May 252013

Yesterday I visited an art event related to Butoh and Japanese Tea Ceremony. During a long introduction the two Western speakers confessed having not too much experiences with Japanese culture and the Way of Tea in particular, while the Japanese artist let us know she just discovered her Japanese roots after studying Western art for decades, and now wanted to promote Japanese culture in the West.

The event itself I found not particularly enlightening for a Western audience to understand the basic concept behind the Way of Tea. Performance and environment left it unclear to me how the ideas of Wa (harmony), Kei (respect), Sei (purity) and Jaku (tranquility) were intended to be exemplified by what could be heard and seen. As much as I am interested in modern versions and re-vitalisation of ancient concepts, once more I had the feeling the equation Japan = complicated and somewhat strange served as a background for an art event, which was interesting in its own but in certain contrast to the intentions of the organisers to promote Japanese culture.

Besides the chance of taking a really spooky photography,  it brought an idea to my mind…

What if, after almost three decades of studying Zen, Japanese fine and martial arts and (to a certain extend) the Japanese language, I’d suddenly discover my “Western roots” and go to Asia to teach, say, German football, F1 car racing or playing the violin …?

Ridiculous! my friends would say, you have no idea about it! Right. It is not your home country’s “cultural background”, it is not your DNA or your passport which qualifies you for expertise and skill in this or that art. It is years of study and training, of spending long time with good teachers and eventually finding your own creative way after becoming one with your art. Maybe for a few selected geniuses it is up to modernise and transfer to the next generation what they have learned from their ancestors…

Especially when it comes to Japanese art, we are too easily put off the scent by “qualification through nationality” and mislead by experts whose expertise is founded upon being born in a country they struggled to leave behind most of their adult life. What can these experts present to us? Most likely another iteration of the cliché spread about Japan in the West, since this is mainly what their understanding is based upon.

jobWhen years ago I saw this job advert in Tokyo I was tempted to apply at once, since I misunderstood someone might be looking for a German barbecue expert. Grown up in Nuremberg, I was convinced of having the Grilling Expert’s DNA in my genes for sure, and what a nice story of finding back to my Bratwurst roots I could tell to a delighted Japanese audience! But no, they wanted to hire Japanese staff for a German Teppanyaki restaurant … of all ways making something look Japanese maybe the most preposterous one, promoting a completely weird idea what Japanese cuisine has to offer to the world. Based on an early Teppanyaki experience, for years I really believed enjoying “Japanese food” means someone juggling knives in front of my nose …

As much as I appreciate and support the efforts of true experts promoting their art, beware of those who believe to know just because of the place they happen to be born. It’s not in your DNA. I can’t play football and the violin, my driving skills are poor …

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