Image: Kathryn Hunyor (Director, ArtsPeople), Bruce Miller AM (Former Australian Ambassador to Japan) & Melanie Eastburn (Curator, Asian Art, Art Gallery of NSW). Also on the panel was Dean Prenc (General Manager, Pop Culture, Madman Entertainment) at the Asia Society x VisAsia Council breakfast panel “Japan Supernatural: Cultural Diplomacy Re-imagined” held on 6 March 2020 at AGNSW, Sydney. Photo: ArtsPeople.

The Art Gallery of NSW’s recent summer blockbuster ‘Japan Supernatural’ received popular and critical acclaim, and beautifully illustrated how Japan continues to fascinate us – at both a conceptual and aesthetic level.

Japan Supernatural blends art, popular culture, history, mythology, spiritual beliefs, political and personal commentary – all packaged up into exquisitely executed works of art.

The Asia Society used the opportunity to consider Japan’s future as a global soft-power leader. Together with Bruce Miller, former Australian Ambassador to Japan 2011 – 2017, Melanie Eastburn, Curator Japan Supernatural and Dean Prenc, General Manager Pop Culture at Madman Entertainment, I led a panel discussion about Japanese cultural diplomacy and culture as ‘soft power’.

My earliest associations with this idea of ‘soft’ was when I was Cultural Officer at the Australian Embassy in Tokyo in the late 90s, early 2000s.

I’d travel the country visiting beautiful art museums and concert halls – many of them architecturally stunning buildings – which had all been built during Japan’s bubble economy. During this time, sophisticated ‘Culture’ with a capital ‘C’ was still defined by the US & Europe and “internationalisation” was the buzzword.

Japan was playing catch up, copying the western model and trying to make it fit into the Japanese system with varying degrees of success. I was visiting them to try and create opportunities for Australian arts export and develop a deeper diplomatic relationship through the arts.

HARD BUT NO SOFT
And without fail, at every meeting, they would say to me: “Kathryn, we have “hard” but no “soft”.” They were referring of course to the fact that they had these beautiful boxes, but they didn’t have anything to put in them, or the budgets – and people weren’t coming to them.

So I tried to convince them that Australia had world-class “soft” to fill their beautiful “hard”, but more often than not we lost out to the big names from America & Europe. There was very little interesting work being presented, especially in terms of Japanese arts and culture.

Walking the streets, however, was a very different story. This was where the most interesting arts and culture was happening – in the shops, alleyways, nightclubs and living rooms of Tokyo.

GROSS NATIONAL COOL
In the 1990s and early 2000s it was Japan’s pop culture that everyone loved, and it was around this time that Douglas McGray famously described this ‘soft power’ as Japan’s ‘Gross National Cool’.

In Tokyo, the assault to your senses was breathtaking – there was a massive range of aesthetic styles, media and content – all targeted at a domestic market and happening regardless of, or in spite of, any government agenda or public funding.

So as the automotive and other post-war boom industries continued to decline, and Japan’s diplomatic efforts needed help, the Japanese government started to try and harness this ‘soft power’ and also stimulate economic growth in the form of ‘Cool Japan’ initiatives, culminating recently in the Japan House facilities by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Los Angeles, London & Sao Paolo.

RURAL DECLINE & AGEING POPULATION
Another major economic and social issue coming to the fore over this period, that continues today, is Japan’s rural decline and ageing population.

Interestingly some entrepreneurial individuals in the arts scene started to launch projects to address both the rural decline, and this ‘soft’ problem.

They devised regional arts initiatives that combined public and private funds to deliver contemporary arts projects in the countryside. The most notable examples are the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale in Niigata, and the Benesse Art Site Naoshima (the ‘art islands’ of the Seto Inland Sea).

These projects went from strength to strength – injecting money into the local economies and also aiding a revival in traditional Japanese cultural and artistic practices.

NATURAL DISASTERS
Sadly in the 2010s these projects suffered, as did the whole of Japan, from a series of natural disasters, most notably the triple tragedy of 2011.

Japan’s art world and creative industries more broadly banded together to help the affected communities. They built temporary housing, staged concerts and ran arts events to boost morale, inject community spirit and help people come to terms with what had happened.

For many years people were very sensitive to the tragedy and suffering in the community, but gradually this contemplation and reflection seemed to transform itself into a new confidence and strength.

2016 JAPAN RE-ENGAGING WITH ITS OWN CULTURE
When I returned to Japan to live again in 2016, after a 12-year break, I was struck by the fact that Japan seemed to be re-engaging with its own culture across all areas of life – art, architecture, design and popular culture.

What I saw as I wandered the streets was more identifiably “Japanese”. There was, and continues to be, a real sense of moving away from following the west, and more towards delving deep into Japan’s own history and artistic traditions.

Which brings us to 2020 –the Tokyo Olympic year (hopefully) – where the stadium, designed by Kengo Kuma, is a massive circular timber structure that utilises traditional Japanese carpentry techniques developed over centuries for building temples, shrines and castles.

Whenever the Olympics are held – be it this year or next – this stadium will serve as a powerful symbol of where Japan is at culturally.

And for those of us in the arts, it will be a wonderful opportunity to better understand the role of art, culture and aesthetics in Japan – both domestically and diplomatically, in nation-building and identity, and at a fundamental level, how it functions in forming and maintaining relationships in Japan.

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