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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Japan's culture policy lingers in limbo


Staff writer

It's a fact that has long puzzled devotees and plain old tourists alike. Japan's manga and anime arts have been wowing the world for more than a decade, and yet the national government still hasn't got around to setting up a proper museum for their enjoyment, preservation and study.

News photo
In a hot seat: Tamotsu Aoki, head of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, says, "You have to keep pushing for change. I keep repeating the message." SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

After so many years of inaction, though, it is surprising to note that two days ago on Friday, a minor breakthrough occurred. The head of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Tamotsu Aoki, announced that the advisory panel he had tasked with finding ways to improve Japan's "dissemination of culture abroad" had come out and stated the obvious.

In an interim report, Aoki's panel made six recommendations "requiring prompt attention." Number two on the list was that the establishment of a "facility for the collection, preservation and provision of information regarding the media-arts (manga, anime and video games) be considered."

About time, you might think.

Until, that is, you look back into the recent history of Japan's cultural bureaucracy. The establishment of such a "facility" — or the expansion of existing facilities to fill the void — has been under discussion at the highest levels of government since 2002.

It turns out that on this, and many other issues, Japan's arts policymakers have been practicing an art form of their own: namely, foot-dragging. In the moribund corridors of power, there are now dozens of problems, ideas and recommendations that have been raised, forgotten, and then left on the policy back burner.

Many of these issues are urgent.

For example, Japan's tourist numbers have almost doubled in the last eight years; how to provide them all with cultural entertainment? Traditional craft techniques are being lost as practitioners die; how to preserve them? Arts groups nationwide are suffering from a lack of funding; do they need subsidies? Or should tax breaks be offered to encourage cultural philanthropy?

Perhaps "foot-dragging" is too harsh a term. Japan's bureaucracy changes in Japan's bureaucracy's own time, and a few years on the back burner does not necessarily mean indefinite purgatory. In December, for example, a new law will come into effect that was six years in the making. It might just revolutionize arts funding in this country.

More and more interesting ideas are starting to crop up, too. In the last 13 months, two influential committees have raised the issue of whether Japan deserves a "ministry" of culture — and not just a junior "agency" within the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Tamotsu Aoki, the man who has led the Cultural Agency since April last year, was himself a longtime advocate of change. He told The Japan Times that he thinks Japan needs both a media-arts museum and a ministry for culture. "I've been calling for those for years," he said.

Years indeed. But why is it that the top cultural official in the nation can only "call" for change?

What's been happening all these years, and what does this new climate of change hold in store for Japan's cultural heritage?

In 2001 — 133 years after the Meiji Restoration and 54 years after the postwar Constitution was promulgated — Japan got its very first "culture law."

Prior to that, as politicians are quick to point out, Japan had been too busy with other things — catching up with America, economic development — to worry about things artsy fartsy.

Thus states the preamble to the Fundamental Law for the Promotion of Culture and the Arts (2001): "Today, despite our being in a situation of economic wealth, the environment and foundation on which culture and the arts are supposed to fulfill their role in society can not be called sufficient."

The law goes on to spell out the role of culture in society and to make broad directives for its promotion: the activities of public museums and libraries in making exhibitions and preserving works should be strengthened. The activities of performing arts groups, and the preservation of traditional arts should be supported.

Manga, anime and video games are given special mention: "In order to plan for the promotion of film, manga, animation and computer-based arts (which will be referred to as media arts) Japan should consider necessary measures to support the production, screening and other aspects of these arts."

Admirable sentiment. In theory, the law should have formed the framework for a host of new policies and specific directives. Building a media-arts facility, for example, was clearly within its ambit.

But things did not turn out like that.

"Not a single law has come out of the 2001 Fundamental Law," said Yoshiharu Fukuhara, one of this country's most knowledgeable commentators on cultural affairs. He also happens to be the former president and current honorary chairman of the cosmetics giant Shiseido — a resume that holds enough sway for him to have become one of the country's most active (which in this case means patient) lobbyists on cultural issues.

"A fundamental law exists for science and technology — just as it does for culture," Fukuhara explained. "The science and technology law has led to many concrete policies and laws." The culture law, in contrast, has not.

What the Fundamental Law did spawn was the Basic Policy on the Promotion of Culture and the Arts in 2002.

Formulated by the Council for Cultural Affairs (the Agency's chief think tank), the Basic Policy began with a memorably artsy flourish: "Japan is tired. Japan has lost its confidence. Japan has continued to wander aimlessly."

Yet despite that wipe-the-slate-clean start, the majority of the Basic Policy directives were only slightly more specific than the Fundamental Law they were supposed to build on.

They urged, for example, that more support be given to artistic activities that have the potential to lead directly to improvement in the country's culture as a whole; support should be given to groups practicing traditional forms of performing arts; steps should be taken to ensure the preservation of traditional craft techniques; the working process of living national treasures should be recorded on video; and so on.

Specific mention is made of media arts here, too. "Young media artists should be nurtured," the Basic Policy said, and "facilities related to these art forms" should be bolstered.

While it skipped over the "facility" idea, the Agency did make some progress on the "nurturing" issue. Its Media Arts Festival, which had been established in 1997, was strengthened. (But not sufficiently to silence complaints that this annual competition for anime, manga and computer graphics is largely ignored overseas.)

At the same time, the Agency began providing grants to art museums and educational facilities that are contributing to the "nurturing of media artists." The first grants were handed out last year, and they funded such things as workshops and new commissions (though not acquisitions).

Outside of media-arts, other changes happened too, but they tended to be cosmetic in nature — a fact necessitated in part because there were no significant increases to the Agency's budget, which since 2002 has hovered around the ¥100 billion mark. (This year it sits at ¥102 billion.)

Then four years passed, and by late 2006 it was time — in the customary five-year bureaucratic cycle — to rethink the Basic Policy. That task fell to the same Council for Cultural Affairs, which by then included a group of largely different members. One of them, its chairman in fact, was Tamotsu Aoki, and it was this academic's desire to see its recommendations implemented that inclined him to accept the position of Director of the Agency of Cultural Affairs when he was offered it at the end of 2006.

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