As Japonismes 2018 approaches, we spoke with Mr. Laurent Pic, French Ambassador to Japan, about his thoughts on Japanese culture and the cultural exchange between Japan and France.
――Please tell us about your first encounter with Japanese culture.
I first visited Japan as a student in the 1980s. Tokyo was an amazingly modern city. There was this wonderful harmony between the old – things like shrines and temples – and the new. The country fascinated me, and I ended up visiting many times. Perhaps Japan’s appeal is obvious to French people. I still run into a lot of my fellow countrymen at tourist spots like Kyoto.
――Many aspects of Japanese traditions that are featured during Japonismes 2018, such as the Rinpa School of painting and Kabuki, had a substantial impact on French art and music. Japan has also been greatly influenced by France since the beginning of the Meiji Period in 1868. To what do you attribute this mutual influence?
“Japonismes” alludes to the term “japonisme,” which derives from the influence that Japanese culture had on France in the nineteenth century. You can see it clearly in the paintings of the Impressionists and Vincent van Gogh for instance, and in the music of Claude Debussy and others. However, what I find important is that this relationship of mutual influence has continued to exist in the present. For example, the genres of film and manga are currently the focus of great attention. And, the discussion between director Hirokazu Kore-eda and actress Isabelle Huppert about the depiction of women in film at last year’s French Film Festival in Japan was very thought-provoking. The mutual attraction our countries have for each other is not a temporary phenomenon, and it continues to bring artists from Japan and France together. Being able to breathe life into this attraction in tangible form is crucial. And now, Japonismes 2018 is making a renewed effort to share the diversity of Japanese culture with the people of France. The French government is interested to see how it is received in modern-day France and is giving the project its complete support.
――The social media posts by the French Embassy in Japan are quite unique and interesting. They vary from political statements to practical trivia and topics about everyday life.
Politics, life, and culture are inseparable. We live in a world in which they are all intertwined, and that is what creates culture. In the same way that Japanese people are interested in various aspects of France, French people are interested in various aspects of Japan.
――The French Embassy was one of the first to express its condolences when the great director, Isao Takahata, passed away in April. Japonismes 2018 is likely to attract a lot of young people, because the program includes the latest subculture, including popular topics like teamLab, manga, and Hatsune Miku, as well as “Touken Ranbu”, the ‘2.5D musical’ based on the online game.
The future of Japan-France relations lies with the younger generation. If we want to capture and retain their interest, we have to venture into areas that appeal to them. Exchanges between manga artists and artists of French bandes dessinées comics will be increasingly significant. France continues to be associated with food culture, lifestyle, and Impressionism, but I think it’s time for a makeover. I truly hope that the youth in Japan and France have an opportunity to visit each other’s countries while they are still young, and that they will be inspired by their experience.
――You have such an expansive perspective. Was there anything in particular that led to your post in Japan?
I requested that I be posted to Japan. Japan and France have enjoyed close relations from the start, with a wide range of exchanges taking place from national security to the economy, culture, and innovation. Being an Ambassador is like being a conductor who brings all of that into harmony, so I wanted to take my place on the podium and start conducting.
Living in Japan, I encounter surprises and discoveries every day. There is a depth to Japan that goes beyond what can be seen in Tokyo, so I make an effort to leave the embassy and visit people in their place of work, travelling to different parts of the country. Recently, on a visit to Gifu Prefecture, I met an artisan who makes washi paper. I was moved by the refined beauty of the physical movements involved in papermaking, and how it is deeply rooted to nature. I’ve had the privilege of meeting many people who are involved in preserving and continuing culture, including artists, craftsmen, and musicians, and I continue to be inspired every day.
――Hopefully, Japonismes 2018 will be a stimulus for the Japanese to rediscover their love of culture that transcends genre and generation.
It will be the responsibility of the younger generation. I was pleasantly surprised that regional organizations in Japan have chosen to wager on culture as a means to revitalize their area, similar to what is being done in France. Events such as La Folle Journée music festival that originated in Nantes, France are now held in Japan. Kyoto Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa, Yokohama Mayor Fumiko Hayashi, and Niigata Mayor Akira Shinoda are examples of local leaders who have succeeded in their endeavors.
――In closing, could you please share a message with the people of Japan?
Cultural exchange leads to self-enrichment through interaction with others. I hope the Japanese people will become involved in Japan-French interaction even in their daily lives, to any degree they can. There is infinite potential for bridges between our cultures. Let’s take advantage of this potential, and create a future of mutual cooperation.
Interview, text, and photography: Mai Takano