Japan’s culture policy lingers in limbo

by Edan Corkill

It’s a fact that has long puzzled devotees and plain old tourists alike. Japan’s manga and anime arts have been wowing the world for more than a decade, and yet the national government still hasn’t got around to setting up a proper museum for their enjoyment, preservation and study.

After so many years of inaction, though, it is surprising to note that two days ago on Friday, a minor breakthrough occurred. The head of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Tamotsu Aoki, announced that the advisory panel he had tasked with finding ways to improve Japan’s “dissemination of culture abroad” had come out and stated the obvious.

In an interim report, Aoki’s panel made six recommendations “requiring prompt attention.” Number two on the list was that the establishment of a “facility for the collection, preservation and provision of information regarding the media-arts (manga, anime and video games) be considered.”

About time, you might think.

Until, that is, you look back into the recent history of Japan’s cultural bureaucracy. The establishment of such a “facility” — or the expansion of existing facilities to fill the void — has been under discussion at the highest levels of government since 2002.

It turns out that on this, and many other issues, Japan’s arts policymakers have been practicing an art form of their own: namely, foot-dragging. In the moribund corridors of power, there are now dozens of problems, ideas and recommendations that have been raised, forgotten, and then left on the policy back burner.

Many of these issues are urgent.

For example, Japan’s tourist numbers have almost doubled in the last eight years; how to provide them all with cultural entertainment? Traditional craft techniques are being lost as practitioners die; how to preserve them? Arts groups nationwide are suffering from a lack of funding; do they need subsidies? Or should tax breaks be offered to encourage cultural philanthropy?

Perhaps “foot-dragging” is too harsh a term. Japan’s bureaucracy changes in Japan’s bureaucracy’s own time, and a few years on the back burner does not necessarily mean indefinite purgatory. In December, for example, a new law will come into effect that was six years in the making. It might just revolutionize arts funding in this country.

More and more interesting ideas are starting to crop up, too. In the last 13 months, two influential committees have raised the issue of whether Japan deserves a “ministry” of culture — and not just a junior “agency” within the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Tamotsu Aoki, the man who has led the Cultural Agency since April last year, was himself a longtime advocate of change. He told The Japan Times that he thinks Japan needs both a media-arts museum and a ministry for culture. “I’ve been calling for those for years,” he said.

Years indeed. But why is it that the top cultural official in the nation can only “call” for change?

What’s been happening all these years, and what does this new climate of change hold in store for Japan’s cultural heritage?

In 2001 — 133 years after the Meiji Restoration and 54 years after the postwar Constitution was promulgated — Japan got its very first “culture law.”

Prior to that, as politicians are quick to point out, Japan had been too busy with other things — catching up with America, economic development — to worry about things artsy fartsy.

Thus states the preamble to the Fundamental Law for the Promotion of Culture and the Arts (2001): “Today, despite our being in a situation of economic wealth, the environment and foundation on which culture and the arts are supposed to fulfill their role in society can not be called sufficient.”

The law goes on to spell out the role of culture in society and to make broad directives for its promotion: the activities of public museums and libraries in making exhibitions and preserving works should be strengthened. The activities of performing arts groups, and the preservation of traditional arts should be supported.

Manga, anime and video games are given special mention: “In order to plan for the promotion of film, manga, animation and computer-based arts (which will be referred to as media arts) Japan should consider necessary measures to support the production, screening and other aspects of these arts.”

Admirable sentiment. In theory, the law should have formed the framework for a host of new policies and specific directives. Building a media-arts facility, for example, was clearly within its ambit.

But things did not turn out like that.

“Not a single law has come out of the 2001 Fundamental Law,” said Yoshiharu Fukuhara, one of this country’s most knowledgeable commentators on cultural affairs. He also happens to be the former president and current honorary chairman of the cosmetics giant Shiseido — a resume that holds enough sway for him to have become one of the country’s most active (which in this case means patient) lobbyists on cultural issues.

“A fundamental law exists for science and technology — just as it does for culture,” Fukuhara explained. “The science and technology law has led to many concrete policies and laws.” The culture law, in contrast, has not.

What the Fundamental Law did spawn was the Basic Policy on the Promotion of Culture and the Arts in 2002.

