New Emissary

The Art of Not Forgetting

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New Emissary

The Art of Not Forgetting

Tokyo is still dark from last month’s tragedy. But tsunami and earthquake victims are being kept in the light.

I was a bit surprised recently when the friendly barista at my local Starbucks asked me to unplug my computer. But when he told me it was because of the earthquake and tsunami, I couldn’t say no. After all, conserving energy is the least I can do while so many suffer. I’m not sure using my battery instead of electricity will make much of a difference in terms of energy savings, but still. It seems as if everybody here wants to do something to chip in and share the pain that we still feel from the triple tragedies (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant crisis) we’ve experienced in Japan.

All over Tokyo, there’s still a kind of overall darkness and sadness in spirit. And there’s also real darkness.

The huge neon video screens in the busy Shinjuku and Shibuya districts are off. The train stations keep half of their lights out at night, and most shops have turned off their outside lights.

This is usually a time of parties in celebration of the magnificent cherry blossoms, but night parties are few since lights are off in many locations. The parties that people are still holding this year are rather subdued affairs compared to usual.

I don’t know if this shared sacrifice is uniquely Japanese, but it’s certainly common here. You see it in business too. When a business has a bad year, Japanese firms don’t lay off people right away as some Western firms do. Instead, there’s often an across-the-board pay cut, usually in the form of a reduction in everyone’s annual bonuses. It might seem unfair to the high performers, but there’s something very noble about everyone helping each other.

Joji Shimamoto

All over Tokyo right now, there’s an extra level of politeness, helpfulness and concern for others. It’s visible in the art world too. At last weekend’s art event, ‘Gyosho, The Gallery Circus,’ held at Spiral Hall in the fashionable Aoyama district, among all the gallery spaces there was one put together by an individual collector with all the proceeds from sales going to those most severely affected by the tsunami and earthquake.

The organizer of this spot was actually worried that he was taking business away from the galleries who’d paid a rental fee for space at the annual fair and rely on these kinds of events to attract new collectors and make sales. But who could object? He was doing a service for all of us that goes beyond the money he was raising. His space was also a reminder that even as the commerce of art continues and life goes on, we can’t and shouldn’t forget what’s happened very close to us.

This donation space and the many charity events that are held all over the world do more than raise funds—they create experiences that we can all share in our everyday lives and they keep the crisis in our minds. At a time when the humanitarian crises in Japan, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan all must compete for broadcast time, even these small gestures can ensure that we and the world don’t forget.

Mark Pearson, director of Zen Foto in Tokyo who organized a major charity event two weeks ago, told me that he was impressed with how people came together to raise funds. He explained how he was ‘amazed at how quickly everyone pulled together and how a new community of photographers and concerned individuals was created so seamlessly.’ Indeed, in just slightly over a week, scores of photographers from all over the region contributed their work to Mark’s project, and individual collectors showed up to buy almost all of them. More than $25,000 was raised and all will go to charities.

Mark anticipates this community will grow as the need continues for a long time. His commitment, as well as the contributions of many other galleries, artists and collectors won’t end anytime soon. Zen Foto is next planning an exhibition of photos from the frontlines of the tsunami and nuclear plant tragedies by photojournalists and local photographers. These photos will take us to places we can’t all go and will give visual imagery and permanence to the human tragedies.

‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ is an English expression that refers to how we can easily forget that which we don’t see. The dimmed lights in Tokyo, charity art events and photographs from the frontlines ensure that we don’t ever erase the memories of this series of horrendous events in Japan.

Zhu Wei


In need of an art break? If you’re in Tokyo this week, join us at the Tobin Ohashi Gallery for the opening reception of a solo show featuring the works of celebrated Beijing artist, Zhu Wei on Friday April 8 from 6 to 9pm. In agreement with the artist, ten percent of all sales will benefit Japan Red Cross and Second Harvest Japan.

Images: masochismtango (top), Shibuya Crossing in Brighter Days by Joji Shimamoto (middle), Work by Zhu Wei (bottom).