Tue, Nov 19, 2019
Interview with Carolyn Glassman, U.S. Embassy Minister Counselor
Minister Counselor Carolyn Glassman of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo is another one of the diplomats from who attended the opening ceremony of the two Tsumugu Project special exhibitions – “Cultural Exchanges of the Emperor and Empress” and “Masterpieces of Japanese Art” – earlier this year. The counselor later agreed to sit with us in her office at the embassy to give us her thoughts on Japanese art and culture, as well as cultural and educational ties between Japan and the United States.
TSUMUGU Project: Tell us what you thought about the “Cultural Exchanges of the Emperor and Empress: Sharing the Beauty of Japan” exhibition preview you saw at the Tokyo National Museum in March this year.
Minister Counselor Carolyn Glassman: Even though the exhibition was really small, I think every element of it was very impressive because it was really diverse. The garments that the Emperor and the Empress wore were on display, and were just stunning. We talked about that the day after… some other folks in my office had seen them, too. We were all struck by the beauty of the textiles. I liked particularly the “Album of The Tale of Genji,” and Sakai Hoitsu’s “Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months” painting of plants and animals. It was all so, so beautiful…
I can’t talk for all Americans, because we’re so diverse and different. I’m not a cultural expert, nor a historian of Japanese art. I’m just a diplomat that appreciates it. I have no expertise other than a little bit more on the filmmaking side. But what has struck me, even from the time I first arrived in Japan in March 1997 – or even going back to 1995, because one of the things diplomats get the advantage of is to do a classical area studies which allows us to study everything from Japanese history and government to culture as well, and I particularly like the culture part – is Japan’s connection with nature.
I hate to generalize, but if I were, that’s something throughout Japanese culture – whether it’s in painting, sculpture, poetry or film – there is always some tie particularly with nature, the beauty of the world around us, animals and people or every aspect of the living world. There’s so much of that focus, that connection with nature. Of course, there artists who focus on that in America as well – I’m thinking of artists like Ansel Adams, who took beautiful photos of the Grand Canyon and other beautiful places. But here in Japan, it seems throughout the ages, whether it’s traditional art which I saw at the exhibition, or more contemporary art which I love as well, there seems to always be compassion and concern about not just people, but where people fit in the natural world.
Q. The Tsumugu Project deals with ‘Japanese beauty,’ Japanese art in particular. How would you define Japanese beauty?
A. I think it’s so complex. I don’t think it’s easily definable in one or two words. To do that is not very fair. But if I were to pare things down, it gets down to connection with nature, which is to me uniquely Japanese. Whether it’s family or at work, it’s always a part of a bigger whole. Similarly in nature, it could be a beautiful bird, but it’s depicted as part of a landscape.
It’s kind of reflective of who we are as a people. Obviously, we’re a much younger country. Obviously a lot of emphasis is put on the individual and on the freedom to do, or on independence. Of course we have focus on the world around us and nature and family, too, but I think there are a lot of differences there, or a different focus. America also has focus on space, but it’s different. I’m from Chicago and big cities are kind of a norm for me. In my younger days, I took a trip to visit a friend in Seattle and I decided to take the train, because I wanted to see the countryside. And what an incredible experience to see the vast landscapes of America! Places like Montana which is known for its big sky…that size and sheer bigness, the grandeur!
Similarly, in 1972, when I was about 12 years old, my family drove the very famous Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. I remember, still to this day, seeing again those vast landscapes like when arriving to Texas, or when we got to the Mojave Desert or Arizona and seeing those big expanses without people. As a city person, I’ve never seen anything like that. I think about it as I’m looking back. So there is a connection there to the land and the beauty. It’s there in the cities as well, but just obviously in a different way, whether it’s Tokyo, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles or Osaka, although it may be more vertical than horizontal. The expansiveness is there.
Q: Introduce us to some of the interesting places you have been to in Japan.
A: Most of my time has been in Tokyo, but when I was studying Japanese here in Japan, I lived in Yokohama for a while. Yokohama is not far, but it’s a very special place for me. I consider it my home away from home. Because of the intense nature of that year for me as I was studying, I was also looking for opportunities outside language study just to have my brain focus on other things. So I spent a lot of time in the art museum. Even to this day, when I’m free on the weekends, I go back to Yokohama and I like to spend time in museums and galleries and so forth, as well as just walking the streets.
At that time, about 20 years ago, I remember I was in Kyoto experiencing Japan in the traditional sense from all the beauty that’s there in that area. I think what struck me, too, were the beautiful gardens. Not just the artwork at a shrine or a temple, but also the beauty of the different gardens there, such as the one at Ryoanji temple.
