Archives for category: Bound in Japan

Not only is arts education a key predictor of adults’ attendance patterns; it has an even stronger relationship with adults’ levels of personal art creation or performance.
– National Endowment for the Arts Research Note #101 (February 2011)

I’ve lost count of how many Bound in Japan workshop participants told me that they can’t remember the last time they made something with their hands. And my heart nearly broke when one young woman confided that she had once wanted to be an artist but didn’t think it was possible. Instead, she studied law.

The above statement is from a recent research digest of three monographs on arts participation by the National Endowment for the Arts. The research was conducted in the United States, but the patterns discerned about individuals and their arts participation most likely hold true in many other countries. If someone was never introduced to the joy of creative expression as a child, how likely is that person to take the initiative to engage in such activities later in life?

The mission of Bound in Japan is based on two tenets: the importance of diversity outreach and the importance of arts outreach. The results of the diversity outreach aspect are more difficult to evaluate, but I can say with full confidence that as an arts outreach project, Bound in Japan was a success.

All the workshop participants clearly enjoyed themselves. You could see their eyes light up, the doors of possibilities opening in their minds. Part of it was due to the fact that they were making something with their own hands that was a form of personal expression. Part of it was due to their introduction to book art — an art form in which the art objects are intimately familiar and yet fascinatingly different.

And it wasn’t just the workshop participants. Traveling around Japan, I met a lot of people. Of course everyone wanted to know what I was doing in Japan so the conversation always turned to Bound in Japan and book art. I usually pulled out my copy of 500 Handmade Books and the other samples I carried with me because showing is much more effective than explaining. Once people understood what book art is, many of them expressed the desire to try their hand at it. Those are the kind of moments I live for — to inspire another individual.

My only regret is that I wasn’t able to reach out to more people. Initially, all the workshops were intended to be free to participants. It was a difficult decision to make. The majority of the immigrant population in Japan is employed in jobs with low wages; spending money on an art activity, no matter how appealing, is a luxury that few of them can afford. On the other hand, a “free” opportunity often leads to a lack of commitment and unreliable attendance. If you have to pay for something, it instantly becomes more valuable, more significant. If you pay for a class, you’re more likely to show up for it.

In the end, I did charge a nominal materials fee for the workshops. The amount was less than $10USD, but even that small amount was enough to discourage some people from participating. I saw that firsthand in Okayama where there are large Chinese and Brazilian communities.

Most of them are factory workers. Some of them might have thought that the Bound in Japan workshop was a worthy investment, but their irregular working schedules usually made it impossible to attend. If I had been able to remain in Okayama for longer, I would have liked to work with those interested to arrange a workshop that fits their schedule.

Because of such challenges, the actual participation by non-native residents did not accurately reflect the demographics of the immigrant population. In that respect, the project was not as successful. However, the positive results of Bound in Japan far outweigh any shortcomings.

During the past three years, I have often asked myself the question: Why am I doing this? There are as many reasons not to do such a project as there are reasons in favor of it. But I always come to the same conclusion: Action is better than inaction. Who would possibly complain that there are too many arts activities? In fact, I think that there are not enough.

As a project that aims to promote exchange and understanding, you may think that Bound in Japan workshops are full of chatter and exuberance. They sometimes are, but usually a better part of the day is spent in silence as participants concentrate on the task at hand. I am always awed by how absorbed participants become in the making of their books, especially as many will confess that they rarely make anything.

So when does the exchange part take place? Well, here is a brief description of how a workshop usually proceeds.

In the beginning we do introductions. I sometimes have participants introduce themselves. Sometimes I pair them up, have them converse, and then introduce each other. As most participants are local residents, their first connection is through place. Even if they did not know each other before, they occupy a common space and thus can identify with each other through similar experiences.

Once the bookmaking begins though, participants are so focused on their work that they don’t even take breaks. Their first break is most likely lunch, which we usually have together as we chat and eat. Some people are so loathe to stop that they actually work through lunch.

During the second half of the workshop, I like to encourage participants to take breaks, stretch, and have a look at what others are doing. This will usually lead to conversations that continue as the books progress. If there is time, we also have show and tell at the end.

I don’t know if the workshops have created lasting bonds among any of the participants. I will probably never know. However, the simple fact that they sat down next to someone different from themselves and opened up will be an experience they will always remember.

Sharing an experience can create a powerful connection, especially when it is a positive experience like the book art workshops. Even if they never see each other again, the conversations and stories shared will remain stretched between person and person, invisible threads woven into each person’s memory and history. And the next time they sit down next to someone of a different nationality or ethnicity, or simply someone from a different place, they may choose to open up to that person too.

Once they have crossed that threshold, the door always remains open.