Secretariat Report: Looking back over a quarter-century’s work - EU・ジャパンフェスト日本委員会

Secretariat Report: Looking back over a quarter-century’s work

Shuji Kogi|Secretary General

         An exercise in culture and the arts launched at the call of Melina Mercouri, Greece’s Minister of Culture, in 1985, after its initial turn in Athens the European Capital of Culture has rotated annually among the countries of Europe.

         At first participants came primarily from within the European Union, but Japanese began to take part as well with Antwerp hosting in 1993 after European market integration. Antwerp called on Japan and other countries around the world to lend their efforts and host country Belgium also sought financial aid for invited artists from Japan at the governmental level, but the negotiations did not reach an agreement. The Japanese diplomatic stance was one favoring bilateral relations and officials seemed to regard it as premature to undertake a joint effort with the European Union, a supranational group of European countries.

         Meanwhile, the Euro-Japanese trade friction of the time was becoming a political issue. European business circles gushed criticism of the unrelenting assault of Japanese exports, and there were more than a few emotional confrontations. This made it all the more urgent to achieve greater mutual understanding in the cultural sphere. And many people came forward in these circumstances. Among them was Baron Patrick Nothomb, Belgian ambassador to Japan and deeply learned in its culture, who together with other European ambassadors to Japan and sympathizers in the worlds of business and culture came together to establish a non-governmental organization called the EU-Japan Fest Japan Committee to shore up Japanese support for activities at the European Capitals of Culture.


“There is no such thing as patriotic learning or culture. Each belongs to the world, each constitutes past heritage that receives the stimulus of the present to grow towards the future.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749-1832


          Goethe’s observation drives to the fundamental significance of culture. Over two hundred years later it remains a radiant piece of wisdom. It is splendidly consonant with the point of the European Capitals of Culture, their reason for existing.

          Peoples from all over the world have migrated to live in today’s Europe, comprising a society that is literally global and the locus of manifold cultures. Those languages in use by 300,000 people or more on a daily basis number 260, and Japanese too is one of them.

           The EU in which the European Capital of Culture got its start was one of twelve countries but its membership later grew to 28 countries, and with the march of globalization it was a natural development for participation in the European Capital of Culture to grow to over one hundred countries around the world. It is the Schengen Agreement that allows travelers to cross European borders without undergoing passport or other inspections, and the European Capitals of Culture constitute a Schengen Area for the arts. Artists from all over the world must answer for the quality of their art, not their nationality. While globalization exposed hostility between religions and ethnic groups, the arts had the potential for overcoming differences and removing the barriers that arise between people.

           Over the course of these 25 years we have performed our work at European Capitals of Culture held in 42 cities in 27 countries, and a total of over 30,000 Japanese artists and young people have traveled to Europe for these activities. Their involvement led to many encounters, and artists went on to work together and pursue the continued development of their work in various locations around Japan and Europe. The European Capitals of Culture are not ephemeral. They are transnational engagements with culture and the arts, and points of departure for long journeys.


“Can art save the world?”

         This is a question posed by Eric Antonis, artistic director for Antwerp 1993. He was one of many artists around Europe campaigning to support the performing arts that persisted in war-torn Sarajevo in Bosnia, where the Yugoslav wars of succession raged. He continued in this way: “No, art can not save the world. But human society can not have true prosperity without art. This is what makes it important for each individual, through art, to ponder what it is to live, to think it through, and to discuss it with all the others. That is the spirit of the European Capital of Culture.”

         These words moved us deeply and continue to reverberate in the activities of the Cultural Capitals of Europe like a basso continuo.


Fundamental Activities Policy informing our 25 years of work

         The EU-Japan Fest Fundamental Activities Policy that grew out of our work of engagement with the European Capitals of Culture might be called our constitution for partnership. Below I will review our work over these 25 years in parallel with a review of these six basic principles that have acted as the standard for our activities.


