Sakiko Sugawa: On Menaningful Participation
Sakiko Sugawa [SS] is a socio-politically oriented visual artist and cultural practitioner based in Kyoto.
Interview with Markuz Wernli Saitô on April 18, 2007.
What are you doing exactly and how does participation play into your work?
SS: For a living I work at this university and my job is to conceive and organize public programs in which Seika students can participate, but that are mostly geared to the general public. My job is to come up with ideas, look for the teachers who share the similar ideas and objectives, and eventually make the programs happen. My aim in organizing the program, whether a contemporary art workshops or lotion making workshop, is to offer its participants opportunities to think about the current society in a critical way, link our small, immediate environment to the bigger world, and mix theories with practices. For example, in the lotion making class, I asked the teacher to point out that our beauty products are so subdivided that you are brainwashed to believe you have to use so many products for a supposedly different effect to stay beautiful.
Obviously the beauty industry is making enormous profit by making us believe that we have to use 5-10 different products when in fact a product like olive oil can be used for multiple purposes, like cleansing, moisturizing and hair treatment. Our class taught participants how to make lotion and lip balm with the ingredients everyone has at home, like olive oil, lemon, sake… So this class not only taught the sprit of DIY, but also provided an opportunity to think critically about how this economy, driven by over-consumption, operates. I don’t say I am always successful in realizing these objectives, but I am always experimenting and playing with the ideas of how best I can bring up political and social issues to the classes without being preachy.
So your programs address primarily a general public? Whom do you have in mind when setting up these courses?
SS: I have everyone in my mind including those who are working but feeling that something is missing, and want to expand their experience beyond their job. Or, I am thinking about retirees who want to spend their time in a more useful way. The audience is pretty broad, which is good, but at the same time it is very, very challenging because I can't exclude anyone.
Why is this kind of program needed?
SS: You cannot get any credit or certificate by taking one of our programs. Continuing educational programs in Japan are not as developed as in the United States. So the program I am doing substitutes the kind of more concrete public programs that exist in the States. Our program attempts to meet the strong demands for learning from the public.
How did you go in this kind of work in educational outreach?
SS: I think, I started interested in the project like this when I lived in New York City. My friends and I launched the project called, “Open University” which took place at cafés, friends' lofts, and any other place possible. The topics there ranged from the War on Iraq, Media, and Lotion making to various other subjects like the Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band, sex etc. Just anything we were interested in and relevant to our everyday life. Through the OU, I found an amazing possibility in education, particularly the education that is not institutionalized.
So you made it accessible to a broad public by opening up the activities and topics of interest...
SS: Yes, and also by holding Open University at the café, we were opening up the possibility that even those who didn't plan to come to our event would accidentally stop by and took part in our lectures. We invited three, four lecturers on each subject.
How did you get people to join you? Did you make public announcements?
SS: We had a website that had the information on and we put out flyers and posters in the neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We didn't get the information out to the media, our events were more like community based events that were locally announced.
Can your Hanare project in Kyoto be understood as a continuation of your work in Brooklyn?
Yes, Hanare is definitely a follow up of the project I did in New York. Also the program at the university is a continuation of that. Everything is connected. It is about bringing people together, and finding a way to create public discourses as well experimenting and practicing alternative ways of living.
Was Open University organized by a certain group, or was its leadership alternating?
SS: We were a group of five, six people, and whenever someone came up with an idea and wanted to do something as an Open University event, that person was in charge. We didn't have a defined leadership.
Was it more like a committee?
SS: It wasn't like a committee, but we did it as a group of friends, so in this sense there weren't strangers involved. We hoped that participants would come up to us and ask to organize an event as Open University, but that didn't happen. Since 2003, some of the members have moved out of Brooklyn, and are now living in Berkeley, California. And I live in Kyoto. The cool thing about Open University was that the guys living in Berkeley are doing Open University there and I am doing lecture or workshops at Hanare, which I call Open University as well. Open University is spreading in the world! Anyone can organize the Open University.
