Four people at the roundtable
Kosuke Yutani, architect (far right). He and his wife, Mai Yutani (second from right), make up Yutani Architects and work on designs for homes and shops. He studied architecture in Switzerland, and is attracted by architectural design which uses local techniques and materials suited to the area’s environment. ©

Ise City, British Council Photo by Shoki Sakamoto

UK and Ise: exchange with local artists

During their residency in Ise, the British artists visited many different parts of the city and engaged proactively in exchanges with local residents. In particular, they expressed a strong desire to share ideas with artists born and raised in Ise. Here we reflect on the discussions from that session, focusing on two topics which the UK artists seemed most intrigued by.

How do the Ise artists see Japan’s current situation and future?

Climate change is now a major topic globally, while the rapidly falling birthrate and ageing population are issues shared by Japan and the UK. What do creative practitioners think and how do they act in such a time? And how does the philosophy of Ise Jingu influence them? This was the context for questions about the current state and future of Japan directed at the creators from Ise. 

Hakubun Sakamoto, a photographer who has been taking pictures of Ise Jingu and the festivals held in Ise for over 30 years, directly experiences the ways in which the issues of ageing and population decline are changing the face of the local area through his photography. Sakamoto’s photographs, which aim to faithfully record their subjects, can also be seen as a commentary on this situation.

Calligrapher Junichi Ito pointed out that in addition to the fall in the area’s population, the concentration of the population into cities is advancing the homogenisation of culture. He is committed to his own approach of going to a particular area in order to experience the local culture for himself when creating his works.

It was dancer Miyabi Kitamura who referred to the problems faced by young people. Speaking from her day-to-day experiences of interacting with children, she raised the issue of communication, saying “Young people who come to dance are only having conversations with other people through their mobile phones”. She told the participants how she aims to spread heart-to-heart dialogue through dance. She also mentioned the issue of isolation among older people, explaining how she hoped to energise them through a fashion show with senior citizens which she is currently planning.

Musician Seiko Nagaoka pointed out the dangers in the tendency for Japanese young people to be inward-looking, with little interest in the wider world. He emphasised the importance of building networks of individuals across national boundaries, introducing the Himemiko Project, on which he has been working for over 30 years, as an example. The project communicates the Japanese spirit to the world, in partnership with musicians and dancers active in the realms of music for Japanese traditional instruments, court music, Western classical music, and pop music. Everyone nodded in agreement at his statement that art and music have the potential to connect the world in a different way from politics.

Kosuke Yutani, an architect with experience of studying architecture in Switzerland, raised some of the issues concerning crafts people building with wood. The “pre-cut” method, in which timber is cut and processed in the factory based on the architectural plan, is the norm for contemporary wooden buildings while, on the other hand, the number of carpenters able to build a house using the traditional method known as tekizami (“cutting by hand”) is falling. One of the aims of the rebuilding that takes place at Ise Jingu every 20 years is said to be to pass on techniques: if such techniques are not used, they will die out. He emphasised that he and other members of the younger generation need to sound the alarm. Looking at the design of the Jingu from an architectural perspective, it is clear that our predecessors have a lot to teach us. 

“The ceremonial rebuilding of the shrine every 20 years forms a kind of break between one period and the next.” Kiyomi Chigusa, a writer who has authored books on Ise and Ise Jingu, referred thus to the particular way in which time is measured in Ise. Each time that the rebuilding happens, a symbolic keyword is chosen: in 1993, it was “culture of the unadorned”, while in 2013, it was “ever young”. In a world which has come to place great importance on diversity, thinking about what the next keyword will be demonstrates the spirit of the age, she told participants.  

