Japan Cultural Expo Kris Yoshie
Photo: NOBODY KNOWS

Five events to keep an eye on at the Japan Cultural Expo – with Kris Yoshie

The Slow Label director picks out art and culture experiences notable for enabling everyone to realise their potential

Written by Time Out. Paid for by Japan Cultural Expo
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A comprehensive celebration of Japanese arts and culture that’s part of the lead-up to this year’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the ongoing Japan Cultural Expo features everything from art exhibitions to performing arts events taking place throughout the country. The expo offers something for everyone, but the vast number of happenings held under its umbrella can make choosing what to see a bit challenging. In this series, we’re checking in with six experts to get an insider’s take on the Japan Cultural Expo events that definitely shouldn’t be missed.

Our sixth and final curator is Kris Yoshie, director of the Slow Label nonprofit, who also served as general director of the Yokohama Paratriennale until that event’s final edition in 2020 and works tirelessly to empower people with disabilities and advance their integration into society. She is a strong advocate for art and culture, calling it ‘everything we do’. In her words, ‘Art and culture are integral to our humanity, and living humanely in itself produces art and culture.’

Asked to choose five noteworthy events at the Japan Cultural Expo, Yoshie went about the task through a focus on the essentials of life – food, clothing and shelter – in Japan and their overlap with art and culture. She hopes that the expo could provide an opportunity to rethink the position of art and culture in our present society, and also incorporated the perspectives of intercultural understanding and sustainability into her picks.

Kimono: Fashioning Identities
重要文化財 縫箔 白練緯地四季草花四替模様 安土桃山時代・16世紀  前期展示4月14日(火)~5月10日(日) 京都国立博物館蔵

Kimono: Fashioning Identities

Held at the Tokyo National Museum from June 30 to August 23 2020, this exhibition dug deep into the history and cultural significance of the kimono. It touched on themes such as the garment's origins, its evolution and its contemporary role, and featured a range of remarkable items – from the only remaining kimono decorated by master painter Ogata Korin and a jinbaori coat worn by the 16th-century warlord Oda Nobunaga to the OTT clothing designs of Taro Okamoto. 

For Kris Yoshie, the exhibition stood out for its extensive range. ‘The show was interesting because it featured a wide variety of kimono, not only those of a specific artist or era,’ she says. ‘For those who weren't able to attend, the Japan Cultural Expo website has video of the first half, including explanations of the garments exhibited. The clip can be viewed until the end of March 2023, so you can explore the history of the kimono almost like at the exhibit itself.’ (Note: the exhibition's official website will be closed by the end of March 2021, but some of the videos will be made available on the Japan Cultural Expo website instead.)

‘I used to wear kimono on occasions such as New Year’s and to my coming-of-age ceremony, but have not been able to do so after becoming disabled. But come to think of it, before Japanese people started wearing Western clothing, everyone – including those with disabilities – dressed in kimono. That speaks both to the adaptability of the garment and to the ingenuity of our ancestors. I like how the kimono's sustainability, how it can be resized and turned into other items, is coming into focus again.’

Note: This exhibition ended its run on August 23 2020.

Oishii Ukiyo-e: The Roots of Japanese Cuisine
Photo: Ryuichiro Sato

Oishii Ukiyo-e: The Roots of Japanese Cuisine

This tasty display themed around traditional ukiyo-e art and Japanese cuisine took over the Mori Arts Center Gallery from July 15 to September 13 2020. Famous woodblock print artists such as Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Hiroshige and Utagawa Kuniyoshi depicted many Edo food scenes in their work, and ‘Oishii Ukiyo-e’ introduced their art along with Edo-period recipes. The result was a mouthwatering genre mashup that attracted a large and diverse audience.

‘To be honest, I haven’t really been big on ukiyo-e,’ says Kris Yoshie. ‘The genre didn’t feel accessible to me, but this food-themed exhibition changed that.’