But I also, if I might add, do love film. Getting to appreciate Japanese film here is really nice. A couple of months ago, I got to visit the Ghibli Museum (Mitaka, Tokyo) for the first time. I’m a big lover of Hayao Miyazaki. He was an incredible painter and artist outside of the film itself, and his sketching and paintings are on display there. I was really struck by his talent.
The museum also has so, so many of his books on nature. He really studied the anatomy of horses and dogs and has so many books on plants as well. It was fascinating to see what a student of nature he was and how that was exhibited. That was a special surprise to me, because I didn’t realize that was going to be in the museum.
I only made one trip back to Okinawa since I’ve returned to Japan. When I was here before, I was working on the cultural aspect of things. I had the distinct honor of putting together the Art in Embassies program brochure for then Ambassador to Japan Thomas Foley, which took about a year, and of documenting all the work there. As part of that, I got to know some artists in Japan.
We also did an art repatriation project around 2000 or 2001. When they found a sculpture that the Marines had from the World War II days, they were repatriating it back to Okinawa. It was very special to me, because my father was here in the occupation. And to go back and be a part of this repatriation of the artwork with Ambassador Foley to give it back to Okinawa and getting to work with some of the folks in the museum in Naha was a very special moment.
Q: What do you think first-time visitors to Japan from the United States should see or experience during their stay?
A: Now that I’m back here, I have visiting friends and family who are coming sometimes for the first time and so they ask me that. I take them to museums and then to try different food as part of culture. I try to give them the opportunity to try different things. And if time allows, to also not only experience Tokyo, but to go outside of Tokyo, to far-flung places or closer like Nikko, Kamakura or Hakone. The Hakone Open-Air Museum is tremendous.
What I would like for visitors to just as I enjoy is to appreciate the entirety of Japanese culture. Not just looking at a particular era or type of work but to see Japan in all its diversity. One of my memories was going to Goshikinuma in Fukushima Prefecture and seeing the sheer beauty of the ponds and the lakes there. Maybe as a former filmmaker, I’m very visual. Then I remember my first visit to Tottori Prefecture and seeing the sand dunes there. I thought, “Wow, this doesn’t look like Japan at all!” There is so much diversity. The typical visitor won’t know about that, so I think to the extent that they can, it’s important not to focus on only the things that the average American would stereotypically think of Japan, but also on some of the hidden gems right here in Tokyo or some points beyond.
In fact, what I sometimes do, I would get on the subway or the bus and just go! I don’t have a clear destination in mind. I don’t get to do this all the time with my schedule, but I will literally go. I have other friends who do this too. I just get off at a stop and just explore without having a specific agenda in mind. No matter where I go, I will always discover something.
Q. Japan has moved on from Heisei to Reiwa. Give us your thoughts on the transition.
A. I think it’s really exciting. There is a lot of hope now. I thought it was very interesting, although I didn’t understand it right away. I had to read the stories and get the explanations as it was forthcoming. Because we’re talking about culture, the use of Reiwa and the tie-in to the oldest poetry in Japan (Manyoshu or Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), as opposed to the tie-in to Chinese literature, was particularly special. The overall meaning of all this and the hopefulness and the time right now with the Olympics coming again to Tokyo and Japan internationalizing in so many ways, I think it’s exciting. I really do. So just like many others, I’m looking ahead at the many opportunities we have to bring the United States and Japan even closer together. I’m really excited about that.
Q. What is the U.S. Embassy doing to bring the two countries closer together?
A. “Go for Gold.” It’s an Olympics-related school outreach initiative we started in June 2018, and it’s ongoing. Our whole team is very focused on connecting with the younger generation because that’s where I think we can do more. There has been a lot over the course of so many years to tie our generation together. For example, the New Emperor is the same age as me, so even though we don’t know each other, I feel a special connection. We’re trying to do what we can to create greater, stronger bonds and awareness both ways, between the young people of the United States and Japan. We have with the Tokyo Board of Education established a very special relationship. The initiative was launched by (former) Ambassador Bill Haggerty and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. We’re going into schools all over, about 340 schools so far. Today, actually, we have a young fellow here from American University for the summer. She was out with four year olds and five year olds under the Go for Gold banner. We have also been bringing in Olympic athletes. Swimmer Katie Ledecky was here and so was the U.S.A. men’s gymnastics team. We did programs with Major League Baseball. We did an outreach program with kids from the Setagaya Ward to create more opportunities for young people in Japan to connect with America and we’re going to continue growing this program.
Culture or education or any other sector, these young people are going to be the future leaders. It’s so important that we continue to connect with each other and share on so many fronts, because without that, we could potentially lose that connection later. I think it’s critical for both of our countries to not only maintain, but to actually strengthen friendships and people-to-people bonds. So this program, I’m particularly proud of because it does just that.
(The interview was conducted by Tsumugu Project’s Kazuki Matsuura)
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