国際交流基金 The Japan Foundation Performing Arts Network Japan

Presenter Interview プレゼンターインタビュー

May 12, 2021
Samson Sylvain



Promoting French Culture and Cultural Exchanges
Institut français du Japon – Tokyo

Institut Français (French Institute) was launched in 2011 as the umbrella organization for the culture departments of French embassies around the world and cultural facilities under the auspices of the French Government. In Japan, with its rich tradition of cultural exchange, Samson Sylvain, a specialist in Japanese culture, assumed the position of Chief of the Cultural Program at Institut français du Japon and the post of Cultural Attaché at the French Embassy, Tokyo, in 2018.
Interviewer: Shintaro Fujii (Waseda University)

I would like to begin by asking you about your personal background until now.
I studied philosophy at University Paris X [Paris Nanterre University]. It was a time when Gilles Deleuze had passed away and also Jacques Derrida, so people were saying that the Golden Age of “French Theory” was coming to an end.

I studied Japanese in parallel at University Paris VII [now integrated with Paris V University as Paris Cite University as of March 2022] and got a master's degree with a thesis on Japanese philosophy.

After studying at Kobe University for one year, I went back to France to learned editorial practice in the graduate professional program, and then after a six-month internship at the publisher Bayard, I also earned a master’s degree in professional science. Initially, I was looking for an editing job and began translating comics and novels, but after a year, I couldn’t stand the loneliness of translation work (laughs).

So, I applied for a position as an international volunteer. This was a program that was created after the abolition of military service (before that it was possible to choose work in the cultural field as an alternative to military service, but after the abolition of military service it was reorganized as a program for both men and women of a wide range of ages) and now it is open to young people up to the age of 28. The first year, I worked for Japan branch of Campus France, which supported the study in French. At the same time, Robert Lacombe, the director (serving 2008-2012) of Institut Franco-Japanese of Tokyo (current Institut Français of Japan - Tokyo) was preparing for a French Dance Year program in 2011, and when I went to him to offer my services, he decided to have me work not only on the French Dance Year program but also on all of the arts and cultural programs of the Institut Franco-Japanese of Tokyo.

That was also at a time when Jacombe was planning to launch a Digital Art Festival, so I ended up being responsible for the resulting Ebisu Film Festival and for the Digital Choc events done in collaboration with La Gaîté Lyrique in Paris in 2012, and the next year’s Night of Philosophy (Nuit de la Philo) event in 2013. Also, the dialogue series for artists and arts professionals in Japan and France titled “The Lab” (Le Labo)” was one that I started beginning in 2015.

When I was studying French philosophy, I hadn’t actually realized what a big impact “French Theory” had on gender studies and cultural studies in the English-speaking world. When we got young Japanese philosophers like Koichiro Kokubun and Masaya Chiba together to interact with young French philosophers, I learned for the first time that, for example, writings by Quentin Meillassoux had been translated into Japanese virtually in real-time as soon as they were written. The reason I started the Night of Philosophy (Nuit de la Philo) and The Lab (Le Labo) was because I learned that since the time when Institut Français of Japan-Tokyo was first founded as the Tokyo Japan-France Academy they had invited people like Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida to Tokyo, and I wanted to continue that heritage by supporting exchange between Japanese and French philosophers with that knowledge of ways that philosophy is linked to other fields such as the arts and literature.

In fact, these programs resulted from my strong desire to do something at Institut Français of Japan after learning that a global debate department had been established there and that the persons in charge were focusing on collaboration with external partner organizations, which made me feel that I definitely wanted to do something at Institut Français of Japan – Tokyo.

After that I continued to do work at Institut Français of Japan - Tokyo, and I also served as Deputy Cultural Officer at the French Embassy from 2016, and since 2018 I’m serving as the general manager of the arts division of Institut Français of Japan and French Embassy’s Cultural Attaché at the same time.
gSo, this means that you started working at the French Institute of Japan 10 years ago, just at the time when the institute was becoming active.
French Institute began operations on January 1, 2011 from its main office in Paris as an umbrella organization for the culture departments of French embassies around the world and for cultural facilities under the auspices of the French Government. In Japan, the French Institute of Japan was launched in September of 2012, as a merging of the Institut franco-japonais branches in Tokyo and Yokohama, the Institut français du Japon-Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka), Institut français du Japon - Kyushu (Fukuoka), the Villa Kujoyama (Kyoto) and others with the Cultural departments of the French embassies (*1). The current director of the French Institute of Japan is Stéphane Martin, a Cultural Attaché at the French Embassy. He’s not a diplomat but originally a high-ranking bureaucrat from the Audit Board. But he is also an arts and culture specialist who served as chairman of the Quai Branly Museum (Musée du Quai Branly) for long time, from 1998 to 2019.

