was transmitted has not been clarified. More than widespread infection, it is the fear of opacity and the fear of death. Regardless of the possibility of human beings having eternal life, death is already determined at the time of our birth and yet, we are horrified by it.
In the midst of all this, I became particularly worried about Italy. The whole of Italy has been cordoned off. On a spur of the moment, I called my longtime friend Alberto in Matera, last year’s European Capital of Culture, to express my sympathy. In spite of my concern that his life must be very difficult because he can’t even go out, he was very calm. “Yeah, I’m fine. I’ve got time, so now I’m reading at leisure. It’s actually fun.” His tone was very quiet. Even in the midst of all the chaos, he never lost his cool. I was encouraged by his attitude in the opposite direction.
So let’s get a move on. Moving on to last year’s report on the European Capital of Culture.
My beloved Matera, the city of miracles
What happened throughout the year in Matera, the European Capital of Culture in 2019, is a memory that I will never forget for the rest of my life. At the beginning of the year, I attended the opening ceremony. We were then ushered into a local elementary school. There I was greeted enthusiastically by all the residents. The homemade dishes were served one after another. As the wine glasses were piled on top of each other, the chorus began, out of nowhere. From the bottom of my heart, I felt happiness in their smiling faces. Before long, the barriers between us invitees and the locals were gone, and we all formed a hot mass, singing loudly, laughing and talking. I thought welcoming visitors from the outside was like any other country, but this enjoyment was exceptional and felt like a miracle. There is no distinction between internal and external human beings. It was a dimension that went far beyond the word “hospitality.” It was truly a miracle of the “human hymn” that I experienced.
No one in all of Italy could have predicted that Matera, the ancient capital of the Basilicata of the South of Italy, once called a disgrace to Italy because of its abject poverty, would host the European Capital of Culture. Except for the citizens and artists of Matera, who were eager to make it happen. Then a miracle happened. After a five-year battle with 22 of the country’s candidate cities, Matera has defied all expectations and won the title of European Capital of Culture. Needless to say, the whole town was enthused and delighted by the decision. The Goddess of Destiny smiled over Matera.
Tracing history, in the 15th and 16th centuries, Albanians and Serbs persecuted by the Ottoman Empire fled from the Balkans across the Adriatic Sea to southern Italy. Some of them reach Matera. They are said to have moved into a cave dwelling called Sassi, built on the slopes of the Gravina Valley in Matera. In the early 20th century, as the area’s population grew rapidly, poor citizens and farmers were forced to live with their livestock in Sassi, which lacked natural light. As a result, hygiene conditions were extremely poor and the infant mortality rate reached 50%. In the 1950s, the government, no longer able to ignore the devastation, forced the residents of Sassi to move to suburban housing complexes.
At the time, the Italian government was struggling financially and had no choice but to leave Sassi alone. However, in 1993, UNESCO reviewed the historical and cultural value of Sassi and designated it as a World Heritage Site. This was the beginning of the revival of Matera, and the tireless efforts of the city’s residents came to fruition in the European Capital of Culture.
My first encounter with Matera took place in January 2015 at the opening ceremony of the European Capital of Culture, Pilsen in the Czech Republic. There was Mr. Alberto Giordano, a goodwill ambassador from Matera, which had just won the title of European Capital of Culture the previous year, who was attending the ceremony. He was a gentleman with a quiet atmosphere, but behind his eyes you could sense an extraordinary enthusiasm for the European Capital of Culture that was coming up in four years. Shortly after, we visited Matera. Similarly, Matera’s representatives from the European Capital of Culture visited Japan on a regular basis, and the two sides began to come and go, and over the course of four years, negotiations and preparations were made between Matera and the Japanese artists to create projects. I was often surprised by the enthusiasm of the artists I met in Matera. They were full of interest in Japan and love for Japanese culture.
