Culture—the Forgotten Peace-builder?

by Nassrine Azimi, Co-Founder/Coordinator, Green Legacy Hiroshima Initiative

Early February this year I travelled to Kyushu, for a last chance to visit in Western Japan the dazzling exhibit Hidden Treasures from the National Museum of Kabul. Many items in the collection--Bactrian gold, glass and semi-precious stones, earthenware, stunning 4000-year old wedding and funerary objects--are from excavations in the 1970s and have survived the 1979 Soviet invasion, a bloody civil war, Taliban rampages, neglect, looting and illegal exports. Now, thanks in part to Afghan museum staff who at great personal risk hid them for years, they are on a first worldwide tour.

Standing before a fish-shaped glass flask from Bagram, the ancient capital of the Kushan Dynasty, I wept. Its 2000-year beauty seemed such a contrast, to the almost daily news of violence afflicting Afghanistan. The face of Wasil Ahmed, the child-soldier murdered that same week by the Taliban--he was only 10--was haunting as I looked at delicate objects his countrymen had made, those thousands of years ago. I thought of my Afghan friends back in Kabul, in Herat and Bamiyan, in Balkh and Kandahar--their humor, their intelligence, their humanity--and wondered if one day their land, all our conflict-ridden lands of the Greater Middle East, could become places of peace, of prosperity, of learning and beauty?

Friends and colleagues visiting Hiroshima, especially those with direct experiences of war and violence, often enviously comment to me about how peaceful Japan is. Many tend to believe that, with the exception of the Asia-Pacific War, it has been bathed in such peace forever. Nothing could be farther from the truth: for almost half of the past millennia Japan was a war-ridden country. A silver lining, however, is that each time it has rebuilt itself--after civil war, social upheaval or even a world war--it has done so by not forgetting its culture and cultural institutions.

A first turning point in Japan’s modern age was in 1600, when after almost 140 years of non-stop bloodletting among clans, the Tokugawa-led victory ushered two and a half centuries of relative stability. As one way of dispelling threats by the defeated, disgruntled warlords the Tokugawa shogunate imposed compulsory visits from fiefdom leaders to the capital in Edo, a system known as the sankin-kōtai. It was astute policy: not only the funds required for the elaborate trips was money warlords could no longer use to raise armies (an effective form of demilitarization) but the steady flow of their retinues and other travelers across the length and breadth of the country also vastly expanded and improved infrastructure. Post-station towns, transportation hubs, accommodation and the service industry, commerce and distinctive regional crafts and products--all still today the pride of Japan--became felicitous by-products of a calculated political decision.

Peace and the advent of early tourism led in turn to a cultural flourishing. As early as 1643 the Nihon sankei--designation of three most scenic places of beauty--was being promoted, a categorization that over time expanded to include rivers, lakes, mountains, gardens, castles, night views and even hot springs, a boon for the outlying regions and the origin of the enduring love of the Japanese for travel in their own country. With better education, wealthier urbanites adopted artistic pastimes, which gradually extended to ordinary people. Popular tastes for the performing arts--kabuki, kyogen, kagura and even noh--spread, as did the love of calligraphy, painting, sculpture, music and poetry. In the late 17th century, when the haiku poet Matsuo Basho started his journeys to Japan’s remote corners, he was surprised to find poetry circles on the way, with ordinary people not only literate enough to have read his verses, but also composing a few of their own. With a more literate population the production of books progressed, and a craze for maps and print-making gripped the nation.

As to the warrior classes--some floundered, many went wayward but quite a few studied. They became bureaucrats, administrators and scholars. They practiced the martial arts and calligraphy. As my friend the architect Nishikiori Akio describes, some also designed gardens and buildings, tilled their land and improved their domains with new technologies. This open-minded focus on education and self-improvement prepared them well for the demise of the shogunate and the second turning point in Japan’s modern history, the1868 Meiji Restoration, whose finest and most competent leaders were often sons of first or second rank impoverished former samurai.

By the 19th century, like so many other Asian countries but more successfully than most, Japan faced the challenge of modernity and the threat of colonial powers at its doorsteps. The young Meiji leaders chose a different path from their Tokugawa ancestors: rather than closing the country to outside threats, they opened it. The speed of learning was so steep that meritocracy became indispensable. Every new idea was worth exploring, and the Meiji government actively dispatched official delegations to the West, to learn the secrets of its prosperity. The most famous of these was the Iwakura Embassy, an 18-month fact-finding mission sent to America and Europe in 1871, in its ranks not just high officials but also scholars, researchers and--a first ever--five young female students.

