On the occasion of concluding all the programs of the 24th EU-Japan Fest (Jan. 2016 - Mar. 2017), Secretary General Mr. Shuji Kogi wrote an essay.
The view looking down on the Earth from space has likely not changed in millions of years. Our planet continues on its orbit. For those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, at last spring has come, and this year once again beautiful cherry blossoms blanketed the whole of Japan. In the dazzling sunlight our hearts swell with gratitude for the blessings of Nature.
Meanwhile, there persists through the daily routine of our human society a rumble that one cannot call peaceful. Japan too is visited by one incident after another, even as our population continues to fall and a vague anxiety swirls about our greying society. Looking abroad, the news does little to relieve our sense of unease as we hear of the situations in North Korea and in Syria, of migrant and refugee issues in Europe, of Britain leaving the European Union, of terrorist incidents in all parts of the continent, and of the rise of populism, of rightward political tendencies and of protectionism.
“Pessimism comes from the temperament, optimism from the will.”
These words come to mind, those of the philosopher Émile Chartier, also known as Alain, from his work “On Happiness”, delivered as a high school teacher.
We have a tendency to attribute our many problems to accelerating globalization, to the spread of information technologies, to encroaching artificial intelligence or to the times we live in, but these words of Alain resound for us like a warning bell. They urge us to turn our attention for once to the many things fundamental and precious to us as human beings, such as hope, ideals, dignity, love.
Our times challenge our attitude to information
Whether we are aware of it or not, information is fundamental to our lives. It is just as essential as water or air.
The social prospect before us is one of intensive information. Computers and related new technologies are ratcheting up the acceleration of progress. Our “vehicles of information” – television, radio, newspapers, magazines, smartphones, the internet – these media send chasing about the globe unthinkably vast amounts of information.
Whereas mass media are a vertical means of information transmission whereby senders with expertise transmit messages to the general populace, social networks with their ease of transmission are horizontal “media of linkage and agreement” that connect people who share some inclination or ideology.
Be that as it may, it is human beings who assign meaning to information, who create it and use it. We are now subject to avalanches of information in such tremendous, even stupefying volumes well in excess of our human tolerance that each one of us is challenged individually with how we engage information. Among it we encounter hyperbole, misinformation, fake news, and the reality is that their spread invites confusion and division in our societies, and leads to the rise of populism and protectionism.
In the old days man always had to prepare against the threats of Nature. In our own times information is the new threat, and here in the information jungle we must develop the art of staying alive by thinking and judging for ourselves. Even when a typhoon or hurricane stirs the surface of the sea into rough waters, there remains a world of calm and abundance in the waters’ depths. What is important is to extend our thinking deep into the interior of things and not to let ourselves be buffeted by information about their surface only.
Europe in the media and Europe in reality
The other day I met my old friend Pierre Gramegna, who in the 1990s served as Luxembourg’s ambassador to Japan (and today as its finance minister), who lamented, “There is no limit to the number of things the EU has achieved, but the media reports on just few areas where it’s having trouble.” No doubt the EU has reached an impasse in the 2010s, but as much dissatisfaction builds up with Brussels bureaucrats, the advocates for its destruction are by no means realistic. Now more than ever it should be plain to everyone that the unification of Europe is a grand initiative for peace that is unprecedented in human history. There is not one person who wants to return to the days of the Second World War, or to the protracted Cold War.
Seen from outside, Europe is now laden with the image of a region best by frequent terrorism, but what is the reality? Consider the place of guns in American society: There are three hundred million of them in the country, and there are said to be 30,000 victims annually of murder, suicide and other incidents involving guns. Things are yet more dire in the Middle East, where strife persists, and day after day people fall victim to it in large numbers and without end. What is an everyday occurrence in the United States or the Middle East is a major news event when it happens just once, even on a small scale, in a peaceful Europe of 500 million.