1. Support the activities of young people with attention to their talents and personal qualities.

         The Lithuanian city of Vilnius hosted the European Capital of Culture in 2009, when the Lehman Shock roiled the world with fears about a second global depression. In 1991 Lithuania had reclaimed its independence from the Soviet Union, but even during the long and bitter years of occupation its people preserved their culture through song. In August 1989 two million citizens of the three Baltic countries linked hands in a human chain stretching 600 kilometers from Tallinn in Estonia to Riga in Latvia and Vilnius in Lithuania. Before the Soviet tanks that blocked their way and quite prepared for death, they sang with passion the respective songs of their peoples. With this historic human chain independence was now gathering momentum.

         Also in Vilnius, the choral group Little Phoenix from Yonago, Tottori prefecture, was to take part in the International Youth in Concert festival. The group’s leader considered how she wanted the children to confront once more what it means to sing. She was confident that they were sure to have a valuable experience that they would treasure all their lives. To add to the support provided by the EU-Japan Fest Japan Committee, the children’s parents and guardians stepped up with a fundraising effort. Each of them visiting fifty homes and requesting a small donation of one thousand yen at each home, they gained the support of some 1,500 people in the community.

         The children stayed at the homes of Lithuanian families and also performed locally, singing at schools, social welfare facilities, senior citizens residences and the like. The church of Saint Catherine, which was the main venue on the final day, was in use as a cultural facility courtesy of the church. The walls still bore traces of gunfire, graphic reminders providing glimpses of the troubled past of the people of this country. In the concert’s finale the limpid voices of boys and girls of all countries rang through the church. No mistake but that the Japanese children rediscovered the power of song in the reaction of an audience all rising to their feet. The grownups who gathered for a performance to mark the children’s return home saw they had grown in the confident manner they sang with faces beaming. My wish is that in future, when they are grown, they too will apply themselves likewise for the sake of the next generation of children.

         Graz, Austria, which hosted the 2003 European Capital of Culture, is known as a world-heritage city. That year high school students from other world-heritage sites around the world took part, spending a week in the homes of local families as they described their own cities to each other and exchanged views on how to protect and develop their regions. The Japanese participants were high school students from Nara and Hiroshima who identified various differences and similarities in the course of talking with other students from around the world and at the same time developed a heated debate about their shared future. While such experiences do not produce results anytime soon, there can be no doubt that the experience of contemplating the future of their own regions, learning about unknown parts of the world and so gaining a broader perspective is a valuable one that they would never learn at school.

         Children are the heritage of society as a whole. Surely anyone looking back on his own time of youth will recall having a leg up from someone older, or more senior. It’s something we do well to remember. It is important for us as adults not only to have expectations for leaders of the next generation, but to provide them our support in concrete ways. If even in small ways only, it is on us to provide this support over and over, again and again.

         The dreams and aspirations that children embrace lead them to their life goals. It is for adults to attend seriously to the possibilities of children without losing sight of how this happens, and if we are able to bring both severity and kindness to bear, the future of society is sure to be one of much humanity.


2. Support activities directed towards the self-reliance of community citizens and artists.

          From conceptualization to achievement, a European Capital of Culture lasts ten years. The actual holding of it lasts only one year, however. For it to be more than an ephemeral grand event, to exploit its achievements and extend them into the future take, as well as the efforts of the organizing committee, the development of self-reliant, sustained activities on the part of the local community and artists. In more than a few cases in different parts of Europe, local communities have worked together to follow through on taking part in the European Capital of Culture with regional arts festivals, artist-in-residence programs and the like.

         There is, by the way, a photography project that has continued since Copenhagen in 1996. Called “European Eyes on Japan/Japan Today”, it consists of the European Capitals of Culture each year sending photographers to Japan to make photographs there depicting people and their lives in one particular region of Japan. Since 2002 Mikiko Kikuta has served as artistic director. To date 88 up-and-coming European photographers have photographed 38 of Japan’s prefectures. We gain fresh stimulus from the images of Japan their dissimilar perspectives reveal. They remind us anew how much our daily routines consist in things we have forgotten, things we overlook though they are visible to us. And however different the daily routines of Japan might seem to people from Europe, they identify even so many commonalities in our ways of life. When the EU gained ten new member states in 2004, Japanese photographers went to work in its 25 member countries and depicted the different regions of Europe in the process of unification. If fifty or a hundred years in the future people from these regions are able to turn to these photographs, track how they have changed and draw lessons from what they find, this project will have fulfilled a significant mission.

