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Special Interview vol. 1 Seiichi Kondo

Creating a City Where Everyone Can Enjoy Cultural Diversity While Captivating the People of the World

Today, steady progress continues to realize the goals envisioned by International City of Arts and Culture Toshima. In guiding this concept to success, the power of the residents of Toshima is a truly indispensable element. Mr. Seiichi Kondo, the former commissioner for cultural affairs in the Japanese government, has been appointed the chair of the International City of Arts and Culture Toshima discussion group, a body comprised of individuals active in culture and the arts. We asked Mr. Kondo for a message to the people of Toshima City along this theme.


The Japanese Are Oblivious to Their Wonderful Culture

In the not-so-distant past, Japan enjoyed tremendous momentum as it charted dazzling economic growth. Following the bursting of that economic bubble, however, the situation deteriorated, causing the Japanese themselves to lose energy. This also prompted a steady decline in the position of Japan in the eyes of people around the world.

The lifestyles, thoughts, philosophies, outlook on nature and other cultural aspects once served as the spiritual foundation for the Japanese. While it seemed natural that the economy would also continue to hum with such a solid base, it was strange that this entire platform came apart at the seams simply due to the decline of the economy. This was my honest impression as someone who had viewed Japan from overseas for some two decades during my government assignments.

By its very nature, the economy is supposed to function as an environment —or a “means”—for each and every individual to enjoy fulfilling lives. Despite this, however, upon building up our economy, we Japanese mistook this “means” as the “goals.” As a result, when our economic vigor faded, the Japanese people had the mistaken impression that the entire country had gone down the drain. I found this extremely regretful, and felt that something needed to be done. If the Japanese were a culturally deficient people, I would be more prone to accept that outcome. I was bitterly disappointed, however, by our failure to recognize the outstanding cultural background we are blessed with.

Roots of Culture Extending to All Aspects of Daily Life

Culture is by no means an entity to be appreciated exclusively in museums, art galleries and other such venues. The roots of essential culture extend to all aspects of our daily lives.

For example, UNESCO has recognized washoku (Japanese-style food) as an intangible cultural heritage, but the Japanese people themselves have apparently failed to perceive it as culture because food is a commonplace aspect of their everyday lives. For the very reason that it is such a regular part of life, however, cuisine has flourished as a distinctive component in the culture of Japan. In traditional practice, seasonal ingredients perennially support washoku. In Kyoto, for example, hamo (Japanese conger), a delicacy widely enjoyed especially in that region, is referred to differently according to season despite being the same species. This includes hashiri-hamo (first hamo of the season), sakari-hamo (hamo at peak season) and nagori-hamo (the final hamo run of the year). In such ways, the Japanese have functioned through a sense of oneness with nature, feelings of solidarity, and other channels to mutually confirm that we are in fact Japanese. At the heart of such behavior lies the essential identity of being Japanese. On a separate front, Japanese comics, animation and other creative works have come to command keen attention from overseas audiences. I would submit that the reason is not simply because they are easy to access. Rather, I would trace this attraction to the fact that they trigger sensations of distinctive Japanese spirituality, conceptions of life and other qualities existing at the heart of such endeavors. In many advanced countries, stress tends to be given to the importance of reasoning powers, efficiency and other similar aspects. The concept that nature essential provides material for use by humanity to make things is also strong.

In Japan, however, we originally had a culture of discovering beauty in nature, expressing such aesthetic qualities and by doing so inspiring high degrees of sensitivity. People outside Japan may also feel nostalgia in such outlooks on nature, but at the same time they may logically think it is an innocent or childish approach. Due to that, there is a tendency to rebel when attempts are made to explain such dimensions in logical words. However, when those qualities are expressed through comics, animation or other means other than just words, the outcome appears to generate constructive connections with viewer sensitivities.

Seizing Opportunities to Actively Participate and Think

Rather than listening to explanations in words, it makes more sense to actually come to Japan and experience the culture. I consider this to be the key aspect of communicating Japanese culture to overseas audiences. Toshima City is also advancing an “artist-in-residence” program for hosting artists from abroad. The idea is to have people from other countries take what they saw and felt in Japan back to their native lands and convey those experiences. That, I believe, is the best possible method of communicating Japanese culture.

Accordingly, I feel that the International City of Arts and Culture vision being advanced by Toshima City has great potential. This guiding concept involves more than just reaching out to overseas audiences, and also possesses major significance for the residents of this city. At present, the ranks of our International Arts and Culture special ambassadors have grown to over a thousand persons. I encourage these ambassadors to participate in the initiatives the city is advancing, including the cluster of eight theaters to be constructed on the site of the former city buildings, as well as a promotion project of having “third places” that are neither residences nor workplaces. The idea is to encourage interaction with many different people and use those encounters as opportunities to expand your thoughts and perspectives.

Obviously, there are no definitive answers to how to define culture, the position of culture in one’s own lifestyle, who you are and so forth and so on. There are lessons to be learned, however, from the process of devoting serious thought to such issues. After participating in something, it would be nice to take away more than just feelings of having had a good time, but coming up with new insights or other creative thoughts on the way home, for instance. If we can provide intellectual stimulation along those lines, I believe that the International City of Arts and Culture Toshima vision will turn out to be a success.


Seiichi Kondo—Personal Profile

Joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan in 1972. Served as deputy secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), director-general of the Ministry’s Public Diplomacy Department and other posts. Other key appointments have included ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the Permanent Delegation of Japan to UNESCO (2006), ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Denmark (2008), and commissioner of the Agency for Cultural Affairs (2010; stepping down from that post in 2013). Currently director of the Kondo Institute for Culture & Diplomacy.