The human is not an economic animal

The human is not an economic animal
07-02-2013 A+ A-
The emphasis solely on profit in global business has rebounded painfully on Japan.

Business logic alone has its limitations, if the culture and values of business partners are not understood, says Shuji Kogi, Secretary General of the EU-Japan Fest non-profit organisation supported by Japan’s largest companies. He was in Rīga on a working visit to the Rīga 2014 Foundation, in joint preparations for Rīga’s European Capital of Culture events.

Why are Japanese business giants like Hitachi, Panasonic, Toyota and others interested in European Capitals of Culture, in this case – Rīga in 2014?

In the early 1990s, Japanese companies were involved in serious conflicts in Europe, which created huge problems for trade. Basically, these were emotional conflicts and problems, not issues related to business in its strict sense.

The Japanese have studied the different European cultures since the end of the 19th century. European music, painting and other forms of cultural expression were known to the Japanese, and by now are already a component of our daily lives.

Yes, J.S. Bach is well-respected in Japan. It is also true that American jazz and baseball are respected, but they are all ‘the West’ in any case.

That’s right – classical music is no longer just European music, it is global music. We do not consider Mozart to be a composer of Austrian traditional music, and for many years the conductor and musical director of the Vienna State Opera, Seiji Ozawa, was Japanese. And not for any other reason than because of his talent. However, in the early 1990s, Europeans knew very little about Japan, and at everyday levels, knowledge of Japanese culture was low.

Then what caused the trading problems?

European industries complaining that the Japanese would not buy their products, while Japanese products were invading the European market and ‘destroying’ it. In actual fact, doing business was quite simple – at that time Japanese manufacturers were more competitive than the Europeans in the automotive, electronics, computer and other sectors, but then non-business logic came into play.

People in Europe knew Japan only through Toyota and Sony, but nothing about our culture. And this turned out to be destructive in terms of business categories. Because even if someone is rich, but there is no understanding of his culture, his beliefs and values, then suspicions arise – what does he want here with all his money? That was the root of the prejudices and conflicts of the 90s. The Europeans called us economic animals, in their eyes we were not altogether people.

And then came the invitation from Antwerp for Japan to participate in its 1993 European Capital of Culture programme.

So the initiative came from Europe?

Yes, because it was the European Union market consolidation year and they were creating a programme featuring not just European cultural elements, but those from wherever in the world European markets had involvement. Since then, the European Capital of Culture concept has changed – turning its face out to the world, and Europe consequently opened up to many cultures.

Unfortunately, the Japanese government was unable to support this first project in 1993, receiving the invitation from the Belgian Foreign Minister, because we do not have a Minister for Culture, as such.

Japan has quite a different system of government, but who then is responsible for cultural issues?

The Ministry of Education. Culture is also supported by the Ministry of Production and the Ministry of the Interior– by local programmes. Shared responsibility. So a diplomatic problem arose in 1993 – our Foreign Ministry was unable to accept the invitation because of the countries’ differing administrative systems. Then, many of our business people, cultural representatives, also European ambassadors to Japan, were concerned that Japan would not be able to participate with its programme.

Belgium’s own Ambassador had been in Tokyo for ten years, was a specialist in Japanese traditional theatre, spoke fluent Japanese and was ever troubled by how little of Japan his European colleagues understood. This lead to our non-government organisation EU-Japan Fest being created and it has supported European Capital of Culture programmes ever since.

And that is also why we are in Rīga and Rīga representatives will travel to Japan. We will not be recommending any particular programme, but only ensuring dialogue between Japanese and, in this case, Latvian artists.

To paraphrase the hippy saying, you are making art, not war.

You could say that. Particularly in today’s globalised world, influences are very diverse and, in our view, artists do not possess nationalities and, correspondingly art has no border. Of course, our own personal cultural background and identity must be respected, but ideas are communal, and they must be shared. Especially today, when politicians have less and less influence on community activities. For the business world, economies are more influential than traditional politics – the poles of power have changed. But there must be a balance, because we are still human beings, and here the role of culture is even more important.

Today, we also call that soft power.

Sometimes it can be really dangerous, though. Public diplomacy – it sounds great, but frequently it is just propaganda under another name.

Pardon me, but how you differ in this respect?

We work only for dialogue between artists, whose value and purpose is art and its sharing. The presence of governments in such projects is usually accompanied by other ideas, namely, how to use art as a weapon for their own purposes. That is a big difference, and I’m very pleased that we have been able to continue as a non-government organisation. Of course, sometimes we work with our embassies, but at other times they are not even interested, because culture for its own sake does not seem powerful enough. But power is what these people understand. For us, as artists though, it seems unimportant.