There are now six French Institute of Japan branches, in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka), Kyushu (Fukuoka), and Okinawa (Naha). The French Institute of Japan - Okinawa in Naha just opened in 2019. The French Institute of Japan - Tokyo is one of the largest in Asia, and it has a pleasant courtyard and also a projector space where film/video screenings can be held. On the other hand, there are no spaces for arts and cultural projects in the Institute branches in Yokohama and Kyushu, so we have to search for fitting outside venue partners each time such a project is held. In Kyoto, the Villa Kujoyama, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, also has a residency facility for artists and creators to do residencies. In addition to inviting French or France-based artists for residencies, there is also a Kujoyama Duo program that was started since 2014, in which overseas artists can pair up with artists living in Japan to do work-in-residence. In the past, these facilities tended to function independently, but now I feel that the people in charge are working more closely together to combine their shared purposes and budgets to make the overall activities more efficient and unified.

In addition to all of these French Institute of Japan branches, there are also educational French Language Institutes (Alliance Française) in Sapporo, Sendai, Nagoya, Tokushima, and in Ebisu in Tokyo there is the French national institute for research on Japan, named the Franco-Japanese House (Maison franco-japonaise de Tokyo), which was founded when Paul Claudel, who was also a playwright and poet, when he was the French Ambassador to Japan, and it will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding in 2024. There are also French international schools (Lycée Français) in Tokyo and Kyoto, where students are taught in French at the elementary and middle school levels. And, although they are not officially part of French Institute of Japan, these institutions are also part of the large network of French cultural institutions in Japan. Thus, we see that there are many France-related institutions of culture, education and research in Japan, and all this clearly shows what an important partner Japan is for France.
Would you tell us about the mission of French Institute of Japan?
One of the missions of the French Institute of Japan is not only to promote knowledge of French culture on a broad scale but also to continue to update the image of this culture as it evolves in the contemporary world. Traditionally, there has long been a large sector of Japanese society that are familiar with the French language and culture and have a positive image of France, but in spite of the almost unprecedented number of French cultural facilities around Japan, it is difficult to say that the image of France projected to the Japanese public is always up to date. For example, French art didn’t end with the Impressionist, of course, and many great French movies have continued to be created since Nouvelle Vague (New wave).

It is our wish that we can help the general public discover and experience these aspects of contemporary French arts and culture, and this is also the wish of all the professionals working in the field of culture. At the Paris Headquarters of the French Institute (Institut français) events are regularly planned and initiated under the title of “Focus” with the aim of introducing the current state of French culture and the arts. And to these events, professionals are invited from around the world for opportunities to meet together with artists and engage in networking. Among these efforts are the theater-centered Focus event is held concurrently with the Avignon Festival, and visual arts-centered Focus event is held with the International Contemporary Art Fair (FIAC).

France has been early among the countries of Europe to end restriction related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a result, things have been returning to normal, so we are now planning to begin sending arts and culture professionals from Japan to France to participate in these events.

In short, the basic policy of the French Institute of Japan and French Embassy Cultural Affairs Departments is to work in collaboration with our Japanese partners. There are some cases when we will take the role of sponsor/organizer of programs, but our basic job is to provide support for programs initiated by the Japan side and offer assistance to help the programs succeed. However, my job at the French Institute of Japan – Tokyo is the programming of projects that the Institute initiates itself. There is some difference in the vector of these two jobs I do, and while it is often a joy to be doing both jobs at the same time, there are also times when it seems that I am the one giving support for projects that I myself have proposed, which can cause some second thoughts, to say the least (laughs).
What things do you focus on when you are programming events?
Once again, I have to say that since my job at the French Institute of Japan and the French Embassy Cultural Affairs Department mostly involves giving support to projects that have been initiated by the Japan side, there is nothing that can really be considered a programming policy to be followed. Of course, I have the role of connecting the people on the Japan side to the people of the main cultural facilities or festivals on the French side and assisting in the discussions between the two sides, and in this capacity, I am always concentrating on putting together the best programs possible in terms of selecting the works and artists that best fit the needs of the Japan side.

