Petr Holy, who over the past two decades has spent a considerable amount of his time learning the Japanese language and culture, is now in return trying to spread the culture of his home country, the Czech Republic, throughout Japan.
As director of the Czech Center at the Czech Embassy in Tokyo for the past five years, Holy has wanted Japanese to know more about his country. The center offers occasional screenings of Czech films, ranging from classical ones to more recent productions, as well as art and photo exhibitions all year round, according to Holy, who is also first secretary at the embassy.
The center also gives out information on the Czech Republic to those who want to visit for sightseeing, studying or working purposes.
“The center is not so much for the Czechs who live in Japan. It’s more for the Japanese. I want this ‘little Czech Republic in Tokyo’ to be known to as many Japanese as possible,” the 39-year-old said in fluent Japanese.
Holy says that Japanese and Czechs share something in common, in that both have a strong attachment to tradition and stick to details, form and style based on a long history.
A native of a town in the suburbs of Prague, Holy first took an interest in Japan at the age of 14 when he read a book given to him by his parents — which depicted 99 interesting aspects about Japan, and introduced the culture and lifestyle of modern Japan.
Then he became intrigued with the Japanese language when he saw the TV drama “Ogon no Inu” (“The Golden Dog,” which was translated as “The White Dog Goro” in Czech),” which was very popular in what was then called Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. “I think these days, most foreigners take an interest in Japan through anime or manga, but for me, it was through TV,” he recalls.
“I was a teenager at the time, so it came straight into me. It might sound like a cliche, but when I first heard spoken Japanese, I simply fell in love with the sound of it,” he said.
Even though the country was under communist rule, some Japanese culture — especially movies including those by director Akira Kurosawa and some jidaigeki historical dramas — was available, and he saw many films at local cinemas.
Later, he found a pen pal in Japan, and corresponded with her in English throughout his high school days.
“One day, she sent me a videotape for foreigners that introduced Japan’s traditional theater such as noh, kyogen, joruri and kabuki, with an English explanation attached.
“Kabuki was what immediately caught my interest. Its form and style were intriguing. I was also fascinated by the way the actors read their lines. I found it very beautiful.”
Kabuki “taught me one of the beauties of the Japanese language” aside from normal spoken Japanese, Holy added. “I was attracted to the fact that even the villains say their lines in a beautiful way. In European theater, a villain is a villain, but in kabuki, you can find beauty even in a villain.”
Later, as a student of Japanese studies at the department of philosophy at Charles University in Prague, where he studied for seven years, Holy came to Japan in 1991 for two weeks to enroll in a Japanese-language program. During that short visit, he watched a kabuki performance on stage for the first time.
“It was as if I were dreaming,” he said, adding that he would recommend any foreigner visiting Japan see kabuki, even just a part of it.
“The story line might be difficult to understand (for a foreigner), but mai (dance) can be fun to watch,” he said.
After coming to Tokyo in 1998, Holy studied kabuki at a doctorate course at Waseda University from 2000 to 2006, and wrote a thesis on “Yotsuya Kaidan,” the story written by Tsuruya Nanboku. He says he was intrigued that, in the kabuki performance of the classic ghost story, the actor plays the role of Iemon — the villain who barbarously kills his wife, Oiwa — in a beautiful way on stage even as he utters dirty words.
Holy also says he was surprised by the hereditary system governing the kabuki actors, something that does not exist in European theater. “If you’re born into a kabuki family, you follow that avenue. It surprises me when an actor like (Bando) Tamasaburo says that he has been acting in kabuki for over 50 years since he was a child. These people — actors in the world of Japanese traditional theater — are born carrying national treasures on their backs,” he said.
Aside from his studies in kabuki, Holy has been learning Japanese calligraphy as a hobby. He says he learned a lot about various aspects of Japanese culture through his late teacher.
“Normally a calligraphy lesson would be about an hour or two long, but her lesson lasted four to five hours. She would welcome me with the scent of incense, and midway through the lesson, she would always order tasty Chinese delivery. She would tell me all these stories about Japanese culture while I practiced calligraphy,” he recalls.
He said she taught him little Japanese tips like incense should be lit before the guests arrived, and if a neighbor asks you where you are going in downtown Tokyo, you should answer “chotto sokomade (just to a nearby place).”
“Encounters with all these things and people had a big impact in my life,” Holy said. “I met all these wonderful people, because I loved Japan, had a dream to come to Japan, and jumped into the world of Japanese.”
For more information on the Czech Center and its events, access tokyo.czechcentres.cz. Currently, the center is holding an exhibition “Things will never be the same,” a collection of artworks by Yusuke Nakamura, Ayako Takagi and Jiri Votruba, through Feb. 17.