Why Culture Matters: In conversation with Ambassador Morikawa Toru, Executive Director, Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF)
Ambassador Morikawa Toru joined the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) as its 8th Executive Director in August 2020. He is a career diplomat, and his previous postings include serving as Minister, Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Japan in Iran; and Minister-Counsellor, Embassy of Japan in France where he was in charge of various cultural exchange initiatives. He has also worked in the areas of Media and Regional Economic Cooperation and has experience in cultivating and enhancing partnerships for projects with different organisations including the private sector.
ENCATC: For those of our readers who may not know ASEF, could you introduce the organisation to us? What is its mission?
The Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) has been in the business of funding and facilitating multilateral cultural co-operation since 1997. Currently, we work to connect 51 countries in Asia and Europe. It is our aim to build long-term alliances between civil societies in Asia and Europe, based on fair exchange and mutual respect.
Over the past 23 years, we have brought together more than 40,000 professionals and students from the 2 continents. At ASEF, we do this by creating neutral platforms for dialogue – on equal terms – among cultural operators from across Asia and Europe. Within these dialogues, we embed our guiding principle of diversity, not just demographically, but in terms of worldviews as well. Through these efforts, we hope to deepen mutual understanding between the peoples of the two regions. Culture and education have always been priority areas for us.
What might be interesting for your readers to know is that our work is publicly funded by 51 countries, as well as the European Union and the ASEAN Secretariat (that brings together 10 south east Asian countries). Together, these 53 partners make up the Asia-Europe Meeting, the ASEM informal political dialogue process that set up the Asia-Europe Foundation as its only permanent institution. In fact, 2021 marks the 25th anniversary of ASEM. While ASEM focuses on government-to-government relations, ASEF facilitates people-to-people connections.
ENCATC: What role do you see for arts, culture & heritage in these uncertain times?
On one hand, the crisis has shown us how important the culture is to society’s emotional well-being. Communities have created music from their balconies to cheer up their neighbours. Many of us have enjoyed movies, music and museums online to keep ourselves positive in this time of economic turmoil, when our routine lives have been thrown out of gear. The COVID-19 Social Study, led by Dr. Daisy Fancourt of the University College of London has been widely cited in the last year. It has tracked arts participation and mental health in a cohort of 72,000 UK adults aged 18 and older on a weekly basis between March and August 2020. The data clearly suggests that people who have spent 30 minutes or more each day during the pandemic on arts activities like reading for pleasure, listening to music, or engaging in a creative hobby have lower reported rates of depression and anxiety and greater life satisfaction. Culture has, thus, been an affirmative and calming force at this time of great uncertainty for humanity.
At the same time, there has been some debate among the public as to whether the arts are essential services during a global public health emergency. This points to the important work that needs to be done in reaffirming the intrinsic value of the arts. Culture matters. It is a bridge connecting the social, economic and psychological wellbeing of human beings and of society at large. Thus, the arts have an important role to play in post-pandemic recovery.
Owing to the pandemic, the people of Asia and Europe – unfortunately – continue to remain divided, both in physical terms due to restricted travel and in terms of perceptions of each other. In this context, culture is a door to deepen mutual understanding. We are what we are, thanks to our culture. We, therefore, need to preserve cultural activity and cultural exchange as well as protect the people undertaking this important job.
In this International Year of the Creative Economy for Sustainable Development, we would also do well to remember that the arts have both symbolic and economic value for our societies. As UNCTAD’s Creative Economy Outlook Report 2018 reminded us: the size of the global market for creative goods has expanded substantially more than doubling in size from USD 208 billion in 2002 to USD 509 billion in 2015. We must, therefore, reaffirm the value of the creative economy. The cultural and creative industries offer important opportunities to generate income, jobs and exports, particularly through small and medium-sized enterprises. Acknowledging this dual value can support economic recovery efforts, while also ensuring society’s emotional well-being by ensuring public access to the arts during this global crisis.
These are the key messages that we urgently need to convey to both the public and to policymakers.
ENCATC: How is ASEF adapting its work in culture in response to the pandemic, both in terms of content and format? What are some of the key lessons you have learnt in the last year?
The arts – including our own programming – have been severely affected due to closure of public venues and the limitations on travel as well as physical gatherings. Since early 2020, we, therefore, begun to re-think our programmes and approaches to adapt to the rapidly changing needs on the ground. We thought about the unique challenge to international cultural collaborations posed by the pandemic: how to ensure trans-national networking and co-operation in a time of travel restrictions?
If we are not to lose the gains we have made in the past, we realised that need to think more innovatively about how to use technology to nurture meaningful social and professional connections. We needed to find creative formats to gather online, formats that will enable a true exchange of ideas, where all sides are heard, and new connections are made.
