Sakiko Sugawa

Social Kitchen’s building in Kyoto.

Social Kitchen is a small but industrious social and cultural center in Kyoto. Founded in September 2010, the center has initiated a variety of participatory projects, often involving local communities—from supporting emerging artists to selling rice, and from engaging citizens to participate in a mayoral election and raising awareness about nuclear energy to reading books on relational art. Here Social Kitchen cofounder Sakiko Sugawa talks about the origins of the project and some of its work.

SOCIAL KITCHEN BEGAN after five successful years of working on the project Kissahanare, a weekly underground café that we held on Monday nights at my home in Kyoto. Kissahanare was a social project rooted in sharing our everyday experiences, and after we felt that we achieved our goals—for example, to initiate a network of people across broad walks of life—we realized that we needed to tackle more universal issues. Social Kitchen is a place where people bring their own ideas to the table, and it differs from cultural institutions because there is no fixed relationship between those who organize/curate programs and those who participate in them. The results have all been pretty organic, and perhaps that’s because when a project starts, one person takes the initiative and other people simply back them up. Leaders change depending on the project.

We were, and still are, very frustrated with the lack of a public sphere in Japan in which individuals can come together to freely identify and talk about social problems and, in turn, create political action. Some Japanese people argue that the idea of a “public sphere” is merely a Western concept, and that Japanese society is better off without this direct, confrontational attitude. They say that Japanese culture has a different way of bringing individual, personal concerns to a political level. Perhaps this argument comes from an illusion or nostalgia for the formerly tight-knit communities that could be seen in Japan, even in urban cities. Today, in rural areas, this type of community still exists and “Japanese ways” of doing things could work. But in an urban environment like Kyoto, we don’t have that kind of community anymore; all we have are fragmented, isolated individuals, just like in any other globalized city. So, despite a wide range of criticism toward our somewhat utopian concept of public sphere, we still thought creating a public space was urgent and necessary in Kyoto. In this sense there is nothing unique about Social Kitchen as a public place. The ambitions behind its origins are very fundamental as well as traditional.

The activities of “Working Group 1: Earthquake and Nuclear Power Plant” in 2011 were really inspiring. But again, while Social Kitchen’s organizers made an open call to gather participants, the beautiful and complex results—the success of the project—should be credited to each member, and not to us. In the wake of the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster, a loose collective of citizens gathered at Social Kitchen to form the first “working group.” Participating members proposed and discussed ideas and put actions into practice over a one-year period. They have carried out activities with refugees from the Tōhoku region and volunteered at restaurants in the disaster area, among other things. They discussed, tried, failed, and succeeded with help from Social Kitchen staff members.

These activities eventually led to Working Group 1’s February 2012 exhibition about the Kyoto mayoral election, which conveyed critical issues including voters’ concerns about nuclear energy and set up opportunities to discuss how citizens are involved in the making of the city, and the meaning of democracy itself. While this leap from helping evacuees to organizing an exhibition on the city’s mayoral elections seems to be big, it made perfect sense to the group. With the help of a graphic designer, Takuya Matsumi, they gathered information in more critical detail than any Kyoto-based journalist, learned election-related laws, and created informational graphics, which presented important information to voters.

This is not a success story, but a story of the social and cultural center struggling very hard to exist and serve people in this world.