         For activities to be sustainable also requires those involved to have a sense of agency and work towards autonomy. The EU-Japan Fest Japan Committee has been sustained with corporate support. This is one aspect of what we call corporate social responsibility, or CSR. I would point out the importance, as well, of another CSR, citizen social responsibility. Because citizens are equipped with a tremendous ability to direct the workings of society.

         Also essential to making activities sustainable is to work towards financial self-reliance. Japan is only one of many countries with an aging population, and as social welfare expenditures grow and grow, governments have little left over to budget for culture. This is the background to the recent enthusiasm for “crowdfunding”, an experiment in financing projects by publicizing them on the internet. Crowdfunding gives a boost to artists’ autonomy in their work, and one may expect it to grow yet further as a wave opening the way to a new era.


Everyone thinks that the principal thing to the tree is the fruit, but in point of fact the principal thing to it is the seed. – Friedrich Nietzsche


The role of the EU-Japan Fest Japan Committee is neither to sow the seeds nor to plant the seedlings. Rather, it would be to water the seeds that carry the potential lying in fertile ground. My belief is that sprouts will appear as suits the soil and that one day they will grow into a great forest.


3. Recognize the standing of and support artistic activities on which opinion remains unformed.

          The thing is to keep a step ahead of the times. To penetrate incisively the contradictions and problems of society. Contemporary artists are among those who fulfill these roles, but they face long waits and many hurdles before they are properly appreciated.

         Claude Monet, the giant of impressionism, had to travel a long road before his new techniques were accepted by the art world. For many years he struggled in a life of poverty, but in his later years the way at last opened for him when an exhibition in the new continent of America won favor. The world-renowned contemporary musician Toru Takemitsu also endured a wretched beginning. His first work for piano was ragged by a leading music critic as “pre-musical”.

         Nor has it necessarily been the case that Japanese artists invited to the European Capitals of Culture enjoyed a formed opinion of their work at first. More than a few have been selected from a perspective, provocative and creative, that sought to open a way to the future despite the lack of a track record. The architect Kazuyo Sejima, the dancer Saburo Teshigawara and the artist Yayoi Kusama are among the many who went on to establish a global profile with their work.

         Towards the end of this report, readers may review this year’s listing of artists participating in past European Capitals of Culture who have gone on to earn later acclaim and awards for their work.


4. Support artistically and spiritually creative activities while continuously examining the merits and demerits of globalization.

         The digital revolution has spurred a greater pace of globalization over these past 25 years. Going by the latest data, the network of mobile phones covers seven billion people, or 95% of the world’s population. There are 3.7 billion internet users. Social networks boast 2.3 billion users, who upload 3.5 billion photos daily, and 820,000 new websites open everyday. The daily average of emails sent reaches 144 billion (of which 68.8% is spam). Such reminders of the awfulness of irresistible digitization are enough to make one wince.

         Human beings have long survived exposure to natural threats over the course of six million years of human history, but we now live in the midst of threats from such sources as spam, fake news and hacking. We humans again live in a jungle today, as we did long ago.

         It is important to protect ourselves from the information that presses on us like a flood. At the same time, however, we must give their due to the advantages brought by the digital revolution and utilize them without becoming dependent on, or accepting blindly, the superabundance of information.

         The issues of inequality, of “winners” and “losers”, that arise from globalization appear frequently in the media. Our contemporary society faces problems that economic development alone will not resolve. There is a volume titled “Happiness and Economics” by the economists Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer about what things promote human happiness that is of deep interest. According to this work, per-capita GDP grew dramatically in post-war America and Japan both. Even so, there was no change, or otherwise a fall, in life satisfaction in that half-century. Even if one’s own income rises, one experiences disaffection where another’s income rises more, and as the difference exacerbates one comes to view oneself as the “loser”.

