The Chrysanthemum and the Rose: Japan Year 2001

This crossculutral affair is blooming lovely

LONDON -- Anybody turning up at London's Hyde Park to walk their dog on the morning of Saturday, May 19, could have been forgiven for thinking they'd wandered into some kind of space and time warp. Instead of a few squirrels and strollers enjoying the pale, watery sunshine, they would have found a full-blown Japanese matsuri in progress. If they weren't surprised to see taiko drummers smashing open sake barrels, they might have been shocked by the sight of a group of bald, middle-aged Japanese men in traditional robes carrying a golden mikoshi around at an admirable trot with dozens of excitable British kids in tow, or a host of other events that have no real business being in your average London park.

If our hypothetical dog-walker had stopped to think, he or she might have remembered a few warning signs, such as the posters and TV programs announcing the countless events and exhibitions which, along with the Matsuri in the Park, are part of Japan 2001, a 12-month series of cultural events being held around Britain with the object of promoting and developing an awareness of Japan.

These events include everything the average person might expect, including Japanese gardening, kabuki, noh and martial arts. But, as Christopher Purvis, chief executive of Japan 2001, has planned it, the festival isn't merely perpetuating the stereotypes of Japan.

"The program is, I believe, a well-balanced mixture of the new and the traditional," Purvis said. "We thought it was important to have an element of the great traditional arts. It has been wonderful, for example, to have the great kabuki actor Ganjiro III here. What is happening is that people may first go to see something traditional and then be drawn onto something else in the program perhaps more contemporary."

Adding to the distinctly traditional hue of the Hyde Park events was the presence of Prince Charles and Japan's Crown Prince, who declared the event open and then joined in an Awa odori, a traditional rice-growing dance that hopefully won't disrupt the park's ecology too much. Afterward they stayed to watch the yabusame (traditional horseback archery).

However, the two-day event, which drew 215,000 people, also had contemporary elements to offer.

"Most of what I've seen today is traditional stuff that you'd associate with Japan," one 23-year-old English woman said, "but the street fashions and pop music were pretty cool. It's like they copy things from here but when you see it, it comes over as weird and funny at the same time."

The street fashions she was referring to were the cyberpunk threads sported by a group of Japanese female art students. Although spectators themselves, they became for a short time a kind of sideshow. Taking an excited interest in a quaint-looking Muji van, they circled round it squealing "kawaii" and snapping photos, in the process attracting a small crowd with their antics.

Much has changed since the last Japanese festival held 10 years ago. Funding, for one.

"There is less sponsorship freely available than there was then," Purvis explained. "That is not necessarily a bad thing, as we and other organizers have been concentrating on making an impact with lower-budget events. Also, so much has been initiated by enthusiasts around the country."

In fact this "bottom up" approach, in part dictated by the economic slowdown, contrasts nicely with the "top down" centralized corporate organization of the previous festival, which famously featured a sumo tournament at the Royal Albert Hall.

"Japan is undergoing dramatic change," Purvis observed. "But this is a positive change. The political and business model of the last 50 years served the country well after the war. But now everything is changing. Companies are changing. The political scene is changing. All this is reflected in lifestyle and culture."

If Japan 2001 achieves anything lasting then it could be to break the rather stubborn and preconceived notions about Japan and its inhabitants. The image of Japan needs updating. "An obvious myth is that all Japanese men wear blue suits and work for major Japanese corporations. In fact there is a huge diversity in occupations and lifestyles," Purvis said.

These themes of diversity are being explored at JAM: a Tokyo/London exhibition running at London's Barbican Centre from May to July. Presenting cutting-edge works from around 100 artists working in both cities in the fields of fashion, graphics, photography, the media, music and art, the exhibition delves into the creative synergy between the two metropolises to show Londoners that Tokyo is just as hip as the capital of "Cool Britannia."

The urge to show the modern Japan was also seen in the mascot used to promote the month long Tokyo Life exhibition held at the majestic Selfridges department store on Oxford Street, London's main shopping drag, throughout May. Instead of a crowd-pleasing cliche of a samurai, sumo or geisha, a cartoon character of a funky Japanese teenager was used. The exhibition itself featured a kaleidoscope of Japanese fashion and other products, ranging from furniture and home appliances to traditional kimono and miniskirts, along with karaoke in the basement coffee shop.

Apart from the clear attempt to dismantle outdated notions inhabiting popular consciousness, Japan 2001 is also encouraging crosscultural exchange at many levels. The clearest example of this is Shakespeare in Japan, an event using the traditional Japanese theatrical forms of noh, kyogen and kabuki to reinterpret and illuminate the Bard's plays, set against the backdrop of the Globe Theatre built by the River Thames. Nakamura Ganjiro III took a break from playing in "Love Suicides at Sonezaki" at London's Sadler's Wells to appear on the Globe's stage for one night.

Although many Japan 2001 events are in London, Purvis is keen to point out that there are also 750 events outside the capital, including a mini version of the Matsuri in the Park traveling to 22 towns and cities throughout the land. Another major initiative is Homestay U.K., which will give British children a chance to experience life with Japanese families. This reflects the grassroots approach favored by Japan 2001, with groups all over the country spontaneously contributing and Japan 2001 acting as an umbrella organization.

Helping foster a modern and positive awareness of itself in other countries is vital to Japan's national interests. Compared to some other locations in Europe, it already has a head start in Britain.

"There is an enormous interest in Japan here," Purvis enthused. "I don't believe there are many other countries where such a Japan year could be held."

Reasons for this might include the fact that Britain has Europe's largest Japanese population (more than 100,000) and that about 1,000 graduates from British universities go to Japan each year to teach English.

Island states of roughly equal size, preserving tradition and monarchies, the U.K. and Japan appear to share a pulse of sympathy that reverberates between them. British fashion and music are as big as ever in Japan, from yesterday's mod and punk scenes to today's clubland DJs. In the other direction, Japanese style and cuisine have made big inroads into the U.K. Who'd have thought you could find sushi at a local supermarket or ramen shop on the corner? While no one expects the British to suddenly start bowing to each other, or the Japanese to take to Marmite and warm beer, mutual interest between the two countries can only grow as a result of Japan 2001.

Mark & Colin Liddell
The Japan Times
27th June, 2001
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