Last updated: 7th March, 2018
Almost 10 years ago, Tomoko Kaji found herself at the opening night of the budding Japan Square film festival in Ghent. Even though she had heard about the festival from her husband, renowned Japanologist and festival collaborator Luk Van Haute, she didn’t know what to expect.
She was so impressed with the work of the dedicated team of Japan-loving volunteers that she decided to join them. Several years later, she has the title of Programming Director: she helps select the films and is the main contact point for Japanese cinema and distribution companies.
From Osaka to Ghent
But how did a girl from Osaka end up in Ghent? “When I was living and working in Osaka in the 1990’s, I realised that I wanted something else from life. I wanted to change my career and I wanted to experience living in another culture,” Tomoko says. Following her sister to Europe seemed the obvious choice. But the UK was too expensive and Tomoko started thinking of alternatives.
It was her Dutch teacher that suggested going to Belgium. At the time, a Flemish Cultural Centre was operating in Osaka and Tomoko was taking language courses there. She became good friends with her teacher, followed her advice and ended up in Leuven in 1998 to study Dutch.
And what brought her to Ghent? Once again, Ghent proves to be the city of love: while still in Japan Tomoko met Luk, who lived in Ghent. So after a year in Leuven she continued her studies at the University of Ghent and has been living here ever since. She found a job at the Belgian headquarters of the Japanese translation company Yamagata, which is also the main sponsor of the film festival.
Is there something she misses from Japan? “The seasons!” comes her fast reply. “I really miss clearly defined seasons. And fast, reliable and punctual trains. And I wish we had the convenience of being able to buy things 24h a day here, like in Japan. I always have to plan my shopping in advance.” On the other hand, she enjoys how Ghent is a perfect fit for her: it is cosy, the perfect size and has many nice people!
Japanese community in Ghent
There are about 50 Japanese people living in Ghent. Such a small community means they mostly know each other and are happy to help each other out. “A lot of Japanese men come here with their wives who need to find their way around Belgian culture and administration, and I’m happy to help them,” Tomoko explains.
Once a year, Tomoko organises a new year’s reception for the Japanese community to give everyone a chance to get together and enjoy some delicious Japanese food. Speaking of which …
Taste of Japan
… it turns out that Tomoko is also a professional chef in her free time. Together with friend Miho they run the Japanese catering business Gohan, bringing a taste of the Far East to Ghent.
So Tomoko must have been a hobby cook all her life, just waiting to go professional? “Not really. Imagine – I’d never made sushi before I left Japan!'” she laughs.
It was only when she came to Belgium that Tomoko realised that cooking her favourite Japanese dishes is also a delicious way of keeping the bonds to home alive. She enjoys cooking for large groups of friends and when more and more people started asking her to cook Japanese food for them, the step to starting her own business seemed obvious.
What has started as a small side business of two food-lovers and friends has grown beyond the borders of Ghent: Flemish street food-chef Tom Vandenberghe contacted Tomoko and Miho with an idea for a Japanese version of his popular global street food book series. Together with a photographer, the team spent a week in Tokyo exploring the diversity of Japanese cuisine and the result can be admired in the book Tokyo Street Food (also available in Dutch).
The opening film this year is the acclaimed Her Love Boils Bathwater, in which a terminally ill mother decides to put the lives of her family in order before she departs. In the final two months of her life, the determined Futaba chases down her estranged husband, builds up her daughters’ self-esteem and breathes new life into the family-owned bathhouse.
The lovers of gore and bright colours should head out on Thursday to Tokyo Vampire Hotel, an apocalyptic story of a war between two vampire clans. Friday is for the lovers of writer Haruki Murakami: the ode to translators of his works, Dreaming Murakami, sounds like a perfectly poetic start of the weekend.
The Gohan team will of course once again take care of the audience’s tummies. For example, the opening night reception will feature mini sake tasting with some sushi. And why not slurp some yakisoba noodles before enjoying the bloodsucking monsters on a Thursday night out? Or grab an onigiri before the Friday performance.
There is even a special programme for children: on Saturday afternoon a 60-minute series of shorts selected by the renowned Tama Arts University will be followed by workshops on making origami and animated films. The short films have been selected so they don’t require language knowledge to be understood, and are suitable for children above the age of 4.
Saturday night will start with a thriller about an unsolved series of murders that haunt detective Makimura – Memoirs of a Murderer is actually a remake of a South-Korean movie, so definitely not for the faint-hearted. For a less violent closure of the festival, enjoy the Sunday afternoon in the company of 11-year-old Tomo (Close-knit) who finds a warm home in an unusual community of her uncle’s house after her mother abandons her.
Make sure to follow the Facebook page of the non-profit organisation behind the film festival Japan Square: between the festivals they sometimes organise additional activities, like Japanese whiskey tasting.
The Japan Square Film Festival takes place from 14th to 18th March, 2018 at Studio Skoop. Most of the films have English subtitles. The full programme of the festival with the possibility to reserve your tickets can be found on the festival website.