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November 2020 Message from the Executive Director

The view from the countryside heading down from Lake Tazawa in Akita prefecture (Photo: author’s own).

Friends in Japan have been telling me how much they are enjoying visiting their favourite spots for viewing the autumn colours (紅葉 kôyô) this year, with many less tourists than normal. A year ago I was in the Tôhoku region of northern Japan with colleagues from English Heritage researching stone circles and enjoying the mountainous scenery cloaked in vibrant reds, oranges and yellows and making plans, now deferred by a year, to compare the prehistoric Jômon monuments with Stonehenge. The coming of the autumn colours is one of the great predictables of nature in Japan, in an environment in which the science of predicting the unpredictable is an art form in its own right – including catastrophes such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and of course pandemics.  

At the time of writing the outcome of the US presidential election remains in the balance, proof if any were needed of the fallibility of predictive pollsters. Consulting oracles is deeply embedded in Japanese culture: for many people, viewing the autumn colours will be combined with a visit to a temple or shrine, where for a very modest sum you can invest in a slip of paper revealing your fortune, the omikuji (おみくじ). The first histories of Japan, including Nihon Shoki (日本書紀 ), or Chronicles of Japan, which marks its 1300th anniversary this year, contained a number of ‘foretelling songs’ (技歌 waza uta), which combined metaphorical references – albeit largely unintelligible except for the cogniscenti – to the often toxic politics of the day, amorous encounters and retrospective legitimisation, a heady mix not unfamiliar to a modern readership.

November is the time when budgets for the next year are set in Japan (予算計画 yosan keikaku), a time of looking forward and predictive planning. At the Sainsbury Institute, along with the rest of the world, we have seen many of the plans we had for this year upended – including our study of stone circles. We might not get around to consulting any oracles this year, but will be building in some additional resilience and flexibility to ensure a robust programme for 2021.

With horizons for many of us once again restricted to the close-to-home, courtesy of the resurgent pandemic, I hope that our programme this month will add a dash of colour to your autumn viewing wherever you are spending your November. We look forward to having you join our next online Third Thursday Lecture, reuniting our Founding Director Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere with our first Institute Administrator Uchida Hiromi, to introduce a spectacular exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum on contemporary Japanese art craft, Kogei 2020. Matsuba Ryôko provides an insight into the major research project on Hokusai at the British Museum. And our new Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow Dr Daria Melnikova offers some reflections on last month’s lecture by Professor Ming Tiampo on the Gutai art movement that did so much to enliven postwar Japanese art.

Stay safe and well.

Professor Simon Kaner
Executive Director

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