A person holding a booklet and sitting and talking
Hakubun Sakamoto, photographer. Living in Ise City, he has been photographing the festivals of Ise Jingu and the Ise region, as well as the ama divers of Toba and Shima, for almost 30 years. He places great emphasis on creating a record, making it his aim to take faithful pictures of his subjects. His collections of photographs include “Ise Jingu”. ©

 Ise City, British Council Photo by Shoki Sakamoto

People with the microphone, sitting and talking
Seiko Nagaoka, born in Ise and resident in Tokyo. A composer, arranger and producer of music, he creates music for films, TV dramas, and animations. ©

Ise City, British Council Photo by Shoki Sakamoto

People with the microphone, sitting and talking
Miyabi Kitamura. Alongside her activities as a pop dancer, she is a consultant for a senior high school dance club and led her students to victory in the national championships. She hopes that dance will enrich people’s lives. ©

 Ise City, British Council Photo by Shoki Sakamoto

People with the microphone, sitting and talking
Junichi Ito, calligrapher and artist. He is a self-taught calligrapher, developing a style which is not constrained by any particular format. Through activities such as live performances, collaborations with other genres, design work, and offerings to shrines and temples, he is promulgating Japanese culture and ideas to the world. ©

Ise City, British Council Photo by Shoki Sakamoto

People with the microphones, sitting and talking
Kiyomi Chigusa, writer. As an expert on the study of Ise, she has published many books on the history of Ise Jingu, as well as lecturing at a university. ©

Ise City, British Council Photo by Shoki Sakamoto

Why can the unseen be sensed in Japan?

At Ise Jingu, the British artists heard some mysterious statements. Gifts to the kami are enclosed in boxes which remain unopened. We must not look inside amulets. Furthermore, no-one can look at the sacred object housed in the shrine. Why? Do Japanese people have a temperament which reveres the unseen?  

The latter part of the exchange of opinions, on “the existence of unseen and hidden kami”, threw the cultural differences between the two sides regarding the unknown and unseen into stark relief. 

For those born and raised in Ise, the kami are not seen, they simply “are”. Everyone searched their hardest for a way to explain this feeling in words. Kitamura, who said “The kami are unseen, but are always close beside us”, told an amusing story of writing a letter to the kami as a child. 

Sakamoto used the example of the universe. “Trying to find out why the universe came into being is a human sentiment, but the sensitivity to embrace the existence of the universe is important.” In reply, a British artist asked a penetrating question: “Does embracing things as they are lead to peace of mind?” This revealed a logic behind the ideas of which Japanese people are not usually aware. 

Not seeking the answers to everything runs through Japanese culture, which values lingering echoes and blank spaces. Nagaoka quoted the words of composer Toru Takemitsu, who said “I express things which cannot be seen but which manifest themselves in the music,” and explained that he also placed great importance on “traces of presence” in his music.

Ito, who said “There was a part of my upbringing which encouraged me to pay particular attention to the unseen,” is another person who tries to give these traces a form. His pronouncement that the taboo against looking was not a religious rule, but rather something passed down from parents to their children as a part of daily life, recalled the lecture on Shinto culture by Mr. Iwahashi of Jinja Honcho (Association of Shinto Shrines), where he told participants that “The deities of Shinto are a matter of ‘faith’, not of ‘religion’.”

Yutani, meanwhile, remarked that “The object of faith is sometimes a mountain, sometimes the sea, depending on the area: there are probably eight million kami because what is important differs from place to place”. These days, the once customary ground-breaking ceremony is omitted in the building of more and more new homes, particularly among young homeowners in Tokyo and other major cities. Yutani’s partner Mai, who came to Ise after marriage, spoke of how she first learned of the ground-breaking ceremony here, and of how she would like to preserve various aspects of culture which is being gradually lost around Japan, but which is still alive in Ise.

In closing, Chigusa recited a poem which the Buddhist monk Saigyo composed during a pilgrimage to Ise Jingu. Is it possible to discern the roots of the contemporary Japanese spirit in this poem from 800 years ago?

I do not know who resides here; but tears of gratitude well up

The British artists were able to explore the philosophy of the Jingu and its connections to the present day through this session. It also served as an opportunity for the Japanese artists to take a fresh look at their own country’s culture. The fruits of this encounter will surely enrich each of their future work.

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