Immediately after the recent shooting of a policeman on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, I was in transit at Charles de Gaulle and found the airport so calm, almost lethargic. Both government and people seemed to have learned that a state of alert only fans the sense of fear and panic, and is not conducive to bringing the situation under control. Immediately after the bombing at the Brussels airport last year, I could spy no sign of armed police at Amsterdam airport either, only restrained and prudent security measures in force. To bring a situation under control also requires some degree of cooperation from the media.
To take suicide as an example, just after the subway opened in Vienna there was a rash of suicides by people jumping in front of the trains. When the media reported on this development in detail day after day, the result was a further increase in suicides. When the reaction, however, was to correct reportage for greater restraint and offer more programming directing the suicide-minded to counseling opportunities, the number of suicides fell dramatically. Even reportage on terrorism needs to coolly examine the background of the incident and offer a perspective on how to prevent ones like it in future.
Reports of events that we do not observe ourselves give us a sense of danger and rightly so, but is it not our ability to make sound value judgments, even if not based on our own experience, that makes us human beings intelligent creatures? Certainly debates rage on all manner of social issues, but the Europe that I experience is one of a calm and peaceful day-to-day routine, quite unlike the Europe portrayed by the media.
Civil society in a diverse, stratified Europe
Last year I visited 11 cities that are current and future European Capitals of Culture and walked their streets. Whenever I interacted with local people, what I found was a quiet and soulful daily life that would be unimaginable in Japan. Entering into local people’s daily lives, it was plain to me that they were not agitated by the current European turmoil – migrant and refugee issues, terrorist incidents, the backlash against unification – but responding to circumstances.
In the first place, it is nothing new for migrants and refugees to pour into Europe. It has been going on for a thousand, even two thousand years. It’s how things are in Europe.
Looking back over the history of France, during the classical Roman period it was called Gaul and was inhabited by Celts. Later, in a great movement of people, a German tribe called the Franks relocated there. It’s not that the French had been living there since prehistoric times. Anyone born in France and educated there is automatically awarded French nationality on attaining his or her majority, and by law all such are French regardless of differences in skin color or religion. That said, not everything works ideally. Even if the spirit of liberté, égalité, fraternité is pounded into children at school, the dreary fact is that they will find in society the existence of discrimination and prejudice against Muslim and African immigrants.
Campaigning for the presidential elections has begun in France. “Migrant crime” and “anti-EU sentiment” have become major points of dispute, incandescent. What concerns one is how they are treated in the media. In every country are many immigrants who spend years making every effort to blend into society and who obtain citizenship and contribute to their new home. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who was known for his harsh crackdown on illegal immigration, is himself a second-generation immigrant, of Hungarian and Jewish background. The problem is that reportage that seems to lump all immigration together, whether legal or illegal, excites and agitates people who are dissatisfied with society in various ways.
One must not underestimate the stratified civil society of Europe on the basis of such simplistic media coverage. A civil society comprising multiple ethnicities will be stratified, and it is this very diversity that is Europe’s strength.
One may observe repeated effort and action to identify hope in the midst of this distress, as though in opposition to the current situation. There is a durability here and a potential that must come from Europe’s history.
Wrocław: History of rise and fall as background to flowering of culture and the arts
Historically, Poland has long been exposed to threats from the powerful countries neighboring it. Its national borders have changed any number of times. In the 19th century it was partitioned among the surrounding great powers, and for a time its name even disappeared from the map. There are many instances in history of peoples extinguished, or absorbed into other peoples, or swallowed up by larger countries, but Poland splendidly revived.
Surrounded by water, Japan has no land borders. It has no experience of invasion by other countries, nor of fighting for its independence. It has had an independent existence since it got its start as a country. It is therefore no simple matter for an island nation like Japan to appreciate the transmigratory history of Poland, full of hardships and troubles.
Art that stirs the soul arises from a tragic history, from being plunged into the depths of despair. The music of Chopin is like that. His piano pieces have latched on firmly to the hearts of many music fans in Japan, as elsewhere. People say, however, that Japanese pianists could truly play Chopin only once the country had experienced a tragic defeat in war, the entire country scorched. It takes more than reading the notes to produce a magnificent performance.
