w GrassNet | Issue 20

日本語   JCIE Japanese Language Site

Issue 20
March 5, 2004

Cultural and Arts-Related Exchange in Japan

by Sachiko Kanno, Program Coordinator, Japan Foundation


Editor's Note: The field of arts-related and cultural exchange is a relatively understated aspect of international exchange, but its impact is steadily growing. For example, the Artist-in-Residence Program described in the following article is a unique initiative that promotes a mix of arts-related and international exchange at the community level. The program is noteworthy in that it serves both as an artist exchange and as a community activity.

I recently was given the opportunity to write a chapter on "Cultural and Arts-Related Exchange" in a publication titled Introduction to International Exchange and Cooperation Activities: Grassroots International Exchange and International Cooperation, published last July. Writing this chapter turned out to be a very meaningful experience for me, especially as it just so happened that I had been toying with the idea of doing a personal assessment of the history and meaning of cultural exchange, my current field of work. Here are some of my perspectives on cultural and arts exchange today and the future outlook.

Since 1985, the Japan Foundation, where I work, has been awarding Japan Foundation Prizes for the Promotion of Community-Based Cultural Exchange to organizations and individuals engaged in the promotion of international cultural exchange rooted in the unique characteristics and traditions of their respective communities. At the 19th Awards Ceremony held on February 9, 2004, the award was conferred upon three groups: the Mino Paper Art Village Project Executive Committee for the Artist-in-Residence Program (Gifu Prefecture), the Takefu International Music Festival Board (Fukui Prefecture), and the International Symposium on the Okhotsk Sea & Sea Ice Executive Committee (Hokkaido). The first two award recipients received high marks from the award selection committee for implementing cultural and arts exchange activities that not only draw on the unique characteristics of their respective communities but also involve the communities as central participants. The third recipient, the Okhotsk Sea & Sea Ice Executive Committee, was highly evaluated for encouraging local residents to play a key supporting role as volunteers in its annual international sea and sea ice conference, which is held in icy Monbetsu City.

The 19th International Symposium on the Okhotsk Sea & Sea Ice was held over one week starting on February 22, 2004, during which researchers from all over Japan and around the world gathered in Monbetsu City (population approx. 30,000). Each year, a children's symposium is held in conjunction with the event, where young participants engage in discussions with as much enthusiasm as the adult participants. This sea and sea ice symposium originally was conceived as a one-time event, but the local participants quickly realized its significance and decided to make it a continuing initiative. International conferences are held on different topics all around the world, but the one in Monbetsu stands apart for offering intellectual exchange on an international level through the efforts of its local citizens.

The first two award recipients' activities are worthy of further mention as well. This prize is the first award for both of these groups and for their respective prefectures of Gifu and Fukui.

Mino Paper Art Village Project Executive Committee

Mino City is known for producing Mino washi or traditional Japanese handmade paper. The town has preserved some of its history in the form of old washi shops featuring roofs with raised edges used to prevent the spread of fires from building to building. In the Edo period, the city was known as a producer of high-quality washi. The city's merchants became prosperous through the washi business, and, at the time, there were about 5,000 washi production houses. Today, only 30 such houses remain due to the widespread use of Western paper. With a mere population of 25,000, Mino City may convey the impression of a small rural city that has been left behind by the modern era. Since 1997, however, the city has been endeavoring to carry on the Mino washi tradition and explore new possibilities for washi through its Artist-in-Residence program, which invites 5 to 7 artists from abroad to Mino City every year. Although the program was carried out through a process of trial and error during the first five years, the co-sponsorship of Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs helped to prevent any major financial or administrative problems.

Once the agency's financial support ended, however, the program budget had to be trimmed significantly, leading the city to consider discontinuing the program. Ultimately, it was decided that the program would be continued, thanks in large part to the enthusiasm of the local volunteers, who look forward to the exchanges with foreign artists every year with great anticipation. Generally speaking, artist-in-residence programs bring foreign artists to Japan to engage in artistic activities while staying in a designated area. These artists focus on molding their creative ideas and working on artistic projects during a fixed period in a set place. Therefore, in most cases, the artists are isolated from the general public. For example, in the Akiyoshidai International Art Village and the Arcus Studio projects in Japan, artists are given a private studio, thus providing them with an environment that allows them to focus solely on their artistic projects. In those cases, the artists have very limited opportunities to interact with the general public except workshops and open studio programs. Mino City's program places most of the artists in homestays with Japanese families and uses an empty factory located in the middle of town as the artists' studio. These program characteristics give the artists more chances to interact with local residents through casual daily greetings and conversations. These interactions help to create a friendly and harmonious atmosphere in which to work.

The program's one condition is that the artists use Mino washi in their artistic activities during their stay. Many of the foreign artists who participate in the program arrive with no prior experience working with washi. But these artists go on to create astounding works that overflow with originality. The fresh new ideas that emerge from these artists are inspiring local Mino washi producers and washi artisans to identify new opportunities for washi.

