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Music for people around the world

 InDepth News 16 August 2019

With the mission of giving all people everywhere the opportunity to view and enjoy the world’s finest music and performing art, Min-On could never be accused of aiming too low. But that’s just what the creator of the Min-On Concert Association, Dr. Daiskau Ikeda, hopes to achieve. (1699 Words) - By Taro Ichikawa


The depth and dimension of its repertoire is fabulous if not unparalleled: the sublime blend of beauty and music of an opera; the spectacular and dynamic creativity of a ballet; inspiring presentation of classics orchestrated by a magic wand; musicals, jazz, folk music and dance enlivening feelings of joy and happiness.

All this is minshu ongaku -- 'music for the people' -- which the Min-On Concert Association has on its agenda to help enrich people's lives, widen their horizon to transcend the barriers of nationality, race and generation, following the maxim: Music awakens people to the dignity of humanity.

The underlying mission of Min-On was spelt out by its founder Dr. Daiskau Ikeda, an eminent Buddhist leader, writer and philosopher: "Music speaks directly to the heart. This response, this echo within the heart, is proof that human hearts can transcend the barriers of time and space and nationality. Exchanges in the field of culture can play an important role in enabling people to overcome mistrust and prejudice and build peace."

Another mandate of Min-On is to offer all people the opportunity to enjoy the world's finest music and performing arts at affordable prices.

Perhaps the largest private, non-profit performing arts promoter of its kind in the world today, Min-On is supported by 1.2 million individuals countrywide who pay 500 Yen (approx. US$5) a year to become "contributing members". Unlike most other foundations in Japan and elsewhere that rely heavily on public grants or corporate donors, Min-On depends entirely on membership fees.

Min-On also sponsors the Tokyo International Music Competition and organizes free concerts for schools.

The Min-On Culture Centre in the heart of Shinjuku Ward of Tokyo's commercial and administrative centre, houses the Min-On Music Museum with a library containing over 120,000 LPs and CDs, 45,000 music items and about 30,000 reference books. The museum also has on display a collection of antique pianos and music boxes, and folk instruments from around the world.

Since its inception in 1963, Min-On has been creating opportunities for the performing arts to build bridges between people and to give tangible form to the desire for world peace. Registered as an independent and incorporated foundation in 1965, it has since grown to become one of Japan's largest private cultural exchange institutions.

"We are working to revitalize musical culture worldwide -- to launch a new global Renaissance -- with musical programmes aimed at stimulating the artistic aspirations of tomorrow's creative generations," says Hiroyasu Kobayashi, who presides over the Min-On Concert Association.

All this tempts observers to describe Min-On as Tokyo's Met. The Met, as the Metropolitan Opera Association of New York City is widely known, is America's largest classical music organization, which annually presents some 220 opera performances.

But Min-On is in fact tremendously more than the Met.


Over a span of more than four decades, Min-On has engaged in international cultural exchanges of music, dance and performing arts with 102 countries and regions, and expanded the circle of friendship around the world, says Kobayashi. The figure will go up to 103 this autumn when the National Ballet of Cameroon performs at the invitation of Min-On.

Min-On has played a major role in introducing Japanese culture, presented by leading musical and theatrical groups, to other countries. These overseas tours, which have featured regular cooperation with the Jeunesses Musicales de France (JMF) and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), aim to enhance appreciation of Japanese culture overseas and contribute to mutual exchanges.

Min-On launched 'A Musical Voyage Along the Silk Road', a ten-part series featuring performers from Iraq, India, China, the former Soviet Union, Mongolia, Turkey, Egypt and Syria, in 1979. It concluded in 2007. The series restarted in 2009 with joint performances by the artists from Egypt, Greece and Uzbekistan. It has been indeed an ambitious undertaking, given that less than one percent of Japanese are known to have expressed an interest in folk music and dance.

Min-On also brought the Teatro alla Scala from Milan in 1981, the first world-class, full-cast opera from Europe ever to perform in Japan. In 1999, following successful tours by dancers and musicians from Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, it kicked off the ongoing 'A Musical Voyage Across Africa' series with a 25-concert tour by an Ethiopian dance troupe. The series continued with groups from Zambia in 2001 and from Morocco in September 2003.

The Min-On Concert Association has also been a Japanese pioneer in world music recordings, when it began making studio recordings of artists during their Japan tours.