At the same time, I also focus on the central social issues that are influencing contemporary artists’ creative activities. One of these is environmental issues. Things that come to mind immediately with regard to this are the questions posed by Jérôme Bel (the choreographer who worked on the composition and direction of The Show Must Go On and Gala at Sai-no-Kuni Saitama Art Theater) concerning the economic structure behind performing arts and the issue of how to create works in ways that are more environment-friendly. Also, Philippe Quesne (the director who worked on Special Effects of Serge (TPAM in Yokohama), and The Moles (KYOTO EXPERIMENT), as well as the Japan-France Exchange Project Anamorphosis (Atelier Shunpusha) is one who employed his own unique methods to create works that raise questions about the urgent issue of global climate change from a different level. Philosophers such as Bruno Latour, who can be seen as the thinker who proposed the concept of Anthropocene (*2) and Emanuele Coccia (who participated in our Night of Philosophy [Nuit de la Philo] program in 2020) have not only had a big influence on artists like these but also, contrarily, they have at times been invited by such artists to take part in their creative processes.

The issues of gender and sexuality are also things that French society has had to tackle from the ground up, and they still remain issues that are shaking the society, so these are also issues that have a big impact on artistic creation. However, I think that compared to environmental issues, the effects of these issues have shown a bit more diversity in their spread. For example, for artists like François Chaignaud (the choreographer and dancer who worked jointly with Akaji Maro on conception and performance of the production Gold Shower presented at Setagaya Public Theatre) these are representative issues appearing in their work.

Within the context of the increasing jumble of genres used in artistic expression, the issue of multi-disciplinary plurality is also the focus of much attention recently. This results not only in the birth of new forms of artistic expression but also new attention to questions of the possibilities of new spaces and venues for the performance of works bringing with them the potential for new mixes of different kinds of audiences. For example, a good example that comes to mind is the Outremonde (Underworld) by artist and director, Théo Mercier, which was both an installation and a performance presented in an art museum as part of the program of the Avignon Festival in 2021 (the venue was the Museum of Contemporary Art Collection Lambert).
Considering your position, this may be a rather difficult question for you to answer, but are there any particular artists that you would especially like to invite from France to introduce in Japan, or Japanese artist you would like to introduce in France?
Actually, Théo Mercier, whom I have just mentioned, is one artist that I think would be very meaningful to bring to Japan, and one that I would like to get audiences in Japan to become more familiar with. As for Japanese artists that I would like to introduce in France, some that immediately come to mind are Meiro Koizumi, Yu Araki and Chikako Yamashiro. I am drawn to the way they bring to their works important historical perspectives and ideas, and the way they skillfully mix multiple forms of expression in media ranging from film/video to the visual arts (installation).
Do you see a worldwide trend today where people like yourself who are fluent in the local language and highly specialized in the local culture are becoming cultural affairs officers? Before you, we always had a situation where officers who were not very proficient at all in Japanese or Japanese culture were sent to Japan to serve on three- to five-year cycles, so I think your presence is an important change.
Looked at from a global perspective, I think I am one of the first cases, and even today I believe there are very few others. In my case, I think there was a background of a merging of organizations and an elimination of numerous posts that enable me to be in this position, but I don’t necessarily see that as a global policy trend. And you are correct in your observation that previous cultural affairs officers would be sent here and after about three years, it was often the case that just as they were beginning to gain knowledge and build a network of connections that made their work suddenly much more interesting, their tour of duty would then be over and they had to return home. I am lucky that this wasn’t the case with me.

It is a big advantage to be able to speak Japanese and to have a knowledge of Japanese culture. But if you have excellent bilingual staff like Miho Sano (the chief of Arts and Culture Planning in the Arts Department of the French Institute of Japan headquarters) I believe it is possible for a cultural affairs officer who doesn’t speak Japanese to do the job in such an environment. In my case, there is no limit on the length of my term here, so as long as I don’t decide to quit myself, I can stay in the jobs I am doing until I retire. But that also means that I have to work hard so that the people around me will think that is not a bad thing, but a good thing (laughs).
I hear that the French Institute of Japan has also been seriously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The number of students in our French [language] courses is decreasing significantly due to the COVID pandemic, which has meant a reduction our income from course tuition, so it is honestly not easy to keep the organization going. Part of the salaries for some executives of the French Institute is paid for by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France, and we can also apply for grants for our projects from the Paris Headquarters. However, basically each of the individual facilities are classified as financially self-sufficient institutions (établissement à autonomie financière), so each facility has an independent financial system.

In other words, our activities are basically supported by tuition income from French courses. When the fiscal situation deteriorated in 2021, we were able to get a one-time support package from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France, but we weren’t able to get the same kind of generous support that cultural facilities in France received.

