Three months on from March 11, reports on the latest disaster-related news from Japan are no longer the lead stories in the Czech media. At the same time, as Czech scholar Petra Karlová notes, a recent Czech television series has been introducing viewers to the architectural ties that linked the two countries in the past.
Since April, reporting on the disaster in Japan has been on the wane in the Czech Republic. Even the nuclear disaster in Fukushima is no longer attracting the same interest as before.
Focus on EU-related News
On April 18, the Czech media carried reports that elevated levels of radioactivity had been detected in tealeaves imported from Japan since March 11. The headlines were sensational: “Radioactive Japanese Tea Heading Our Way!” But the content of the article itself was more subdued. Although radiation levels were higher than usual, the article said, they still posed no risk to human health. The very same day there was a report that radioactivity had been detected in the sheep’s milk in Slovakia—but this news failed to whip up the same sense of crisis provoked by the Fukushima disaster.
I was pleased to see that the Fukushima panic had calmed down and that the Czech media were beginning to report the facts more objectively. Even so, it would be nice if the Czech media would make an effort to take a broader perspective in the way they depict Japan.
No Czech journalists specialize in covering Japan. As a result, now that the initial flurry of excitement has died down, news stories about Japan are once again put together by compiling reports from the foreign media and translating them into Czech. This marks a return to the modus operandi that was in place before the disaster. Immediately after the disaster, there were some Czech media sites that ran special features on Japan, but by May the big stories were the civil war in Libya and the ice-hockey championships. Not surprisingly, the unfolding conflict in Libya seems closer to home for many Czechs than news of Japan’s recovery. It is likely to have a greater impact on the European Union. Also, the political situation within the Czech Republic itself is quite unstable at the moment, which makes it Czech reporters even less inclined to fly halfway across the world to report on recovery efforts in Tōhoku.
Japan-Related TV Series
Japan is not completely out of the public eye in Czech, however. Since late April, a six-part TV series titled Šumné stopy (“Lasting Impressions”) has been broadcast, introducing buildings designed by Czech architects active in Japan during the twentieth century.
Numerous foreigners played supporting roles in Japan’s modernization following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, including Czechs who were welcomed into the country to share their Western learning. Among them were several highly experienced Czech architects who achieved success in Japan after working in Egypt, the United States, France, and other countries.
The first episode looked at the architect Jan Letzel, who designed the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition building (completed in 1915), better known today as the “Atomic Bomb Dome.” A letter Letzel wrote to his mother after the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake has also survived.
The second show featured Antonín Raymond, who came to Japan as Frank Lloyd Wright’s assistant while he was working on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. He later branched out on his own, designing a number of buildings in Japan, including Saint Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo. Saint Paul’s Catholic Church in the town of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture is another example of his work, and reflects the stylistic influence of the traditional wooden houses in the town of Rožnov pod Radhoštěm in the northeast of the Czech Republic (see photo).
The series makes clear that Czech architects made a vital contribution to the development of modern Japanese architecture, even if relatively few of their buildings survive today.
Today, not many Czechs or Japanese are aware of the accomplishments of these architects. Now that the media has moved on from covering the disaster, I worry that people back home will go back to thinking of Japan as a faraway country. Perhaps familiarity with the “lasting impressions” left by these Czech architects in Japan will help to bring the two peoples closer together. These early twentieth-century architects have a message to convey to us today about how people can contribute to each other’s growth despite the geographical distances that divide them. (Written on May 12, 2011.)
In this Series
Insights from a Czech Scholar in Japan
Japan on Czech TV (May 12)
Personal Lessons in Conservation (May 10)
Bottled Up Feelings About Water (May 3)
The Downside to Japanese Self-Restraint (April 18)
Stay Strong Japan! You Are Not Alone (March 15)
Received an MA in Japanese and Vietnamese Studies and a doctorate in history from Charles University in Prague. Is now studying international relations at the Waseda University Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies. Dr. Karlová has a keen personal interest in Japanese culture, history, and martial arts.