But let’s get back to postwar Poland. In the final stages of the Second World War, the American, British and Soviet heads of government Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin gathered in Crimea in the Soviet Union to hold the Yalta Conference ordering the postwar world. They spent over half of the conference on the Polish question. The outcome was to shift the Polish border 250 kilometers west, bringing Wrocław once again within Polish territory. Fierce fighting continued in the city even after the fall of Berlin, and most of it was destroyed. Ethnic Germans who until then had been its citizens were expelled, and Poles repatriated from the East. The result was a wholesale replacement of the city’s population, something that has only rarely taken place anywhere in the world.
Germany lost much territory, and the number of Germans forcibly repatriated from its former eastern lands reached 14 million. The violence and plunder visited on them as they traveled was appalling, and two million Germans lost their lives on the way. It was stringent hatred of the aggressor country Germany that invited such a development. Poland had no reason to forgive the German barbarisms of the past, but eventually a major turning point arrived. In 1965 the Cold War had run on for 20 years, but now things began to shift. Cardinal Kominek of Wrocław sent a “letter of reconciliation” to the German bishops. “Please forgive us,” he wrote. “We forgive you.” Kominek was subjected to violent criticism in line with the sentiment of many Poles, unable to erase their memories of the past, and with the Communist regime of the day, but the letter served as a foothold and subsequently relations between the two countries improved bit by bit. Fifty years later, nationalistic conservative parties have found their way back to power and Poland is taking an unbending attitude to Germany. The two countries have different interpretations of history, and different sentiments about it, and still find it hard to find agreement. One must not overlook, however, the fact that even in these circumstances they have already formed a new partnership as two constituents of Europe. In Asia where we live the problems of history have been obstacles to progress in the construction, ever lagging, of partnerships for the future. There is much for us to learn from Poland, which has escaped from this history of rise and fall.
Poland has seen remarkable economic growth since joining the European Union in 2004. One result, however, is that the history of past suffering is fading from people’s memories. Alarmed by this state of affairs, Wrocław mayor Rafał Dutkiewicz turned his energies to reclaiming the history in people’s memories. Those long hardships in their history have also fostered deep art. One might say that this is why Wrocław has had a tolerance for culture from other countries, of which Japanese culture, appreciated for its spiritual dimensions, has already made a place for itself. It was against this background that in Wrocław the European Capital of Culture a creative team spent many years in preparation to execute a program of depth and breadth. In 2016 artists, young people and the leading lights in many different fields from around the world reached beyond their many differences to gather under the banner of the European Capital of Culture. It is a matter of pride that many Japanese invitees were among them.
Art is not a means of resolving political issues. However, in a Europe where danger seems to be on the rise in recent years, taking on such increasingly critical forms as the euro crisis, a string of terrorist incidents, dissatisfaction with the EU and the rise of anti-EU populism arising from an influx of refugees, there is significance beyond measure in how European Capital of Culture Wrocław has urged solidarity in the arts on the countries of the world. I would like to express my heartfelt respect for the superb leadership of Mayor Dutkiewicz in this regard.
San Sebastian: Seeking ways to diversification and peace
In the 16th century one of the first Europeans to visit Japan was the Basque missionary Francis Xavier. Japan and the Basque country first met 500 years ago. Situated on the northern and southern sides of the Pyrenees, the Basque region straddles Spain and France both, with a population of some 2.7 million in Spain and perhaps a quarter million in France. Looking onto the Bay of Biscay, the city of San Sebastian is known throughout the world as a tourist destination of scenic beauty and for its cultural riches. In 2011 the European Commission selected San Sebastian to be European Capital of Culture in five years’ time. When I heard the news, an unforgettable memory of “the Basque” flashed through my mind. It was the autumn of 1990 and I was visiting Belfast in Northern Ireland. At the time the Catholics of Northern Ireland were persisting in their struggle for independence from Britain and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was carrying out its campaign of terrorism. While in the city, I made my way around the “Peace Wall” that divides the city in two and entered a Catholic neighborhood. What I saw there were many wall paintings celebrating the history of the struggle against Britain. Among them was a portrait of a masked soldier, raising a rifle, of the Basque Homeland and Liberty (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or ETA) that likewise carried out an armed struggle for the Basque country’s independence from Spain. It conveyed to me an intense anger and hatred, an attitude of resistance. Internationally isolated, the IRA at that time was calling for solidarity and combination among terrorist organizations around the world, including the ETA and the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). The bombing of the Belfast hotel where I stayed on that trip, by the way, came only three days after I left. I still cannot forget any of it.
