Round 1: What it means to “face another country.”

“In any case, we want this project to connect to the <future> somehow. We don’t want it to be just a transient thing, but a project that addresses <how contemporary society relates to tradition> by examining and encouraging dialogue between Japan and Southeast Asia. Over two years. Can you stick with this for two years? As a project, there will be the need to demonstrate some kind of outcome or arrive at a final conclusion, but perhaps you can think with us about whether that might be in the form of a performance or event or documentation.”

I received this invitation from the Asia Center in the tail end of December 2015, at the end of a day that threatened snow. Ms. Maeda and Mr. Endo had come all the way to Kyoto to discuss the project with me with great passion. I accepted. It wasn’t only the enthusiasm they poured into their work, or the integrity of their characters that convinced me. For me, this project seemed a perfect timely opportunity.

Up until now, my interests had been primarily focused on “Japan.” Since I was a child, I loved traditional Japanese art forms, and that love led me to pursue making a career out of recreating kabuki plays in the context of contemporary theater. Since my livelihood and my interests were immersed in the Japanese classics, I didn’t even have the capacity to think about other countries “overseas” nor did I feel the need to think about them. However, I had come to the realization that I am at a stage where I need to rethink this attitude.

About a month before I met with the two staff members of the Asia Center, I went to Okinawa for the first time in my life. I had been invited to participate in a discussion about “Classics Living in the Present ~ On Traditional and Contemporary Art” with Michihiko Kakazu, the Artistic Director of the National Theater in Okinawa and the hope of Ryukyu dance. Our discussion took place over two hours. That alone made for a meaningful trip, but I had the luxury of spending three days and two nights there and, thanks to the consideration of the organizers, the opportunity to visit countless historical sites on the main island of Okinawa and engage with its traditional art forms. It may sound clichéd, but the experience was truly a culture shock for me.

One of the representative traditional art forms in Okinawa is the kumiodori. It’s a musical theater form that combines the classical music of Ryukyu and traditional dance. You could say that it is the Okinawan version of noh theater. Such was the extent of the simple analysis I had made up in my mind without much thought. How foolish I was! In the first place, it is beyond careless, when trying to explain another culture, to force a comparison to something one is familiar with as to call it a xxx version of xxx and to believe that makes any kind of sense. There is a surface level ‘pop’-ness in such a comparison, that in fact doesn’t explain anything at all, and the comparison isn’t a fair one in the first place. You’re dragging someone else’s culture towards you without changing your position at all, and drawing the conclusion that “Oh, I see, this is similar to what we call xxx.” It’s lazy. You think you understand something simply because you’ve slapped an easy label on it — when in fact what you’re committing is a sort of act of violence… These were the realizations I came to when I experienced the unique glory and blinding brilliance of Okinawa kumiodori. The performers’ use of suriashi (sliding feet) as a foundational movement, and the logic of spacing on stage were similar to noh. However, the performance style had in some places a lightness reminiscent of kyogen, with arcs etched by the arms and hands, grasping fans, reminiscent of kabuki dance. The movement of the neck and facial expressions made me think of Chinese opera, and the sweeping use of bold primary colors in the costumes clearly reminded me of a culture from a distant continent. When the actors dropped their pelvises unbelievably low to the ground and moved their legs in wide circular steps, it made me think of the unique physicality of the traditional art forms of Southeast Asia, like Thailand’s khonKumiodori was truly a hybrid musical theater form that had developed here, a valuable island hub for traders from Busan, Fuzhou, Annan, Melaka, Java, Luzon, Satsuma, and Hakata. That doesn’t mean there is no originality in the form (although there is already plenty of originality in the integration of so many different elements). There is a uniqueness that shone through all the artistic influences that were drawn from other countries. That uniqueness is the rhythm in the words and music. It has the softness of the sounds of the original Ryukyu language and a churning intonation spun from the classical Ryukyu instruments that seem to elongate time into a swaying melody. This rhythm that takes over the entire stage resonates as if embodying the eternity of time that Okinawa has lived through. No doubt it is unique. Like the sound of waves crashing in and drawing out, the sound of wind blowing from somewhere, it’s the rhythm that embodies the natural life of Okinawa – and the history of this island. From the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom to the present day, Okinawa has had to continuously endure rocky diplomacy, political bargaining, absurd exploitation and violence and domination. This island has had to endure so much suffering. To me, it felt like all of that suffering was wrapped up in the quiet rhythm of the performance. It had a core strength and softness that could contain any amount of suffering. This was their “unique rhythm” that the Okinawans secured after surviving its history. Facing all kinds of influences and pressures from other nations, and fighting for its own independence, the identity of this island is represented in the art form called kumiodori as if in miniature. Had I even once been able to view the performance forms of Japan with such perspective? Noh, kyogen, bunraku, kabuki… I’d seen plenty of productions in all of these forms and yet, perhaps it was because I’d felt too close to them that I could only manage to formulate critiques of them whether positive or negative, but I don’t think I’d ever been able to perceive the identity of the nation behind the art form. How could I understand what is “tradition” and what are the “classics” without first seeing that?