Can you apply the same principles of Open University to the situation in Kyoto?
SS: I think we are applying the same kind of logic and strategies I learned through hosting the Open University onto Hanare. But, for example, the way I announce an event is a little bit different. When I did the lecture, which was about the article nine of the Japanese constitution, I was really conscious and careful not to make our own opinions so visible when announcing because I was aware of how divided the society is, and I did not want to scare people off. The cool thing was that the lecturer is a art curator, organizing the art exhibition related to the article. So we could advertise the event as an art event, which helped more people to participate. The Japanese people are not so exposed to talking about political and social issues, we don't really have a discourse to talk about those things. Because I wanted to reach out to the people who are not normally interested in an issue like this I sort of played with the words a bit...
Is this about nurturing a certain culture of confrontation?
SS: I don't think it is about nurturing confrontation. People are just not used to talk about these things in front of others. We are generally told to keep these issues to ourselves or within our immediate surroundings. We want to make an act of engaging in political discussions more normal.
So Hanare creates a kind of a public place...
SS: Right. It's a small scale public place, but it is still public.
Did you have people engage in a discussion during the lecture about article nine?
SS: Yes. I mean it was more like a presentation. The guy we invited was organizing the exhibition in New York about the article nine and talked about how article nine effected Japanese art scene in the post WWII period. He showed us the works that he curated for the show, and talked, of course, why he came up with the idea to organize all this. In discussion time many people raised questions and it was pretty interactive. Also, you know that Japanese people prefer to talk one on one instead of speaking out in front of a group, so some people went up to him and engaged in a personal conversation, which is also great.
Just to contextualize for the foreign audience, what is article nine about?
SS: The article nine is a very unique and idealistic part of Japanese constitution that prohibits Japanese government from possessing any military might and using it for solving any kind of international conflict. Conservatives and right-wingers has been attacking the article as 'pacifist,' insisting that the existence of the article makes Japan unable to solve international problems, especially in regard to North Korea or China. Now the article nine is threatened of being amended. Not just progressive people like us but also regular people started to get concerned about the article nine being amended that is like a treasure of Japanese society and a positive legacy of the WWII. It is the most advanced way of thinking and a great ideal in the world, something very precious that every nation needs to strive for. Amending it would be going backward completely.
On what levels is Hanare open for participation and how is it growing beyond the status of a café?
SS: At the beginning it was just customers coming to Hanare and eating food. There wasn't much active participation. After running this place for a year, that has started to change a bit. There is one regular guest, who has been coming to Hanare for a short while, probably few months, but understands what we want to do better than many people. He is really intelligent and likable person too, by the way. We thought, he is the best person to navigate a conversation that includes current political issues or more socio economic issues we want to bring up. It will look like he will talk to other customers about the issues he wants to talk about it, which is true, but is also carefully planned. Also since past January we started hosting workshops and lecture series that ask people to participate at the very different levels as well. We are waiting to see what will happen, will continually come up with ideas that encourage people to be more active participants. It takes time and we know that we have to be patient after all.
So you are saying that it takes time to grow...
SS: Oh yes. Last year was the time to get the idea out, to have people recognize Hanare as a place to go to. We are spreading the word. For this kind of project, the continuity that allows ourselves to grow and evolve little by little is the most important thing, I would say.
How do you get it out there?
SS: It is through individuals. We rely on, like the pyramid selling method. It woks like this; the customers, who are friends of mine, not my direct friends, came to Hanare and because they liked the place, they brought their other friends with whom we have become friends. So there is a whole dynamic but its all through word of mouth. The blog supports that as well.
Do you get visitors through the blog?
SS: Yes. At the very beginning we had maybe 10 or 20 people visiting the blog in each week, but that is growing, too. We also have an email list, which had maybe 20 people on it but now includes a hundred individuals. Every Sunday we send out a message telling them what's on the menu of the Monday night and people can decide if they want to try it.
How did this "Pottery Doctor" workshop come about?
