Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Exchange through Street Dance: Empathy, Pride, and Cultural Creation
YOSHIOKA Norihiko / Director, Arts, Culture and Exchange Section 1, Japan Foundation Asia Center

January 14, 2022
In April 2014, when a new unit specialized in exchanges with other Asian countries—the Asia Center—was set up within the Japan Foundation for the first time in 10 years, I returned to Japan from Vietnam and joined the team tasked with its launch.

The Japan Foundation Asia Center’s mission is to develop a sense of kinship and coexistence as neighboring inhabitants of Asia and to nurture human resources to become a bridge between neighboring countries. Based on this mission, we organized a project to promote international cultural exchange through street dance, titled “DANCE DANCE ASIA—Crossing the Movements” (DDA). Designed as both a response to public diplomacy theory in the 2000s and beyond and a way for the Japan Foundation to venture into new fields, the project was implemented from the 2014–15 to 2019–20 fiscal years.

Although the Japan Foundation has been involved in projects to introduce Japanese culture or engage in international collaboration through dance, including butoh and contemporary dance, the DDA was the first project organized by the foundation to focus on street dance. Street dance had been introduced to school education in Japan, while globally, street-dance-based expression was increasing in theater settings worldwide. As such, the Japan Foundation saw in it the potential of exchange programs in terms of the breadth of its base and its deepening as culture.

That said, we had no prior experience in the genre. In order to get to know one another first, we started out by sending existing dance teams and groups from Japan to Southeast Asian countries, and inviting the same from Southeast Asian countries to Japan, to perform stage works as well as conduct workshops on the dance techniques that each group excelled in. From there, we gradually progressed to forming new teams across different groups and nationalities and engaging in international collaboration.

The project finally got off the ground, and on day one I met up at the airport with more than 20 Japanese dancers to depart on a tour of Southeast Asian countries. I was flummoxed when one of them said to me in a language I could not comprehend: “We’ll repezen Japan and show them how cool we are!” As I was told, repezen is a hip-hop term derived from the English word “represent” and means just that; in short, the remark meant that they would do their best as representatives of Japan. I was the only one who could not understand on the spot.

Later, we went to a restaurant on our first day in the country. One of the greatest pleasures of intercultural exchange is discovering new cuisines. I would volunteer to do the ordering in countries I had lived in, as if to say, leave it to me to select the dishes. I chose dishes that I believed were beginner friendly but would get people saying, “I didn’t know [this dish]”; and with what I smugly regarded as a well-chosen selection laid out on the table, I invited everyone to dig in. But one after another, the dancers expressed repulsion: “What in the world? I think it sort of smells. Doesn’t it stink?” “For real, I can’t eat this.” When I spotted them secretly gathered at a McDonald’s after I had parted with them following the dinner, moreover, I felt greatly dejected at the time.

On another day, were at the workshop venue. The workshops were set up as an opportunity to interact with dancers and dance enthusiasts from across the country ahead of the main theater performance. The Japanese dancers would share their techniques in their favorite dance styles, such as breaking, popping, locking, hip-hop, house, and waacking, breaking them down for beginners, after which they would present their original choreography. Seeing the movements of the world-class dancers, experienced dancers from across the country would cheer in awe, while participants who appeared to be dance beginners would emit laughs of no-way-I-can-do-that desperation. From those executing the choreography just as well as the instructors to novices clearly moving awkwardly, everyone was enjoying the same choreography.

Witnessing similar scenes in various countries over the next several years has made me certain of one thing: that workshops led by world-class dancers have the power to create tangible empathy among all participants, no matter who they are. They feel the emotional surge of seeing overwhelming dance performances and share in that experience, regardless of differences in individual skill level. With no tools or equipment required in dance, beginners and professionals alike can take a shot at it together, using only their own bodies; people can participate in it easily and equally, even more so than sports. Dance is a highly democratic and peaceful activity—so I came to feel after taking part in many workshops.

Back to the topic of the main theater performances, in the early days of the DDA we presented performances and shows by existing Japanese dance groups in the countries we visited, and even though the groups and works were mostly new to the audiences in each country—with the exception of a few well-known dance groups—they were received with enthusiastic cheers. Members of the audience would linger after the show in the hope of taking pictures with the dancers, and some even mailed letters to the organizers with sketches of the dancers attached.

Meanwhile, we received not only favorable reviews from performing arts, theater, and dance critics across the region but a number of criticisms as well. They noted a lack of “creativity as art,” on the one hand, and pointed out that “confining a culture born in the streets to the theater stage is depriving its best qualities as a street culture,” on the other. In the latter years of the DDA we came to focus more on creating and staging works through international collaboration, pursuing “creativity as art” and the potential of street dance as a performing art in a way that does not diminish its street-derived power. Our efforts met with a certain level of recognition, but I feel we did not succeed in changing the views of critics and commentators who were critical to begin with.

When it comes to evaluating international cultural exchange projects, though, who should do it, and how? If it is a theatrical presentation, should it be evaluated by performing arts critics? Should public institutions leave in the hands of the market the kind of experiences in which spectators cheering the dancers not as fans but as friends and those seeing the dancers for the first time join together in the excitement and feel oneness with the performers, and think only in the direction of promoting “cultural creativity” and the exercise of social critique, even in “international cultural exchange” projects? Is the refreshing chain of empathy that takes place in workshops, unseen by critics, too mundane to be counted as an achievement and destined to be dismissed? Is this chain of empathy something that anyone can generate anywhere?

The dancers who said “For real, I can’t eat this” and rejected exotic dishes, preferring McDonald’s instead, had far greater power in creating the chain of empathy than myself, who considered himself more “advanced” in cross-cultural understanding. The dancers who took pride in their own country—be it Japan, the Philippines, or Vietnam—forged relationships across national boundaries more nimbly than myself, a self-proclaimed liberal wary of my-country-first-ism who consciously distances himself from nationalism.

Through these experiences, I have come to feel that street dance, which can be a hobby, a profession, a performing art, or a competitive sport(*), carries clues for thinking from a fresh perspective about international cultural exchange programs and cross-cultural understanding and how they relate to empathy, pride, and cultural creativity. In short, whether it be empathy, pride in one’s country or oneself, or the pursuit of artistic quality in cultural creativity, too much of it can draw a clear line between inside and outside, potentially leading to exclusiveness and contemptuousness. Each of these factors require the balance of moderation; and in that regard, street dance possesses openness in that it has a broad base as a hobby and as part of the school curriculum, while it can be pursued from diverse angles—as a form of entertainment, as an art form, or even as a sport. Therein may be a clue to averting the exclusiveness of sorts that can be seen in cultural diplomacy or international cultural exchange programs. Thus far, I am struggling to verbalize and organize my thoughts. For the time being, I would like to continue thinking about all this, as I beat out an up-and-down rhythm with my knees.

(*)Breaking is set to become an official Olympic event from the Paris 2024 Games.

Norihiko Yoshioka is director of the Arts, Culture and Exchange Section 1 at the Japan Foundation Asia Center.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

吉岡 憲彦 / 国際交流基金アジアセンター文化事業第1チーム長

2022年 1月 14日















一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Exchange through Street Dance: Empathy, Pride, and Cultural Creation