In his book Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art and Culture, renowned artist and PCA elder Makoto Fujimura writes that God has taught him as an artist and a follower of Christ to live and work for the “prosperity of the city” in the ashes of September 11, 2001. Although he lives in New York, he founded the International Arts Movement (IAM), to inspire artists to wrestle with the deep questions of art, faith, and humanity, wherever they are in the world. In light of Japan’s continuing crisis, byFaith talked with Fujimura—a Japanese-American who studied art in Tokyo and exhibits regularly in Asia—about his hopes for the country of his heritage and the role of art in its future rebuilding.

In April, you plan to travel to Japan on a previously scheduled trip. How will you spend your time there, in light of this tragic turn of events for Japan?

Fujimura: The first thing I want to do is speak to artists and get a feel for artists there. It really comes down to knowing what the locals are thinking rather than dictating what we think should happen. Following a tragedy, it’s often after the media leave and you’re back all alone that you realize, “Now what?” So, I am committed to starting a long-term conversation, delving into the lives of people. We want to support their efforts to rebuild the area and re-imagine what Japan should look like. That means taking an interest in their history, who they are, their aesthetics.

With 9/11, there was a tangible enemy people could blame for the destruction. The situation in Japan is different. How will that shape the public response? And the response from the arts community?

I’ve thought about that—are there any parallels between September 11, 2001, and March 11, 2011? Of course in all trauma, there are certain stages you go through. Is it the same? I don’t know the answer.

But there is something that reveals itself in trauma. When you are dealing with day-to-day realities you come to a point of realizing how powerless you are, against direct human acts or against a tsunami. There are things that you really can’t control. This is going to be complicated by a nuclear disaster, which is man-made as well. That is going to be an interesting conversation.

In your book, Refractions, you discuss the Japanese idea of mono no aware, an expression of sorrow that points to the notion of beauty as sacrifice. How have you seen this idea apply following the natural disaster in Japan?

What makes the Japanese unique is that there is embedded in our culture an idea that we are to prepare for death by creating something beautiful. There is an understanding of the sacrifice that is involved. All the way back to the 10th century, a Japanese poet wrote of cherry blossoms falling—beauty preceding death.

That is far from your mind when you are looking at the devastation in Japan. Right now, everyone is commenting on how stoic and honest the Japanese have been in the face of disaster. However, in order to recover from trauma, you have to go beyond a passive acceptance: we are all going to die and there’s nothing we can do about it. That is where the Holy Spirit works, and we can begin to have these conversations where we empathize together because of the suffering we all experience at various times. What is needed now is an emphasis on empathy and going through something together relationally. Trauma calls for imitating Christ that way—making ourselves available to people. That can happen anywhere. If tragedy teaches us anything, it’s that there is always danger ahead. Isn’t it time that we learn to be humble and share our journeys together and begin to have a long-term, generational conversation about how we live, with the goal of creating something that is enduring and beautiful?

In their recent past, Japan has not had the kind of leadership that was open to this. But I sense that there is a tremendous opportunity opening up. I see the potential of Japanese leading this discussion about beauty and sacrifice and creating sustainable ways of living.

What hopes do you have for the Japanese people to experience Christ in the midst of their sorrow and tragedy?

As Christians, we often focus on delivering information about the gospel, but that could be the most ineffective way right now. Rather, what is needed is to spend time with the Japanese, weeping together, almost “wasting” time being there with people, going through the day-to-day. Clearly, delivering food and water is essential as well. Along the way, we must appreciate the depth of what they are going through.

Once we humanize a way of talking about this and listen to people and have a truthful conversation about suffering and what was lost, I think we will begin to see openings to further conversation. As I exhibit in Japan, people come to me. They see a kind of beauty that honors Japanese tradition and see me trying to do something authentic. I don’t initiate a conversation, unless they want to talk about it. But people come to me with questions.

If we are able to weep with people, then they will ask: “Why do you have this hope?” They will ask: “When I feel that there is something wrong, why is that?” These are the questions that trigger deeper conversations. These questions are going to start showing up in their music, their films, their art. If we are savvy about this, we can begin to journey with these people and be with them as they encounter the big questions that they can’t answer. God will show up. He will create a new language for them to speak. The gospel gives a new language to humanize what has happened.

The way that Christians can uniquely give is that we do have hope. We do not fear death, so we can go to places that might be contaminated. In fact, we should be the first to be there. Not to solve the problem, but because God sent His Son to be contaminated completely for us.

You’ve spoken previously about how the young people who lived through 9/11 in New York City exhibit a special resilience, resourcefulness, and creativity. How do you think this tragedy will shape the next generation of Japanese?

I saw my own children change as a result of 9/11 as they built a community around them that engaged in a different kind of struggle growing up. They were very creative. They intuitively knew there were more important things than American materialism. They chose friendships that transcended categories. They chose to spend their time talking about issues and reading books and talking about how to create something. It is very encouraging as a parent.

During this crisis in Japan, the hardest thing is to see photos of suffering children. My prayer is that God would protect them from being traumatized. But if they are, that God would provide a community for them that would value life and not get sucked into the materialist goals of post-industrial Japan.

Many of the rural areas of Japan hit hardest by the earthquake and tsunami had experienced attrition in their populations. The young people had fled to the cities, leaving behind the fishermen and farmers who endured most of this suffering. Maybe this tragedy will start a movement of young people who—because of rebuilding opportunities—go back to their hometowns and pour themselves into the areas where they grew up. That long-term story is something I would like to see us in America pay attention to.

Makoto Fujimura is an artist, writer, and speaker who is recognized worldwide as a cultural influencer by both faith-based and secular media. A Presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts (2003-2009), Fujimura has contributed internationally as an advocate for the arts, speaking with decision makers and advising governmental policies on the arts. Fujimura’s second book, Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art and Culture, is a collection of essays bringing people of all backgrounds together in conversation and meditation on culture, art, and humanity.

He was interviewed by Susan Fikse.

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