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Research Highlights

From regional to global perspectives

With chillier days upon us, autumn to winter is a season for art and culture, or so goes a Japanese saying. Autumn offers ample time for indoor activities and the Institute certainly benefitted from gaining a captive audience at our various events.

The town of Teshikaga, eastern Hokkaido, circa 1930
The town of Teshikaga, eastern Hokkaido, circa 1930

The monthly Third Thursday Lectures are always popular throughout the year, but our September lecture was particularly popular for its unique delivery style. In it, Dr Nadine Willems illustrated life in early 20th century Hokkaido, a large but less densely populated island in the North of Japan. Her talk was complemented by beautiful poetry readings from Professor Paul Sossiter, a Cornish born scholar who has lived and since retired in Tokyo to found Tokyo and London based Isobar Press—a publisher specializing in English-language poetry from Japan.

Historically, Hokkaido is known for its abundant natural resources and the aboriginal Ainu people with distinct traditions that date back for centuries. The island became an attractive site of intense economic and cultural development when Japan incorporated the island as its national territory in 1869. Through tracing the life and the writings of Sarashina Genzô, a poet, school teacher and a farmer who took an active interest in and interacted with the Ainu people, Nadine and Paul presented not only the beautiful portrayal of life on the island in the 1930s and 40s, but also the harsh backbreaking realities in an era of economic hardship. Most interestingly, they shed light on how poetry acted as a canvas for political resistance beneath its literary facade that captured the changing times.

To speak more directly on political activism in the post-war decades was Dr Ryan Holmberg, who gave a talk on anti-nuclear manga by Susumu Katsumata. Katsumata (1943-2007) was a manga artist active in the late 60s and 70s who rose to stardom in the world of political cartooning while studying towards a graduate degree in nuclear physics. Through his satirical comic strips, Katsumata probed social and political issues including the dangers of nuclear power. In Japan, anti-nuclear movement gained a critical voice in the late 70s and it was around this time that Katsumata began illustrating works that questioned the ethics (or the lack of) being practiced by nuclear power companies. Ryan, our former Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow and currently our Academic Associate, with the support from the Institute for the past two years has been working on translating and publishing five Japanese avant-garde graphic novels from different artists. This talk focused on one of the five manga artists, Katsumata, and his manga Fukushima Devil Fish, amongst other examples to reflect on the history of anti-nuclear campaign in both the political activism sphere and in the popular culture sphere before the Fukushima disaster reignited some of the debates. Walking us through Katsumata’s and his contemporaries’ punchy and at times provocative images, Ryan gave a vivid account on how manga was hugely successful in driving a political message to the mass.

The ‘globe’, a glowing information stand
The ‘globe’, a glowing information stand

Busily contemplating the future of the past was our Head of Centre for Archaeology and Heritage, Dr Simon Kaner and Dr Sam Nixon. Both have been actively globe-trotting in quite a literal sense. As part of an impact and engagement work for a major research project, Global Perspectives on British Archaeology funded by AHRC, Simon and Sam have travelled around Norfolk to meet and speak with local East Anglian communities. In tow as their trusted travel companion was a giant two-meter tall sphere used as an information ‘globe’. Together, they discussed how the rich archaeological heritage of East Anglia is not only a treasure for the local area, but also a heritage of global significance. They also worked with the team at Soluis visual digitalization studio in Glasgow to beautifully present the significance of the local ancient remains through videos and other interactives to the wider world audience. The six featured Norfolk and Suffolk sites and their significances are in a nutshell:

• Norwich city centre: A jewel town of medieval Britain
• Sutton Hoo: Burial sites of Anglo-Saxon kings
• Caistor Roman Town: Where Romans once settled
• Flag Fen and Must Farm: A site of Bronze Age life
• Grimes Graves: Flint or ‘prehistoric black gold’ mines
• Happisburgh: Site of the oldest human footprints outside Africa

As a separate project, Toshio Watanabe has been exploring the transnational interconnectedness specifically of Tokyo and London. Tokyo Futures 3 symposium took place at the Tate on 29 and 30 September and welcomed Sonia Boyce, Reiko Tomii and artist Lee Ufan as keynote lecturers. The first day explored Tokyo’s transnational histories and potential futures. The second day looked at the intersections and points of contact among multiple cultures and diverse artistic legacies in London. For those who have watched Blade Runner 2049 may find this a pertinent point as it was difficult to avoid the deep and heavy use of Japanese text, sounds and street-cultures (in addition to Korean) to portray a dystopian future of Los Angeles. While we now live in a transnational world where cultural iconographies (like text and images) are effortlessly borrowed, edited and reinvented, as seen in Blade Runner, it would be interesting to see how cultural history, art practices and philosophies could move beyond mimicry and instead be internalized to become part of one’s identity.

Prof Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere explored this transnational identity in a conversation with ceramicist Hosono Hitomi. Hosono is a Japan-born potter who has worked overseas for many years. At a Daiwa Japanese-Anglo Foundation Artist Talk hosted at their headquarer in London in late November, Nicole discussed Hosono’s wonderful Japanese nature inspired work that is made using a European sprigging technique she acquired while working at Wedgwood in Stoke-on-Trent. This method involves making tiny ceramic reliefs by pressing clay into a mould. She then applies the reliefs onto the ceramic substrate. The result is a stunning spray of organic shapes that envelope the vessel, layers upon layers like magnificent wings of a dancing swan. Some of her vessels, Nicole says, remind her of prehistoric Jomon flame pots made some 4000 years ago with its compact body and flamboyant mouth. Coincidence? Hosono was surprised to hear of this observation. She never regarded her work in this light as someone who works in England using Western techniques. True, Japan is a source of inspiration as she often draws on the memory of her mother’s garden in Gifu prefecture. It may be that transnational artists carry their cultural aesthetic sensibility so deep that it resides in their unconsciousness. Perhaps by asking such artists on how they negotiate ancestral traditions—consciously or unconsciously like in Hosono’s case—is one unique way to explore the future of our interconnectedness. I prefer Hosono’s gentle and nurturing perspective more than the dystopian vision in Blade Runner.

Kaz Morohashi
Research, Planning and Public Relations Officer

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