Japan and the Art of Rebuilding

Members of Kodo, the famous Japanese taiko troupe, perform March 14, 2011 at the Asia Society in New York.

I learned about the enormous earthquake in my homeland via email. A number of my New York friends were immediately concerned about the safety of my family and friends in Japan. Luckily, I was able to get in touch with most of my closest relations by phone in less than an hour. Then I waited anxiously for my friends in Japan to respond to my emails.

Soon, responses from my acquaintances in Japan's art world poured into my inbox. They were shaken, but safe.

Ms. Shigemi Takahashi, curator from Aomori Museum of Art (AMA), with whom Asia Society Museum worked closely while we organized last year's Yoshitomo Nara exhibition, said the museum building as well as its collection had almost no damage. Aomori Prefecture, in northern Japan, was hit hard by the earthquake, but its areas inland and along Sea of Japan suffered little damage from the tsunami.  AMA's beautiful new building designed by Jun Aoki, one of the top Japanese architects today, survived because of Japan's quake-proof building codes.

I also reached out to Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, famous for his ingenious temporary shelters made from paper and recyclable materials — usable during disaster relief and recovery efforts. His assistant, Ms. Ryoko Yabiku, reported their office and staff are safe and they were planning to launch a project to apply their creativity to support the relief, recovery, and rebuilding efforts. They had already begun calling for donations of materials for this project.

For Japanese living abroad, it's easy to feel powerless during these tragic times back home. As a part of that community, I felt the only thing I could do immediately was to give donations through trusted avenues, such as the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund set up by Japan Society in New York.

Feeling restless these past few days, I attempted to escape the endless stream of bad news out of Japan by attending Monday's performance at Asia Society by Kodo, an internationally acclaimed traditional Japanese drum (or taiko) company. The enormous sound of drum beats was entirely transformative. It was a sound that felt somehow connected to nature, and the performance was almost ritualistic, as if trying to appease an angry god.

Afterward, I had a brief conversation with Mr. Atsushi Sugano, Managing Director of Kodo Cultural Foundation, whose mission is to pass on to the next generation Japanese traditional crafts, performing arts, and most importantly the spirit of respect for nature.

His comment stuck with me: "Natural disasters like this wipe out not just the land but the community there. I know from my previous experiences (the 2004 Niigata Prefecture Chuetsu Earthquake). And I do believe it is true this time, too, that arts can be the guiding light for people to rebuild the community."

While Japanese people face the challenge of recovering from this tragedy, I too believe that arts will have an important role in rebuilding Japan — the proud and ever-stronger nation of culture.

Miwako Tezuka is an Associate Curator at the Asia Society Museum in New York.