Fig. 2 Nazolaz, 2018

On arriving at the Expo Commemoration Park in Osaka, there’s only one sculpture and one pavilion left from the original exhibition. The sculpture is giant: Tarō Okamoto’s concrete behemoth rises 70 metres into the sky with arms outreached and faces watching out in every direction. There’s an expensive plastic model of this produced by Bandai, a robot version of the sculpture that I saw in a toy shop. I’m carrying my own plastic around, an empty hamburger bento box (it’s real), and empty water bottles in a plastic bag. I’ve been carrying it around for three days. Where are all the bins? I read about how in 1964 for the Olympics, Tokyo removed all the bins from the streets to assume a more progressive, cleaner and efficient city. There are bins in the convenience stores but it always seems rude to discard waste plastic in a place that you didn’t get it from. I get a ticket to the Expo Museum in the park hoping that there will be a bin inside that I can use.

I learn that, unlike Zero Jigen, Tatsumi Hijikata—founder of the Butoh dance form—was embraced within the context of Osaka Expo. He showed film documentation of a performance in a volcanic crater in Hokkaido at the Midori-Kai (Green Pavilion), a pavilion specialising in showcasing Japanese projection technology. The performance was documented on an Astrorama Camera which captured the performance on five adjacent film reels, allowing the final document to be projected outwards, immersing the viewer in a 3-Dimensional environment.

I am interested in the ways in which the live moment of performance is captured and protected. As an embodied knowledge it continues to be passed on through teaching and rehearsal; this is very traditional in terms of Japanese performance. In Kabuki Theatre, for example, actors ceremoniously inherit—at a Shūmei (naming ceremony)—the name of one of the actor’s parents, grandparents or teachers, which signifies the passing down of expectations, style of acting, and skills of each person who has held that name before. Kabuki, along with several other performance styles, have legal definitions of ‘intangible cultural property’, a protected term for culturally-valued, highly-skilled forms of heritage. Included in the list with these kinds of performance heritage that can only be inherited orally, are several craft forms: ceramics, textiles, and lacquerware, amongst others. Intangible cultural property, under the Cultural Properties Law, (1950) imposes strict rules when dealing with the ‘alteration, repair and export’ of such cultural knowledge in order to conserve the longevity of these practices.

When individual experts in their fields accrue enough recognition in their form, they are designated as a ‘Living National Treasure’, a position that entitles the artist to government grants of ¥2,000,000/year (about £13,500) in addition to living expenses. The impetus of this policy is to support the holders of such techniques in finding apprentices, students to pass on their heritage and continue the genealogy of knowledge.

The model is relatively simple and is based on pre-existing apprenticeship models. It is unclear why, but interesting to note that the law was passed at the same time as the Anpo-Agreement, a declaration that saw Japan hand over land to the US military for future protection. One significant impression that I got from the trip to Japan was that the Anpo-Agreement, 1960, and the resultant American military occupation, was also a cultural colonisation, a universalising of the western arts canon. Institutions like Fukuoka Asian Art Museum were in the minority, building a collection that aimed to connect Japan to the histories of its geographical neighbours. The bubble economy of the 1980s only further entrenched Japan’s adoption of the western performance canon, with more museums purchasing work and staging blockbuster shows by western artists.

Given Japan’s history of isolationism during the Sakoku period (1639-1853), where it was illegal to enter or leave Japan, and their commitment to protecting traditional forms, I am struck by the ease with which not only visual art from the US has been adopted, but also US popular culture like baseball, fast food and hip hop. The latter is probably the most complicated racially and transnationally, especially when talking in terms of cultural property. Ian Condry writes in Yellow B-Boys, Black Culture and the Elvis Effect (2006), that ‘Hip-Hop comes to Japan above all as black music rather than American music, that is with racial connotations emphasised more than national origins’. [1]

The hip hop group NAZOLAZ (fig. 2) met through their organisation and connection to Sagamihara Super Open Studios, and recently released a book of their lyrics with BHKM in Beijing. The group produce songs under individual pseudonyms, and frequently feature guest raps by visiting curators and artists. Kenji Ide, who I’ve met in Art Center Ongoing points out a couple from Indonesia, and plays their tracks through the artist-run gallery’s sounds system. They see their approach as part of a long tradition of Japanese Hip-Hop that does not pursue imitating blackness but finds affiliation through respect for its political potential. Ide-san talks about how inspired he felt in Beijing, and how politically involved people were in comparison to Japan. In a relatively ethnically homogenous country like Japan, it is really interesting to hear about how a cultural product like Hip-Hop is helping people to find a political voice.

I have to leave to make a performance in the evening, so I leave Art Center Ongoing to listen to NAZOLAZ’s recordings. As I go, I pick up my plastic carrier bag that I’m still dragging around with me. Someone tells me that there’s been a very recent import ban on plastics from Japan to China, and that it’ll continue to get more difficult to dispose of my plastics. I look it up online afterwards and it’s true; I also find an article saying that the first fully-synthetic plastic was introduced to the world at New York’s World’s Fair in 1939. In 2025, Osaka will host another World Expo, with the theme ‘Designing Future Society for Our Lives’.

[1] Yellow B-Boys, Black Culture and the Elvis Effect, in Hip-Hop Japan and the Paths of Cultural Globalization, Ian Condry, 2006, pp. 24-48

Fig.2 follows an encounter in Mandarake (Tokyo, October 16th 2018), in Expo Commemoration Park (Osaka, October 22nd 2018), at Sagamihara Super Open Studios (Sagamihara, 28th October 2018) and in Art Center Ongoing, with Kenji Ide, Ayaka Ura, Yukie Hirokawa, Akira Takaishi and Nozumo Ogawa (Tokyo, 31st October 2018)


Gordon Douglas works in close conversation with organisations and groups towards deconstructing the acts of collaboration and performance. He is a performance artist and curator currently based in Glasgow.