However, with the French Institute of Japan - Tokyo in Iidabashi, it was wonderful to see the completion of its new building (annex) designed by Sou Fujimoto Architects in 2021. After the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, the earthquake resistance of the original main building designed by Junzo Sakakura (completed in 1951) had become a problem. So, we had no option to demolish much of that famous building and rebuild one with earthquake-resistant reinforcement work performed on the old structure. But for the temporary structure that housed the restaurant La Brasserie facing the courtyard we decided to have it rebuilt, and when we held a competition for that design contract, we were fortunate to get applications from many architects for it, including Pritzker Prize class architects. It was from among them that Fujimoto’s design proposal was selected.

He is a well-known architect in France who has designed such buildings as L’Arbre blanc in Montpellier (which means the white tree and is a multiple dwelling complex with an overall appearance like a tree with its branches and leaves spreading outward) among others. This renovation enabled an increase in the number of classrooms and conference rooms by ten. Two of them are for nursery age children, adding to those specialized for elementary, middle school and high school students, so we will be strengthening our programs for children and young people. These new activities began with a “Hanami [Flower-viewing] Français” program held on April 2, 2022. Our hope is that it would be a good unveiling opportunity in the new building.

For the rebuilding of the French Embassy in Hiroo, we chose a Public Private Partnership (PPP) funding method, and rather than a method that would have the French government bear the cost fully, the cost of the new building’s construction will be borne largely by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since the normal policy of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to not make capital investments for facilities outside of France, this was a very unusual case, and this can be said to be another example of the special importance the French government places on its ties with Japan. There have been some delays in the renovations to the old building, but all construction is expected to be completed by the autumn of 2022. In commemoration of the completion of the facility’s renovation and modification, we plan to create a special cultural program in 2023. And we hope everyone will look forward to it.

Until now, the French Institute of Japan and the Cultural Department office of the French Embassy were divided between the Hiroo (Embassy) district and Iidabashi (French Institute of Japan), but with the completion of the new facilities, we plan to consolidate them both in Iidabashi. With this, only the Cultural Attaché will continue to go back and forth between Hiroo and Iidabashi. As for the restaurant La Brasserie, it is scheduled to reopen on the 1st floor of the new building. The restaurant used to be directly managed by the Institute, but on the occasion of this renovation, we will now switch to private-sector management and we are presently soliciting potential management companies for our final selection.
The COVID pandemic has made it difficult for people to travel. The Japanese restriction on foreign travel and quarantine policy have been so strict that they are compared to the country’s “national isolation” period from the 17th to mid-19th centuries, and this has made international exchange very difficult.
That is true. It became very difficult for foreigners to enter Japan during the pandemic and made it very difficult for the French Institute of Japan to carry on its activities. A major event to introduce French culture in Japan named La Saison (The Season) was originally scheduled for 2021, but it had to be postponed twice, and it still hasn’t been decided when it can be held. For the same reasons, the new Japan-themed Théâtre du Soleil (The Theater of the Sun) production titled Golden Dream Island that had been scheduled the autumn of 2021, along with most of our other projects had to be cancelled or postponed. Presently, we are negotiating to have the Théâtre du Soleil performances in Japan rescheduled for some time next year or later.

The Paris Olympics/Paralympics are planned for 2024, and the Osaka World Exposition for 2025—and of course, France plans to participate in Osaka with a pavilion—so we don’t know when our La Saison (The Season) can be held, and that naturally worries us. We are presently waiting for word about this from France, but there surely won’t be any decisions made until after France’s presidential election in April [and the launch of the new administration].

France is designated as the focus country for the Tokyo Art Book Fair scheduled for October 2022 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. We have been making preparations for this since last year and we expect many artists and publishers to be participating. And it looks as if there will be advances in collaboration with the arts sector as a result. So, this is another event that I am really looking forward to.

The Villa Kujoyama completed in November 1992, celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2022 and many events are being planned in Japan and France to celebrate this milestone. The current director’s term ends in April and since the new director won’t arrive until autumn, I am now serving as the interim director. Until recently it had been virtually impossible for foreign artists to enter Japan for residencies, but by a miraculous bit of luck in timing, the Syrian artist Bady Dalloul was able to participate in Theater Commons 2021. That difficult [travel] situation is finally changing, and from April 2022 it looks like we are finally able to receive artist for residencies. This won’t be limited to Villa Kujoyama, however, so it looks like we are finally seeing the light at the end of this long tunnel.
In the field of performing arts, what projects do you have planned for 2022?
As for projects that will be sponsored/organized by the French Institute of Japan Tokyo, for the Hanami Français held on April 2, 2022, we invited two actors from the Jacques Lecoq International Theatre School and the Philippe Gaulier Theatre School in France for a talk session with Takuma Noguchi and Asahi Ishikawa. Also, the choreographer and dancer, Ayano Yokoyama, who won the jury prize at Yokohama Dance Collection in 2020, will do a solo performance to the music of 34423 (Miyoshi Fumi) in the courtyard space. And in the “Night of Philosophy” that was originally scheduled for May but has been rescheduled to be held in November, we plan to have a performance event by Saori Hara and Yuki Kobayashi. In August we plan to hold a workshop inviting the principal and instructors of the Jacques Lecoq International Theatre School as lecturers at KAAT (Kanagawa Arts Theater).

