Been All Around This World: A Trip to Japan

This post was contributed by Kristina Troost, the Japanese Studies Librarian at Duke.

In my job as Japanese Studies librarian, I often visit Japan. I do this largely to build ties to other librarians or vendors. There are many things that can be accomplished one-on-one that cannot be done remotely. These ties also stand me in good stead when I need to request favors. I think this is true everywhere, but personal connections matter a lot in East Asia. I also visit museums, temples and universities to deepen my knowledge of areas in which I support faculty and students.  Personal conversations allow me to understand what is going on in Japan in ways not possible to achieve in the US. 

My first day in Tokyo, I visited Waseda University library since my main contacts have retired, and we have relied on them in the past for special favors.  Afterwards, I visited the Gender and Sexuality Center, the first such center set up to provide support and information to LGBT students and their allies at a Japanese university.  It has several fully trained professional staff as well as a cadre of student volunteers. 

The next day, I visited the National Women’s Education Center (NWEC). Established in 1977, it is dedicated to promoting gender equality. It has an extensive library of books and ephemera on women worldwide, as well as lodging for researchers if they wish to stay to use the material.  While I have known about it for some time, since Women’s Studies has been a focus of our collection and the faculty I support, I had no idea of its size or the variety of its activities. Known for the databases they have created of their holdings and the digital versions of their ephemera, they also create exhibitions using those materials. The exhibit I saw was on Beate Sirota Gordon, who compiled the human rights clauses, particularly those concerning women, for the Japanese postwar constitution. I was struck by Article 23 and its emphasis on the equality of the sexes.

The study of modern Japanese art is a significant focus of the East Asian Studies program that I have supported for many years.  This trip provided me an opportunity to visit several museums devoted to it. In Tokyo, I went to The Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery and 21-21 Design Sight.  The Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery had a special exhibit, “Tom Sachs Tea Ceremony” as well as selections from their permanent collection given by Mr. Terada. The Terada collection contains some 3,700 artworks with a focus on postwar Japanese art and is relatively accessible.  The Tom Sachs tea ceremony, however, took me some time. He has been reinterpreting ‘chanoyu’ — traditional Japanese tea ceremony — since 2012 through contemporary elements, materials, tools, and techniques. After seeing the film that was part of the exhibit, it made more sense. 21_21 Design Sight has a wonderful exhibit called Sense of Humor.  One of the posters I liked best could not be photographed, but many of the exhibits had me laughing out loud. 

My final exploration of contemporary Japanese art was on the island of Naoshima in the Inland Sea.  In the face of declining population in rural areas of Japan and in the Inland Sea in particular, one industrialist purchased part of Naoshima and has established a number of art museums which hold art by both Japanese and Western artists.  These museums have been designed by Tadao Ando to maximize the impact of the art. 

For example, one museum has several of Monet’s paintings of water lilies. The number of people allowed in the room at one time is limited, and you remove your shoes before entering.  The floor is made from tiny white tiles. There are paintings of water lilies on all four sides. As one of only two or three people in the room, I could appreciate them in a new way. In addition, there are a number of what I would call “installations”.  Together they are known as the Art House project. Artists have taken empty houses and turned the spaces themselves into works of art, each of which are in separate locations and all of which are effective.  One, Minamidera, entails walking into a darkened temple, holding onto a wall and then sitting very still. Eventually, as your eyes grow accustomed to the darkness, you can see something across the room. I recommend, however, having younger eyes than mine. In another installation, the artist added a glass staircase to a shrine that was being renovated; it links the main building to an underground stone chamber, uniting the worlds above and below.

Each time I visit Japan, I try to explore new areas and go to museums and libraries I have not visited before.  Both NWEC and Naoshima have been on my list of places to visit for some time and both exceeded my expectations.  Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery and 21-21 Design Sight were recommended this summer by a faculty member I work with. While my primary goal is to deepen my knowledge and extend my connections in ways that I know will support the students and faculty I work with, I usually find that I use the knowledge I gain in unanticipated ways.  

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