It’s pleasing that you say “we, the artists”.

No, I am not an artist. But I’m close to them in terms of their interests, so sometimes I identify with them. I guide artists in the right direction for cultural exchange to take place. Because they are not diplomats, they frequently hate it. That is why encouragement is necessary. For example, in Rīga, it transpired that the artists would like our famous Japanese drummers to participate in the opening of the World Choir Games in July 2014. They would not think to apply for themselves, but I can arrange and organise such meetings and cooperation.

My opinion though, is that cultural programmes alone do not bring people together. The foundation must be the relationships and interest of the people themselves. That is why artists themselves should be allowed to determine what is important and how it will happen. The actual programme is just a matter of budgeting and organisation, which, of itself, does not bring people together. But it is difficult.

No, no, I actually wanted to ask about your budget. How do you cover these events of yours in Europe?

Our organisation changes its chairman each year – it is they who are responsible for fundraising and they must also find their successor. Thus, in 2012, the chairman of EU-Japan Fest was from Hitachi and found his successor at Mitsubishi Corp.

When we started in the 90s, the Europeans, who were used to State support for culture, were concerned: why would Japanese companies supports anything like this?

That’s a good question.

Yes, what is the real purpose of their support? But in fact, there really is no short-term purpose. Yes, they have invested – but in long-term relationships for the public benefit.

You almost sound like a pacifist – in favour of culture, the non-government sphere and without power. But personally, you have achieved very much in two separate martial arts, that surely means you think like a soldier in some ways?

Martial arts are often not easy to understand. For example, karate is a very spiritual discipline, as is aikido. However, they are frequently considered to be the same as judo. I am very unhappy about what judo has become in the international community – a straightforward fight, a sport, without any spirituality.

But karate is not like that. Its basic idea is to protect, not attack. Karate originated on the very poor island of Okinawa, whose population had no weapons and karate was their only form of defence. It was not for aggression and seizing power, they were farmers. Unfortunately, today, in some parts of Europe and America, karate has also descended to the level of fighting and sport, but that was not the original idea.

That also explains my view that technique alone does not mean anything, it is human relationships and human connections that are important. Imagine, I met a great bonsai artist in Vilnius! He was born in Siberia, to parents exiled by the Soviets in the 50s. He was a conscript and was sent to the war in Afghanistan, where he fared very poorly. He returned home mentally ill. He could no longer express his emotions – smile, also he could not speak.

Then a friend gave him a bonsai. He began to pay attention to it, to care for it, got into the art of bonsai, and gradually regained the ability to display emotions. Now he has a quite successful private business, but divides his time equally between his business, family, and bonsai. His Japanese garden is wonderful. His name is Kestutis Ptakausks. In 2011, he organised a bonsai festival in Vilnius and plans to hold a world bonsai festival in 2015, also in Vilnius. Bonsai is no longer Japanese, but a global art.

We have exchanged it for Bach.

Yes, bonsai is a very spiritual art. Artists find trees in the forest, on their last legs, but man and his art gives them a new life. It is a special art form also in the sense that caring for bonsai has to be taken over by the next generation. In Japan, we also have 800-year old bonsai.

Unfortunately, its popularity is shrinking in Japan, a misunderstanding has arisen that it is a pastime for old people. But in Europe, many young people have become involved, not least for its philosophical orientation.

That moment of succession, of bonsai connecting people and generations, echoes what you say about your job – the art of bringing people together.

Thinking about the next generation is very important. Although the young always do things their own way. That is why our organisation simply abides by our principles, and also invests in young people. Maybe the results will not be seen immediately, but in 10 or 20 years time they will still have memories of their experience and will be able to put it to good use.

That is why continuity is the second duty of EU-Japan Fest. For example, in 2007 Sibiu in Romania, was the cultural capital, and since then we have sent 20 of our young people to the Sibiu annual festival every year. We are also encouraging Sibiu to attract more young people from China and Korea. Then we can really hope for a common future.

Because conflicts are useless. Including our dispute with the Chinese over the Senkaku Islands. There really is nothing there – just a few rocks. It is clear that the Chinese government’s position is determined by the people’s attitude. But the nation is only a part of the whole. I am Japanese, but I’m also Asian and I am a citizen of the world.

Interview by Didzis Meļķis. Published in business newspaper “Dienas Bizness” February 1, 2013

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