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Global Japan
JUL 27, 2012

Inside Japan: Passion for Culture and Art as a Force for Societal Impact

By Dr. Adam Kassab, With Soraya Umewaka
Soraya Umewaka

Dr. Adam Kassab interviews award-winning filmmaker Soraya Umewaka on her views of culture, consumerism, and the power of the arts to influence society.

AK: Can we start by you telling me a little about yourself?

SU: My father is Japanese and my mother is Lebanese, and I was born in Japan, in Tokyo. I’ve lived here most of my life. I was in the U.K. from the age of 7 to 11, and then I went to the U.S., Princeton, upon graduation from high school. From the U.S., I went to Brazil, and then I came back to Japan to work here for a bit. I’ve also filmed extensively in Lebanon.

AK: Wow. Amazing. So you’re kind of a global citizen.

SU: I try.

AK: Would you say Japan is your home?

SU: I like to be based here, but I’m interested in living in many cities around the world. As long as I have my computer and my video camera, I can be anywhere.

AK: There’s that song that says, “Wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home.” You grew up here and you’ve traveled around quite a lot. When you come back, have those experiences of visiting different countries changed the way you see Japan?

SU: Whenever I come back to Japan, I always feel like I’m re-seeing the country. When I came back from Brazil, it felt refreshing that I didn’t have to always watch my back. In Lebanon, things don’t necessarily work all the time. In Japan, it’s nice that you don’t have to worry about your plans not being implemented. I appreciate that things work here and that infrastructure is solid.

AK: I know you’re very interested in creative arts and so on. Could you compare what you see in Japan to other creative cultures?

SU: Each artist tries to incorporate into his or her artwork what concerns him or her. So for example, in Lebanon, I noticed the political situation did affect, quite a bit, the artists’s work. And that’s the main topic of my Lebanese documentary: how the political instability affects the artwork of these artists. In Japan, I’m not sure how politics affects their artworks.

AK: Can you talk a little bit about the job you do in terms of your aim and passion?

SU: Sure. I make documentaries. I’ve been making documentaries ever since I was in university. My first documentary was in Afghanistan in the first year of my university. It was very short. I made my first mid-length documentary during my third year of university. And when that was selected at film festivals around the globe, then that’s when I thought, maybe I can make a living from making films.

Making documentaries is what I really enjoy doing. I enjoy the whole process, from the research to the filming and the editing, and then having people view the documentary and having discussions about it. Then I use them as tools to raise funds that can go back to the people in the film, or the community.

AK: You did that for the dancer in I Am Happy, if I remember right?

SU: Yes the dancer is now studying to become a nurse, which is something he always wanted to be. So a group of friends in Brazil raised funds for his scholarship. Through screenings, funds were raised to teach youths in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro art and music classes. It became a community initiative led by the graffiti artist in the documentary.

AK: What do you think makes your documentaries special? What is their appeal?

SU: I enjoy exploring intimate portraits of people and finding a connecting thread. What I usually like to do is show stories that are not usually covered in the news.

So, for example, the Lebanese documentary: a lot of news coverage is on terrorism and religious fanaticism. That’s why I wanted to explore Lebanon through the eyes of artists.

With the documentary in Brazil, there’s a lot of negative media about those who live in the favelas. So that’s why I wanted to focus on a more balanced picture of what actually happens there, and . . . just ordinary people’s lives.

I like to focus on creative cultures and the dignity of people. I also want to challenge people’s misconceptions using my documentaries. So a lot of people ask me about Lebanon. You know, “Are the women veiled?” It’s hard to know what happens in a certain country if you don’t go there. So not everyone has a chance to travel to all these different countries.

AK: Amazing. So you like to raise people’s awareness.

SU: Yeah. I want the documentaries to create a space for discussion.

AK: If you were given a huge budget, would you want to make a film, a full movie, or something completely different?

SU: I do enjoy making documentaries. If someone asked me to make a fiction film, I would. It would take some time, but I find reality fascinating. A lot of people have very unique stories. I enjoy seeking out those stories.

AK: Where do you see yourself in five, ten years down the road?

SU: I want to continue documentary filmmaking, but I’d also like to use my documentaries as educational tools. Sometimes I have screenings at universities, schools. And sometimes I lead documentary workshops where have students make their own documentaries, Maybe I could teach courses on documentary filmmaking.

AK: What cultural advice would you have for people thinking of moving their personal or professional life to Japan?

SU: Well, I think you have to really listen carefully when you’re in Japan. A lot of people won’t say no to your face. You have to be aware of the different signs of the word “no.” In certain cultures, it’s really important to have an opinion, but I think in Japanese corporate culture, people really make an effort to maintain harmony.

AK: So it’s more just about keeping everyone happy?

SU: Well, no. Actually, good ideas are always welcome. But there’s always a time and place for strong opinions.

AK: Do you feel yourself changing when you go to Lebanon, or go to Brazil, or elsewhere?

SU: Yeah. You have to adapt. I mean, in the U.S., if you don’t state your opinions, they think that you don’t have any. In Japan, if you always come up with opinions, they might think you’re boasting. It’s very different.

AK: Can you share something you love and something you wish you could change about Japan?

SU: The gap between the rich and the poor is not so large in Japan. Almost everyone receives a decent education. And it’s safe. That’s what I love the most. Everything works.

And something I wish I could change? I guess it might be changing now, but I know that the voice of young people who enter businesses are not necessarily heard; their opinions don’t count so much. You really have to work yourself up. And it’s not really about your qualifications or your opinions. It’s about how long you’ve been in the company. I don’t know if someone like the founder of Facebook would thrive in Japan.

AK: OK. And very last question. Do you have any kind of message to our audience?

SU: That’s a hard one. I would say do your best to be an entrepreneur who thinks about sustainability. So, you know, there is a lot of focus on creating goods, products and all of that, to get ahead of the game. But at the end of the day, it would be great if entrepreneurs really think of the sustainability of our planet, the resources of our planet, and understand the limits of consumerism.