Eric Klug, president of Japan House. Photo: Alexandre Virgílio / Publicity

Aafter the passages of Angela Hirata and Marcelo Araujo, Eric Klug is the third name to assume the presidency of Japan House São Paulo (JHSP), a cultural institution created by the Japanese government and inaugurated in 2017 on Avenida Paulista. Upon taking office on April 1, during the Covid-19 pandemic and with Japan House behind closed doors, Klug dedicated his work in these first months to intensifying the institution's virtual performance, as he tells in an interview with arte!brasileiros. “I don't even know the office. So working in this virtual way and being able to continue JHSP's mission in this period was a challenge and a learning experience.”

After a recent stint at IDBrasil – Social Organization (OS) responsible for managing the Portuguese Language Museum and the Football Museum – and, previously, at the British Council Brazil (from 2011 to 2017), Klug sees parallels between the actions of the British institution and from japanese. “Equipments like Japan House and the British Council exist because these countries have realized the value of culture. That it is not only worth investing at home, in the cultural formation of your population, but it is worth investing money abroad to show your culture, because it is so important and it creates bridges that are not conceived in any other way. ”, he says. For him, it is the opposite of what is currently seen in Brazil, with a federal government that promotes a dismantling in the cultural area.

“I think there is a duality in this sense. Art and culture are immensely powerful because they survive. They survive the attacks, the pandemic. So there is no fear that poetry, literature or cinema will end. But, on the other hand, there is a fragility, mainly of the institutions and individuals that make it. So art doesn't end, but, yes, museums close, theaters close. And it's very dangerous when you have governmental actions or actions of neglect or open opposition to the culture”, he adds.

The Japan House, which also has offices in London and Los Angeles, in just three years received more than 2 million visitors in São Paulo, in its imposing building designed by the Japanese Kengo Kuma. The place brings together exhibition spaces, a library, the Aizomê restaurant, a café and a store – all aimed at presenting Japanese culture – and promotes diverse artistic and educational activities, in addition to projects aimed at business, tourism, sport and gastronomy. For Klug, the institution's work also helps to demystify certain stereotypes about Japan, showing subtleties, nuances and the country's cultural diversity, and fighting a certain vision that generalizes and simplifies Eastern culture.

Klug also states that his management will be in continuity with the previous ones, but that he has in mind new projects and expansions of the institution's operations. Learning from the pandemic, for example, ended up presenting the possibility of reaching many more people, in a virtual way, in the most varied places in the country and the world. “Our goal is not to go back to the way it was, but in a better way.” Klug says that Japan House is prepared for the face-to-face reopening, with all the care and strict protocols, and awaits authorization from the prefecture. Read the full interview below.        

ARTE! – Eric, thinking about your most recent experiences, at IDBrasil and at the British Council, I would like you to talk a little about the burden you bring and how you now see the challenge of taking over Japan House.

It is an immense pleasure to assume the presidency of Japan House, which is an institution with enormous success, which in just three years has placed itself in the cultural and artistic scene of the city in such a strong way, having received 2 million people, being in a place so iconic, with such an iconic architecture and such a modern design. So I propose a continuity of all that has been achieved, not a rupture, with some expansions that we want to make. Among them, reaching more areas of knowledge, more areas of Japanese culture, and even more geographic areas. It's a growth from a recent success. I was at IDBrasil, which managed two incredible museums, Football and Portuguese, and I think that from there I bring, among other things, an opening to make partnerships, work with companies in a powerful way, which was something very strong in this period. . Working with new sponsors, with a very intense cultural program with the third sector talking about racism, gender issues, etc. There are some projects that are iconic. We made exhibitions about the 1958 World Cup and about women's soccer with Itaú; we expanded to four states in Brazil with Motorola. So you take the museum's mission and align it with the mission of a company and do something that adds a lot to both.

