Summer in Japan: An Update from Professor Simon Kaner

After a pandemic-imposed break of over two years it is wonderful to be back in Japan, reconnecting with old friends of the Institute and forging some promising new relationships. In line with the prevailing atmosphere here I have deliberately kept a low profile, avoiding the ‘three C’s’ (closed spaces, crowds and close proximity), keeping meetings to a minimum, speaking quietly (or not at all on public transport and in lifts) and wearing a mask both inside and out. While it may not quite be Japan as I know it from the ‘before times’, the many encounters I have had over the past few weeks have reconfirmed the importance of seeing people in person whenever possible. I have not been able to escape the ubiquitous Zoom meetings altogether, though.

Shortly after arriving we had an online press conference to formally announce our new exhibition in partnership with English Heritage and supported by the Ishibashi Foundation, Circles of Stone: Stonehenge and Prehistoric Japan which opens at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre at the end of September. It was great to see our friends in Kazuno and Kitaakita in Akita Prefecture on screen, although my plans to visit the stone circles of Oyu and Isedotai were scuppered by the heavy rains which have wrought havoc in many parts of Japan this summer, with resulting landslips closing the Tohoku Expressway, the essential road link to the north. And one of my last appointments before leaving for home was an ‘Open Seminar’ with colleagues and students at Tsukuba University, a chance for me to reflect on some of my experiences this trip. I made it to Tsukuba, even though most of the attendees were online.

Hybrid and online is clearly here to stay. During the first two weeks of August Christopher Hayes and Oliver Moxham delivered our 3rd Online Summer Programme, for the first time broadcasting from Japan to the hundreds of participants around the world. The theme was Tourism and Heritage in Post-Lockdown Japan, and we have a full report elsewhere in this issue. It was as innovative and successful as the previous two iterations of this programme, and I want to congratulate both Chris and Ollie for their ingenuity in delivering such a wide-ranging and engaging set of discussions and in-situ presentations. The available technology really is amazing, and I couldn’t quite believe I was able to co-host the final session from inside a rather hot car in a parking area on the Hokuriku Expressway overlooking the Sea of Japan while Ollie was in Kyushu.

Sainsbury Institute staff enjoy a tea party with Mayor Hata and colleagues in the woods at Nagawa-machi.

Last summer we dedicated one of our Online Third Thursday’s to the opening of the wonderful new Obsidian Museum in Nagawa-machi in central Japan, where we have fostered a long-term relationship with the Neolithic flint mines at Grimes Graves in Thetford, a short way from Norwich: the world’s first twinned archaeological sites. It was therefore a great pleasure to be able to visit the museum in person last weekend. The new museum is a triumph and presents this exceptional archaeological site (excavated over 13 years and interpreted over a further 17 years) in a truly innovative and pioneering fashion. We held a celebratory tea party in the woods nearby with Mayor Hata and colleagues – a magical moment on the top of the mountain, accompanied by the tinkling of kuma-yoke 熊避けbells to scare off any bears who fancied joining in. A couple of days later I found myself in a small cinema in Shibuya in central Tokyo for a screening of Horu Onna 掘る女(Digging Women), an extraordinary film which documents the practice of archaeology through the eyes of some of the women (including Otake Sachie, the visionary behind the Nagawa Obsidian Museum) who dig the more than 8000 sites investigated each year in Japan. I think it is destined for classic status and will be working to get some screenings in the UK.

Flier for the screening on Horu Onna.

There is not space here to detail much of what I have done over the past few weeks. Japan does, however, continue to surprise and delight in so many different ways. Some of you have already visited our new online exhibition, Nara to Norwich: art and belief at the ends of the Silk Roads at www.naratonorwich.org. I want to take this opportunity to wish one of our key team members, Naomi Hughes-White, every success in her new life as a Japanese government MEXT scholar at Ritsumeikan University from this autumn. I am delighted that Naomi will be continuing to be involved in this project as it evolves. Part of what we are doing compares the role of trade and art in the conversion to Christianity and Buddhism, with discoveries on some Viking sites in Scandinavia playing a key role. I was therefore hugely surprised (and delighted) to come across a complete (albeit replica) Viking ship from Norway in Aomori as I waited to board the ferry across the Tsugaru Straits to Hakodate. Nara to Norwich will be researching this for one of our forthcoming stories.

The Viking ship at Aomori.

As I travelled from Okinawa to Hokkaido and so many places in between, many people mentioned to me how much they appreciate this monthly communication from the Institute. I will continue to keep a low profile over the coming year as I settle into my study leave research project, boosted by the multitude of great experiences this summer. My only regret is that it was not possible to see everyone I had wanted: to those of you I was not able to meet this time, I look forward to seeing you when I am back in the new year.

Professor Simon Kaner

Executive Director (on study leave till summer 2023)