SS: Our member, ISHIDA Naho used to study the art of pottery. Hanare's members are me, TAKAHASHI Yufuko, a graphic designer, and ISHIDA Naho, who is a chef and food coordinator, and has a background in pottery art. I can do silk screening workshops, Naho can do the pottery stuff and Yufuko used to guide desktop publishing sessions for my sister and friends at Hanare... Everyone's skill is at use.
Are there other activities you would like to see happening beyond workshops and moderated discussions?
SS: I want to see that a place like Hanare would be born outside of Hanare. Some people hopefully would be interested in what we are doing and get an idea that running a place like this is not as difficult as they think. It is cool that people are participating in our activites but I want to see people doing their own project outside of Hanare. It is our goal to inspire people to do their own active projects.
If somebody would come up to you and say "I would love to do that as well, but I don't know how to go about it." What would you tell them?
SS: Hanare takes place where I live, so the rent for the project is covered. We are also charging customers ¥500 for the food, which is still really cheap for the kind of food we use by the way, that means we are not losing any money which is very, very important. We have like ¥2000 profit every week. Don't lose money, don't use up your holidays. Otherwise it gets stressful. We are doing Hanare on Mondays so that we still have time to enjoy our weekend. I think it is important to use the resources that you have, instead of expanding the project too big in the beginning. Of course you can expand gradually, step by step. But in the beginning keep your efforts manageable.
I know that all three members of Hanare lead busy lives and have full time jobs...
SS: You just brought up a very important aspect of our project, that is, the three of us are doing this project together. It is a collaborative effort, not that just I am doing this project.
How did this collective initiative come about? Did you personally initiate it?
SS: Yufuko is my high school friend, so we have known each other for about 13 years. Even when I was in the States we always kept in touch and we talked about things that we wanted to do. She knows what I want to do and I know what she wants to do and we always share our interests. Naho, I met though my younger sister who lives in Osaka. We got into the conversation and I found out that she is good at cooking and that she was doing lots of picnic projects during college. I was always fascinated with food and wanted to do something with it. We had many get-togethers, mostly by ourselves, eating good food and drinking. Finally we started to articulate what we wanted to do and made it clear and Hanare was born...
It's usually the three of you who set up the menu. Could you imagine to open that up for a more open engagement?
SS: It is basically me and Naho who take turns in cooking. Yes, if both of us cannot cook for some reasons, like taking summer vacations etc... We have actually few people who would pitch in. To be honest, though, I don't want to give up this joy of cooking. I myself am having lots of fun cooking every other week...
This could be another avenue for engagement...
SS: Yes, as long as the person agrees with our idea on what kind of food we are going to provide.
How is Kissa Hanare interfacing with the community?
SS: It depends on how you define the word, community. If you are talking about my neighbors, unfortunately Hanare has no relationship with our neighbors. We know each other but we are afraid of being complained and reported since selling food without an official permission is illegal. In that sense there is no interaction with our physical environment. But if one defines the word community differently, then we are creating a community of people who share the same values. Like mentioned before, Hanare is a public place but at the same time it provides a private, intimate atmosphere where all those creative minded people who need support, can come and are safe to talk about anything.
This is very important especially in Japan, because once you start working then it is very possible that you get lonely and lose the ability to realize your own project and to stay initiative. We want to be a place that supports them, encourages them and strengthens their backbone. Hopefully when our guests leave Hanare they have the energy to say, "okay I can do this outside in my world, too." In that sense we are creating and nurturing the creative group of individuals, including us, who want realize lots of challenging projects in our real life. Hanare also functions as a meeting place. You never know who comes to Hanare at a particular Monday night, so you meet different people every week. We are hoping customers form relationships beyond Hanare. We are making and expanding the community.
Did you have an evening so far where nobody showed up zero participation so to say?
SS: We had a few slow nights at the very beginning. But that's still great because three of us are doing this project together so if nobody comes we just eat and drink ourselves! We still can have a fun night where we can talk about our things and it becomes like a regular dinner party.