Formulated by the Council for Cultural Affairs (the Agency’s chief think tank), the Basic Policy began with a memorably artsy flourish: “Japan is tired. Japan has lost its confidence. Japan has continued to wander aimlessly.”

Yet despite that wipe-the-slate-clean start, the majority of the Basic Policy directives were only slightly more specific than the Fundamental Law they were supposed to build on.

They urged, for example, that more support be given to artistic activities that have the potential to lead directly to improvement in the country’s culture as a whole; support should be given to groups practicing traditional forms of performing arts; steps should be taken to ensure the preservation of traditional craft techniques; the working process of living national treasures should be recorded on video; and so on.

Specific mention is made of media arts here, too. “Young media artists should be nurtured,” the Basic Policy said, and “facilities related to these art forms” should be bolstered.

While it skipped over the “facility” idea, the Agency did make some progress on the “nurturing” issue. Its Media Arts Festival, which had been established in 1997, was strengthened. (But not sufficiently to silence complaints that this annual competition for anime, manga and computer graphics is largely ignored overseas.)

At the same time, the Agency began providing grants to art museums and educational facilities that are contributing to the “nurturing of media artists.” The first grants were handed out last year, and they funded such things as workshops and new commissions (though not acquisitions).

Outside of media-arts, other changes happened too, but they tended to be cosmetic in nature — a fact necessitated in part because there were no significant increases to the Agency’s budget, which since 2002 has hovered around the ¥100 billion mark. (This year it sits at ¥102 billion.)

Then four years passed, and by late 2006 it was time — in the customary five-year bureaucratic cycle — to rethink the Basic Policy. That task fell to the same Council for Cultural Affairs, which by then included a group of largely different members. One of them, its chairman in fact, was Tamotsu Aoki, and it was this academic’s desire to see its recommendations implemented that inclined him to accept the position of Director of the Agency of Cultural Affairs when he was offered it at the end of 2006.

One of Tamotsu Aoki’s most striking features is his beaded wristband — something that gels nicely (though it’s apparently unrelated) with his reputation as a field-working anthropologist who lived for two years in a monastery in Thailand in the 1970s.

“I shaved my head and did the same training as the monks,” the 69-year-old declared.

Aoki refers regularly to his long experience of life abroad. He wonders openly why Japan doesn’t have a cultural facility of the stature of Paris’ Louvre or New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One of the main thrusts of Aoki’s revised Basic Plan was to give more attention to what he called the dissemination of Japanese culture abroad. Even so, the plan was light enough on details to necessitate the establishment of the current advisory panel to come up with concrete ideas.

And so to last Friday’s interim report.

Of all the ideas raised in the report the most doable is probably a commendation system designed to reward and encourage the efforts of academics and researchers studying Japanese culture overseas. “I’m going to try to get that put in the budget for next year,” Aoki said.

He was laconic about the suggestion for a media-arts facility.

Asked what the Agency had been doing about the idea since 2002, he said that there had been talk of handing over responsibility for media arts to the Film Center at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. (The facility already has a limited collection of anime — constituting about 3 percent of its 52,000-strong film archive, but derived mostly from the prewar period.)

“The talks have not been conclusive,” Aoki said. And, considering that the proposal would probably require the excising of the manga and game components, and considering that the Film Center does not currently concern itself with works originated in digital formats, this is hardly surprising.

What about the idea of a dedicated facility for media arts — one that would show the progression from manga to anime to video games and beyond?

“Building a new facility will take a lot of money,” Aoki said, “and in the current climate of a down-turning economy and the pension problem, that might prove difficult.”

So it’s too early to get our hopes up, it seems.

One of the other ideas Aoki has argued for in the past is that Japan should have a ministry of culture, and it is this idea that, if ever realized, has the potential to prove a watershed.

“France, Britain, and South Korea have culture ministries,” Aoki reasoned.

Still, he is worried that a valuable opportunity might have been lost this year.

“A new agency for tourism will be established in October. Many people thought that putting tourism with culture and giving them their own ministry was the way to go, but that opportunity was missed,” he said.

Aoki has a good-natured smile, and an eyes-rolled-backward golly-gosh chortle identifies him as a born optimist.

