Finding Christmas and Community in Tokyo

by Makoto Fujimura

"How about if we close our exhibit on the 24th, Christmas Eve?" asked Mr. Harada, the organizer of "Considering Peace," an art exhibit held two years ago in Tokyo.

"And what if we had candlelight?" he continued. "I mean, isn't that what you do on a Christmas Eve? Can we sing Christmas songs?" And then, using very polite, honorific words, he said to me, "We would be quite honored if you could speak about the true meaning of Christmas to us."

Even taking into account the polite culture of Japan, a culture in which they are expected to honor guests from abroad, I was stunned by Mr. Harada's request.

"Considering Peace" was a benefit exhibit of over 120 artists, mostly from Japan. I had initiated the idea as I planned for a Christmas exhibit at Takashimaya Gallery in Tokyo. Mr. Harada was one of my first collectors when I began my career in Japan in the 1980s. A fire-chief turned cultural entrepreneur, he kindly agreed to become the project's chair. A few other New York- and London-based artists participated as part of a greater effort called Christmas in Peace. The works were donated and auctioned, and the benefit ended up raising over $36,000 for UNESCO for children in Afghanistan.

Since the majority of the artists involved were not Christians, we had decided not to use the word "Christmas" in our titles. But the whole project seemed to take on a life of its own, and a spirit of giving was present from the start. Artists began to arrive from all over Japan, not just to donate their works but also to volunteer so that the museum staff would not be overwhelmed. We sensed there was much more than politeness at work.

Earlier that month, Mr. Kei Tatejima, the chief curator of the museum, opened the artists' panel event, introducing the project this way:

"This 'Considering Peace' was a collaborative effort bringing together unprecedented efforts from Japan, the U.S. and the U.K. But I want you to know that the idea behind this is not just to raise money, but to celebrate Christmas in a meaningful way."

Japanese public television came to cover the exhibit, and over 3.5 million viewers were introduced to art works covering the walls of two floors of the museum space. Apparently, an exhibit like this had never been done in a Japanese museum before. Then there was a buzz among curators of other museums and galleries to follow suit.

Many Japanese regional museums sit empty, built during the bubble economy of the late '80s. The funding dried up after the bubble burst, and many museums now have no resources to buy paintings, or even to mount a serious exhibit.

The art world there, just as it is in New York, is in desperate need of a genuine community. If museums could be a place of gathering where artists and the public can come together to work to benefit the world, then even with limited funding they would benefit us all.

What inspired me most came from the mouths of the artists themselves.

"We do not have a forum to gather like this any more. I find myself all alone in my studio. I realized that I needed a community like this more than I thought."

"I did not think that there was anything I could do to affect the world's grave situation. Thank you for giving me this opportunity. I was wrong to think that way."

We came to serve these artists, and they ended up serving us. They opened their lives and hearts to us, inviting us into their studios and homes. Through each individual work of art we saw a glimpse into how peacemaking is indeed a creative process. In their sincere effort to participate, and to honor us, we had deep and meaningful dialogue that transcended our cultural and political differences. The creation of a "safe space" where we can agree to disagree is crucial in the creation of culture and community. Such a space, filled with the art of hospitality, invites us all to be artists of peace.

So, on Christmas Eve in 2003, artists gathered at Sato Museum in Tokyo. There was quite a sumptuous spread of food. It was the first Christmas Eve party I experienced in which we started the evening with a beer toast. One of the artists arranged to have a huge Christmas cake made for the occasion, and it had Santa on top, skating in a pond of chocolate. After a singer friend had sung some Christmas melodies, I shared what I had learned by spending my Christmas season in Tokyo:

"A Japanese pastor wrote that the most important message of Christmas is that Jesus was born as a babe, weak and vulnerable to the world. A baby is utterly dependent on a mother and a father, and others helping the baby to survive. Imagine, one who would claim to be the all-powerful Creator in flesh, becoming vulnerable and DEPENDENT on fallen human beings like us!

But when you think about it, a baby's strength also lies in this weakness, as he or she draws people together. The message of Christmas is a paradox. It is through the weak that power is displayed. It is through vulnerability that true lasting security is gained. It is through being utterly dependent on others that a true community is created.

The message of Christmas, then, can be applied to what we do as artists. What would our art look like if we truly believed that through our weaknesses, through even what we are ashamed of, we could create something that is lasting and meaningful, and incarnate hope back into the world? What if the power of a community is not in the display of power, but in the acknowledgement of our weaknesses? Artists can play an important role in helping a community to be authentic and honest. Japanese aesthetics already embrace the idea that weakness is beautiful, that what is wearing away and what is imperfect actually points to eternity."

I had my own epiphany that December, while preparing for this project. I began to wonder if Japanese culture intrinsically longs for the true message of Christmas even more than our American culture. Less than 1 percent of Japanese claim to be Christians. But, the Japanese traditional culture affirms vulnerability and loss. Japanese poems and paintings from the Heian period (794-1185) are full of sorrow and sadness, and their poetic tradition of "mono-no-aware" can be literally translated "beauty in the pathos of things." They already recognize that, on this side of eternity, we must see the beauty in an empty cup.

As Americans, we immerse ourselves in our quest for individualism and champion material gains. We parade our "winners" and avoid being seen with the lowly "losers." We want heroes that are powerful and self-sufficient, and not someone who chooses to be vulnerable. In searching for dominance, we would walk right past that babe in the manger today. In fact, baby Jesus may be the opposite of what we desire as a culture to worship. We are quite undeserving of this gift, but Jesus came to us so willingly. Among the mess and stench, he became the candlelight in our dark, terror-filled world. He came knowing that he himself would be snuffed out, betrayed and rejected by winners and losers alike.

Those who celebrate this birth know that this is not the end of the story. Today, when we open this gift of Grace, we are embraced by an eternal mystery. We open a gift of hope that breathes life into us, whispering that death is not the end. Such a message transcends our cultural blindness and any nationalistic biases.

Christ came so we could fill the empty cup of sorrow with the wine (beer) of community and creativity. Christ came to fulfill a longing for beauty that the Japanese culture is already attuned to.

I was convinced, that evening in Tokyo, that Jesus invited himself to be among artists who may not even know his name. Some of these artists, I suspect, have already sensed his presence in their studios as they labored to create peace via their paintings. All gifts of creativity, like the Magis' stars, point straight to a stable in Bethlehem.

As one artist commented, "I never knew that Christmas Eve could be so meaningful and fun – why aren't we doing this every year?"

Why indeed.

Makoto Fujimura lives and works in New York City. This essay was adapted from REFRACTIONS, a newsletter which reflects on Fujimura's journeys in art, faith and travel. It appears on his weblog at http://makotofujimura.blogspot.com/2004/12/refractions-10-christmas-eve-edition.html, and is reproduced here by permission. To learn more about the artist, go to www.makotofujimura.com.

 

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