As director of the Institut Franco-Japonais du Kyushu, Matthieu is responsible for promoting French culture and language in Japan. Located in central Akasaka, the Institut is a hub of French culture. Offering language courses, a media library and an art gallery, it is a great resource for anyone interested in French culture and exchange programs. Passionate about French food and, having lived in Holland, Serbia and Hungary, Matthieu can confirm that the pastries in Fukuoka are just as good as in Europe – but often better presented! For more on French-Japanese cultural relations (and the juice on the best bakeries in town), read the full interview below and check out the Institut’s events here: www.ifj-kyushu.org/jp/
You’ve spent some time living abroad in European countries such as Holland, Serbia and Hungary. How did you end up as the Director of the Institut Franco-Japonais du Kyushu?
I studied Management at Bordeaux Business school before studying international relations and spent quite some time in central Europe, namely in Budapest and Belgrade. Working for Embassies you get sent around to many countries and after a while a position opened up in Japan. The Institute of Kyushu is, along with those of Kansai and Tokyo, one of the three Institutes of the French cultural network in Japan. They’re all under the authority and supervision of the French Embassy.
Can you give our readers a description of what you do and the philosophy behind the Institute you work for?
Primarily we promote exchanges between Japan and France. We support people interested in University exchanges and one way that we offer programs to study in France are through competitions. Anyone interested in French culture and the language should visit the Institute. Our French language courses are given by skilful and experienced teachers, who offer students a regular and responsive follow-up. But we also have courses, in Japanese, in touch with everything that has to do with the “art de vivre à la française”, such as gastronomy, wine tasting, art history, French cinema and music, etc. On top of that we also have a media library and a great art gallery that holds monthly exhibitions. The Institute also has many external events which are very good opportunities for people in Fukuoka to experience, see or taste a part of French culture, with diverse events such as concerts from the French music scene, special dinners or events in the field of performing arts. We also organize lecturers and experts to come and speak about their position on current societal topics (globalization, cultural exception, sustainable development, exchange programs, literature, etc.).
What are some up-coming events?
Coming up in October 2010 we have a whole cycle dedicated to Van Gogh, in connection with the great Van Gogh exhibition to be held in the Kyushu National Museum on January 1st and two more cycles on Monet and Chagall. We’ll also have a strong presence in Bookuoka, the Fukuoka book fair (starting from October 20th), with four writers visiting the city, and a great exhibition by Yoshihide Ishiyama, a wonderful painter that is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his coming back from France. It will take place simultaneously in Damairu and in our gallery.
France and Japan historically have an artistic relationship with each other, what do you think is now attracting people in Japan to French culture and vice versa?
You know, France is the leader in tourist destinations in the world and has been for a while. There are more than 80 million people visiting France a year! But the thing is, Japanese tourists go to France and what they see is the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph, Champs-Élysées, Le Louvre, and it’s possible that they think there is just one kind of culture and people from France. But really, there’s so much more! French people are so diverse and that’s one challenge we face. To engage people in the multi facets of French culture.
In terms of Japanese culture, the wave of interest has spread remarkably quickly in the world. When the Japan Expo (a showcase of Japanese popular culture) started in Paris 10 years ago, there were about 2000 people in attendance and now it has something like 200,000 visitors. It’s now the biggest Japanese cultural event in Europe and draws people from all over. But historically, people from the west were interested in the traditional arts such as Sumo, Ikebana, Kimono, Kabuki and Noh theatre. What used to draw the interest of French people to Japanese culture was a representation of beauty that was radically different from the western aesthetics, and specifically these differences were exciting and pushed them to study Japanese culture. Whereas now, on the contrary, many young French people identify themselves with the Japanese pop culture. The French teenagers that dress in Harajuku’s style do so, not because it’s exotic but because it’s funny, cool and even chic. Japanese culture nowadays carry universal values, shared from Hong Kong to New York. That’s probably the first time in its history that Japan has supplied people of other countries with a common culture.
With the expansion of the EU, have there been impacts on French culture and if so, how has the Institute adjusted to those?
We are the only representatives of Kyushu in the EU. We’ve been able to organize people from other European countries to come over and give lectures and next year there will be an EU Institute in the University of Kyushu. Our media library in this building also has a good European section which is open to anyone interested. But basically, the cultural identity of Europe is the unity in the diversity of its national cultures. It’s like a fabric whose threads have been knotted extremely tightly. To each of these threads corresponds a strong national culture with its own identity. What makes the incredible wealth of European culture is the unity of its multiplicity. The European cultures all take roots in the same past and each of them have had considerable influences on all of them. And I don’t think the expansion of the EU will change anything to it because it happened much earlier.