The projects we will be sponsoring in April and May begin with performances of a collaborative Japan-France work titled Tangled Drop (*3) by Japanese contemporary artist Tabaimo and circus artist Jörg Müller (Joerg Mueller) at Aubade Hall in Toyama City, Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media (YCAM), and Naha Culture and Arts Theatre Nahato). This is a work that results from a long period of preparation that we supported, and it is thus a work with deep significance for us.

In September, we finally plan to have performances at the New National Theatre of The Glass Menagerie directed by Ivo van Hove and starring Isabelle Huppert, after two cancellations and postponement. In October and November, the modern circus company XY is scheduled to come to Japan again to give performances at the Setagaya Public Theatre, the Aichi Prefectural Art Theater, and Rohm Theater Kyoto. In December, at the Yokohama Dance Collection held at the same time as YPAM, which also features a French Embassy Prize, we established with the opportunity for winners to spend a 3-month residence at French National Dance Center (CND), and from this year there is a tie-up with the Dance Reflections program, which is a mécénat (corporate patronage of the arts and culture) project of Van Cleef & Arpels, we plan to offer further follow-up support for winners to make it an even more attractive prize.

The Théâtre de Gennevilliers, located on the outskirts of Paris, is known in Japan for its very close ties with SPAC (the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center) and its artistic director Satoshi Miyagi. There, Daniel Jeanneteau is a leading director, and he has been involved in inviting Hideto Iwai and Kuro Tanino as associate artists. This is another very rewarding development for us. Also, we are planning an annual exchange project between KYOTO EXPERIMENT and Centre Pompidou.
We are certainly all looking forward to these developments. Although the pandemic has essentially forced upon us a two-year blank in most activities, I am also looking forward with great expectations for these new developments that will surely bring even deeper and more meaningful cultural exchange between Japan and France.
As my last question, I would like to ask you for your thoughts about the future effects of the current conflict in Ukraine.
EUNIC Japan, a cultural entity associated with public cultural institutions of EU member nations, held an event at Goethe Institut Tokyo on March 15 in support of Ukraine. The EU member nations, including France, have agreed to support the independence of Ukraine and help protect Ukraine’s right to self-determination. Although I believe that the situation in Ukraine does not directly affect the activities of the French Institute of Japan or cultural exchange between Japan and France, the suspension of flights between Japan and France, changes in the air traffic routes, along with the increase in cost of air fares, has already made it more difficult for people related to our programs to come to Japan, and for works of art to be transported here.

We have all been thinking about the world after the COVID crisis and what the future world order should be like. I already have fears that the war in Ukraine will have an even more serious effect on the world order than the COVID pandemic has. I pray that the return of world peace and order will come as soon as possible.
We agree with you thoroughly. Let us thank you for giving us your time for this interview today.

*1 French Institute
It is important to note that despite sharing the French Institute (Institut français) name, depending on the context, it actually covers a variety of institutions and facilities, ranging from the Institut français world headquarters in Paris to headquarters in countries around the world placed in the cultural departments of French embassies (such as French Institute of Japan), as well as individual cultural facilities (such as the French Institute of Japan -Tokyo, etc.)

*2 Anthropocene (The Human Epoch)
Anthropocene is the name given to a new geological epoch proposed by thinkers such as Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Paul Kurtzen to define a new “Human Epoch” dating from the commencement of significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems.

*3 Tangled Drop
Composition and direction: Tabaimo, Jörg Müller (Joerg Mueller) / Dramaturg: Sophie Borthwick / Performance: Jörg Müller (Joerg Mueller), Chiharu Mamiya / Art: Tabaimo / Music: Keisuke Tanka
This ambitious Japan-France joint project by Japanese contemporary artist Tabaimo, known for his animation works that reveal various contradictions in contemporary society, and the leading performer of contemporary circus Jörg Müller from France. The creation took place over a long period of two years. After a final two months of creation in residence in Toyama, its world premiere took place at Aubade Hall (Toyama) in April 2022. A France tour is also planned.