Min-On has sponsored music competitions for young conductors from around the world. It has treated some 1.2 million Japanese schoolchildren to free performances by artistes invited over the past 30 years.

Min-On music library, open to the public, houses one of the most extensive collections in Japan.

Min-On also sponsors the Tokyo International Choreography Competition, which was inaugurated in 1991 and is one of the very few competitions of its kind in the world. The competition brings together dozens of choregraphers and dance groups from around the world and provides a unique stage for the young performers of the future.


"No other organization in Japan has engaged in as far-ranging music promotion activities as Min-On," says Kazushi Ishida, music critic and chair of a national composers' association. "Indeed, it may not have an equal in the entire world."

"We have invited artists from 102 countries but I presume that many people in Japan may not be in a position to spot out at least 50 countries such as Lebanon and Jordan on the world map," Hiroyasu Kobayashi, who presides over the Min-On Concert Association, tells IDN.

He gives an example: "I received complaints from concert ticket agencies when we decided to invite artistes from a Middle East country. They said that very few people know about the country and all they hear is about civil war. They assume that there cannot be any culture of music in such a country. How can Min-On expect people to buy tickets to see arts and cultural performances from such a country?"

Looking back over the past 34 years, Kobayashi recalls many examples: "I have witnessed that after people spend two hours watching a so-called 'questionable' groups perform (a performance lasts two hours in Min-On programmes) something changes in their minds. In fact, many audiences gladly fill in questionnaires after witnessing a performance."

He has often come across comments like: "I have learned for the first time in my life that there exists such a wonderful artistic culture in this country" and "I want to visit this country some day".

Min-On has also helped bring about better understanding among artistes from countries that otherwise are in a state of conflict with each other. "We invited artistes from the Middle East which at the time of Iran-Iraq war included groups both from Iran and Iraq," recalls Shigeyuki Kohzuma, acting director of the Min-On Music Museum.

He adds: "Since artistes came through government-to-government arrangements, initially there was unfriendliness between them. However, as they spent time together on many stages and trips throughout Japan, we were pleased to see that something inside them gradually changed and by the time they performed together on the stage at the end of the tour, we could see a bond of friendship and respect as fellow artists transcending national animosities."

Min-On has furthermore invited groups from four countries in Central America. Kohzuma says he was surprised to learn that in spite of their geographical proximities, they had never visited each other. But in Japan they had an opportunity to meet each other, develop friendships and mutual respect as artists. "This was the beginning of mutual exchanges and friendship after coming back to their respective countries."

Min-On has invited artistes from conflict-ridden countries as well. "A good aspect of bridging their performance with Japanese ordinary citizens particularly children and youth is that students wrote letters to us asking for our advice regarding what they could do to support people in those countries," says Kobayashi, president of Min-On.

Children who came to learn about a particular conflict-ridden country through its musicians, who visited schools, prompted them to know more about the country and its people and develop respect for their music -- and even personal feeling of friendship and sympathy toward the artistes, when they saw gruesome images of the conflict on TV.


Yet another example is what a high school girl wrote after meeting members of the Ethiopian national dance troupe and school students in Ehime Prefecture: "I admit that I knew next to nothing about Ethiopia until today. But from now on, I'll be following the news closely to see what happens in that country. If it's good news, I'll be happy for them. But if it's not - and they suffer from famine or war, for example -- their pain will become my own."

Kobayashi is proud of Min-On's attempts to raise audiences' interest in people other than themselves. "I feel desensitization to the situation and needs of others is really the key danger facing us today."

From the responses that Min-On gets through the questionnaires it distributes, it is clear that Japanese audiences are generally moved and impressed by their exposure to alien cultures. For groups from developing countries, too, it is a source of pride to be able to demonstrate the richness and beauty of their culture, rather than always being seen as a disadvantaged people.

"Cultural exchange of this kind is extremely precious as it is based on mutual respect and appreciation," says Yukio Yamaguchi, director of public relations for Min-On. "It creates a vital awareness that no one culture is superior or inferior to another. It dissuades us from being parochial and prejudiced about people in other countries and their cultures."

Min-On plans to continue widening the scope of its activities, confident that its role is an important one in today's world. "Cultural exchange is a gradual, unsung process that may appear circuitous, but it is actually the surest path to mutual understanding and peace," concludes Kobayashi. "We've seen for ourselves what this process can achieve, and it has never failed to inspire and sustain us in our task."


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Originally published by InDepth News. ©

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