Interview with panelists at the Japan-Iran symposium in Tehran
The Sasakawa Middle East Islam Fund held the international symposium in the Iranian capital of Tehran in March 2017. The symposium took on the theme of "Future Prospects of Japan-Iran Relations: In a Changing International and Cultural Environment." In this complicated international environment, how will the relationships between Iran and Japan become even closer? Focusing on the 1500-year bilateral relations, we have highlighted the fields of culture and arts for the first time. The symposium sessions engaged in multi-faceted debates on diplomatic relations between the two countries, issues of resources and cultural/ tourism exchange. With four panelists of various expertise invited from Japan, the symposium saw active exchange of opinions on networking between Iran and Japan. We interviewed the panelists after the symposium..
Cultural exchange with Iran for tracing back history
Importance of steady efforts
＜Encounter with the studies of Iranian arts history＞
Persian culture was in fashion in Changan, the capital of the Tang Dynasty that corresponds to the Nara Period in Japan. Japanese envoys to the Tang Dynasty brought back articles of the culture, which boasted an advanced level of manufacturing techniques and skills. Some of them are preserved at the Shosoin treasure house in Nara to this day. Even during the Edo Period of national seclusion, the Nagasaki Magistrate had Persian interpreters, directing attention to the rest of the world via the ports of Hirado and Nagasaki.
I specialize in the arts history of Iran's Safavid Dynasty (16th-18th century). I came across the arts of the Safavid period while studying the history of arts at university, and became interested in Iranian arts. Since my first visit to Iran as a backpacker, I have met so many pro-Japanese people everywhere I went, which led to my positive impression about the people of Iran. Iran was under the control of Mongolian and Turkish people after the Sassanian Persia, which dominated the Plateau of Iran since the 3rd century, collapsed when it came under attack from Islamic forces in the mid 7th century. The Safavid Dynasty, which emerged as the dynasty unifying Iran for the first time in 850 years, adopted Shiite Muslim as the national religion and laid national foundation that leads to today's Iran. The advancement of sophisticated cultures culminated in intricate arts in textiles, ceramics and metalwork.
＜Outcome of the symposium＞
At a time lacking modern-day communications and transportation, silk textiles, produced in Iran (Persia), traveled across the seas and were handed from people to people, and eventually reached Japan, where the Japanese people recognized their value and beauty. I have mentioned this to the audience of this symposium as an example of solid proof on cultural exchange through goods between our two countries.
Even when our political and diplomatic relations are not smooth, like in today's world, history tells us of constant exchange of people for networking. Cultural exchange in the private sector continues without concerted efforts as if the two countries are naturally attracted to each other. It is important to build up steady exchange day after day, even if a very little at a time.
Difference of perception between Japan and Iran
Building bond through cultural exchange
＜Japan and Iran＞
The importance of Iran-Japan relationship is widely recognized. Yet, the public image about each other is often affected by developments such as international sanctions on Iran, and often deviates from facts. The presidency of the moderate, Hassan Rouhani, opened a new window of opportunities for the two countries. Everyone was in celebration until when Donald Trump became the U.S. President, and began indicating a tough stance against Iran. This is why, in this seminar, we asked Iran to maintain, and not abandon, existing agreements.
＜Possibility of cultural exchange＞
This time, I was reunited with an Iranian woman who, as a student, participated in a Japanese-language speech competition when I was serving as the ambassador in her country. She told me she now works for a Japanese company. She said she hopes to see more active cultural exchange between Japan and Iran. There is not enough of it happening, according to her. Considering the extended histories and wonderful cultures in the two countries, Japan and Iran have a great potential for closer cultural exchange.
＜Outcome of the symposium＞
The symposium heard a presentation by Kobei Kato, who has restored the techniques of lusterware, Iran's traditional ceramics, to be handed over to future generation. Not many Japanese people know about lusterware, and the presentation also let the people of Iran realize the existence of such a Japanese expert. The notion that there is a Japanese person who has dedicated numerous years for a tremendous cultural contribution, had a major impact. Iran is a country of great potential with abundant natural resources and excellent human resources. While China, South Korea and Germany are making active entry into the Iranian market, Japanese trading companies have also maintained their operation bases for many years. We should continue to hold these types of symposiums to build solid bilateral relationships based on mutual respect.
