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Saturday, Sept. 2, 2006

A bridge to Latin America


The amount of Japanese cultural and educational activities conducted in Latin America has been flat or in decline over the last five years. The Japan Foundation, the largest Japanese nonprofit organization engaged in international cultural exchange, spent around 800 million yen on activities related to Latin America in 2001, but in 2004 this amount fell to 500 million yen, a drop of almost 40 percent.

There are several factors behind the Japan Foundation's drastic reduction in expenditure in Latin America over the past few years.

First of all, the downward trend reflects the declining involvement of Japanese intellectuals, journalists and artists in activities related to Latin America. (The number of Japanese citizens who stay abroad for more than three months, excluding Japanese emigrants, increased during 2004 in all regions of the world except Latin America, where the figure fell by 1.1 percent.)

A more fundamental cause, however, is the weakness of Japanese "infrastructure" in this region. The Japan Foundation, for instance, has only two offices in Latin America: in Mexico City and in Sao Paolo. Even these offices, unlike those of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, do not enjoy a stable legal status, which sometimes prevents them from taking long-term initiatives, such as opening a Japanese-language institute staffed by teachers invited from Japan.

Even more serious than the financial and institutional difficulties, though, are issues surrounding the nature of Japan's cultural activities in Latin America. Taking the Japan Foundation as an example again, analysis of the foundation's expenditure in Latin America reveals that around 40 percent is devoted to cultural and artistic exchanges, while Japanese-language education accounts for about 25 percent. Only a very small amount is spent on Japanese studies and intellectual exchanges.

Surprisingly, the percentage of the foundation's expenditure used for Japanese studies and intellectual exchanges is lower in Latin America than in any other region of the world, including the Middle East and Africa. It is therefore all the more encouraging to see the Japanese and Mexican governments take the initiative in promoting cultural policy dialogue among intellectuals and artists of the two countries in the form of the Cultural Summit.

This bilateral summit, which has already taken place twice, produced the recommendation that the two countries should enlarge the framework of dialogue to include other Latin American and Asian countries for discussing the impacts of globalization in their respective regions. In such a forum, Asian and Latin American artists, writers, film directors, scholars and representatives of nonprofit organizations engaged in international exchange could discuss the impact of globalization on cultural activities, its policy implications and related issues such as the protection of cultural heritage and the preservation of cultural diversity. They could also expand the scope of dialogue to other issues of common interest, such as the roles of nonprofit organizations in international exchanges, the cultural implications of Hispanic immigrants in the United States, or the rise of China and India.

Based on this overview of the current state of cultural exchange between Japan and Latin America, we should launch a new initiative for promoting exchanges between Latin America and Japan and/or East Asia in general. Such an initiative could, I believe, include the following suggestions.

The first concerns the dialogue between nongovernmental or nonprofit organizations. Quite a number of Japanese NGOs, NPOs and civil societies would likely be happy to engage in exchange with their counterparts in Latin America, because there are a number of issues of common interest to citizen groups in the two regions, such as the sociopolitical roles of those groups, language education for immigrant workers, and women's roles in development.

Another idea for stimulating cultural exchange is to make better use of the triennial, biennial and annual cultural events and festivals that are held in Japan and Latin America. These festivals of art, cinema and performing arts provide an ideal starting point for further promoting exchanges of artists, curators, actors and critics.

Creating a list of art and music festivals in Latin America and surveying the extent of Japanese participation and exploring possibilities of increasing participation would help us to find effective ways of enhancing Japanese interest and involvement in such events in Latin America and vice versa.

The third suggestion is for the conclusion of agreements between Japanese cultural associations, such as the Japan Foundation, and arts councils or similar organizations in Latin American countries. Such agreements could enable us to form a communication and information-sharing network, linking artists, musicians, scholars, and other cultural or intellectual figures, and facilitating exchanges and joint endeavors among them.

Alongside such suggestions, however, we should not forget that there are some fundamental problems that lie behind Japan-Latin America relations that pose practical as well as political difficulties in our efforts to promote cultural exchange.

One such problem on the Japanese side is the uncertainty surrounding the position of the Latin American region within Japan's overall strategy in cultural activities. Unlike Asia, Latin America has not traditionally been regarded by many Japanese as an area with which Japan shares a common cultural heritage. Nor has the Latin American region been regarded as an area where cultural exchange should be conceptually integrated with economic cooperation in the region, since many Latin American countries are not necessarily considered "developing countries."

In other words, Japan should develop a new strategy vis-a-vis Latin America, which has long been considered as either the destination of Japanese emigrants or the source of natural resources.

Another fundamental problem is that many Japanese are unsure where to locate Latin America within their perceptions of the different cultures and civilizations of the world. Unlike cultures in Arab and Middle Eastern countries, not to mention Europe, China and India, those of Latin America are basically or historically hybrid -- more so than many other cultures or civilizations (at least in Japanese eyes). This makes it difficult for Japanese people to define "Latin American-ness," which sometimes poses problems as to how to select cultural exchange projects that suit the cultural traits of the region. In other words, the traditionally constructed (and perhaps erroneous) image that Japanese people have of "Japanese culture" rooted squarely in Japan has made it difficult for the Japanese to locate Latin American cultures within their traditional conceptual framework.

Paradoxically, therefore, it is very important to promote intellectual exchanges between Latin American and Japanese people on the hybrid nature of Latin American culture and its implications, so that Japan and Latin America can together produce "hybrid" cultural products inspired by their different traditions.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation. He has served as Japanese ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Vietnam (1994-95), South Korea (1997-99) and France (1999-2002).


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