There is a small slither of land in Tokyo’s Kita-Aoyama district that is wedged between the rolling grounds of the grand, neo-Baroque-style Akasaka Palace state guesthouse and the equally expansive, tree-lined grounds of the granite-constructed Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery. Given the nature of the neighborhood, you’d probably expect the land to host a police station, a shrine or a park. It doesn’t. Since July last year it has been the site of one of Tokyo’s newest — and most unlikely — art schools.
The Gaien Campus, as the school is known, is the Tokyo branch of two art universities: Kyoto University of Art and Design, and Tohoku University of Art and Design — both of which, it is planned, will soon be operated by the same foundation: the Uryuyama Gakuen.
Since opening, the campus has been holding classes in art and cultural practice — drawing, oil painting, ceramics, tea ceremony and so on. And now, as befits a facility in such a prominent location, it is going international, offering a series of courses in Japanese culture that will have simultaneous English-language interpretation.
“I don’t believe that traditional culture is something that should be thought of as being in a box — something you bring out and study,” explained the host of the new “Seminars on Japanese Art and Culture,” Kyoto University of Art and Design associate professor Kenji Yanai. “We are in that box ourselves. We are all connected directly with traditional culture.”
It’s this thinking that informs the planning of the new series of seven seminars, which kick off on Nov. 30 and cover such topics as “Origins of Japanese Cult and Culture,” “The Tea Ceremony and its Influences,” “Performing Arts into Theater,” “Birth of Modern Visual Arts and Crafts” and “Film, Manga and Animation.”
For example, in the three-hour “Performing Arts into Theater” seminar, which Yanai will present himself, he will be joined by a noh performer, who will give live demonstrations of noh techniques.
“We have all seen noh performed on stage, but when you see and hear a performer in an everyday context, like a classroom, then you realize just how extraordinary their voices are — they really summon a voice that is not human,” says Yanai.
In other courses, the lecturers — who are all academics associated with one or the other of the two universities — will also present traditional culture in ways that show its relevance to contemporary life.
“Since the March 11 disasters, I personally have really come to understand how much of a solace art and culture can be,” says Yanai. Recalling the days after the Great East Japan Earthquake, he explains how, in that tension-filled time, he found himself listening to two particular recordings, in succession.
“I’d listen to a recording of gidayu by Komanosuke Takemoto,” he says, referring to the stylized dramatic art popular in the late Edo Period (1603-1867). “And then I’d switch to an album by Ringo Sheena,” he continues, citing the female alternative rock artist.
Yanai explains that while it’s unlikely Sheena was conscious of gidayu in particular, there are similarities in the use of the voice.
“The cultural foundation is the same,” Yanai says. So, when you study things like gidayu, then it should be looked at as something that is still relevant today. Likewise, noh, kabuki, Buddhist art and other “historical” topics will be addressed in contemporary contexts in the upcoming seminars.
It’s actually a similar historical connection that influenced the decision to establish the new school on this land in Kita-Aoyama — land that the school in fact rents on a long-term lease from Meiji Shrine.
Shochoku Tokuyama, the 81-year-old head of the Uryuyama Gakuen, explains in a campus brochure that in 1943 it was at the Meiji Jingu Stadium (now the National Olympic Stadium, located on the other side of the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery) where 25,000 high school students were seen off with a massive ceremony before going to fight in World War II.
Thus this venue where people from around the world can now come together to study was once a place where many thousands had their studies cut short. Lest we forget.
For further information about “Seminars on Japanese Art and Culture,” visit gaien-tokyo.jp/sjac/. The seminars will be held once a week from Nov. 30 through Feb. 29.