         On the other hand, developing countries exhibit a clear correlation between income and happiness. If income increases, happiness too increases. There is a divergence at per-capita GDP of 10,000 dollars, however, above which both fall out of simple direct proportion. Increased earnings lead to a desire for yet more income, and unhappiness grows with the failure to satisfy that desire.

         The tenth-century Japanese monk Genshin left us the following remark: “If you know what sufficiency means, you might say poverty but mean abundance; even if one has wealth, if you covet much, you are impoverished.” These words go to the heart of the fundamental issue of our own times. They remind us that material wealth is not always coupled with spiritual wealth.

         What we ought to make of our times, how to confront them, how to think about them are not questions only for politicians; these are questions put equally to each one of us. Much discrimination and conflict originates in material questions or in superficial or outward differences. What makes art sublime is that it can appeal to the human spirit, to our inner world. Economics and culture are twin engines of society, and it is our creative activities in spiritual culture that, together with economic development, make our society fit for human beings. This notion is the principle that has underpinned the work of the EU-Japan Fest Japan Committee.


5. Support the formation of global networks in culture and the arts and joint efforts undertaken in their context.

         The number of international travelers grew from 1.1 billion in 1993 to 3.7 billion in 2016. This fact shows that opportunities are increasing rapidly for people to meet and speak face to face.

         According to United Nations figures, the world population is now 7.4 billion and each of us knows 44 other people. Here is something we may infer from these numbers. If everybody were to introduce somebody else to someone they know and this action were repeated six times, all the 7.4 billion people in the world – i.e. the sixth power of 44 – would be connected.

         As noted above, 30,000 Japanese artists and young people have taken part in the activities of the European Capitals of Culture over these past 25 years. Say each of those 30,000 connects with a local resident through their work in the arts, and the sixth power of 30,000 gives the startling figure of 72.9 septillion people. Now, this may amount to nothing more than playing around with numbers, but they are numbers that can give us great hope for the future if we consider the possibilities of the work of artists joining people’s hearts one to another.

         Every country suffers to some degree from the evils of provincial and jealous policy silos in governmental bureaucracies and from time to time direct criticism at their habits, but it is in fact evidence that administrative organs are functioning properly and nothing comes of simply repeating the criticism of this sectionalism. The prodigious development of means of data handling and transport has extinguished the sense of distance between everyone in the world. In other words, we have reached the point where, even if you live in a remote area, you may think of it as the center of the world and indeed you are easily able to connect with all the world.

         An important role of the European Capitals of Culture is to promote the formation of global networks among its principals during the process of drawing up their programs. Artists must now form cross-sectional links as well as the conventional siloed links they have known. Such networks of dual orientation accord artists and communities a wider range of activity. Now that the barriers to connection are dramatically fewer, if only we have the will and enthusiasm for it, networks are growing steadily deeper and more advanced in quality. No mistake that by advancing these efforts in concrete ways, we are approaching closer to a society rich in humanity.


6. Support activities that preserve traditional culture, as well as activities that extend it.

         “I don’t know who discovered water, but it surely wasn’t a fish.” Spending their lives in it, fish know nothing of water. The same is true of “traditional culture”. We know that it’s important to preserve traditional culture, but if we steep ourselves in it we may find that, unless we notice the times changing, its splendor fades and our traditional culture is in danger of becoming an empty shell. Sometimes culture may travel to another country and develop there. “Culture” is by no means eternal, it can not be. It is something that gradually acquires new value through the efforts of individuals, of communities, of generations.