“You have to keep pushing for change,” he said toward the end of the interview. “I keep repeating the message.”

Ironically, in terms of significant policy shifts, that statement pretty much sums up the position of the head of the Agency for Cultural Affairs. Subservient to the Minister for Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (member of the Lower House, Kisaburo Tokai) as he is, he is forever confined to the role of pleading for budget increases and “pushing for change.”

Which brings us to the Liberal Democratic Party.

It was former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi who got the LDP thinking seriously about culture. He was the one who coined — in Japan at least — the term “cultural diplomacy.”

In 2006, the LDP established their own Research Commission on Culture and Tradition, which took its place alongside similar panels for almost every area of government. It is in these commissions that most new laws are formulated before being weighed and selected by the party bigwigs.

The panel’s latest report, issued last month by chairman Hirofumi Nakasone (son of a former prime minister), is surprisingly frank regarding the need for reform.

Citing what it describes as the “Japan Cool” phenomenon, the report throws its weight behind the move to make an “international center for the creation and dissemination of media art.” (The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a habit of calling it the “Cool Japan” phenomenon, displaying a slightly better grasp of English, but equally poor grasp of the concept of coolness — the cardinal rule of which is that if you’re “cool,” you don’t talk about it!)

The report also discusses a crisis in preservation of architecture registered as important cultural artifacts. Twenty percent of the buildings are in need of critical maintenance, it says. All up, the work will require a cash injection of ¥11 billion.

The report concludes by saying that all of its recommendations are “going to require a significant increase in government spending.” It notes that Japan’s cultural spending is — as a percentage of its national budget — one of the lowest in the developed world (0.13 percent compared with France’s 0.86 percent and South Korea’s 0.93 percent).

Still, for all the reformist talk at Nakasone’s commission, there is no guarantee that any of these recommendations will be adopted. Nakasone is himself not a member of Cabinet, meaning there are no senior ministers deeply invested enough in culture to play the role of its champion.

Regarding possible increases in his Agency’s budget for 2009, Aoki hinted that talk thus far was quite the opposite: across-the-board cuts.

Among the key “arts specialists” from whom the LDP’s commission sought advice was Shiseido’s Fukuhara. One of his pet projects for most of the last two decades has been the Association for Corporate Support of the Arts (or the Mecenat Association), which he currently chairs. Consisting of a couple of hundred corporations — everyone from Shiseido and Toyota to Asahi Breweries — the group has emerged as one of the most influential lobbyists on behalf of the arts.

Last June, they publicly announced 10 proposals for improving Japan’s cultural policy. First and foremost they said, was that a ministry of culture needed to be established.

On the merits of the idea, Fukuhara explained it would “guarantee proper funding” for the arts, but also unify cultural planning functions that tend to be treated as a grab bag — various ministries nibble when it suits their purposes.

One of the key concerns with the Agency for Cultural Affairs’ current interim report is that many of its foreign-aimed ideas duplicate those of the Japan Foundation — Japan’s external culture-promotion body that comes under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Even the idea to commend foreign-based researchers could be deemed Japan Foundation territory.

“Giving ministry status to culture would make it possible for the ministry to oversee all aspects of cultural policy,” said Fukuhara, clearly suggesting that some of the Japan Foundation’s current functions should be included.

The Mecenat Association’s nine other recommendations cover everything from improved tax breaks for private arts donors to a “matching grants” scheme whereby arts organizers would be offered the incentive of government grants matching the extent of funding they were able to raise themselves. (No recommendation was made regarding a media-arts museum.)

While Fukuhara said that response to the proposals has been good on the whole, the one idea that had not gained traction with politicians was that of the culture ministry. “They weren’t against it, but they didn’t seem interested,” he said, before adding that members of the LDP’s coalition partner New Komeito Party — with whom he also discussed the proposals — were the only ones to express support for the idea.

“They’re the culture party,” he concluded. (It was a New Komeito MP, Tetsuo Saito, who sponsored the original 2001 Fundamental Law.)

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The cultural ministry idea was also given a further boost when it was discussed positively at a meeting of the Cultural Affairs Agency’s think tank, the Council for Cultural Affairs, in February, although it has not yet made it to one of their formal resolutions.

