Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

Fukuoka honors Asians for work to preserve and reinvent culture

by Hans Karlsson

More than a century and a half after Commodore Matthew Perry’s “Black Ships” forced open the country to Western trade, vestiges of the sakoku (closed country) mentality arguably still linger on in the Japanese psyche. Although kokusaika, or internationalization, has been a buzzword since the 1980s, few cities along the archipelago seem to be able to do it right.

Enter Fukuoka, a city often unfairly overlooked by the foreign community — or, at least, by Westerners. In this compact city, deemed by Monocle magazine to be the 12th “most livable” in the world, you will find splendid food and drink, and fun-loving people for whom home is rarely more than a short taxi ride away, meaning the last train is a mere afterthought. Fukuoka is also, most crucially, a port city and gateway to the rest of Asia.

It is in this role — as a window to the continent — that Fukuoka awards three outstanding Asians every year with the Fukuoka Prize for their contribution to “preserving and creating the unique and diverse cultures of Asia.” Counting this year’s three laureates, more than 100 people have now received the award.

This year’s Grand Prize of ¥5 million went to Thant Myint-U, 49, a Myanmar historian recognized for his exceptional work in presenting the country’s history to the world, and helping the country preserve and learn from its past as it re-engages with the world after decades of sakoku-style isolation. Indian historian and sociologist Ramachandra Guha, 57, was awarded the Academic Prize for his work in opening up the complex, diverse and — in his view — flawed society of India to his readership.

The third laureate, Minh Hanh of Vietnam, was awarded the Art and Culture Prize for her contributions to fashion. Hanh has done much to promote and reimagine Vietnam’s ao dai national costume, using the traditional embroidery styles and fabrics of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. With her stylish designs and tireless work to inspire the next generation of designers, Hanh, 54, has helped young Vietnamese rediscover the aesthetic sophistication of the many ethnic cultures of their country. Both Guha and Hanh receive ¥3 million in prize money.

At the award ceremony on Sept. 17, attended by Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko, Mayor Soichiro Takashima emphasized Fukuoka’s physical proximity and close connections to the continent, which have helped make it a point of entry for important cultural influences and a melting pot of creativity. The city, designated last year by the government as a Special Zone for Job Creation, boasts an impressive number of startups, a fact Guha seized on during his acceptance speech.

“While Fukuoka takes the lead here, Bangalore, my city, probably has the largest number of startups in the world,” said Guha. “And our city, too, is one of diversity. Every day there are cinema shows in six languages in my town.

“It seems that the further a city is located from the capital, the more creativity and innovation will bloom,” Guha added, in reference to the fact that Fukuoka is 1,000 km away from Tokyo (and, incidentally, the same distance from Shanghai). “This is true of both our cities. But being a good citizen also means recognizing the flaws in your own culture, and in our case it is a truly appalling local administration. I propose that while we continue to write software for you, you come over and teach us some of your brilliant city planning.”

The Grand Prize winner also took up this theme. Thant Myint-U, grandson of the late United Nations secretary general U Thant, stressed that he had found much common ground in his discussions with the mayor.

“I can see that this city is a gate to the world that works to provide a livable environment for its citizens,” he said. “You are celebrating the diversity in Asia. This is relevant for Myanmar, where we now are trying to save our heritage in an era of heavy urbanization. I think we can learn much about urban planning from Fukuoka.”

Thant stressed that Myanmar is finally emerging from international isolation and rediscovering its diversity; and as diversity is something the prize celebrates, Thant said he hopes the award “will signal Myanmar’s reconnection to the world.”

A day after the ceremony, Hanh wowed a young audience at Fukuoka’s Koran College of Fashion Design with a glimmering display of her trademark fashion fusing traditional and contemporary design. While the mostly female audience was thrilled when she brought up a model on stage dressed in a charming traditional outfit, Hanh made the point that the young design students also have their own heritage to protect. The Hakata-ori, a local woven textile with a more than 700-year history as a folk craft, is one such treasure, Hanh said. Her models walked around the hall, inviting students to feel the fabric of their dresses, one of which was made in a Vietnamese tradition closely resembling the Hakata style.

“To a fashion designer, understanding her roots is everything,” said Hanh, “and you have a fantastic tradition to build on.”

While Hanh didn’t gloss over the many difficulties her rapidly developing country still faces, she also said that she sees hope.

“I want to use the prize money to further deepen my understanding of how to develop fashion,” she said, “and help the next generation to connect Vietnamese and Japanese fashion in the future.”

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