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Czech promoter sings way to cultural identity

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

For singer Eva Miklas Takamine, who also has been head of the Czech Center in Tokyo since March, singing both Czech and Japanese songs is a way of expressing her identity.

The Czech-born Miklas, 52, who began her career as a professional singer only three years ago, says she feels she doesn’t have a clear national identity after being away from her home country for more than three decades.

Rather than being either a Czech or a Japanese, she feels cosmopolitan. “I came to the conclusion that music is the most appropriate form of expressing my identity. Music is the true meaning of my life. Whether I’m good or bad doesn’t matter. I just want to express myself, and have people understand simple things like generosity and tolerance through my music.”

Miklas, who speaks Czech, English, French, Japanese and Russian, added that she has always looked for challenges.

“I thought I would be regretful if I didn’t challenge myself in taking up singing as a career. When I thought of who I am and why I’ve been here in Japan for so long, I couldn’t find an answer straight away. After a long time of thinking, I thought singing was the best way of expressing myself and my experiences.”

Miklas has been performing regularly at live houses in Tokyo and other cities, singing Czech folk songs along with her favorite Japanese songs — mainly the works of the late composer Toru Takemitsu — as well as songs she has composed herself in Czech, Japanese, English and French.

Meanwhile, she works as chief of the Czech Center, an affiliate of the Czech Embassy in Tokyo, for three days a week to promote Czech culture in Japan through exhibitions of paintings and photographs, and through other means.

Japanese people are already familiar with Czech music through the works of such classical composers as Antonin Dvorak, Bedrich Smetana and Leos Janacek, but they are not as familiar with its contemporary popular music or folk songs.

Miklas notes that Czech folk songs reflect the different regional characteristics within the country. “For example, most of the songs from the west — near Prague — are in major keys and are lively and for the masses, whereas those from Moravia (in the east) are mostly in minor keys and bring about nostalgic feelings to people who listen to them,” she says, adding those from the east are her favorites and she sings them frequently in her performances.

“I feel the Japanese can understand the nostalgia behind (Moravian) songs, even though the language and the culture are different (from Czech),” she says. “This is probably because the spirits of the people dwell in the songs. The songs are closely related to people’s everyday lives and its natural environment, and express happiness, sadness, joy and anger — feelings that people from any nationality can share.”

Born in northern Bohemia and raised in Prague, Miklas had her first contact with Japan through music — in 1976 when she toured the country as a 16-year-old member of the Czech Philharmonic Children’s Choir. She had studied singing since she was 8.

She returned to Japan four years later after getting married to a Japanese man at age 20, traveling there on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. After a stint of studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, she worked in Japan as a freelance language teacher, translator and interpreter.

Miklas also studied photography. She took shots of the 1989 Velvet Revolution in her home country, which saw the fall of communist rule and subsequent conversion to a parliamentary republic. She has exhibited some of these in Tokyo, Sendai and Sapporo.

After her marriage broke up, Miklas started working as a public relations officer for the fashion design brand Jurgen Lehl in Tokyo. But as she settled into her new life and got used to the work, she wanted to go back to her passions. She started to sing again in her free time, holding concerts with a Japanese pianist once or twice a year.

She also sang the Czech national anthem, in 1998 and 2011, for the Czech national team at the annual Kirin Cup soccer tournament.

After working for the fashion house for 15 years, she quit in 2009 to pursue a singing career. In 2011, she released her first album, “My Favorite Things,” with songs in different languages performed with what one critic called a “transparent and soft, yet crisp and at times piercing” voice.

After the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, she embarked on a charity tour in Prague and other locations with Japanese guitarist Tatsuo Sato. The proceeds were donated to a program organized by the Japan Czech Friendship Association in Tokyo in which 30 children from the tsunami-hit town of Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, were able to spend time in the Czech Republic.

Now as head of the Czech Center, she says she hopes to use her experience living in Japan for the mission of spreading Czech culture to the Japanese people.

The Czech Embassy, where the center is located, is under renovation and has been temporarily moved to a location near the original site in Shibuya Ward. Although the center currently doesn’t have any space to put on exhibitions or movie screenings, Miklas says the plan is to hold an extensive range of Czech culture and art-related events at event spaces and universities, including Josai University in Saitama, where she started to teach Czech language classes in April.

For information on the Czech Center, visit tokyo.czechcentres.cz. For a schedule of Miklas’ shows, visit eva.ichinichi.jp.