‘I feel like Edo culture was really ahead of its time in that it was so eco-friendly. The people of Edo ate fermented food, dressed in kimono and so on. This exhibition brought the food depicted in woodblock prints, and Edo culture as a whole, to life by recreating Edo-period dishes in the present and highlighting them through photos and recipes. It offered an opportunity to rediscover the sustainable, eco-friendly and healthy cuisine of traditional Japan.’

Note: This exhibition ended its run on September 13 2020.

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Kenzo Tange 1938-1970

This ambitious display focuses entirely on Kenzo Tange, one of Japan's leading postwar architects and a giant of Modernism often mentioned in the same breath as Le Corbusier, with a special focus on his oeuvre and influence on contemporary architecture.

Having produced many of his most iconic works during Japan’s era of remarkable economic growth in the decades after World War II, Tange is famed for designing the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and set to host events at this year’s Tokyo Games as well. ‘Kenzo Tange 1938-1970’ zooms in on the Yoyogi National Gymnasium building and incorporates educational lectures, guided tours and film screenings.

Kris Yoshie’s interest in food, clothing and shelter draws her to architecture, too. ‘Kenzo Tange took traditional Japanese architecture, which sees structures as part of nature, and brought it into the modern era. I’m hoping to see this connection between architecture and the Japanese view on nature at the exhibition.’

Utekanpa Festival
Photo: Touch the AINU Culture

Utekanpa Festival

The Utekanpa Festival seeks to highlight the charms of Ainu culture from a new perspective and to invite a diverse range of people to shape that culture in the present. This is accomplished with ‘Touch the Ainu Culture’, a website aimed at promoting Ainu culture to the public. The website features the Ainu language, traditional songs called upopo and other Ainu music, embroidery, food and much more.

‘Hearing that a National Ainu Museum had opened in Hokkaido, I was determined to check it out,’ says Kris Yoshie. ‘To me, the Ainu embody both harmony with nature and a lifestyle that respects others and our planet. It’s like their words on these matters have more weight than mine, seeing that I live in the city. I’ve never really studied Ainu culture, and would so much like to learn by experiencing it on site. The pandemic makes travelling difficult right now, so I welcome this opportunity to get in touch with the culture online.’

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NOBODY KNOWS
Photo: NOBODY KNOWS

NOBODY KNOWS

The NOBODY KNOWS project consists of history-focused tours and innovative shows featuring traditional performing arts, all taking place in Japan Heritage-designated locales throughout the country. Tours were held in six locations in 2019, while the 2020 edition, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, saw the on-site events replaced by online programmes that provide viewers with an in-depth look at history, culture and the traditional arts.

For Kris Yoshie, folk arts contain ‘an element of ritual’. ‘They’ve have been passed down from generation to generation in specific settlements and are part of everyday life. The sort of tour package provided under the auspices of NOBODY KNOWS is a great idea, as there aren’t many opportunities to experience local performing arts. I like folk arts myself, and have often travelled to see performers practice and perform at festivals. That considered, I think it’s unfortunate that the programme had to be turned into an online-only offering.’

‘The true essence of art and culture can be found in its sacred element – the presenting of dances and songs to the deities. That’s something I’ve come to feel quite strongly after working on art projects together with people with disabilities. Their art is instinctual rather than artificial. I feel like art and culture is now returning to its roots, and it’s a direction I’d like my own work to take, too.’

Photo: Slow Label

Kris Yoshie

‘Para-creative producer’ Kris Yoshie directs the Slow Label nonprofit, which she founded in 2011 to empower people with disabilities and advance their integration into society. Having worked across the fields of art, design and entertainment to establish new connections between people and regions, especially through works of interactive performance art in parts of Japan suffering from population decline, her activities took a new turn after 2010, when she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma that resulted in loss of function in her right leg. She established the Yokohama Paratriennale in 2014 and served as the event’s general director until 2020. With Slow Movement, her performance art project, she brings together performers with a wide range of physical and mental abilities and disabilities. Yoshie served as stage advisor for Japan’s ‘handover’ show performed at the Rio Paralympics closing ceremony, and was appointed creative director of the Tokyo 2020 ceremonies team.

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