Iran's traditional culture revived in Japan
Highlighting cultural exchange through lusterware
The eldest son of the late Living National Treasure, Takuo Kato, who revived Persia's lusterware ceramics, the techniques of which had been lost some 500 years ago. Graduated from the Kyoto City University of Arts (then) in 1968. Assumed the 7th Kobei Kato in 1995. Decided to succeed the techniques of Persian ceramics upon the death of his father. Held the "Lusterware Ceramics from Past to Present" at the National Museum of Iran in 2013. Won the Minister of Foreign Affairs Award in 2014 for his contribution to the promotion of cultural exchange between Japan and Iran through ceramic art. Held the Lusterware Exhibition at the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Tokyo in January 2017.
＜Outcome of the symposium＞
I was impressed by the SPF's multilayered approach in the symposium, which covered high-level discussions on culture, tourism andpolitics.
In my presentation, I talked about cultural exchange through lusterware, out of hope that the people of Iran will cast a fresh recognition of the wonderful world of lusterware, which was once admired as the Flower of Persia. Lusterware was actively produced in Iran from the 8th to the 13th century, but the techniques were lost completely by the 17th century following the Mongol invasion. My father (Takuo Kato) encountered lusterware when he was visiting Iran for vacation during his stay in Finland on Fulbright scholarship. He became passionate about it after learning that no one was producing this beautiful ceramic-ware. Due to the difficulty of the techniques involved, it took my father 15 years to fully revive lusterware.
Lusterware is produced with intricate techniques, with various factors, including the ratio of metal components in paint, kiln temperature, moisture content of firewood and season, affecting the outcome. This difficulty has made me even more determined to perfect the craft.
＜Outlook through Lusterware＞I was very impressed to see how Iran Cultural Heritage, Handcrafts and Tourism Organization was providing comprehensive support to all forms of crafts including textiles, paintings and ceramics. It provides a very significant venue for various craft experts to network with people of other genres. Unfortunately, Japan does not have a venue like this. It is wonderful to see the Iranian government value handcrafts and extend official support.
The important issue for me as an artist is to combine current relevance with my individuality to step up lusterware techniques. At the same time, I believe it is my role to network with Iranian ceramicists and encourage improvement of techniques.
Presentation on sustainable use of water resource
Networking with enthusiastic Iranian audience
(Executive Officer in charge of technological development, Swing Corporation)
＜Profile＞Born in Tokyo in 1954. Graduated from the Department of Urban Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, University of Tokyo and joined Ebara-Infilco Co., Ltd. (today's Swing Corporation), engaging in R&D of sewage treatment and organic waste's biological treatment at the company's central laboratory. Has since led the development of a methane fermentation technology for collecting energy from organic solid waste such as food waste. Currently serves as Swing Corporation's only female Executive Officer in charge of technological development.
＜Outcome of the symposium＞
My presentation talked about how the advancement of human civilization is increasing water usage to the extent that exceeds nature's self-cleansing capacity, thereby depleting water as a natural resource unless some action is taken. Water is a renewable resource that circulates in the cycle of evaporating from the ground surface and falling back onto the ground in the form of rain to flow along ground surface or underground to be collected and utilized. I wanted to appeal to everyone that water supply would run out eventually if we continued to use it at the current rate. As I delivered my presentation, I was checking the audience's facial expressions, and felt that everyone was listening with keen interest. Many of them came up to me and asked various questions during the coffee break after the presentation.
Swing Corporation is a company that handles a comprehensive range of water-related projects, including the construction, operation, maintenance and management of water / sewage treatment facilities and the treatment of industrial / waste water from beverage manufacturing plants. More than 30 years ago, we supplied nine medium-scale plants to Iran. However, due to a change of political climate since then, we have not been able to work in the country in recent years. Unless Iran and Japan establish stable diplomatic and economic ties, it would be extremely difficult for companies like us to make a standalone move to deploy business operations there.
＜Women's empowerment and Iran＞
We have a low ratio of female workers, and plan to recruit more women for career-oriented positions. But things are not going as planned, as the number of women who go for science and engineering degrees is very limited in Japan. I was very envious to hear that engineering is one of more popular choices of study for women in Iran. I am the only female director of the company, but, having served in research departments, I have been fortunate enough to be shielded from gender discrimination. All I have had to do was to deliver results in work. Looking back, I have embraced a variety of tasks rather than knocking them back, whenever I was asked to do something. I have welcomed the offer of coming to Iran, thinking that this is an opportunity that should not be missed.
I have heard that Iran is, in essence, a pro-Japan nation. Local people try to communicate with me actively, and women seem very energetic and willing to get involved.
Cultural exchange with Iran has been maintained in the long course of bilateral relations regardless of changes in international situations and political conditions, thereby serving the role of complementing the two countries' diplomatic ties.
In order to consolidate the foundation of collaborative ties between Japan and Iran, let us highlight the importance of cultural assistance, maintained under long-term outlook, and continue on with networking in the multilayered approach.
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