Why was I able to do in Okinawa something I hadn’t been able to do in Japan? It was because for me, Okinawa was culturally a <foreign country>. I now realize that it was possible because there is something fresh (and freeing) in my being an outsider, looking at a culture that was foreign to me. In other words, this was the moment that I came to the hard realization of the limitations of “living in Japan and thinking about traditional Japanese art forms.” If I could, I would love to even once experience the Japanese arts from the perspective of a foreigner, and to grasp the form of this country. To do that, I’d have to find a new perspective. Specifically, I’d have to keep in mind the context of all the arts of China, Korea and Southeast Asia that have no doubt exerted heavy influences on Japanese art forms. I was in the midst of grappling with this desire when I received the aforementioned invitation from the Asia Center.

Now, it isn’t that easy to <face a foreign country>. Earlier I used the phrase from the “perspective of a foreigner” and this is similar but distinct from the “audience perspective,” and they diverge greatly. The latter requires only taking the positive aspects of the culture and offering praise or enjoying the foreign curiosities. However, the former requires the willingness to also accept the country’s negative aspects. That certainly cannot be an entirely enjoyable process – but it would also be no good to become completely sympathetic towards the other country. At times, sympathy is swayed by a sense of superiority and can unwittingly create a situation in which one is treating the other country as the weaker, the inferior. It would be extremely unfortunate if, in the process of comparing one’s own country with another, you were to reach the conclusion that “Japanese culture is wonderful after all!” and feel shallowly reaffirmed in the originality of your own culture – in fact that should be the outcome I’d most like to avoid. (These days, it’s hard to believe but am I the only person who feels this trend is taking over Japan?)

In other words, no matter how far you take the comparison, your country must remain in a parallel relationship with other countries. You have to draw close and gaze at each other without hierarchy – otherwise there’s no point. And, whatever exchange takes place, both parties must benefit from it. That’s easy to say, but very difficult to actualize… Even after this project with the Asia Center launched, my heart still felt unsettled, and I was lost in thought – when, I happened to find a particular book at a used bookstore. Perhaps it’d be more accurate to say that I was reunited with it. It was a collection of criticism called Forty Years of Folk Craft (pub. Iwanami Bunko) by Muneyoshi Yanagi, the founder of the folk craft movement. I’d read this book a long time ago. I recalled that there was some text in there about approaching work from other countries… and I flipped through the pages. His essay “Letter to a Friend in Korea” was published in 1918, and it was written in response to the Korean independence movement and the March 1 incident. It was Yanagi’s “fierce love letter addressed to a neighboring country.” At the same time it was an excellent critique of Korean culture and art theory. Yanagi unraveled the long history of exchange cultivated by Japan and Korea, gazed calmly at the current situation that had cast both countries in the roles of <dominator/dominated>, and reflects on the craft work of Korean porcelain and pottery:

“The curved line that draws out long, as if it were flowing, portrays a heart that pleads on and on, without end. All kinds of unspeakable grudges and sorrows and desires are communicated secretly through that line. This tribe has entrusted the expressions of its heart to the secrecy of those lines. It is not a form, nor a color – but it was the line was the most fitting pathway to be entrusted with these feelings. We cannot enter into the heart of Korea without first deciphering the secrets of this line. Vivid feelings of misery and the history of their anguish are recorded within this line. The beauty that dwells in that silence communicates the Korean heart today. Every time I gaze at the porcelain work on my desk, I can sense the desolate tears floating in the glaze.”

I could keep quoting from that text forever so I’ll stop here – but after this passage, Yanagi goes on to speak for the voices that cry out from the porcelain. And these are wonderful, beyond words. They are the voice of the potter entrusting his hope into his work, voices of the oppressed people, voices fighting for independence and in protest against Japan, the compassionate voice of Korea speaking to its sibling country of Japan. Like a spiritual medium he lends his ear to many different voices rising out of the porcelain and writes tirelessly.

Yanagi never spoke from a position of the dominating country. Nor did he downplay the fact that Japan was ruling Korea. He never rebuked the Japanese government harshly, nor was he moved by a sense of justice to support the independence movement. Over anything else, he respected the dignity of his own country and another country, and engaged in dialogue with equality as the base. He listened to the voices of the other country.

“The beauty of pottery always transcends national boundaries. Because within the art form is where hearts can meet. There, humanity finds happiness in exchange. I always hear voices calling out to me, to my heart. Pottery can bring two hearts together. In pottery is the church of love.”

People from different cultures have a difficult enough time just trying to understand one another, but through art, space for profound dialogue is permitted, with both parties on equal footing. Yanagi articulated this as “the church of love.” And he called the act of trying to hear all the voices calling out from the works of art of other cultures, an act of silent prayer.

That perfectly encapsulates the essence of what we need to face another country.

Through this project, I want to maintain a state of silent prayer. I hope to find a church, no matter how small or how humble, and to walk through its doors.