Japan Foundation Scandal?

This appeared a few days ago, but the evening edition of the Asahi on October 31 reported something about the Japan Foundation (JF) that concerns many of us who like Japanese film. I wanted to mention this not only because of what was said about the JF, but also about the tone of the article, which I found disturbing. 

As many of you know, the JF is involved a lot with promoting Japanese film abroad. They help fund events and festivals and researchers. Some of us take advantage of their "collection" of Japanese films with English subtitles to show at our organizations (though with these films we still have to pay the copyright owner for each screening), and some of us watch films shown at JF offices or Japanese embassies abroad. 

I have noted in the past problems with the JF, which includes the fact that they don't make their list of films public. What the Asahi reported seems to concern mainly the cases when the JF has been showing films at JF offices and Japanese embassies. The JF has contracted with the producers and distributors of hundreds of films to show these works a certain number of times at these screenings. They make a list of these films and distribute it to their offices and to embassies for when they want to show films. The gist of the Asahi article is that some 90% of the films they contract for are not shown the contracted number of times before the contract expires, which means that money is being paid to distributors for screenings that never take place. Some contracts are renewed even though the film has not even been shown once. The paper declares this is a waste of the taxpayer's money totaling some $900,000.

Most of us can read this article and wonder what is going on at the JF: Why not just contract to pay for the times the film is actually screened? How much does this have to do with the general secrecy the JF has about the films it handles? (Perhaps offices and embassies would show more films if people in the local community actually knew what the JF could provide and thus could work with the local office to do some good programming.) The article does mention the JF wanting to work harder to publicize the films it does contract for, which would be a step in the right direction.

But what I found more disturbing was the tone of the Asahi article. Apart from being one of those "gotcha" pieces that finds waste without asking any questions about its structural background, the article's main focus was that most of these films feature sex scenes, yakuza, and the grotesque or macabre that it implies no one wants to see. They don't "fit" with the tastes of the communities that live where the offices are. Citing unnamed sources, the paper claims that the films are picked by experts without taking into account the opinions of JF local bureau members or cultural attaches at embassies about "what kind of films they want to show to publicize Japanese culture." As if victorious, the article ends by saying that the JF has decided to put greater weight on what embassy and JF office officials want when contracting for films.

In the end, the article is basically complaining that the JF is picking films that people around the world don't want to see and which put Japan in a bad light. It really stinks of the attitude shown by, for instance, the Yubari education board when they refused to fund the Kumashiro Tatsumi retrospective at the Yubari Film Festival some years back because they were pink films; or of the conservative critics of the Yasukuni documentary, which got some Agency for Cultural Affairs money, who thought that it was a waste spending money on a film that doesn't present Japan in a good light. One worries that articles like this might prompt the JF to stop getting films like Kumashiro's or Nakagawa Nobuo's or Kato Tai's because they don't fit the image officialdom wants to have of Japan, or what prudish newspapers think is an efficient use of taxpayer money. Are we now only going to get Tora-san and Okuribito? Is promotion of official culture now going to take priority over cinematic originality?

My final reaction to the article was this: the reporter failed to ask the most important question: Isn't one of the big reasons the cultural attaches at Japanese embassies or at JF offices are not programming these "unusual" films really the fact they do not have sufficient knowledge of Japanese cinema in order to do programming or explain them to local audiences? Have they all watched a lot of classic Japanese films or taken Japanese film classes or really studied Japanese film history? Probably not. It may be partially the fault of the JF for not educating them, but the biggest fault lies in the Japanese government and the education system, not in the films themselves or the ones picking them. The fact is that it is official government policy to promote Japanese cinema these days, but the government has very few people truly expert enough to program and promote Japanese films. Most of those in charge come from a generation that never watched Japanese films, and of course Japanese universities in general don't teach film. 

This issue came up a while ago at the Community Cinemas conference I attended. Museums and community cinemas around Japan are trying to promote Japanese film, but few of them have experts who can program interesting events or provide the background to audiences on why the programmed films are important. On a panel, Horikoshi Kenzo of Eurospace pressed an Agency for Cultural Affairs official on the need for education programs to nurture such experts, but the official's utterly meaningless response made it clear the Japanese government has absolutely no plan for training such experts--or for education in Japanese cinema as a whole. They want to sell Japanese contents or Japanese soft power, but don't think about cinematic culture - "culture" in the sense of "cultivation."

To me, that's the real story behind this mini-JF scandal, the one the Asahi was too lazy to think about. The problem is not in the JF, it is in the contradictory and self-defeating policies of the Japanese government about Japanese film and education.

(Also read the follow-up.)

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