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Ukraine tasting by Motohiro Ono

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A cultural bridge to Ukraine

Osaka author promoting exchanges between Slav country and Japan

Hoping to build a cultural bridge between Japan and the Ukraine, Motohiro Ono, head of the Japan-Ukraine Cultural Relations Society, recently published a book on his yearlong stay in the Slav country, which is largely unfamiliar to people in Japan, after quitting his job at a publishing company.

Ono of Yao, Osaka Prefecture, who studied Russian literature at Tenri University, said, "I hope through my book I can fill the gap between Ukrainians, who have a great love and respect for Japan, and Japanese, who know little about the Ukraine."

His book "Ukuraina Maru Kajiri" (Tasting the Whole Ukraine) describes his experiences in the country between January 2005 and January 2006.

"Some Japanese may think of the fatal accident at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl in April 1986. Others may think of the Orange Revolution, which resulted in Viktor Yushchenko's victory in the 2004 presidential election" he said.

"Or many may think of the country's soccer team, which reached the quarterfinals in the recent World Cup in Germany under its captain and great striker Andriy Shevchenko.

"Unfortunately, ordinary Japanese know virtually nothing about the country," Ono said, adding that in contrast Ukrainians love Japan and its culture.

Sushi is very popular in the country, although Ukrainians do not eat that much fish. Ono said: "I was surprised to learn there are more than 50 sushi restaurants just in Kiev. There are some in Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa and other cities." The number is surprising given that only about 140 Japanese reside in the country, according to Foreign Ministry data.

Fish for sushi is imported from the United States, and the rice is grown in California and Egypt. Among the sushi bars there, he found that the food was generally good.

"I was occasionally asked for advice by restaurant owners," Ono said. "I told one restaurant that it would be better to cook the rice softer."

He saw women wearing lacquer-coated chopsticks in their hair, and many young people wearing kanji T-shirts.

According to Ono, Japanese novels are also appreciated by Ukrainians, and those of Yasunari Kawabata, Soseki Natsume and other major Japanese writers were translated more than a half century ago. He said, "In addition, in recent years, works by younger novelists, such as Ryu Murakami, Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, have been translated into Ukrainian."

Japanese anime and manga are popular among teens around the world, and Ukraine is no exception, according to Ono. There is an anime and manga fan organization called Crystal Power, which was established in 1997. Ono was invited to their events during his stay in the country and asked to become an adviser.

"Members, mostly girls in their late teens, sang anime songs in Japanese at their cosplay (dressing up) events, although they weren't capable of having a conversation in Japanese," he said.

Ono was determined not only to learn about the country but also to provide more opportunities for Ukrainians to learn Japanese culture. So he organized Japanese cultural events there by taking advantage of the personal network he built while working at a publishing company.

In July 2005, with the help of a Ukrainian expert in Japanese culture, he held a traditional tea ceremony in Kiev by inviting a teacher of the Omote-senke school from Japan, who is a friend of Ono's mother.

About 30 people participated in the event, asking questions about the state of mind of Japanese when they drink tea and whether they are uncomfortable when in seiza (kneeling with the back erect).

He invited pianist Akiko Sakakibara in the same month and guitarist Moriyoshi Kuwata to hold concerts in October. In November, a rakugo event was also organized with help of Hayashiya Somejaku and Katsura Ayame.

Between late November and early December, Ono invited Shozo Shimamoto, one of key figures of the Gutai contemporary art movement in the 1950s and 1960s, to organize an art event.

At the event held in Kiev, Shimamoto carried out such art performances as smashing glass bottles containing pigment directly onto canvases and nyotaku, in which a nude woman painted in ink lies down on a sheet of Japanese paper, leaving a print of her body.

In early January, he took part in Japanese Culture Week, including lectures and the introduction of Japanese foods.

Ono said that these events attracted the attention of ordinary Ukrainians as well as the local media, "I was happy to see that many people are interested in Japan."

He was also invited to an hour-long national radio show to talk about Japanese foods.

Reading the Russians

Ono became interested in Russia and the Ukraine because his father studied Russian at a university.

"I've enjoyed reading Russian literature, especially Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novels," Ono said. His interests in Russian literature led him to Tenri University, where he studied the Russian language.

After graduating from the university, he continued studying in the country. While working for a publishing firm, he headed a group studying Russian and Slavic culture.

He learned that Kievan Rus', a state established in ninth century in Kiev, is the root of the three modern East Slavic nations: Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

As he approached 35, he felt it was his last chance to set out on a journey to satisfy his interests. "So I made up my mind to live in the Ukraine and work for better relationships between the two countries," Ono said.

He quit his job and headed for the country in January last year. He was helped by Prof. Ivan Bondarenko at National Taras Shevchenko University of Kiev, who had been an associate professor of Tenri University, to prepare for the trip and during his stay.

While visiting all 24 Ukrainian states, he was given a warm welcome by locals, and they frequently offered him hospitality at their homes, although they had just met.

"The Ukrainians are very friendly and love Japan and Japanese very much because they believe we have a sophisticated culture. However, the Japanese people's knowledge about the Ukraine is very limited. So I hope I can help Japanese get a better understanding of the country through my book," Ono said.

He has been busy giving lectures about his yearlong experience since returning from the country in January.

He recorded about 55 hours of footage on a digital video camera during his stay and is now working to produce a film on the country, which he expects to complete this year.

He established his own publishing firm, Dniepr Publishing, which is named after a river running through central Ukraine and loved by locals as the mother river.

Ono's book "Ukuraina Maru Kajiri," published by Dniepr Publishing, is available for 525 yen at bookstores.


Hiroyuki Ueba Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer  (Jul. 20, 2006)

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Last updated: 02/20/18