Here, too, the leaders did not forget culture. The Iwakura Embassy visited museums at every single stop, admiring how Westerners could educate themselves through cultural institutions and libraries. Their designated scribe, the historian Kume Kunitake, gave special place in his diaries to describing museums. So did the politician and reformer Kido Takayoshi, who chronicles visits to an endless list of public and private art collections, schools, colleges and universities, memorials and historical archives, lectures, theaters and the opera, even circuses and horse shows! The tireless Kido, among the cream of Meiji leadership, had no qualms about becoming, for the occasion, a modest student.

The speed of translating ideas from the West in building Japan’s cultural institutions was also extraordinary. The three great national museums, in Tokyo (1882), Nara (1889) and Kyoto (1897), were all completed within a decade and a half. Their building required enormous resources from the still-fledgling government, but helped excite the genius and drive of Japanese architects, engineers, carpenters, metal-workers, curators, journalists and bureaucrats. That élan has continued: a fourth national museum, the one hosting the Afghan exhibit, was built 10 years ago near Kyushu’s Dazaifu, a historic center of Confucian learning dating back to the 7th century.

The rise and fall of nations is, sadly or promisingly, a cyclical story. Despite all its achievements in the Edo and Meiji periods, Japan was not immune to world turmoil and internal decay. By the early 20th century most of the exceptional Meiji politicians had passed away. Intoxicating military victories in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars turned to be poisoned chalices, feeding an aggressive military-industrial complex. Violence, kidnapping and murder of political opponents became prevalent, and nationalism took an ugly turn. A senseless war concocted by mediocre leaders was unleashed, first on China and then on the United States and its allies. It was the beginning of Japan’s undoing and ended in charred, ruined cities, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and for the first time in its history, occupation. When I look at iconic photos of mournful child-soldiers--survivors of the death fields of Okinawa in their miserable ill-fitting uniforms--I am reminded that not so long ago Japan, too, had some of its own Wasil Ahmeds.

The post-WWII period is the third turning point in Japan’s modern history. So deep was ordinary people’s disgust with the war, and so profound the influence of the peace constitution, that Japan has indeed remained a peaceful nation for the past seven decades. Here too, cultural renaissance--of a more democratic bend--was part of reforms from the start, thanks also to an enlightened American Occupation that included an Arts and Monuments division tasked with supporting the recovery of cultural heritage. Few now remember that even before the arrival of Douglas MacArthur as Supreme Commander for the Allied Forces, a handful of American officers--originally scholars and museum curators all--had drawn concrete plans for the salvage of the cultural property of their former enemy. Ignorance of this history has been tragic on many fronts--including for future American occupation policies, dismal in this regard.

While much is written about Japan’s post WWII economic miracle, it is a little known fact that as early as 1950, despite still dire national conditions, the Japanese Diet passed one of the world’s most comprehensive laws for the protection of cultural property. Thereafter, as economic recovery gained momentum, prefectural, municipal and private museums of history, science, arts and crafts opened at a dizzying pace, now present in every single of the nation’s 47 prefectures, a legacy central to the sense of identity of Japan’s regions. Worldwide, too, Japan’s cultural prestige and soft-power are high, and rising. How one wishes that international development assistance in conflict-ridden countries today would study more carefully, this unknown but essential part of Japan’s post-war experiences.

But is all this just a pipe dream for the Middle East? I do not believe so. Seeing the intricate and beautiful objects like those at the Afghan exhibit, one is reminded anew that a region so ancient, with such a rich and diverse heritage, cannot remain this low, for so long. As the Japanese scholar of the Silk Road Maeda Kosaku writes eloquently in the exhibition catalogue: “It is impossible to suppress fresh wonder, at the depth of interwoven history and the richness of cultural atmosphere belonging to these excavated items.” Fresh wonder, indeed, and maybe the determination, to retrieve one day that richness and diversity. How else--if not--to honor the short wasted life of Wasil Ahmed?

Nassrine Azimi
Born in Iran in 1959, Swiss citizen. Earned a master’s degree in international affairs from the Graduate Institute in Geneva in 1986 and another master’s degree from Geneva University’s Institute of Architecture in 1998. Joined the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) in 1986. After serving as chief of UNITAR’s New York office, became the first director of its new Hiroshima office in 2003. Stepped down in 2009. Now serves as its senior advisor. In 2011 co-founded and now co-coordinates Green Legacy Hiroshima Initiative (http://www.unitar.org/greenlegacyhiroshima), a project to send around the world seeds and seedlings from trees that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Has written opinion pieces in the International New York Times and other publications on various topics, including on Hiroshima’s efforts to bring about peace, and on the aftermath of the accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Her latest book, Last Boat to Yokohama, was released in May 2015. Resident of Hiroshima.