As we look back on the year 2020, we cannot avoid mentioning the COVID-19 pandemic. A record of how people in Japan, Europe and the rest of the world dealt with and acted against it would be instructive for future generations. I wanted to make sure that our activities and those of the European Capitals of Culture would be well documented and remembered for a long time to come.
Long-term lockdowns have begun around the world and are still ongoing.
As of 14 March 2021, the number of COVID-19 cases is 119 million and the death toll is 2.64 million worldwide. The number of cases is 1.54% of the world’s population and the deaths are 0.034%. However, the world has seen much worse times in the past: in the 14th century Europe, the Plague epidemic killed a third of its population. As recently as 100 years ago, the Spanish flu (type A influenza) caused a worldwide pandemic that infected 500 million people (over 30% of the population at the time) and killed between 20 to 100 million people, according to varying estimates.
It could be argued that the development of medicine and improvements in public health over the last 100 years have made the circumstances surrounding this pandemic much more contained than in the past. Nevertheless, fear spread and the whole world was plunged into panic. The daily deluge of pessimistic information was a psychological blow that caused further anguish for the people. In Japan, the number of suicides exceeded that of the previous year, although no direct causal link has been established. The pandemic has certainly taken its toll on the psyche of many people.
Disaster comes when you forget
Throughout history, mankind has repeatedly battled man-made, natural and war-related disasters, as well as viruses. But there was no struggle that never ended. Each time, paying great cost, humanity has risen from despair.
Seventy-six years after the last world war, the Cold War has come to an end. Having two world wars, the 20th century is known as the century of wars. Both wars originated in Europe and the ravages were felt around the world. However, the European Union is now a vast zone of peace on the continent. Although there are still conflicts in many places around the world, it is holding peace and prosperity like never before in human history.
It is proven that besides the new problems of wealth maldistribution of emerging, the expansion of the global economy has been showing a gradual improvement in global poverty.
Over time, the memory and realisation of the past that had terrified the whole world has faded from our minds. I feel we became complacent and too comfortable with this era of peace and stability. I believe this is one of the reasons for the panic that accompanied the pandemic.
How did the world act during the COVID pandemic?
Palmerston, the 19th century British Prime Minister, said: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow”. But in the modern world, global society is becoming increasingly interdependent in politics, economics, the environment and public health. It is therefore difficult for the world to survive without these interdependencies.
As the world scrambles to fight against COVID, some are beginning to believe that their own prosperity depends on the prosperity of others. Thinking about the interests of the global community as a whole is good for your own country. In the face of an unprecedented crisis, the idea of putting one’s country first has lost its momentum. Altruism can be seen as rational selfishness, and it is fortunate that it has made steady progress.
There is much to be learnt from the history of pandemics, particularly in Europe where the land-linked nature of the continent has meant that infections have spread quickly and at great cost. At the time of the plague in the 14th century, in the absence of medical science, every possible effort was made to prevent the spread of the disease, but at the same time, many people suffered psychological damage from the fear of infection. It was a social problem. For this reason, the role of art, as well as religion, in sustaining the spirit of the people was immeasurable.
Art and cultural activities in the middle of the pandemic
A year ago, as the world entered a pandemic, many countries imposed severe restrictions on activity. People were forbidden to leave their homes and were unable to have any contact with the outside world. The crisis was not so much the infection itself, but the fear and loneliness that was beginning to eat away at people’s spirits. As a result of this situation, many freelance artists found themselves on the verge of being forced to stop their activities due to lack of public support.
On the other hand, the response of the European countries was quite different from that of Japan. They sent out a strong message for the maintenance and development of artistic activities. They showed a mature response to resolve the situation based on a history of overcoming numerous pandemics. The German Minister of Culture declared: “Creative artistic activity is not only indispensable for human beings, it is a life-support system”. Chancellor Merkel added: “Maintaining the cultural environment is at the top of the government’s priorities.”
As if in response, European governments quickly took concrete measures. In particular, compensation for freelance artists was implemented in March 2020. This is not limited to artists from their own country, but to all artists who have a permit to stay and work in the country. Needless to say, many Japanese artists have also benefited from this.
The European Commission not only called for maintaining online activities, but also promoted the sophistication of their content: in Kaunas, Lithuania, one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2022, an online symposium was held to discuss the nature of artistic activities under lockdown and how they can contribute to the people. The symposium warned that “simplified online activities degrade the quality of art”. I was very impressed by this warning.
Many performing arts were recorded and transmitted around the world using sophisticated technology and equipment.
In some cases, TV crews tried new ways of recording small theatrical productions, improving the quality and content to the point where Netflix, with its 200 million viewers, was no match for them.
In the field of art, there have long been calls for a rethink of the old system of museums. The COVID pandemic has undoubtedly provided an excellent opportunity to evolve the way museums are and their contribution to education. The museums were forced to close their doors for a long time, but they took advantage of the situation to revise their exhibitions and collections, and to renovate their premises in a way that had not been possible before. In addition, the highly digitalised nature of artworks has accelerated. The dissemination of digital content to the outside world, especially in education, has shortened the distance between museums and people. Some of the world’s first VR exhibitions, in which artworks were photographed at an ultra-high resolution of one billion pixels, were also unveiled. The museum has begun a new mission, where its content can be used not only by visitors but also by art educators.
Two visits to Europe during the COVID pandemic
A bond existed between the European Capitals of Culture and us, which had been built up over a long period of time through repeated visits to each other. Even in the midst of the pandemic, we continued to communicate with each city in every possible way. But there is no limit to the information that can be gained by going directly to the ground. As the situation has become more protracted, I have come to feel that online-meetings such as on ZOOM are not enough and that face-to-face discussions are essential. I decided to visit Europe for the sake of the many artists and young people who are looking forward to the development of our work.
Ideals and resignation are two sides of the same coin. When we are in trouble, if we only pursue our ideals, we will only end up in despair. The only way out is to find out what is possible and what is not, and to start with what is possible. Only a realist will be able to overcome the situation.
The first visit was in July 2020. The outbreak in Europe had died down somewhat and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to head there. However, many European countries have entry restrictions and I was only able to visit two countries, Croatia and Serbia, which will host the European Capital of Culture this year and next. The actual experience there was surprising and inspiring. The infection in Europe is far more serious than in Japan, but in contrast to this, the people I met there were cheerful. Every person was full of smiles. No one talked about Corona. ‘Now would not be the time to be sad. What can we do to overcome our fears and make our everyday lives more beautiful?’ This was the view shared by many of those involved in the European Capital of Culture. They have a long history of fighting against infection. It was an echo of the openness and tolerance that is firmly rooted in the people of Europe, where diverse peoples and civilisations have come and gone.
There was one more event that made me realise that Europe is a mature society.
My second visit to Europe was at the end of November. While the countries were in their second lockdown, Romania and Serbia, next year’s European Capitals of Culture, were open for entry. From Timișoara in Romania, I was to cross the border by land to Novi Sad in Serbia. On 26 November, in the foggy weather, the staff of the European Capital of Culture Timișoara, drove me to the border. After disembarking, I rolled my two suitcases and walked about 200 metres to reach the Serbian entry gate. At the immigration office I presented the officer with my passport, a letter of invitation from the European Capital of Culture, and the PCR negative certificate issued the day before in Timișoara. At the counter sat a hard-faced female officer, flanked by two strong-built men. As soon as they saw my passport, their expressions changed and they smiled. “You are the first person to enter the country today. Welcome to Serbia.” These were the words of a sincere welcome. My heart was lightened by this unexpected response. Once again, I was reminded of the mature and tolerant nature of Europeans.
Passing on the art
Art is created by human beings and passed on continuously by human beings.
Art is not a material thing. The COVID pandemic has made me realise that art is alive and well. However, no matter how wonderful art is, it will die out if it is not passed on by human beings.
Greece is said to be the source of European civilisation, but for several centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, the artistic and cultural legacy of Greece was forgotten in Western Europe. Some scholars have described this period as the Dark Ages. In the meantime, a higher level of culture flourished in the Islamic world than in Europe. The Arabic word for Islamic philosophy is “farsapha”, which is derived from the Greek word “philosophia”. Ancient Greek philosophy was inherited by the Muslim world, and then translated into Arabic and spread throughout the Muslim world. It was only through Islam, centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, that much of the ancient Greek literature found its way to Western Europe. From Greek they were translated into Arabic and then into Latin. Art and culture have been handed down from person to person over a long period of time.
It is the common property of the world.
The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates had these words to say.
“I am not an Athenian, I am not a Greek, I am a citizen of the world.”
The future is in the children
Everyone has had the experience of running around the fields and mountains and playing happily with friends as a child. However, the mental oppression and damage caused to children by the restrictions imposed by the Corona disaster, which has lasted for more than a year, is greater than that of adults. This is a situation that we need to take more seriously.
We have organised the International Youth Concert in cooperation with the European Capital of Culture every year. In 2020, two European Capitals of Culture invited a choir and brass bands from Japan. The COVID pandemic prevented the event from taking place, but the passion of the people involved on both sides encouraged them to postpone it until they could travel, promising the children that it would happen without cancellation. The knowledge of this added to the enthusiasm of the children’s practice.
If we become passive, the realisation of our “hopes” will always be postponed and hope and resignation will become two sides of the same coin. The dreams and aspirations of children can become concrete goals. In order to achieve these goals, it is essential that we, as adults, have the power and the responsibility to push them forward. e future is in our children’s hands.
This official report is a record of the work that has continued, against the odds and with difficulties. The innovative artistic and cultural developments that have taken place in the field over the past year under severe behavioural restrictions will continue to grow. I am convinced that in the near future we will experience the joy of experiencing live theatre, music and works of art. The fact that our activity, which began 28 years ago without governmental support, has been able to be sustained in the face of the COVID pandemic is due in large part to the generosity of Japanese companies. They have continued to support the project despite the difficult economic situation, without being subject to cost-cutting measures. I would like to express our sincere gratitude to them for their strong commitment to the future.
When all this converges, with vibrant children and us adults, the future must be a humane society.