A special "People-to-People" cultural exchange project between the EU and Japan was launched in Prague this week. It is an initiative which hopes to raise awareness of Japanese culture in the countries of the European Union. Various events will be held in the Czech Republic over the coming year within the framework of the project.
Koichi Takahashi, the Japanese Ambassador to the Czech Republic, is one of the people behind the exchange programme in this country:
"We in Japan now believe that the EU-Japan relationship is very important in strategic terms. I think there are lots of contacts and that we are getting to know each other better and better. But we still feel that Japan is not as well known in Europe as it is in the US and Asia. So that's the reason why we have taken this initiative."
In recent years, Europe has enjoyed closer economic ties with Japan. The EU now invests more money in Japan than the United States, and Japan is now the second-largest investor in the EU. These economic links have helped foster interest among Japanese and Europeans in each other's culture. 840,000 Europeans visited Japan in 2002 while 4.6 million Japanese visited Europe.
It is hoped that the cultural exchange programme will help provoke further interest in all things Japanese within the EU. Mr Takahishi thinks that the events organised in the Czech Republic will also help raise Japan's profile in this country:
"As far as the Czech Republic is concerned, we now have increasingly close economic relations. There are now 146 Japanese companies operating here. But I think the Czech Republic and Japan [also] have very long cultural traditions. And many Czech people are very interested in traditional Japanese culture. So [all of us] at the embassy think we would really like to utilise this opportunity to introduce what Japanese traditional culture, music and dance is."
Besides traditional Japanese music and dance, there will also be events focusing on other aspects of Japanese cultural life, including Japanese film and puppetry.
A number of sporting events, such as a football match between teams from Japanese and Czech villages, are also planned. According to Mr Takahashi, the Czech Republic might have a greater sporting affinity with Japan because - unlike most European countries - it has cultivated a somewhat surprising appreciation of the arts of Sumo wrestling:
"The Czech Republic - when it was Czechoslovakia - was the country that started honouring the winner of the Japanese Grand Sumo Championship with a beautiful Bohemian-glass trophy. This has been going on since 1971. Everyone in Japan knows this. Japanese people know that for 30 years the Czech Republic has been a country interested in honouring Sumo. After I came here I also found that there are two amateur Sumo associations in this country and Sumo is very popular here. There are also two authentic Japanese Sumo rings [in this country]."
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