At the Language Museum, it was a great achievement to have completed the reconstruction of this equipment after the 2015 fire. And you know how difficult it is, how rare it is for us to be able to rebuild such equipment. And having traveled with him was also very important. The Language Museum went to seven cities in the interior of SP, went to three countries in Africa and went to Portugal during this period of closing the headquarters. So there's a great thought that I bring to Japan House, which is this: the mission is not carried out only inside the headquarters. The Language Museum was able to carry out its mission abroad, online and with temporary exhibitions even when its headquarters were closed, which has a parallel with the moment we are in. Well, before that I was director of the British Council, which was responsible for cultural relations between the United Kingdom and Brazil, so it is an organization that has been in Brazil since 1945 and makes this creation and strengthening of ties through culture, sport , education, language.

Facade of Japan House. Photo: Disclosure

ARTE! – There seems to be a parallel with the work at Japan House, of dialogue and dissemination of the culture of another country…

Exactly. The acting is very similar. The objective, which is to strengthen bonds, create bonds, create a relationship of friendship and attraction, is the same. Now the element changes, which is a completely different culture. I lived in the UK for five years, worked there, so I knew a lot about British culture. In the case of Japan it is different. I know the tools, the modus operandi of these cultural relationships, but I am learning, with immense interest, about Japanese culture itself.    

ARTE! – You took over in the midst of the pandemic, at a very troubled time, even when the institution is closed doors. How to work in this context?

Yes, I entered on April 1st, already in the middle of the pandemic, with the headquarters closed. I don't even know the office. So working in this virtual way and being able to continue JHSP's mission in this period was a challenge and learning from this most recent experience. I took over and soon we launched an online campaign called JHSP online, which basically connects contemporary Japan with Brazil. It is a myriad of events and initiatives, with two main strands. First, it is a translation of what was done in person to another platform. For example, we had the Reading Club, where people read a book and meet to discuss with an expert, the author or the translator of the book. This we changed to the online world, but the concept is the same. Of course, there are people who would like to be there, they miss the conviviality, but there is also potential. In the last session we did, about a book called The Book of Tea, written in 1906 by Kakuzo Okakura, when I went in, it was a little late, and the zoom didn't let it, because there were more than 100 people connected. And we would never have, in person, 100 people at this meeting. So there's that positive side.

We also have a series of meetings with Educativo, which sometimes last up to two hours. And it's very interesting because Japanese culture demands that time. I remember one time at the British Council we had a session with translators and they spent a whole day talking about a word. And I was very impressed. Now, at Japan House, this is very common. There are hours dedicated to a word. And Educativo manages, with people at home, to have a two-hour conversation about the word, and that is incredibly rich.

And in addition to these events that we translated to virtual, there is a second line of events that are really new experiences. One of them is an action in which the person orders a kit – in an action carried out together with our so-called independent businesses, which are the store, the cafe and the restaurant. And we made one that had sake, mixer, various gastronomic elements, and you received it wrapped in a furoshiki, which is a wrapping of fabric, a technique that is over a thousand years old. And then everyone unwrapped it together, with like 30 people online, and socialized as they opened it. And a mixologist, using Japanese concepts, guided people to make their drink with sake. Aizomê provided the accompanying gastronomic elements. And it's an absolutely Japanese, contemporary, familiar experience. And in the midst of the pandemic, people participated in a communal experience, which is very rich. And this we will continue.         

ARTE! – So you think that certain virtual activities are here to stay?

This will certainly continue, it was an immense learning experience, of immense wealth. Because we were able to gather, in this experience that I have just recounted, a man who is in Itaquera, a woman in Jardins and so on. There was a visitor who is in Estonia and wants to talk about Japanese architecture. There are these 100 people who want to comment on the Tea book. Then it will certainly continue and take a greater proportion than it had. I think that in most cultural institutions, small or large, digital was a very small part of the activities, and in general linked to face-to-face activities. Many times it was almost just a thing to call people, to publicize. And now we have discovered this immense potency and we cannot give in to the temptation to go back to what it was. There is a lot of talk about resilience, which is putting up with it and then going back to what it was. That's not our goal, it's to come back in another, better way.        

