A predisposition for clean, minimalist aesthetics, a love of folklore, even the presence of a Royal House – the threads of similarities that bind Japan and Denmark are notable, though perhaps only coincidental. After all, with 27 times the population and nine times the landmass, Japan may seem – at least physically – worlds away from Denmark.
150 years ago, however, the two countries came a little closer when they signed the “Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation between Japan and Denmark”, which formalised Danish-Japanese diplomatic relations.
These nations are bound not only by diplomatic civility, however, but also by notable cultural overlaps that 2017 has been dedicated to exploring.
In 1616, when the Danish East India Company was formed under King Christian IV, one of its objectives was to reach Japan in order to establish trade. But despite missions in 1619 and 1644, the Company never made it. In 1645, a Japanese world map pinpointed Denmark for the first time under the name ‘Tania’, but it still took two more decades before diplomatic relations were formally established.
Plenty to do
When Japan’s borders were opened to international trade in 1853, traders flooded the European market with Japanese goods and art objects. These were increasingly fetishized, giving rise to the term ‘Japonisme’, coined to express the aesthetic influence of Japan that persists to this day.
The National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) chose to mark the year by focussing on Japonisme, especially how Japanese art and composition filtered into the work of young Danish artists in the 19th and 20th centuries. Woodcuts, for example, provided a new lens through which to consider the artistic potential of Nordic wood. The style of composition also shifted, becoming more asymmetrical and symbolic, with artists heavily influenced by the Japanese focus on both nature’s motifs and the sublime grandeur of landscape.
SMK’s decision to root Danish-Japanese relations in their historical and artistic roots provides the groundwork of a relationship that has matured since the infatuation of their early acquaintance.
As spring turned to summer, Copenhagen hosted its very own Sakura Festival in Langelinie Park, home to 200 cherry trees gifted to Denmark by Japan in 2005. Events continue in both countries, with Danish artists taking up residencies in some of Japan’s major art galleries and Denmark’s crown prince and princess will be travelling to Japan in mid-October to mark the occasion more formally.
But even though the year is slowly coming to an end, there is still plenty to get involved in, with a variety of cultural, historical and athletic events continuing well into December and even the first part of 2018.
Until February next year, the wonderful underground exhibition space The Cisterns (Cisternerne) will be filled with Japanese architect Hiroshi Sambuichi’s exhibition, The Water. In the artist’s first major exhibition outside Japan, he uses nature as a building material, both to point out the dependence of architecture on environment, and to facilitate a symbiosis between the two. In accordance with Sambuichi’s working method, the opening hours of the exhibition will depend on the hours of sunlight. During winter, the exhibition will close when the sun sets in the early afternoon.
From nature as influence, to nature as equipment, Faaborg Museum hosts Johannes Larsen and Japanese woodcut art until December 31. Johannes Larsen was born in the year that diplomatic relations were initiated, and although he never visited Japan, he used his work as a medium with which to explore Japanese art and culture. This exhibition presents two unique collections of privately-owned Japanese woodcut books and woodcuts alongside the Japanese-inspired works of Johannes Larsen.
The Karate Championships, taking place on October 28 at Shotokan Karate Akademi, is another opportunity to participate in the celebrations this year. It’s the 50th year of the Championship, and even if you don’t fancy risking it on the mat, it should make exceptionally lively viewing.
These events and exhibitions do not just exchange examples of Danish and Japanese culture, but rather display and celebrate the merging of cultural interests and the bond that arises between two countries in the process: Danish kids love karate, Japanese kids read Danish fairy tales. Skyggen (The Shadow) – A Chamber Opera by Aya Yoshida, is an example of one such intermingling, to be performed on November 16 and 17 at Kapellet in Assistens Kirkegård.
Inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Shadow (Skyggen), Copenhagen-based Japanese composer Aya Yoshida has written the music and libretto for this chamber opera, with the visual components created by Danish artist Magnus Pind Bjerre and Japanese calligrapher Suitou Nakatsuka. Exploring the space between humans, Aya Yoshida questions the roots of a human identity – are we self-defined, or defined by our interactions with other people?
In pieces like The Shadow, we are not looking at explicitly ‘Danish’ or ‘Japanese’ work transplanted to ‘foreign’ soil, but instead admiring the mutual respect and intersections that can exist between the two. M