Once again, I realized the globalization of culture. We realized that Japanese culture, like Italian and European culture for us Japanese, has become a part of the life of the people of Matera and has permeated it. With digitalization and globalization spreading across the world, cultural borders have disappeared and the world has begun to incorporate each other’s wonderful cultures into their own daily lives. Matera was not a town well known to the average Japanese, but the cultural connection with Japan was already exsited.
In the aforementioned Sassi district, a Japanese architect named Mr. Gakutoshi Kojima, participated in the international competition for reconstruction and a new shape in 1974. His plans were carefully preserved there. Forty-five years later, he was again welcomed as a lecturer at the Open Design School, a major project of the European Capital of Culture. Takashi Kuribayashi, a contemporary artist, created the work with the help of a local poet. In music, a wide variety of exchanges developed. Many Japanese musicians performed at the International Accordion Festival, including Coba, a long-time friend. In addition to this, participation in the international conferences about martial arts such as karate, workshops for origami art, as well as the circus program and other diverse fields of Japanese art scenes, has also received a great response.
In the art of photography, an exhibition of work by two photographers selected from Italy and Bulgaria, who spent a month shooting in Tochigi Prefecture, was held in both Matera and Plovdiv. The everyday life in Japan, captured from a different perspective, has won the sympathy of the citizens of Europe. Japanese volunteers also participated in the local activities, paving the way for future joint efforts between Japan and Europe.
In the theater, a co-production between the Balkans and Italy was underway on the theme of “shame,” after Matera, which was once said to be Italy’s shame. At the request of producer Franco Ungaro, who understood how “shame” played a unique role in Japanese culture and philosophy, the participation of Japanese actor Emma Tashiro was realized.
Just 2 months away from the opening in October 2018, I learned from Artistic director Mr. Paolo Verri that yearly “passports” for each program in the European Capital of culture were being sold. Instantly, I responded. Please reserve 50 of those passports for Japanese artists. We shared a sense of the problem that the achievements of the European Capital of Culture should be sustained and continuous rather than ephemeral. This is why we took the opportunity to create the “Passport Program” to encourage exchanges between artists working in the same field, from Japan to Matera and from Matera to Japan. It was agreed that this program would be used to support future exchanges for artists who were not able to officially participate in the European Capital of Culture.
After the 2019 European Capital of Culture comes to a close, a new foundation has emerged in Matera. The purpose of the organization is to support the continuation of its activities in the future. It’s called “Matera 3019”.
I’m looking forward to Matera in a thousand years. The miracle still continues.
Plovdiv, the crossroads of Eastern and Western civilization
Another European Capital of Culture, Bulgaria’s Plovdiv, stands on 6,000 years of history. It is bordered by the Balkans, starting with Turkey in the east and Greece in the south. Throughout history, many civilizations have passed through this town heading North and West.
The European Capital of Culture has shed light on the city’s deep history. We visited the Plovdiv Regional Archaeological Museum and witnessed the results of the research. Full-scale excavation of the ancient Basilica site had also begun in the city.
The new Noh play “Orpheus” performed at the ancient Roman Theatre was the culmination of more than 20 years of exchange between the Yamamoto Noh Theater and Bulgarian theatergoers. In harmony with the ancient Greek mythology and the ethereality of Noh, this challenge taught us that we are connected from the past to the present to the future.
On the other hand, today’s Plovdiv is a global city with more than 80 ethnic groups living there. “Together” is an important motto of the European Capital of Culture. This is exemplified by the efforts of the Kapana Creative District. The aim was to unearth the potential power of the area by sustainably transforming the town’s landscape from a medium to long-term perspective. The district is being developed into Bulgaria’s first creative industrial district, and it is challenging itself in a variety of cross-sectional ways. There are many collaborations with artists from all over the world. Through a year-long program of residencies and open calls, the program continues to be a place of creative practice and trial and error.