ARTE! – In fact, many people believe that, having been taken by surprise by the pandemic, cultural institutions were very unprepared to act on the networks and that the quarantine made this fragility explicit….

Yes, we were taken by surprise. But the interesting thing is that there was a very quick response. And there was a thirst, a demand for our product, and that is essential. People have not stopped consuming music, literature, art, information, because of the pandemic. And museums and cultural institutions were able to respond. This is very important because we always say that we are the creative sector. So, I hope creativity comes from here and not just from Uber, Yellow, etc. And I think it happened quite interestingly.

Now, about not being prepared, I think we've always had, especially in museums, a fixation on going through doors. So the first thing people talk about is how many visitors a museum has. And that's important, of course, but is that all? If you don't walk through the door, doesn't the museum exist for you? So at that point we were really late, because the museum can be much more than that, than something just connected to space, to the fixed headquarters. So learning from recent times is important and here to stay.

ARTE! – Speaking of which, are you already starting to think about a reopening?

We've been thinking about it for months, planning. We have spoken with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, we have sat weekly with the municipal and state secretaries of culture, we have our protocols already prepared, team training already done. So we are quite prepared, concerned with ensuring the safety of our visitors, employees and suppliers, waiting for authorization from the city hall.

ARTE! – And will the exhibitions that were on display be reopened?

Yes, both will continue. One is Japan in Dreams, which is from a French collective, an experience in videomapping which is on the ground floor, which is a very playful thing, which can be understood on several levels, by people of all ages. And at the top we have the exhibition by Tadashi Kawamnata, which is called building. It's an exhibition site specific made of chopsticks. There are 180 thousand chopsticks. And besides, Japan House is not just an exhibition space, we also have independent businesses that are part of our mission. So an understanding of Japanese cuisine is delivered by Aizomê. The store also teaches about Japanese culture and so on. We work in partnership. So the idea is to reopen with all our power, with this Japanese experience.

I think it's also important to mention, thinking about this issue of partnerships, that there was already an artistic and cultural association called Paulista Cultural, which are the seven major facilities on Avenida Paulista, which already worked in joint events. And in this difficult time, we are also working on protocols, holding meetings with the secretaries together, thinking of ways for us to be able to organize visiting hours and schedule tickets that are coordinated, to make our visitor's life easier. So partnership, solidarity and working together are essential at this time.

ARTE! – You also made this partnership with Instituto Tomie Ohtake, with correspondence on architecture. Is it part of this objective to strengthen links with other cultural institutions? 

Undoubtedly. I don't even know how to work in isolation anymore. I think that partnerships bring together different missions and we achieve greater capillarity, obtain additional resources and a wealth of dialogue. So if JHSP intends to strengthen ties between Brazil and Japan, it needs to really talk to Brazil. This series with Tomie Ohtake was a really cool idea to talk about architecture, in Brazil and Japan. And this engages the audiences of both institutions, it is a partnership in which both win. And it has to do with something of solidarity, of doing together. We are not isolated, we are not an island and we have to work together. 

The space of the Aizomê Restaurant. Photo: Thiago Minoru/ Publicity

ARTE! – Thinking about the political and social context, at the moment we have a great discussion worldwide, and also in Brazil, about racism, the structural racism that shaped western societies. And this has to do with blacks, with Indians, but it seems that there is also some discussion about racism with Asian peoples, who also suffered exclusion and prejudice in Brazil, with consequences that continue to this day. I wanted to know how you see this issue? And if there is any work in this direction at Japan House?