You could argue that people can meet in a normal restaurant or bar as well, so why does it need Hanare?
SS: Hanare is different in every sense. First of all in a restaurant, food is a purpose. But for us, food is a tool. It is a place for eating but at the same time, it is pretty open to anything else. You don't have necessarily to eat, you can just come and chat, too. In that sense the purpose is not that specified. If you go to a restaurant you obviously want to eat. But there is more than just eating here. Obviously we want people to spend a little money at Hanare. Some don't eat but at least drink something and that helps us to keep this place open. If people don't want to spend money and just engage in conversation we are okay with that, too.
Do you see that some Hanare guests are already participating more actively in their own lives
SS: I think so. I have now more opportunities to hear our guests' own projects. This tells me that they are planning to do their own projects outside of Hanare. People can experience Hanare as a real sample that each one of us can be an active protagonist in their own lives and getting things going with a modest and sustainable sacrifice.
Are there other reasons for people to come to Hanare?
SS: Of course, to eat good food, to meet and talk to us. They have this feeling that they are part of something interesting. Something that is not usual, not conventional. As far as I know, a place like Hanare doesn't exit in Kyoto. In our immediate community Hanare is pretty unique. There is a sense that knowing Hanare is being a part of underground culture, which makes people feel good at themselves, I suppose.
So guests come also because they feel like this is a special place, a special project...
SS: Yes, because part of it is also that we are working on an image and an identity. We always think about how best we can project our images in a cool way.
MWS: What makes Hanare cool?
SS: The way we dress up, the way the furniture is arranged, what kind of interior we have, what kind of flyers we put out, everything. It is not just our living room we are opening up... The specific plates we use, what kind of music we play, and what kind of people we are. Everything matters and I think we could elaborate on these aspects even more.
That sounds like a certain professionalism, at least you pay attention to the visual details...
SS: Right, because we are living in a society where everyone pays so much attention to lifestyle, which is exactly why a celebrity lifestyle is in the center of public attention. If we were uncool, wearing unfashionable clothes, no matter how great the project itself is, I think that many people would be turned off.
Did personality and image matter the same way in New York with Open University?
SS: Oh yes. I think both cultures are a heavily image and visual oriented culture, so what you wear and what you have is who you are. I am opposing it, I don't like it but I am using it.
You play the rules of the game...
SS: Yes, if I am uncool then people don't pay any attention and don't respect the project. But we have a good cause, solid objectives so why not playing with its image? It doesn't harm my project by creating an image and embodying being cool.
If you would start the project again, would you do something differently? Any learnings?
SS: I would probably start the project in the same way, but maybe little bigger. I am constantly reflecting what I have learned on how to run Hanare better. Hanare is an ongoing project that still has so much room to grow.
How could this initiative grow into something bigger if you decided to do that?
SS: We have this idea of creating a new kind of Japanese shopping arcade (shotengai) with our friends. I imagine this as a possibility where we really do an experiment in changing the course of how people spend their money. Many say it is illusionary and impossible to change this current system and labor practice. The way we usually spend money is done like something written in stone. I want to see if this is really unchangeable and impossible. In my next project I want to deal with the economy by trying a new model for local economies. I want to see how it functions and how it doesn't in order to gauge the possibilities.
Do you suggest that we need more of this sort of conscious participation in our lives? Everybody is participating in things, in systems to various degrees of awareness... This poses the question of what kind of participant, of what kind of consumer are we? How do you go about this?
SS: Yes, absolutely. And I think people long for this kind of participation that make them feel that they are influential individuals who have power to change the society, not just passive consumers.
I don't know if this has anything to do with your question, but the this idea just came up. I am, as a consumer, fed up with the current marketing style, which many people, I believe, feel the same way. Now I am interested in the idea of non-marketing. Everything in this society requires marketing where you have to decide a target and at the same time you have to create a solid identity for yourself. You have to define who you are as precise as possible so the like-minded consumers can differentiate themselves from others through acquiring products. I am pretty sick of this. I want to see what would happen if I don't market and don't define our identities. If we don't identify ourselves, would it still a motivation to participate?