Fukuhara counts among his successes an imminent revision to the “public-interest corporations” system, with the potential to impact heavily on private cultural funding. Five years ago, serving as the chairman of a study group, he advised the state minister in charge of financial services, administrative and regulatory reforms that the hurdle for the arts and other groups to qualify to receive tax-deductible donations in Japan was far too onerous.

In the West, it is one of the most obvious and crucial aspects of arts-groups funding: If you donate money to your local theater group or art museum, then you can claim that money as a tax deduction. In Japan, it is not so simple.

Two such systems currently exist here, but the process and conditions by which organizations can gain donation tax deductibility status are so circuitous and Draconian that only about 1,000 have so far made the cut — 89 as “authorized non-profit organizations” (nintei hieiri katsudo hojin) and the remainder as “specified public interest promoting corporations” (tokutei koeki zoshin hojin).

Included in those numbers are everything from World Vision Japan to professional orchestras and a handful of art museums. (By comparison, the United Kingdom has 180,000 registered charities.)

So poor was the Public Interest Corporation system, in particular (the NPO system didn’t start till 2003), that Fukuhara’s Mecenat Association created in 1994 what was essentially a work around. Having secured “specified public-interest promoting corporation” status themselves, they started “approving” arts activities, which for the purposes of the tax office, they would then “adopt” as their own.

The activity organizer would solicit donations from third parties and, as long as the donors’ funds were funneled through the association’s bank account, they would be tax-deductible.

As of Dec. 1, the government’s approach to “public interest corporation” accreditation will be altered significantly. The new system, which grew out of the Act on Authorization of Public Interest Incorporated Associations and Public Interest Incorporated Foundations (2006), makes the approval process considerably easier and thereby potentially unlocks vast pools of private wealth for use in the arts (and many other areas).

The new system dictates that organizations seeking the special status must meet only three criteria: half of their activities must be “for the public good”; they must have proper accounting and technical skills; and they must not give their directors excessive remuneration.

However there is still concern among arts groups about how the law will be interpreted. Smaller groups are concerned the accounting requirement could be used to disqualify them, and there is a general skepticism that the bar for qualification will be kept high.

It is partly because of these concerns that the Mecenat Association says it will continue its “surrogacy service” for the foreseeable future.

Still, the law represents a major step forward, and, regardless of how it is applied, it is difficult to imagine it being any stricter than the current system.

While some new laws may have positive effects, there are others that do not.

One is the 2003 amendment to the law delineating the extent of local government authority, which gives those governments the right to pass management of their public facilities to the private sector. Aimed at improving customer service at public facilities — from gymnasiums and libraries to theaters and museums — the law specifies that the new “appointed administrators” (shitei kanrisha) would be able to keep any profits generated in the process.

It attracted predictable outcry from arts leaders across the country, who shrieked at the government’s blatant shirking of responsibility to provide culture to the people.

“The law was a direct contradiction of the 2001 Fundamental Law for culture, which said that the government must increase its support for public museums,” Fukuhara declaimed.

When asked his opinion on the law, Agency for Cultural Affairs head Tamotsu Aoki offered a diplomatic answer: “It would be good if we saw an influx of businesslike initiatives into the arts — theaters could offer programs from 8 p.m. instead of 7 p.m., so people could go to them. Or museums could extend their opening hours.”

But that seems unlikely. More to the point is that corporate Japan doesn’t seem to agree with the government that culture can be made to generate a profit. Hence just seven of the 93 museums now given over to appointed administrators have ended up in the hands of private companies, with most of the others simply unable to find willing industry contractors.

One step forward, one step back: the nervous shuffle that has long characterized Japan’s cultural policy seems likely to continue. But it is significant that the voices for change have now begun to zero-in on the issue of the establishment of a culture ministry.

After all, it seems that until that happens, and a Cabinet member is forced to throw his or her lot in with the arts, then the pace of change is unlikely to quicken.

Of course, such a change is likely to take quite a few more years of slow heating on the policy back burner. Either that, or — and this is probably the more likely scenario — an unusually cultured prime minister will make the decision unilaterally.

And then — who knows? — Japan might just get the museum of media arts that it deserves.

It might even happen while the futuristic visions of robots and aliens depicted in some of that media remain just that: in the future.