Bulgaria’s accession to the EU was long overdue in 2007. Due in part to the industrial structure of the old system, the loss of human resources to countries such as Germany and France was a major issue for the country. In recent years, however, there has been a remarkable breakthrough in the IT field that has taken advantage of this handicap. This momentum has even earned the region a reputation as the “Silicon Valley of Europe.” Recently, a major Japanese video game manufacturer has hired nearly 200 young Bulgarian IT professionals for research and development.
Now, I can’t tell you enough about the many programs that took place last year, but I would like to mention one last thing. It was a choral exchange between boys and girls from Japan and Bulgaria. Kizuna Yamamoto (8 years old), who participated from Yonago, wrote the following in her report. “I was nervous about staying with a host family because my mother wasn’t with me. But we had so much fun that I didn’t think of our Japanese family until the time we said goodbye.
My host family always did something interesting to make sure I didn’t feel lonely. The family’s grandmother was a very good cook and taught me many languages. She hugged me so tightly that it almost broke my bones.” She looked back on the fun she had had in Bulgaria. The 8-year-old’s report tells us that there are no barriers or borders for the global youth to cross from the start, despite their individual differences. I often reflect on the fact that we adults were imposing old concepts on them. We are convinced that the exchange of the younger generation will be a bridge to the future.
What I thought on March 11.
Looking back at 2019, on the day I started writing this report, i.e. March 11, 2020, the WHO declared a global “pandemic” of coronaviruses. If you think about it, nine years ago on this day, a major earthquake and tsunami struck eastern Japan. The death toll was as high as 20,000. Rewind a further 75 years, and on March 10, the U.S. Air Force carried out an indiscriminate air strike on a scale unprecedented in the history of the war. Overnight, Tokyo was scorched and more than 100,000 innocent civilians became victims. A quick look back at history shows that our lives have not always been in a state of peace and stability. We should keep in mind that wars, catastrophes, and pandemics will continue to threaten us repeatedly. With Coronavirus shaking the world, the principal of a high school in Italy, which is closed, has sent a message to his students. He lamented, “There is a similar confusion in today’s papers as there was in the 17th century Italy when the plague was rampant.” He encouraged them to read a good book at a time like this. He called for people not to be misled by the group’s delusions, but to live a normal life with calm and sufficient precautions. “Unlike the days when the plague was an epidemic, we have modern medicine now. Let’s have a rational mindset to protect our precious assets such as humanity and society. Otherwise, the plague might prevail,” he concluded. The global economy has been hit hard by Coronavirus. Many international flights have been cancelled. Call it temporary, but this is a war on the virus, and in reality, it’s no different than a world war. In the midst of this, an exchange of accusations between the states has also begun. Fake news and various other information are also flying around. But in this information age, we don’t trust the media and the Internet unconditionally. We are already learning from the new trends on how to live in the modern information jungle.
My thoughts on the pandemic declaration
Indeed, as of today, we are in a state of anxiety and fear. At least, that’s what the media is buzzing about every day. Is it really right to be in tune with them?
Mother Teresa once said, “You people are too busy. You can’t even smile,” she warned the modern man. Social life is being severely curtailed around the world, and I suspect that this uproar has given God the time and opportunity to give us to stop and think.
What we’re supposed to protect.
Looking at history from a bird’s eye view, one realizes that the current turmoil is just one page in tens of thousands of pages of human history books. One example is the refugee crisis that is shaking the EU. Turkey had struck a deal with the EU in 2016 to stop Syrian refugees on its soil and stem the flow to Europe. Recently, however, clashes began in northwestern Syria between Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian forces, and large numbers of refugees began flowing into Turkey again. 3.7 million Syrian refugees heading to Europe are currently displaced in Turkey. The border with Greece is overflowing with refugees trying to cross the border and tensions run high at border security. If we go back in history, we can see that mankind has repeated the history of migration, beginning with the great migration of the Germanic people. The reasons are varied: multi-ethnic invasions, the desire for a safer and more prosperous life, and the spread of plagues. However, they are essentially no different from modern refugees.