Over the seven years since the program's inception in 1997, 43 artists from 22 countries, including Japan, have stayed in Mino City. As former participants spread the word about their experience to their artist friends, artists around the world have come to know about not only Mino City's program but also its rich culture and way of life.

Takefu International Music Festival Board

With a population of 70,000, Takefu City is Fukui Prefecture's second largest city. It is an industrial city with a production output exceeding 400 billion yen in addition to being a transportation hub in the Hokuriku region. Until the Edo period, the city was called Fuchu and it was where "Fuchu merchants" did business, thereby becoming the center of political, economic, cultural, and trade activity in the Echizen region. Unfortunately, however, the city did not have any special cultural assets or cultural traditions to call its own, compared with other historic cities such as Mino.

In June 1990, this changed with the start of the Finland Music Festival in Takefu, initiated by local volunteers in Takefu. In its third year, the event's name was changed to the Takefu International Music Festival. Since then, the music festival has been held every year in June. Last June marked the festival's 14th year. During the festival period, performers and composers from around the world gather in Takefu City and hold concerts at various locations throughout the city, from the Takefu Bunka Center (the festival's main venue) to street corners, schools, temples and shrines, hospitals, and restaurants, filling the entire city with music. Under the guidance of artistic director Toshio Hosokawa, various local volunteers imbued with the spirit of "Fuchu merchants" help carry out the festival, doing everything from raising operating funds to running the event.

Although various music festivals take place all over Japan, the Takefu International Music Festival is one of the few that focus on contemporary music. It somewhat resembles an artist-in-residence program in that the performers reside in Takefu throughout the festival period. In addition, since 2000, the festival has offered an international music-composition workshop with the aim of nurturing young composers. Also, in 2003, the composer Toshio Hosokawa was brought on as artistic director as part of a continuous effort to enhance the quality of the music festival.

Many discussions over whether the festival should be continued or discontinued have taken place over the festival's 14-year history. Thus far, the residents of Takefu have remained determined to carry on the event. The question of whether the city will overcome the various issues at hand and continue to hold the festival in future years is a challenge that constitutes an integral part of the effort to create a new cultural tradition for Takefu.

Future Outlook

Many communities in Japan today are faced with a host of local and regional issues including municipal mergers and the financial difficulties facing local public entities, on top of nationwide problems such as the aging population, declining birthrates, and hollowing out and decline of industries. For the above-mentioned three award recipients, it has not been easy to succeed with their respective programs. In this complicated environment, all three of this year's award recipients have pointed to the same motivations for continuing with their activities: the desire to invigorate the communities in which they live and the desire to take pride in their own community.

International exchange can refer to activities that generate new initiatives and perspectives in the regions concerned. In fact, these types of activities can serve to infuse new energy into those regions and prompt the start of new activities, as exemplified by the above-mentioned projects.

The Mino Paper Art Village and the Takefu International Music Festival are noteworthy in that they incorporate short-term stays for their participants. These projects go a step beyond simple "friendship exchanges" and encourage full interaction between participants and community members. The Mino Paper Art Village project does not simply invite artists to Mino. It takes a more active approach by endeavoring to incorporate the artists' sensibilities and artistic creativity into their own community.

The preservation and continuation of traditional arts and crafts is an important task. Communities need to be careful, though, not to focus on simple preservation of traditional artistic works and skills alone. By doing so, they risk losing the traditional art's significance and connection to modern society, causing the arts to be forgotten. In order for these arts to continue their existence for years to come, it may be necessary to create new "value-added" types of art and skills. The Mino Paper Art Village asks its artist participants to take on the task of generating new artistic creations. From these creations can arise other new ideas. The artists come to Japan seeking to learn about the materials and skills that are unique to Japan. In many cases, these artists undergo a turning point in their own personal artistic direction and begin creating works that project a slightly different feeling from their other works. Each side influences the other, and, as such, the project holds many possibilities for generating meaningful interactions.

The Takefu International Music Festival brings energy and liveliness to the region by inviting top composers and musicians to stay in the area during the period of the festival. In addition, it allows community members to experience music up close by holding mini concerts in venues such as local elementary and junior high schools and hospitals, where music is not an everyday luxury. These events give community members a rare chance to engage in conversation and learn more about the musicians.

Another example of a meaningful international exchange is one that is being conducted by the city of Adelaide in Australia, called the "Thinker in Residence" program. Jointly funded by Adelaide and New South Wales, this project invites various people from around the world who are leaders in their fields to Adelaide for a limited stay. During their stay, the invited participants provide various types of advice for the city. In addition, they are asked to give a variety of lectures for Adelaide residents. In this way, the city's residents are given the opportunity to come into contact with knowledge from around the world. It is possible that these exchanges could even lead to the sharing of intellectual resources. This type of project is the epitome of a mutually beneficial exchange.

These types of exchanges involving temporary residencies hold many possibilities for the future of international exchange. As diverse initiatives hopefully continue to emerge in various regions of Japan, it will be interesting to see what areas or fields they will focus on and how they will go about connecting the participants to the local communities.

Please send comments/inquiries to grassnet@jcie.or.jp.