Several years ago, Foreign Minister Yohei Kono and former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind came up with an idea. Why not try, they asked, to think of ways for Japan and the U.K. to promote each other’s image in a better light?

In 1998, the idea was partly realized through a multifaceted tribute by Japan to British life and culture.

And, beginning in May, Britain will reciprocate the gesture on an even grander scale with a festival celebrating Japan titled “Japan 2001.” The initiative will run through March 2002 and will involve the staging of 1,000 different events throughout the country.

Michael Blakenham

Viscount Michael Blakenham, the chairman of “Japan 2001” in the U.K., is in Tokyo this week promoting the festival and seeking financial support. He spoke enthusiastically of organizers’ plans to showcase both “the ordinary and the extraordinary aspects” of Japan.

Of special note, he told The Japan Times on Tuesday, will be efforts to involve schools.

These initiatives include nationwide “Japan Days” — a home-stay program in which British children studying Japanese will spend weekends with local Japanese families — and Internet exchanges between Japanese and British schools.

Some 8,000 British students are currently studying Japanese in 250 schools, and those numbers are growing, Lord Blakenham said. The hope is that “Japan 2001” will spark interest among more young Britons, many of whom either know little about Japan or have a somewhat negative image of the country.

One highlight that should draw crowds of all ages is the “Matsuri — Japan in the Park” event to be held in London’s Hyde Park on May 19 and 20 to mark the festival’s launch. According to organizers, this will be a spectacular jamboree of culture, entertainment, food, sport and crafts. It will feature everything from “taiko” drumming and traditional horseback archery to martial arts demonstrations and modern Japanese music.

And, while “Japan in the Park” will illustrate aspects of Japanese life and culture in microcosm, the remainder of the year’s events will accordingly show these on a broader scale. There will be something for everyone, including classical and contemporary music, visual arts and architecture exhibits, film, a Kyogen Shakespeare performance and local festivals and sports events.

Finally, since a love of gardens is one thing that Japanese and Britons share, garden projects figure prominently in the celebrations.

London’s Kew Gardens has created a traditional Japanese landscape and will also feature six new gardens by contemporary Japanese designers. There will be a Japanese garden at the Chelsea Flower Show in May, and the Japanese garden built at Tatton Park in Cheshire before World War I has been restored.

The project has the moral support of both governments, Blakenham said, adding that the Crown Prince and Britain’s Prince Charles are joint patrons.

It is, however, mainly privately sponsored. Some 27 British firms have become founding benefactors of the initiative, along with Japanese and British organizations, while substantial support has also been provided by the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanren), the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, the Great Britain Sasakawa foundation and the Japan Foundation.

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