When the recent demonstrations started, we had very interesting and powerful internal debates about the Black Lives Matter. Because the subject was the issue of racism and blackness. And it was very important, it was highly valued by our employees. And we have, which is very positive, a much higher percentage of black people on our team than most similar cultural institutions. It is not enough yet, considering the Brazilian population, but it is quite representative. So it was very rich, very supportive, to have this internal discussion. And I think that we can never exempt ourselves from the great questions of humanity, whether they are about immigration, racism, gender issues, violence. So it's not a Japan House agenda, but as an important center of culture, we can't be oblivious to this and other great agendas. There has been a very important movement in museums in recent years, which is the “social museum”, thinking of the museum as a manager and a provocateur of change. So I see these cultural facilities also as stages where these discussions should be fostered. I have a certain skepticism about raising very specific flags, but I think these discussions should be actively brought into these spaces. This is part of the social function of museums and cultural institutions.         

ARTE! – When talking about the Asian issue, I also think of an article by the researcher Luciara Ribeiro that we published recently, in which she says: “It is common to find Brazilian art books that do not mention any black, indigenous and Asian artists, not even the Japanese. -Brazilians, who have a relevant trajectory in the historiography of Brazilian art”. Do you notice this lag?

This is a very delicate and much debated issue. There is “orientalism”, which is a simplification of Asian characteristics that is very convenient, has been very convenient and has been used for centuries. Which is a simplification and a stereotype. So you say “the Orientals” are like this or like that, as if they were all the same. And it is Japan House's mission, yes, to demystify these stereotypes, giving subtleties and traits to it. And the racial issue is one of them. There is a perception that Japan is ethnically, racially homogeneous. And it's not. There is very great diversity. For example, there are populations in northern Japan that have a Caucasian, almost Russian, physiognomy. It is a rather large variety that passes invisible to western eyes. Another delicate issue, for example, is that many traits of Japanese culture do come from Chinese culture. They are very different cultures, but there is a historical influence of one drinking from the other that is undeniable and absurdly potent. So giving substance, subtlety and substance to this discussion is certainly the job of Japan House. We have, let's say, a very positive point, that the Brazilian population has a far more positive than negative view of Japanese culture, of Japanese values. Be it food, ethical values, design, art – be it traditional art, be it manga and anime. So there is a very favorable field to work in. But yes, it's simplified, it's stereotyped. So nudging this discussion is one of Japan House's roles.

ARTE! – Finally, speaking a little more about the Brazilian political context, many managers I interviewed recently say they realize that the current federal government treats the field of culture and the arts almost as enemies, that there is a dismantling in the area. Do you agree? How do you perceive this situation and how to work with these difficulties?

I think there is a duality in this sense. Art, culture, is immensely powerful, because it survives. Survive the attacks, the pandemic. So there is no fear that poetry, literature or cinema will end. But, on the other hand, there is a fragility, mainly of the institutions and individuals that make it. So art doesn't end, but, yes, museums close, theaters close. And it's very dangerous when you have governmental actions or actions of disregard or open opposition to the culture. The position we are in is really very delicate. As a manager of state public facilities, which I was for years, I would say that São Paulo is very serious about culture, commitments and contracts were honored. But there was a gradual and significant loss of investments, loss of importance of these equipments. They were less and less relevant in political terms in the state. At the federal level, moments in which culture is not talked about seem the best possible, because when they do, it is to make cuts or carry out highly arbitrary actions, which do not value the strength of the symbolic, culture as education - which is a fight that we always had, that education is not separate from culture. It is a very dangerous, fragile situation. And I think that in the current government we have a disruption, a dismantling of this sector that is so fundamental.

ARTE! – Culture ceased to be a Ministry and was demoted to Secretary. And then there were five secretaries who passed through there in a year and a half of government…

Exactly. And this is very shortsighted, because art, culture, dominates. So, even those who dominate this in a powerful way are those who win elections, who win people's eyes. Facilities like the Japan House and the British Council exist because these countries (Japan and the UK) have realized the value of culture. That it is not only worth investing at home, in the cultural formation of your population, but it is worth investing money abroad to show your culture, because it is so important and it creates bridges that are not conceived otherwise. manner. Japan House then exists in São Paulo, London and Los Angeles. And that helps to make the image of Japan richer and more positive.

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