Celebrating Sri Lankan culture in Tokyo

Tuesday, 20 September 2011 00:13 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Sally McLaren

On 11 September, the world marked the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the United States, and Japan marked sixth months since the triple disasters of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant accident. On the same weekend, one corner of the vast Yoyogi Park in central Tokyo was transformed into a peaceful celebration of Sri Lankan culture.

The 8th annual Sri Lanka Festival showcased both traditional and modern dance and music, with performances by well-known artists such as the Channa-Upuli dance troupe and Bathiya & Santhush Group.

Over 80 stalls promoted Sri Lankan products such as tea, spices, Ayurvedic medicine, textiles and handicrafts. Sri Lankan restaurants from all over Japan offered a solid selection of Sri Lankan cuisine, from hoppers and kottu rotti, to the ubiquitous rice and curry. There was even a stall selling thambili at Tokyo prices – amounting to Rs. 700 per king coconut.

The opening ceremony was attended by Japanese dignitaries with strong connections to Sri Lanka, including former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, the current President of the Japan-Sri Lanka Friendship Association Parliamentary Group and Yasushi Akashi, former UN diplomat and now the Japanese Government Representative for Peace-Building, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction in Sri Lanka.

Both are frequent visitors to Sri Lanka and they commented in their speeches on the positive changes they have witnessed since the end of the conflict. Former Prime Minister Fukuda said that he expects to see “more prosperity and development in Sri Lanka in the near future”. Members of the 15,000-strong Sri Lankan community in Japan, such as business people, monks and students, were also present at the ceremony.

As Ambassador and Retired Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda noted in his welcome speech, many international events have been cancelled in Tokyo since the March disasters, and the embassy debated whether or not to go ahead with this year’s festival. Sri Lanka’s shared experience of a tsunami disaster led to a decision to hold the festival.

The fact that the Ambassador himself has made four trips with relief teams to the stricken Tohoku region in northern Japan has further strengthened the relationship between the two countries and has also attracted praise both in Japan and Sri Lanka.

After the opening ceremony, Anton Wicky, a long-time Tokyo resident and Japanese TV personality originally from Mount Lavinia, said that the energy Ambassador Karannagoda has brought to the job has deeply impressed him and many other people. “He’s the best Ambassador we’ve had in recent times,” he said. The posting to Japan is Ambassador Karannagoda’s first diplomatic appointment and he arrived just over a week after the disasters, when many other embassies were fleeing from the capital. Given the circumstances, he could have easily postponed his appointment, but the Ambassador was mindful of Japan’s assistance to Sri Lanka with development aid and tsunami reconstruction projects.

He therefore wasted no time in travelling to evacuation centres with members of the Sri Lankan community in Japan to distribute three million Ceylon tea bags, as well as thousands of servings of rice and curry.

Ambassador Karannagoda says that the disaster victims were incredibly grateful for a warm meal, as the disaster struck at the end of winter. The Sri Lankan Government also sent a 15-member rescue team and donated $ 1 million dollars to the Japanese Red Cross.

Reflecting later on his experience in Japan during such a difficult time in the nation’s history, the Ambassador said that he has been impressed by Japanese values such as punctuality, commitment, patience and respect, which he has encountered in company offices in Tokyo, as well as in the disaster-hit areas.

He also spoke positively of the huge potential of Japanese tourism to Sri Lanka, and at the same time, he is also hoping to raise the profile of Ceylon tea in Japan. In the meantime, he is proud to point out that the efforts of the Sri Lankan community in Japan during the last six months have also produced some surprising outcomes.

The Ambassador was moved by the story of a Japanese car manufacturer whose factory was in the tsunami-affected area and needed to be relocated. The manufacturer was so impressed that even the Sri Lankan Ambassador had taken such pains to help people in the disaster zone that he has decided to relocate his manufacturing plant to Sri Lanka.

Stall holders at the festival showed their support for Japan-Sri Lanka cultural ties. Akira Takenami, a university professor, proudly displayed his photography book entitled ‘Over the War, Over the Tsunami, Sri Lanka,’ a record of his journeys in Sri Lanka, with proceeds going to charity.

At the Japan-Sri Lanka Friendship Association stall, architect Kozo Kondo, who feels a special affinity with Sri Lanka because of his parents’ visit to the island in 1929, was hosting a mini-exhibition of his photographs of Geoffrey Bawa’s architecture. Next year, the Friendship Association will travel around the island on a Bawa study tour.

Young Sri Lankans currently based in Japan turned out in force for the Saturday night concert at the festival. The Bathiya & Santhush Group was new to Tokyo but their energetic rhythms and multilingual style certainly got the audience moving. Pradeepa Samaraweera from Negombo, who is on a short study trip to Japan, was excited to see the group, and she happily explained Bathiya & Santhush’s songs to the Tokyo crowd.

Judging by the crowds at the weekend festival, estimated by embassy staff to have been over 100,000 by Sunday evening, the decision to hold this year’s festival turned out to be not only appropriate but much appreciated. Tokyoites have endured an uneasy summer with power conservation measures that have impacted on office hours and transportation systems, as well as a change of Government.

Festival visitor Seiko Morikawa, who came with her three-year old son, said that she had particularly enjoyed the friendly atmosphere and the chance to sample different kinds of Sri Lankan curries. “After today, I really hope I can visit Sri Lanka in the future,” she said.