To get back on track, Spain had offered a number of cities as candidates for hosting the European Capital of Culture in 2016. These competed ruthlessly with each other, and in the end it was San Sebastian that was selected. While there is no effacing the history of the armed struggle that unfolded in the Basque country, the blood spilled there or the many victims it claimed, no doubt but that the announcement the previous year by the ETA of an end to the armed struggle had some effect on the selection of European Capital of Culture.
European Capital of Culture San Sebastian took for its motto “Culture overcoming conflict”. This found concrete expression in the Peace Treaty exhibition, which included among its exhibits clocks from Hiroshima, their hands stopped ever since the moment of that city’s atomic bombing. Around the same time, then-President Barack Obama of the United States made his historic visit to Hiroshima. Images were broadcast to the world of the president exchanging words with survivors of the bombing and embracing them. Likewise, in the Basque country too, they overcame the history of a long and bloody struggle that united the terrorist organizations of the world. 2016 was a year in which artists from around the world gathered in European Capital of Culture San Sebastian to wave the banner of culture and the arts and to make the world whole.
24 years of EU-Japan Fest
At the residence of the Danish ambassador to Japan, where we held a general meeting of the EU-Japan Fest committee on 23 February 2017, was an enthusiastic gathering that brought together representatives of ten European Capitals of Culture, new and old, as well as national ambassadors, Operating Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada and other business leaders who serve on the Committee. Looking back, it was in 1993 at the time of the collapse of the bubble economy in Japan that the activities of EU-Japan Fest began. We have experienced other times of diversity since then, including the heavy blow to the world economy caused by the Lehman shock of 2008 and the serious damage inflicted by the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged eastern Japan in 2011. However, many Japanese firms have maintained, throughout and without recompense, their support for our cultural work with the understanding that its economy and its culture are the two pillars of society.
Over these 24 years the European Capitals of Culture have been the stage on which we met and worked with over 30,000 artists and young people from Japan and Europe. Regions and artists have then gone on to work together and collaborate independently of our involvement. The self-supporting efforts and expressive capabilities of these essential hands-on principals have in turn gained footing. Artist crowdfunding has now emerged as a mode of financing alongside public subsidies and support by private-sector firms.
The European Capital of Culture framework was launched by the European Union but has since developed into a global endeavor that welcomes artists from all over the world. Culture and the arts need no passports, nor recognize any national frontiers. Nor do they ask after race or religion. They demand only the production of art of high quality. With 22 EU signatories and four more from outside the EU, the Schengen Agreement permits passport-free travel across national borders within the area it covers. The European Capital of Culture might be reckoned a Schengen Area of culture and the arts bringing together over one hundred countries from all over the world. One has great hopes for the work of artists who blaze trails to the future through the open work of the European Capital of Culture. We operate locally, but we live globally and we are linked with the world. This is what was made plain to me in summing up the year 2016.
Even as I draft this report, much grave news flies in from around the world. But I must not let it drive me to lamentation.
There is something we have learned from the work to date of so many people at the European Capitals of Culture. It is this: “Nothing comes from pessimism. What is needed of us is to raise our ideals and bear a willing optimism. The strength of our trials is all we need to make us strong.”
Children are the same in every era. They are the shared wealth of society. It is for us adults to be sensitive to their individual characteristics and talents, and to help them as needed. Turning our hopes to the future, we expect much from a matured politics and grand technologies. If we are able at the same time to take seriously our hopes and aspirations for culture and to act accordingly, I am confident that our future will be a very human one.