Meanwhile, in recent years, country-first and nationalism have gained momentum. In large countries such as China, Russia, and Brazil, strong-arm politics by anti-liberal nationalist leaders continues. President Vladimir Putin cited German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s disqualification and the EU’s turmoil, even going so far as to say that “liberalism is no longer useful. To be sure, in strongman politics, economic development is expected in the short term, under state control that suppresses dissent and opposition. But no matter what kind of mighty power you may boast, it won’t last forever. There will always come a time when they will decay. Lao Tzu said, “What is gaining momentum, if you give it more momentum, it will quickly wither away. The more powerful a power is, the more powerful it is, more it crumbles.”
What we fear is that human rights, freedom of expression, democratic knowledge, and the rule of law will be disregarded and the essence of the arts distorted by power politics. Why is art so important? I think about it this way. As the world overflows with things and our lives continue to be safe and secure, we tend to be so caught up in the superficiality of everyday life that we tend to forget to go deep inside ourselves and face our roots until the moment of death.
Art makes us aware of that. The arts are one of the things we need to protect.
Building bridges in a world of conflict and division. Each of us is the bearer.
At the end of the Second World War, the musical capital of Vienna was reduced to a pile of rubble by bombing. Many of the public buildings had been demolished. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, the citizens of Vienna wanted the National Opera to be rebuilt first and foremost. This year marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Even now, his music shakes the souls of everyone. If you think about it, it’s not just material pleasures that can make us feel good at heart now. The music and art that have been loved for hundreds of years are countless. Furthermore, the Greek tragedies of more than two millennia ago and the philosophies of the East and West are still important today. Contemporary artists are also ahead of their time and express our present from a different perspective. We should also not forget the existence of contemporary artists as a bridge to the future. Our work was launched in 1993, when Japan’s bubble economy burst. Mr. Eiji Toyota, who served as the chairman of the committee during its inception, was now 82 years old, but he took on a major role and the last service of his life. He said to me. ‘Toyota is going to be a world leader in the future through hard work. But what is the point of living if at that time there were no more artists, musicians, or poets in society?” Our work was started by prominent members from the Japanese business community and European ambassadors in Japan after the European Capital of Culture turned down a request for support from the Japanese government. In the last 28 years, 31,000 Japanese artists and young people have participated in the 46 European Capitals of Culture, and what started with the support of 13 companies has now grown to 100 companies. Representatives from supporting companies have also shown interest in the arts. Last year, more than 1,500 people enjoyed the art program in Tokyo, despite their busy schedules.
Now, borders around the world are being closed and all artistic activities are being curtailed or cancelled. As human joy and enjoyment are being taken away from us, many new initiatives have also been launched. The opera Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), which was scheduled to be performed at an art theater in Shiga Prefecture, somehow ended up being performed without an audience in an attempt to live up to the expectations of many people, and the show was broadcast online. Not only the organizers, but also the enthusiasm of fans across the country drove things. Over the two-day performance, 360,000 people, more than 100 times the audience, enjoyed the footage. In the meantime, there were volunteers who spent six hours tweeting the translations of each scene from the opera, which amplified the emotion.
On March 3rd this year, representatives from 11 European Capitals of Culture were due to gather and present to 500 artists in Tokyo. This, inevitably, had to be postponed.
However, they distributed their presentations online, and artists began to register their work on a new portfolio site, Meet Up European Capital of Culture!
The result is more people getting to know each other and more possibilities.
Nelson Mandela, who later became President of South Africa, had these words during his 28 years in solitary confinement. “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
At a time when so many people are in difficulty and fear, the question is what each person’s heart should be. Each person has only a small amount of power, but they can at least communicate their passion to those around them. The more people around us, the more courage we can give to the people around us.
In order to realize solidarity and bonds, it is important to have concrete linkages and interlock.
To live is not to breathe. It’s about taking action.