Before you mentioned that you are doing some kind of marketing efforts for Hanare though...
SS: Right, we are doing it because now one of our goal is to make a community of like minded individuals. We want to appeal to those creative type of individuals. In the current phase we are trying to build a network among us but we are not trying to include someone who is not interested in us. But when it comes to the shotengai project, then definitely marketing (making an identity) is limiting, because we need everyone and engagement as broad as possible. From young to old, from kids to teenagers, we want everyone to join.
That requires participation on a big scale...
SS: Yes. Also within the context a shotengai project, istead of making just mainstream, mediocre activities like the ones city government does, we could hold maybe two completely opposite type of workshops in one place. This would be the kind of non-marketing I am talking about. On one hand we could do a contemporary art class e.g. with TAKAMINE Tadasu a provocative Japanese artist who has done controversial projects. On the other hand we could offer a playful children's workshop that nobody can be upset about, or maybe a workshop for senior citizens... Broad public and mainstream doesn't mean you should exercise self censorship, but instead you realize rather completely different events at the same time that cater to very different groups of the population.
Why do you think there is a need to bring very different people and groups so close together?
SS: Because it is fun to be connected with people, period. For example, it comes from my personal experience living in New York city where there are so many farmer's markets. There is a spark in the regular encounters in everyday life with people that you don't know. You talk to merchants, local farmers, to other customers, you are just chatting. I am also interested in making a place that is politically very, very active. We need this kind of community initiative that is not affiliated with the city government or any political party. I want to make a place or forum that keeps putting forward questions and critical viewpoints into current society. We need to do this to fight for the better future. Isolation doesn't do anything if you wanna change the world.
What does "politically active" mean?
Can you simply apply the grass-roots strategies from the States here onto Japan?
SS: I don't know. I believe I am applying the same kind of strategy. In the States and in Japan we live in a so-called 'developed country.' Our state of minds are pretty much the same, we are busy, preoccupied with consumption, with our leisure time, etc. If you lived in a developing country the outlook might be different.
What does active citizenship mean for you?
SS: "Active citizen" means same as "politically active" to me. Without exercising political right, whatever that is, one is not an active citizen. I have been very skeptical about modern democratic representative politics recently. I read the book about cultural-political movements that worked as a force to eventually create left leaning governments in Latin America. I learned that these movements, often portrayed by media as a part of Chavez or Lula governments, represent deeper and stronger meanings. They want to maintain their independent entities from the official governments despite that there have been constant attempt from the governments to absorb the movements, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. They don't trust modern democratic type of representative politics.
They rather address and engage in local problems by themselves as seen in the unemployment organizations of Venezuela that create alternative exchange networks for mutual support. Thy are not trying to go back to the old and closed society, but want to create more creative, active, and smaller scale associations that are connected to each other at a non-hierarchy order. I think that's what we need in Japan. Of course, it is important to have decent political representation, but that’s far from enough. We need more and more activities, small associations with active participations that work as our primal outlets to function social structure. I am saying that we need the duality of those two ways. That's why I am interested in experimenting with local economies. I am interested in real life and political activities that are more independent and direct.
How does art come into play for grassroots activism or alternative models of exchange?
SS: Art for me is a very useful term that I can apply and play with in order to get the message out to the broader audience. If people want to perceive our project as an art project that's great. If people want to see Hanare as a mere café it is fine as well. If they want to see it as a form as activism it is great. We are not into defining ourselves and it is up to each individual. Art is definitely a very good way to make use of. It is not so much about the concept of art, but there are certain notions implied by the word of art. When you do any political activity, and you say this is art then people's perception will be very different when stating it as activism. So playing with the word, art is very, very useful. I am definitely utilizing it. But I don't care what the concept is. That's my take on art.
Do you get some benefit, some goodwill through art?
