Culture and the arts have been dealt a major blow amid the coronavirus crisis. In the fields of music, theater and traditional performing arts, where artists perform in front of audiences, the cancellation of performances and restrictions on seat numbers have dragged on, and it has been difficult for many artists to continue their activities.
The situation began to improve last fall, but with the current spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, the future remains uncertain.
When authorities in Japan called for people to refrain from going out, there were moves to label the arts and culture as being "unnecessary and nonurgent." But artistic works, which move people, give them hope. As such productions fade, we are reminded anew of their irreplaceable existence.
At the same time, there have been signs foreshadowing the arrival of a new age. One event that reinforced this was the International Chopin Piano Competition. From the preliminary stage through to the final, the performances were livestreamed, enthralling audiences around the world.
The fact that an environment has been established where music streaming can be enjoyed amid the coronavirus was a significant factor in this. Art became a force to break through the feeling of stagnation amid the pandemic.
In the competition, Japan's Kyohei Sorita tied for second place, the highest level a Japanese pianist has achieved in the competition in 51 years. His activities going beyond the scope of a pianist have garnered attention.
In response to the coronavirus crisis, Sorita quickly commenced online fee-based distribution of his performances, and last year, he converted his orchestra into a limited company. Both of these initiatives support the lives of young musicians. He also has the dream of creating a music school where budding artists from across the world can come to Japan to study.
Behind his moves lies a sense of crisis about the future of the world of classical music, whose audiences are aging. How can classical music's appeal be conveyed to young people belonging to the smartphone generation who don't read books or even watch TV? It is indeed a matter for consideration.
Japanese pianist Hayato Sumino, 26, didn't make it to the final of the competition, but he achieved a record high number of live viewers for his performance. He is a popular YouTuber with some 900,000 registered users. Members of the younger generation who actively use social media to deliver content will be the leaders of change.
Meanwhile, there are moves to reconfirm the value of real locations where artistic works are produced.
Last summer, the Honda Theater Group, which has eight performance bases in the Shimokitazawa district of Tokyo, opened a new theater in Tokyo's central Shinjuku area. General manager Shinichiro Honda explained, "People will gather because there's a theater. It will boost the appeal of the city."
As a desperate measure amid the pandemic, the group livestreamed performances from venues without audiences. This had the benefit of retaining audiences and opening a path to fans from distant areas. However, the group is still focused on providing enjoyment in real life.
People's efforts to support young artists and the entertainment industry are encouraging, but raising the level of the industry as a whole through such efforts alone is difficult.
English economist John Keynes, who was deeply involved in supporting the arts in the United Kingdom, placed artists above scientists and businesspeople. This came from the idea that the arts have the potential to improve society, and are of a highly public nature.
To back such new moves amid the coronavirus crisis and protect diversity of culture, public support is also necessary.
A speech by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel drew attention. In May the year before last, while she was still in office, she said culture expresses us and our identity. Her belief became manifest in generous measures including emergency support for artists.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, meanwhile, made merely a passing mention to strengthening support for local culture and arts in his policy speech after assuming office.
Theater director Tadashi Suzuki, who has delivered theater performances from Toyama Prefecture to the world, pointed out that amid the pandemic, which he says has "weakened not only the body but the mind" arts and culture are an "antibiotic for the mind."
For the industry to make a recovery in Japan, the central and local governments need to hammer out policies for the post-pandemic era. Supporting the arts supports people and society -- this is the kind of consciousness that is required.
In the 21st century, the world is facing various difficult issues, from terrorism to natural disasters, refugee crises, climate change, discrimination and poverty.
Through culture and the arts, people's thoughts turn toward the circumstances of others and the future of humanity. They also no doubt help people find the paths they should choose.
The arts soothe people's hearts. At the same time, they cultivate the power of knowledge to make it through difficult times. We hope this year is one in which the importance of the arts is reaffirmed.