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How to cook up a Japanese film festival

Tomoko Kaji copyright Natasa Ahacic

Last updated: 8th March, 2020

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. This year we travel back to the past, to the time of the silent cinema. Dramedy Talking the pictures is a movie about benshi, the typically Japanese commentators that used to explain the silent movies during the performance.

Shuntaro dreams of becoming a benshi, but his career takes an unexpected turn

The lovers of Japanese thrillers and horror should book two nights for bloody splatter and slashing sounds: First Love (Friday, 20/03) tells a story of a young boxer who saves a callgirl and they both get involved in a messy yakuza story. It Comes brings a hefty dose of horror and gore on your Saturday night, as a family tries to protect their 2-year-old daughter from a dark entity.

The programme also brings two documentaries (one about the architect behind the new Paris stock exchange building and the other about a Japanese art centre, with a similar mission like the Gent’s Dr Guislan Museum), a comedy about rivalry between Tokyo and rural Saitama, and a movie about the year 1969 when the enfant terrible of Japanese cinema, Koji Wakamatsu, decided to film the first Japanese porn movie.

Japanese food has always been one of the top attractions of the festival. Several movies come with a food combi ticket and sadly, many have been sold out. If you manage to grab a ticket for the opening night film, the reception afterwards will feature mini sake tasting with some sushi. There are also still some availabilities for the Thursday night ramen dinner. Hurry up!

There is even a special programme for children: a selection of 12 animated shorts by the students of Tama Art University in Tokyo, followed by a crafty afternoon in the Skoop Café.

The closing weekend has a slightly nostalgic tint. On Saturday night we follow Kaoru Yusa who reminisces of his student times while on a business trip to the town where he used to study. The Landlady will be presented by the director herself, Sacha Hamano. The Ballad of Narayama closes the festival. This classic from 1983 won Palme d’Or in Cannes and tells the story of a Japanese village in 19th century, where everyone over the age of 70 had to be brought up into the mountains and left to die.

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 18th to 22th March, 2020 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 website of Studio Skoop.

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.

Author: Nina Jere

Guest author
Guest authors are expats and Gentenaars who enjoy spreading the word about Gent to the world. If you'd like to join us, contact us at

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