         It was some time ago in 2002 that we marked the tenth anniversary of the formation of the EU-Japan Fest Japan Committee with a symposium addressing the question of what happens to culture in a time of globalization. Symposium director Chobei Nemoto spent two years refining the concept and bringing it to fruition. The symposium brought together seventeen of the world’s leading intellectuals for two days of debate on the future of global society from a variety of perspectives. One is surprised by how fresh that discussion seems even now, sixteen years later. Nemoto’s long-time friend, the French sociologist Edgar Morin, spoke as follows of “the dialog between cultures”:


          It is not cultures but people who perform the dialog, and they each belong to a culture. What makes dialog possible is people with a vital curiosity, with a spirit receptive to the other and the alien, with much experience of movement and travel. Culture has both an insular tendency for the preservation of a particular culture and potential for opening itself to the outside and enriching itself. All cultures experience encounter and association in their origins. Even as we prize individual cultures, we must also be open to the world as a whole. This is how people can come to understand each other, how the spirit of tolerance emerges.


Morin’s observations are on point for the future of traditional culture in these times of ongoing globalization.

         Jazz and classical music have long since departed their lands of origin and spread throughout the world. Likewise, many elements of the traditional culture of Japan have put down roots in European society in just these 25 years. Herman Van Rompuy, a former President of the European Council, is known for his haiku compositions and says, “Japan is haiku’s country of origin, but haiku is a philosophy of the world now.” Czech dramatist Ondrej Hybl studied kyogen for many years under the master Shigeyama Shime, and his efforts have born fruit with this performing art taking root in Europe. The factor that made Europe receptive to kyogen must be that it makes a joke of everything, including absurdities. We hear that kyogen activities for children have recently become available in Prague. There are more instances of European playwrights and producers adapting noh and kabuki pieces for their theaters. Among the martial arts, outstanding European instructors are appearing in aikido, kendo and Japanese archery, and have been present for some time in judo and karate. Just as Western culture found a home in Japan, so too has the “traditional culture” of Japan outgrown its bounds and it feels not much longer before its cultural roots spread in the world.


For the sake of children who will see the 22nd century

          No country in the world has proceeded farther than Japan down the way of an aging population with declining birth rates. In 1970 each elderly person aged 65 and over was supported by 8.5 people in the working population aged 20 to 64, but in 2015 each elderly person was supported by just 2.1 working-age people and that number is expected to fall to 1.2 in 2035.

         The phenomenon of an aging population is an expression of healthier and longer-lived people due to medical advances, and one result, we may say, is that there are more robust, healthy elderly folk about. Let’s turn the idea around and consider adults supporting children. In 1970 there were 2.1 times as many adults aged 20 and older as there were children aged 19 and younger, in 2015 there were 4.7 times as many, and in 2035 there should be 6.9 times as many. A time is coming in the future when many more adults will be able to apply themselves for the sake of the children.

         At last year’s European Capital of Culture Aarhus, program director Juliana Engberg devised a project called 101 Friendship Park, in which 101 Japanese trees were planted in a corner of the grounds of a municipal hospital. The background to this project is the story of an elderly Japanese lady, and it begins with how she met her newborn great-grandchild. The woman, now elderly, had herself been born in 1914, the year of the outbreak of the First World War. She lived through two world wars, a life of great hardship, but maintained a strong faith and was fortunate to be blessed with children. At the age of 101 she met her newborn great-grandchild. Wrapped in unforeseen happiness, she found a passing thought cross her mind – the 22nd century. The 20th century that consumed the greater part of her own life has been called “the century of war”. There is yet no telling what epithet later generations will apply to this century of progressive globalization. However, if the infant this elderly lady found before her is blessed with good health and times of peace, it should live to see the 22nd century. When she was a young girl even the 21st century was but the distant future, and the 22nd century a future she had never imagined. This was the moment that first connected her to the 22nd century, that it first meant anything personal to her.

         If the society we have now is one day to meet with a better future, it will take something more than mere political strategy or grand technological objectives. Even as each of us fosters our own aspirations for culture in our own hearts, if we are able to engage with our children’s possibilities and take what action is necessary, our children who last to greet the 22nd century will inherit these our hopes and actions and will be sure to welcome a society of humanity. That I can be confident of this is due to the people who have shared my passion for the work of these 25 years, the people who have supported me and who have worked together with me during this time.

         From my heart, thank you very much.