What are some of the key cultural differences and similarities between Japanese and French culture?
Both Japan and France have a long history of culture and they both seem to have a strong sense of keeping to their roots. Particularly, I think that both countries have a strong sense of culture through Gastronomy. Food is a very strong part of both Japanese and French culture. As for differences, even if Japan (and particularly Kyushu) had considerable historical influences through culture coming over from China and Korea, and then Europe of course, it’s still an island that regards itself somehow as having a unique cultural heritage, whereas French society (and therefore culture) is made of a succession of layer of immigrations (first European, then African). Look at the coming cultural program of the Institute: Van Gogh is Dutch, Chagall is Byelorussian, Dai Sijie (writer and director) is Chinese, Staff Benda Bilili orchestra is from Congo and so on…but they all decided to step foot and live in France. We try to build programs that reflect this diversity.
Tell us how your life has changed since you came to Fukuoka? Is there anything that you look at differently now?
I’m more relaxed. The quality of life here is very good and really relaxing. I love the beaches near Itoshima. The people are all law abiding citizens and they are patient. Everything is on time. Sometimes there feels like there is pressure to “Tatamise” as the French say, to… [gesturing with his arms] …to be like a Tatami mat, to fit in and be like others, but that seems to work very well here in Japan. Everyone here is very respectful and considerate.
What has been the most challenging obstacle for you to overcome during your time in Japan?
Knowing how to communicate with others especially at work. Sometimes it’s difficult because people don’t always say what’s on their mind so you have to guess. You also have to know how to act. That’s why I think that there are so many guidebooks for business people on how to do business in Japan. It’s a very important part of doing business in Japan that you don’t see in any other country.
What are some of the things you think that draw foreigners to Fukuoka and why would you recommend visiting/living here?
The lifestyle is great. Everything is convenient. I’ve heard people from Tokyo saying that taxi drivers in Fukuoka are really nice. As in most countries, the people from the South (ok from the south west for Fukuoka) are more welcoming, more talkative, more friendly in short. There are beautiful beaches, the food is fantastic, the shopping convenient, and everything is so close. Fukuoka is also well connected. It’s a major gateway to other countries. There are many flights going to many places in the world from Fukuoka, and the airport is so convenient. I think it is 13 minutes from here (Akasaka) to the airport terminal. It’s incredible! And of course, the rest of Kyushu, which is nothing short in terms of wonders, is very easy to reach.
What three things do you love about Japanese life and why?
I love that Japan is a land of contrasts. The other day I saw a man in a yukata with an uchiwa (fan) in one hand and a keitai (cell phone) in the other. Everything is the opposite. Japan and France are on opposite sides to each other, up-side down. But there are many things I like: the lift and toilet – clean what’s more – in the metro, the combini and taxis everywhere and working 24 hours (try to find any of those in Paris after midnight on a rainy day…), but the list is too long to be mentioned here. Generally speaking the kindness of people.
How do you enjoy spending your time assuming that you have time to spare?
I like to hop on my bike and cycle around. The beaches are so nice here. There are beautiful beaches around Itoshima.
Finally, most people remember the Japanese Iron Chef TV show which was the battle between chefs to see whose cuisine reigned supreme. Some of the top chefs on that show fused French and Japanese flavors. So, what I’d like to know is, if you couldn’t have both, which would you choose….. The onigiri or the croissant?
[Matthieu is without the slightest hesitation when he says:] A croissant. I love French food and you know it’s so easy to get quality French food here. There are so many French bakeries like Paul’s and Kayser’s, and Jacques for pastries, who by chance is our neighbour. Not to forget (we’re European after all) the famous Castella (Portuguese cakes) of Fukusaya, with whom we share our building. They have products exactly like in France and I find that the presentation of them here in Japan is often better. There are fantastic French patisseries and restaurants here. You can get French wine, French cheese, French champagne. Anything. Or rather, I don’t miss anything!
Check out the Institut’s events here: www.ifj-kyushu.org/fr
Hometown: Vichy, France
In Japan: 3 years
Identity: Director of the Institut Franco-Japonais du Kyushu
Interview and text by Veronica Ku
Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn142, Oct. 2010)