A Rare and Emotional Experience: A Conversation with Ben Suzuki
by Mayumi Hirano and Norberto Roldan
Mayumi Hirano (MH): I read that the first time you came to the Philippines was in 1979. Could you tell us a little bit about it?
Ben Suzuki (BS): My first encounter with the Philippines was a little bit strange, or not normal, because I visited Cagayan de Oro as a high school student to study for a short while at the Ateneo de Cagayan. Of course, we went through Manila, but I don't remember at all. After Cagayan de Oro, we moved to Davao.
My strongest memory of Cagayan de Oro was that it was where I first encountered globalized culture, like with Shakey’s Pizza and Tower Records. I came from a rural area in Japan so I had not experienced international culture.
I was also able to witness the romantic culture, the romantic mood in the Philippines. You would see people sitting along the street and they’re very relaxed, they would talk to each other and you would even see people playing romantic music on the guitar. I was so impressed by this romantic mood on the street. It was almost the 1980s and in Japan, we didn’t have this kind of atmosphere or community. So, this was also my first time to experience this kind of rich communication among the people.
MH: Before going to Davao and Cagayan de Oro, what kind of information did you have about the Philippines?
BS: I went there because I wrote an essay for a contest under the theme of the Global North-South divide or the so-called “Third World issue.” My school was a Jesuit high school and that’s why I was able to go to the Ateneo de Cagayan. At my school, we studied “the Third World issue,” and maybe this was also my first experience studying or knowing about Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, and their issues of poverty and economic disparity. I wrote a letter-style essay addressed to Filipinos of my generation. This was my first imaginary encounter with the Philippines. After I got the prize, I was able to go to Cagayan de Oro.
MH: Peewee, where were you in 1979?
Norberto “Peewee”Roldan (NR): In 1979, I had just gotten married. I got married on 28 December 1978 so, in 1979, I was trying to start a family with my wife. I had nothing to do with activism. I was not a practicing artist then. I was working in an advertising company.
When my wife got pregnant, she wanted to go home to Bacolod, where she’s from, and to give birth in Bacolod. When my daughter was born in 1980, I was given the opportunity to settle in Bacolod. I'm not from Bacolod but from Panay Island. Because of the martial law and political upheaval in the National Capital Region (NCR), I thought that it was best for me to move to Bacolod in 1980. I think it was in Bacolod that I first met you, Ben.
BS: In 1988 or 1989.
NR: Yes. You mentioned during your talk at the Visayas Islands Visual Arts Exhibition and Conference (VIVA ExCon) last year that the first time you heard about the Black Artists in Asia (BAA) was when you accidentally picked up our newsletter.1
BS: That was a really accidental encounter but there is a background to it. In the mid-1980s, the Negros campaign was very popular among the Japanese community. At the time, I was a university student and I was also interested in the Negros campaign. Negros Island had a very, very severe experience, so I had an interest in that. In terms of publications on Southeast Asia, Mekong — which still exists today — is a publishing company that was very active in publishing books on Southeast Asian countries and issues. They had a bookstore in Kanda which I would go to to look for secondhand books. It was there that I found the BAA newsletter. I still remember the image used on the newsletter because it was just scary, appealing, and evoking.
NR: Have you ever heard of the Japan Committee for Negros Campaign (JCNC)?
BS: Yes, of course. They’re very famous.
NR: They've done a lot of fundraising for Negros starting in 1985 and that was when the Negros poster was first published.2
BS: Yeah, the Negros campaign was at that time one of the most powerful movements for Japanese non-governmental organizations (NGOs). From that campaign, there were many NGOs that emerged. I was not involved directly with this movement, but I have several friends who supported or were involved in these NGOs and activities.
NR: Do you know Masahiko Hotta, a member of the JCNC?
BS: I have heard of the name, but I don't know him personally.
NR: He was maybe already in Negros when you visited some time in 1988 because, starting 1986, Hotta and some people from Bacolod started a company called Alter Trade.
BS: Alter Trade, yeah.
NR: So you must be familiar with muscovado.
NR: Because of the bad economy and famine, the small farmers in Negros were encouraged by the JCNC to plant their own sugarcane and process them into muscovado instead of milling them to create refined sugar. These muscovado products were sold by JCNC to Japan and Europe and Alter Trade still exists today.
I think Alter Trade is a very unique trading company because they removed all the middle men or the ones transacting the business between the sugar producers and the retail market. I think what Alter Trade did was good for the local farmers, because the local farmers had more to earn from the sugar that they were planting. But this is only a small portion of the sugar industry in Negros. Of course, the vast majority of the sugar plantations in Negros is still owned by the rich, and sugar is still being milled to be the refined sugar being sold in the world market. I've been trying to research more about JCNC but I don't think they have an active website. I am not sure if you have some connections with JCNC in Tokyo.
BS: Right now, I don't have strong connections. But before, yeah, I had connections not only with JCNC but also with the Japanese NGO Center for International Cooperation (JANIC) which emerged from the Negros campaign.
At that time, there was a young, emerging researcher and journalist who wrote about issues in the Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, by the name of Susumu Nomura. He wrote about the New People’s Army (NPA). From that book, I was able to study the political movement in the Philippines. I also remember, while I was in Bacolod, I attended a lecture in a gallery or house about the sugar situation, the peasants, the severe daily life, and also the alternative trade.
NR: There is a very strong solidarity movement in Japan that is very supportive of the underground movement here. I think it is a basic fact that the movement appreciates having big support in Japan.
BS: Yeah. Thinking about that, maybe we need to dig more deeply on this, because the relationship between movements in Japan and Negros was very important and many movements had emerged from it but there is not enough information and documentation about it.