SS: Benefit, goodwill and people are like "oh, since it is art I guess it is okay..."
So art can open up possibilities?
SS: Absolutely. If I say "this is activism, I have this agenda in my mind and I want to convince you in a way that we think," people will simply reject it. But having the same agenda presented as art, and processed as an art project people will be like "okay, if this is art I will at least check it out..." Art has magic.
Are you an artist, at least sometimes?
SS: I don't know if I want to call myself an artist. I used to do photography. When I do photography I don't care about politics, I don't care about any agenda, or convincing people. When I do photo projects, I want leave rooms for people to perceive my work the way they like. Personally I cannot imagine relating my photography project with a kind of work that contains political agenda. Doing two opposite things, photo projects, which have no intention of convincing people, and more political one helps me to balance my mental health.
What does participation mean for you personally?
SS: There is a sense of responsibility. If I decide to be a part of something then I have a responsibility for that project. I want to put my energy and ideas into it. This and commitment is participation for me. I mean there are different degrees to which I participate but more or less it comes down to responsibility.
Does this mean that when you are inviting participation you are giving up some of the responsibility?
SS: I think so. I learnt to give up responsibility in my current job where I need to delegate things.
Is there something else you would like to mention regarding participation?
SS: Previously I touched on how I want to connect our immediate lives with the bigger picture because that is what missing in Japanese culture. We want to be a place or people who can bring the immediate life and the bigger picture together. My personal experience in New York City has taught me that to be a part of something bigger is fun and fulfilling. It's an endorsing feeling that your action matters and knowing whatever you do has an influence. Like when the American government started the Iraq war there were these massive protests all over the world and you are part of maybe a million people in the states alone and you feel like you have power. That kind of participatory sense is missing in Japanese culture.
This raises the question weather we really need this sense of urgency in order to unite as seen in the sample of the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe (1995) that brought about a new wave of citizen's self-organization in the wake of governmental shortcomings.
SS: When I think about that I become very pessimistic, that unless your immediate family dies we don't realize how fucked up things are... I hope that this is not necessary to bring about change. Sometimes these big tragic events can bring some betterments but I really hope that is not the only way. This is a tough question: when is the point that you have to take action, when do you start? Are you waiting for someone to die or being killed? Article nine is the perfect example. Are we going to be a country that has a potential to kill people and directly be involved with a war? When are we going to realize this? I am kind of upset with Japanese politics.
Interesting about Japanese society is that it has a lot of connective, social structures already in place like the neighborhood associations (so called chonaikai) but that tend to be rigid and don't accommodate growth or change...
SS: Originally, these structures were initiated by the government to better control everyone, la sort of surveillance system. It's natural that chonaikai didn't evolve from a voluntary effort. Though, I would say that an idea of chonaikai has potential to mobilize people. We need grassroots movements that are not controlled or absorbed by the government. We can see in Latin America that interesting independent movements that are drawing in many people are later taken over and controlled by the government to get people on their side and gain legitimacy.
Summarizing this conversation can I note that responsibility makes up a big part of good participation?
SS: Right and also how much fun it is to feel that responsibility.
Do you have some final thoughts?
SS: It was really good that I have been thinking about why we started Hanare in the last few days and what we want to do. It is helpful to articulate once in a while. Last week we had this lifestyle magazine coming to Hanare. We are gonna be featured in a magazine soon... But it was kind of weird. At that occasion I had to talk as well about why we started Hanare. It was funny though because I told them this is what I want to do, this is what we are trying to do... and the writer was like, "this is what you want to do?" And I was like, "no, no, no, this is what I want you to do." He went on, "so is this what you want to do?" So I don't know if he really got it. Because obviously there is a policy in editing, the magazine has an agenda, and he wants to pitch his story so he can reach to a certain audience. He might put as in the category of another cool café project or whatever... we will see.
Momentarium creates situations where our very presence becomes the catalyst for shifting experiences we can integrate into our lives by fusing reality with co-created artifice.