Hideki Togi’s definition of what makes a person truly cosmopolitan might appear somewhat anachronistic in light of the “borderless world” concept that has become popular today.

Hideki Togi with his “sho” traditional wind instrument

The 41-year-old performer of “gagaku” — traditional Imperial court music — suggests that people should embrace their national identity all the more today if they aspire to relate with other cultures at deeper levels.

This opinion is likely to come as a surprise because Togi has been credited with making the sequestered world of gagaku more accessible to the masses through his work, which at times melds the traditional music with more modern, Western styles.

“A borderless world is a superb ideal, but in reality, borders do exist and will continue to do so,” he said. “Actually, the uniqueness of each individual is partly preserved by them.”

Born into a family that has played music at the Imperial court for 1,300 years, Togi spent his early years abroad accompanying his businessman father and he traces his unorthodox view about the nature of what is cosmopolitan largely to his childhood experiences.

“When I was living in Mexico for two years, someone said that us children were in the real sense ambassadors for our country. I took those words seriously and wanted people to have a correct understanding of (Japan),” he said.

Togi said that with international exchanges taking place at numerous levels today, Japanese people have finally come to realize that true communication is impossible without a solid grasp of their own culture, adding that a good command of foreign languages alone does not make a person cosmopolitan.

“I can hold a conversation in English, but I use interpreters when I want to communicate something important,” he said. “I can talk about Japanese culture, at least about my field, with confidence and I think that makes me cosmopolitan, even without speaking a foreign language.”

Gagaku music and dance, brought to Japan about 1,400 years ago via China and the Korean Peninsula, remain true to their original form to this day.

When he joined the musicians at the Imperial Household Agency as a trainee at the age of 18, several expressed doubt that Togi would be able to make it as court musician, given his relatively late start and the fact that he had returned to Japan after living overseas.

But Togi had no qualms. “On the contrary, returnees have more Japanese spirit than those who have never had a look at Japan from the outside,” he said.

After a seven-year apprenticeship, he was accepted as a court musician, performing at various court rituals and national functions, including the funeral ceremony for Emperor Showa and the Crown Prince’s wedding, before leaving to pursue the world of gagaku in his own way in 1996.

“Healthy patriotism” is another element necessary to be a true cosmopolitan, Togi said, adding that feelings of attachment and pride toward one’s country are a natural extension of one’s love for one’s family.

But he added that patriotism is treated as dangerous in Japan, saying that nowhere in the world do people show such “weird sensitivity” toward the word as in Japan.

As long as the Japanese view their country in a negative light, they will not be able to stand on an equal footing with people from other countries or understand their love for their homeland.

He pointed out, however, that the apparent lack of patriotism among Japanese could be partly attributed to their keen sense of humility.

Yet the ambiguity of the Japanese, which has been a criticism leveled by many outsiders, is instead “a balanced flexibility” nurtured over the centuries, Togi said.

“Japan is very well balanced in geological and climatic terms and people who grow up here naturally possess a highly cultured sense of balance,” he said.

“Maybe that’s why Japanese people cannot take things in a black-or-white way, being very sensitive to various aspects of one subject.”

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