In response, we have piloted 3 initiatives through our arts website, culture360 (culture360.ASEF.org). We launched two virtual artists residencies in 2020 & 2021 in partnership with the ASEAN Foundation and Japan Foundation to support peer-to-peer & mentor-mentee engagements among cultural professionals. This year, we are delighted to be working with ENCATC to launch a pilot initiative for arts journalists in Asia and Europe to work with a mentor from the other region. We have also transformed our Mobility First! travel grant for cultural professionals into digital collaborations for Asian and Europeans to work together to create new artworks or new knowledge.
We would also like to draw your attention to a digital exhibition launched to mark ASEM Day 2021. Titled A Passage to Asia: 25 Centuries of Exchange between Asia & Europe, this free online exhibition – presented by the European Union (EU) and the Centre for Fine Arts-Brussels (BOZAR) – presents exquisite artefacts rendered in 3D and drawn from the collections of several museums. At a time when on-site cultural events are not possible, and many cultural venues remain closed, this exhibition harnesses the power of technology to create a truly immersive experience for the public. We invite your readers to visit https://passagetoasia.eu/ to enjoy the exhibition.
ENCATC: In the light of recent developments, what are the key gaps in Asia-Europe cultural co-operation that we must pay attention to?
I would highlight 4 key areas for us to focus on in the short to medium term future.
Inclusive recovery is important. We should be careful enough not to overlook the needs of all the vulnerable groups in special need affected by the pandemic: artists and cultural practitioners are among them. For some, it is a matter of survival as they have lost opportunities to perform locally and internationally. Many young people, too, are isolated and cannot find hope for the future. Dr. Fancourt’s study, which I mentioned before, has found that during the pandemic young adults have had higher reported rates of depression and anxiety than older adults, as well as lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction. Interestingly, 70% of the young adults in the UK aged 18-29 reported missing cultural institutions, even though normally older adults aged 60+ are more frequent visitors. With some help, these young people may contribute to the society, including as volunteers.
Although we are enjoying more digital connectivity than ever, we should also remember that the digital divide is still a reality. A UNESCO report from 2020 acknowledges that the internet is now an essential service but is still not accessible to 46% of the world’s population. This shocking statistic must make us sit up and re-think access to technology. How can we reach those who are on the other side of the digital divide?
We should advocate for continued policy coordination between Asian and European policymakers to exchange good practices in the cultural and creative sectors, including innovative approaches to sustaining international collaborations over the next 3 years, when mobility may not return to pre-pandemic levels. ASEF has been playing a valuable role to assist the host and the secretariat of ASEM Culture Ministers’ Meetings (ASEM CMMs). It may be a time for us to appeal the Governments to resume this process.
We should also ensure that the needs and voices of artists and cultural professionals are heard by policymakers. This is best done by regularly facilitating platforms for multistakeholder dialogue. It would be particularly important to include ideas from key cultural actors on how the arts and creative industries could support the path to an inclusive and green recovery.
Questions for further discussion
- Are the arts an essential service during a global health crisis? Why? Why not?
- Can virtual forms of cultural exchange fully replace face-to-face encounters? What might be the key disadvantages of overwhelmingly relying on digital means to promote international cultural co-operation in a post-pandemic world?
- What might be the key factors impeding equal partnerships between Asian and European cultural professionals?
United Nations Conference for Trade and Development (2018), “Creative Economy Outlook Report”, UNCTAD. URL: https://unctad.org/system/files/official-document/ditcted2018d3_en.pdf
FANCOURT, D. (15 October 2020). COVID-19 Social Study, University College of London. URL: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/epidemiology-health-care/events/2020/oct/covid-19-social-study
UNESCO (2020), “Culture in Crisis: Policy guide for a resilient creative sector”, UNESCO. URL: https://en.unesco.org/news/culture-crisis-policy-guide-resilient-creative-sector
GUIDELINES FOR AUTHORS
– You are invited to use a language which makes it easy to share knowledge in the classroom.
– We kindly ask you to close your contribution by outlining some questions to spark the discussion in the classroom.
– As it is an online publication, we would suggest the text to have between 2.000 and 3.000 words.
– Please follow this citing style:
TOFFLER, A. (1970) Future Shock. New York: Random House.
· Book chapters:
WALSH, P. (2007) Rise and Fall of the Post-Photographic Museum: Technology and the Transformation of Art. In Cameron, F. and Kenderdine, S. (eds.) Theorizing digital cultural heritage: a critical discourse (pp. 19–34). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
· Journal articles:
DEL BARRIO, M. J.; DEVESA, M. and HERRERO, L. C. (2012) Evaluating intangible cultural heritage: The case of cultural festivals. City, Culture and Society, 3 (4), 235-244.
Photo credit: Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF)