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How to cook up a Japanese film festival

Tomoko Kaji copyright Natasa Ahacic

Last updated: 11th March, 2019

About 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.

Japanese buffet Gohan
Delicious Japanese buffet by Tomoko and Miho ©Gohan

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).

Festival buzz

The opening night always brings a special combination: a Belgian premiere of a new Japanese movie, carefully selected by the festival team, with a ‘sake-and-sushi’ opening reception afterwards. The critically acclaimed Dear Etranger tells a story of a modern Japanese patchwork family: 40-year-old Makoto deals with his second wife’s second pregnancy, a troubled teenage step daughter, estranged ex-wife who also cares for her dying husband – and there’s trouble at work as well.

Yukiko Mishima

The director of this family drama, based on a novel by Kiyoshi Shigematsu, Yukiko Mishima will be present at the screening, so this is definitely not to be missed.

The lovers of Japanese thrillers should book three nights for the typically gory and detailed crime stories: Day and Night talks about a son of a whistleblower who returns to his village to discover the full story of his father’s death. The Blood of Wolves is a yakuza-thriller in which two detectives investigate a disappearance in the Tokyo underworld, and Killing is a samurai story of revenge and madness, set at the end of the Edo period.

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 thrillers on a Friday night out?

There is even a special programme for children after the Saturday matinee of Hanakappa, including workshops on making origami and animated films. The film about the Japanese mythical creature kappa is subtitled in English and starts at 14h15. After the workshops, Chieri and Cherry is a movie about a young girl who finds comfort with her stuffed bunny after the death of her father (suitable for children over 7yo, English subtitles).

If you prefer the more lyrical side of the Japanese cinema, Eating Women tells a story of Atsuko, an essay writer, who brings together her female friends around good food and a warm chat. The perfect movie for Sunday afternoon is Mori, the Artist’s Habitat, in which we follow the final years of artist Morikazu Kumagai, who focused on observing the microcosm of his backyard – something which was threatened by the growing metropolis surrounding his home.

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.

Japan Square Film Festival team
The festival team, happy after another successful event ©Japan Square

The Japan Square Film Festival takes place from 20th to 24th March, 2019 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.

Would you like to join the fantastic team of Japan Square Film Festival as a volunteer? You can find their contact info on their website and Facebook page.

Nina came to Ghent many years ago via several other countries, ditching the big city lights for the towers and rivers of Ghent. She has lived in Vienna, Cantabria (Spain), Maastricht, Luxembourg and Brussels. Now she enjoys creating beautiful design, exploring space and talking to people. She is also on a mission to make Ghent and Belgium more welcoming to expats. You can contact her at

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