NR: I think you would agree that the support of the Japan Foundation, Manila (JFM) is mostly concentrated within Metro Manila. May I know if you have started, or are about to start, a program to reach more regions like the Visayas?
BS: Yeah. As a matter of fact, when I first came to the Philippines as a Director in 2005, I was so shocked because, at that time, the activity of JFM was very, very limited. We didn't go outside Metro Manila. Actually, before I came here as the Director of JFM, I decided that part of my policy would be to go outside of Metro Manila. As soon as I came here to the Philippines, we started to expand our activities and I was able to go to the Visayas and Mindanao. I even reached Basilan.
NR: Basilan! Wow.
BS: I also went north, to Batanes. Currently, we have several projects in Panay Island. We are proceeding with a unique project regarding the Sugidanun, as you may know.3
BS: We have a project with the young Sugidanun communities in Iloilo to have a record, have it translated from Old Kinaray-a, and to even create a manga.
Also, another project I would like to explore is about artifacts or local products like piña or the piña production in Aklan. I want to make a bridge between Aklan and Okinawa because Okinawa has the bashō, the banana fiber. We need to explore and seek the cultural missing link between Okinawa and the Philippines.
NR: So you have already visited Iloilo. Have you visited other provinces in Panay?
BS: I have only visited Iloilo. I have never been to Roxas City or Capiz. I would also really love to go to Calinog.
MH: In 1992, during the VIVA ExCon which was held in Bacolod, Tatsuo Inagaki and other Japanese artists participated. I have been trying to find out where they got the information about VIVA ExCon so I talked to different people — and I'm sure you are familiar with this gallery called Lunami in Ginza, Tokyo — and [Emiko] Namikawa mentioned that it was through you that she learned about VIVA ExCon.4 Do you remember that?
BS: Oh? Yeah, I visited the Lunami Gallery very frequently, and I know Namikawa very well, because at that time it was very rare for an art gallery in Ginza to show artists from Asia or Australia.
NR: Maybe you mentioned something to her about Bacolod.
BS: Yeah, but I don't remember. Peewee, in 1991, you visited Japan for the New Art from Southeast Asia, right?5
NR: That was in 1991, yes.
BS: That exhibition was also very important for artists from Visayas. You and Charlie Co were featured.
NR: No, Charlie Co was not in that exhibition. Three artists were featured there: Roberto Villanueva from Baguio, myself, and then there was one from Luzon but I can't recall his name.6
But in 1992, Charlie Co, Dennis Ascalon, and I went to Tokyo.7 We went to the Lunami Gallery and Emiko Namikawa hosted a dinner for us.
MH: But that was after VIVA.
NR: Yes, that was after VIVA, so we still don’t know how the relationship started.
MH: Okay, so it remains mysterious still.
BS: I may have mentioned VIVA ExCon to Namikawa. Maybe I introduced VIVA ExCon or the BAA to Namikawa-san because, at that time, I was so surprised when I visited Bacolod.
MH: Yeah, there is a possibility. So your trip to Bacolod in 1988, was it your own personal trip?
MH: What drove you to visit?
BS: One of the main motivations was the strong impact made by the BAA newsletter. The scary drawing may have evoked or invited me to go to Bacolod. It was very emotional — it was a very rare and emotional experience for me.
MH: Whoa, that's amazing. It's the power of art.
BS: Of course that inspiration was a strong motivation but, as I told you, I was already interested in the situation in Negros Island. But how amazing is it to have seen that particular BAA newsletter issue in that bookstore, in Mekong?
NR: And who could have brought that newsletter to Japan?
1 The newsletter being discussed is Black Mail, the official organ of the Black Artists in Asia (BAA). The BAA published a total of four issues of Black Mail.
2 The “Negros poster” being referred to features a drawing by Seizo Tashima and was intended to promote a fundraising campaign for Negros Island. View the image here.
3 Golden Realms: Inheriting the Panay Sugidanun is a project by ThriveArt Projects supported by the Japan Foundation, Manila (JFM) under Yomu, their Asian Literature Project. For more information: thriveart.org/learn-about-how-to-keep-the-panay-sugidanun-alive-in-the-golden-realms-webinar-series/
4 Emiko Namakawa was the owner and director of the Lunami Gallery. The gallery eventually closed in 1998.
5 The exhibition being discussed, New Art from Southeast Asia 1992, toured Japan from September to December 1992 and not in 1991 as erroneously recalled in this conversation. For more information on New Art from Southeast Asia 1992: jpf.go.jp/e/publish/asia_exhibition_history/11_92_southeast.html
6 The Luzon artist being referenced is the late Edson Armenta.
7 In 1992, Charlie Co, Dennis Ascalon, Lilibeth La’O, and Norberto Roldan from Bacolod — along with Santiago Bose, Roberto Villanueva, and Kidlat Tahimik from Baguio — went to Japan to participate in the 2nd Lake Naguri Open Air Exhibition.
This interview was conducted via Zoom on 11 November 2021. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Tsutomu “Ben” Suzuki is the current Director of the Japan Foundation, Manila (JFM). He has been working at the Japan Foundation for more than 30 years and has dedicated himself to many cultural exchange projects between Southeast Asian countries and Japan. He was the Assistant Director of Japan Cultural Center in Bangkok from 1991 to 1994 and the Deputy Director of Japan Cultural Center in Jakarta from 1997 to 2000. His first term as Director of JFM was from 2005 to 2010. In Tokyo, he worked for the Asia Center and was in charge of multilateral cooperation projects in the fields of art, culture, academic, social innovation, grassroots, and sports.