Flanders and Japan celebrate 150 years of diplomatic ties


A series of artistic events have been organised to mark a symbolic anniversary of relations between Belgium and Japan after the country was forced to open up to outside influences in the 1850s

Cultural union

It’s 150 years since Belgium and Japan first established diplomatic relations, an anniversary that is being celebrated with cultural and artistic events in both countries. Yet the treaty that began it all was a product of its time: an unequal agreement, giving rights and privileges to Belgian traders without returning the favour to the Japanese.

The Belgian treaty was one of a number of unequal treaties signed with Western nations after Japan was forced to open its doors in 1853. At that point it had been a closed society for over 200 years, with heavy restrictions on travel to and from the country. Its only trading partners were China, Korea and the Dutch East India Company.

Friendly approaches from the West had failed to get Japan to broaden its trading relations, so in 1853 the US government sent four heavily armed ships to rephrase the question. Literally outgunned, Japan opened up. Belgium was the ninth nation to sign an agreement with Japan, on 1 August 1866.

Though further diplomatic and trade agreements followed, with fairer terms, the anniversary still resonates. “The date may be symbolic now, but I think it is still quite important,” says Bernard Catrysse, director of Arts Flanders Japan. “It was the beginning, and it was the basis of so many other things that came afterwards.”

Building bridges

One of the ways it resonates is in the teaching of Dutch in Japan, which Catrysse concedes is now quite an exotic thing to do. But 150 years ago Dutch was an important second language for trade and communication with the West.

The American treaty of 1854, for example, had to be negotiated in Dutch and Chinese, so poorly were English and Japanese understood by the opposing sides. “It is good to bring that up, so people understand that, at a certain point in history, Dutch was very important.”

Arts Flanders Japan, based in Tokyo, is the new name for the relocated Flanders Center Osaka. Set up in 1975, the centre has celebrated its 40th birthday along with the 150 years of diplomatic relations. 

It’s important that we have a dialogue, that we really involve them in what we do, so there is a genuine exchange

- Bernard Catrysse

Events on 14 October to mark both anniversaries during the Belgian state visit to Japan emphasised the centre’s mission to build bridges rather than simply push Flemish culture. “It’s important that we try to have a dialogue with Japan, that we really involve them in what we do, so that there is a genuine exchange,” says Catrysse.

So a focus on fashion looked at the mutual influence of European and Japanese designers in the recent Game Changers exhibition in Antwerp. Then there was a panel discussion on the different approaches of Belgian and Japanese fashion schools, with a contribution from Yuima Nakazato, a Japanese designer trained in Antwerp.

Food on the day was provided by Gert De Mangeleer, the Michelin-starred chef from Hertog Jan near Bruges, taking inspiration from Japanese cuisine. And Flemish pianist and composer Jef Neve performed with the Nagoya University of Arts Wind Orchestra (pictured). 

Mingling of cultures

The teaching of Dutch, meanwhile, has come a long way. “Five years ago, our most advanced students were really interested in translating novels, and so we set up master classes for them and organised seminars,” says Catrysse. “And from that, two novels were published in translation last week – Monte Carlo by Peter Terrin and Tuesday by Elvis Peeters – and there are three more novels in the works.”

Back in Brussels, a similar mingling of cultures can be seen at WorkspaceBrussels, where In Praise of Waves combines work by Japanese artists in Belgium and Belgians in Japan. So, in one room Karl Van Welden’s video study of the moon over Tokyo looks down on Koyuki Kazahaya’s ghostly images of waves breaking on Ostend beach.

Meanwhile, Kosi Hidama has changed one room in this typical Brussels townhouse into a Zen-inspired winter garden. The show continues to November 12.

Other highlights include Ukiyo-e, an exhibition of Japanese prints at the Jubelpark Museum until 12 February, and Bozar’s A Feverish Era in Japanese Art: Expressionist Abstraction of the 1950s-1960s until 22 January.

For a broader look at the Japanese avant-garde and its dialogue with the West from the 1950s onwards, there is just time to catch Made in Japan at Strombeek Cultural Centre, until 8 November. In addition to work from the Smak collection in Ghent and loans from private and public collections, the show presents new work from Philippe Van Snick, Lemm&Barkey, Rumiko Hagiwara and Keiko Sato.

Meanwhile, the Ars Musica festival of contemporary classical music, from 12 to 27 November, will focus on Japan with a rich programme entitled Land of the Rising Sound. It opens with the Brussels Philharmonic performing work by composers such as Toru Takemitsu, Maki Ishii and Dai Fujikura, and continues with pianist Thérèse Malengreau exploring work by composers inspired by Japanese poetry and landscape.