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Tuesday, 1 May, 2001, 17:41 GMT 18:41 UK
Japan through the UK's eyes
Selfridges staff
Elevator girls will host the store's Tokyo month
By arts correspondent David Sillito

It says something about a nation when a year-long cultural extravaganza begins in a department store.

But perhaps the mix in London's Selfridges of avant garde art, cultural eccentricity and a desperation to get people shopping is as good a description of modern Japan as any.

Tokyo Life is an odd mixture of art and commerce. Installation art has been placed in amongst the racks of clothes and consumer goods.

A neon-lit gallery sits alongside the frocks and lingerie. And Maywa Denki's extraordinary homemade instruments echo around the escalators.

Should you admire it as a witty and intelligent comment on modern life? Or should you be buying it as the latest must-have consumer durable?

Garden displays

Selfridges understands it entirely. It is called retail theatre. Shops are filled with art, music and entertainment in order to draw in crowds and get them to stay for hours.

And the more they can flatter customers in to thinking that they are studying culture rather than shopping, the better it is for business.

Tokyo Life is about blurring art and commerce and is a perfect symbol of modern cultural diplomacy and the state of modern Japan.

toys
Tokyo Life: Odd mix of art and commerce
Japan 2001 is a huge nationwide cultural event. The show in Selfridge's is only a tiny part of it. All parts of the United Kingdom will have a chance to take part or witness some example of Japanese culture.

There are garden displays for the Zen-minded hortculturalist. There is a bullet train at the National Railway Museum in York. There is even a baseball tournament.

Of course, the baseball tournament, in Oxfordshire, might not seem very Japanese but it is a hugely important part of Japanese sporting life. It is also a chance to promote a Japanese-manufactured baseball in Britain and Europe.

And therein lies the rub. Cultural diplomacy was born out of a belief that the more we knew about one another the less likely it was we would go to war.

Daunting

But as the threat of war between the leading conomies has receded, it has been the promotion of commerce rather than the avoidance of conflict that has justified exporting subsidised art, theatre and music.

But while the sluggish Japanese economy may provide the background for why this is happening, none of it detracts from the pleasures to be derived.

Japanese drummer at Selfridges
The exhibition is retail theatre
The Toshiba Orchestra is beginning its brief tour of Britain in Plymouth, there are dozens of showings of Japanese artists and there are the startling displays of traditional Matsuri kites in Hyde Park, Norwich, Derby and Washington.

The list of events is dauntingly large. However, a quick flick through the brochures offers up many things that are all too familiar.

Bamboo and gravel garden design is a regular option for televisons outdoor makeover experts.

Pokemon is far better known to the under-10s than Paddington or Mary Poppins.

Even haiku, those brief, enigmatic poems, are popping up amongst the adverts on London's Underground. And Japanese video games, dancing machines and karaoke have swept the world.

Bowler hats

Japan used to be a symbol of a mysterious and inexplicable eastern way of life.

The odd mix of innocent and kitsch pop culture with ultra sophisticated minimalism has made it one of the few societies that can compete with America's global cultural monolith.

Of course, none of this guarantees that the British will truly understand Japan or abandon its preconceived notions.

Britain has spent the last few years telling the world about its avant garde artists, architects and musicians, but in almost every survey it remains in the eyes of foreigners a place of bowler hats, castles and soccer hooligans.

But whatever it manages to do for Japan, it is certainly good for Britain and anyone who wants to get a close up glimpse of a country that very few of us will ever manage to visit in person.

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Traditional Japanese drummingJapan 2001
A taste of Japanese culture in Britain
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