Norfolk's special link with the Far East.

It has welcomed world-class academics and become a leading research centre. Matthew Knott, living in Norwich after six years in Japan, celebrates the 10th anniversary of Norfolk's special link with the Far East.

Looking East


It has welcomed world-class academics and become a leading research centre. Matthew Knott, living in Norwich after six years in Japan, celebrates the 10th anniversary of Norfolk’s special link with the Far East.

The names of Sir Robert and Lady Lisa Sainsbury are deeply embedded in Norfolk’s cultural landscape through the arts centre on the outskirts of Norwich.

But few, perhaps, are aware of another institute that they founded in the city just 10 years ago, that is helping to develop the county’s relationship with Japan and Asian art.

For many years the Sainsburys’ collected Japanese art, an obsession for which Lady Sainsbury has been honoured by the Japanese government. Their collection, of course, is housed in the inspiring Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, at the University of East Anglia.

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But in 1999, their generosity also led to the opening of the Norwich-based Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures (SISJAC). In the 10 years since then it has brought world-class academics to Norfolk, emerged as the leading research centre of its kind in Europe, and helped to enhance the city’s reputation as an outstanding centre of Asian arts.

It was the first such facility in the UK with the purpose of producing and inspiring innovative research in Japanese arts and is located in the stunning surroundings of the Cathedral Close in the heart of the city. There it operates as an independent charity, although it has forged fruitful affiliations with the UEA, the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies and the British Museum.

The SISJAC is primarily involved in research projects including art, cultural heritage, archaeology and Japanese literature in art, while hosting lectures and conferences.

It also houses the Lisa Sainsbury Library, an extensive range of books, journals, catalogues, slides, prints and maps, with many hugely important items from donations around the world, a goldmine for scholars of Japan.

The library is open to anyone for research, by appointment. Simon Kaner, assistant director of SISJAC, explained: “The European Association of Japanese Resource Specialists chose to hold its annual conference in Norwich in September this year, the first time that such an event has been anywhere in the UK. I think this represents an understanding that the library is something rather significant.”

An example of the global reach of SISJAC’s influence comes with the current exhibition being held in Japan’s Edo-Tokyo Museum, based on a survey of Japanese paintings and prints held in the Museum of Asian Art in Corfu, co-organised by SISJAC director Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, herself currently a visiting professor at the prestigious Tokyo University.Closer to home, the Third Thursday lecture series, inviting world scholars to speak in Norwich, has been very well received and represents SISJAC’s major contribution to the local art scene.

“I have constantly been amazed and delighted at the enthusiasm for these,” Mr Kaner says. “We are always sold out and are looking at ways of expanding capacity.

“We are hosting more events based on contemporary Japanese culture such as manga, and the audience is becoming increasingly diverse.”Each lecture is free for all to attend and – as the name suggests – held on the third Thursday of each month.

February 2010 marks a special 100th lecture anniversary. Additionally, the annual Toshiba Lectures invite one speaker to deliver three talks (two in London, one in Norwich) on a specific theme, with renowned museum curator David Elliott speaking at Blackfriars Hall on  November 3.

A SISJAC-inspired cultural feast will also soon be gracing the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Dogu are mysterious and enchanting prehistoric J�mon period (14,000BC to 400BC) ceramic humanoid and animal figures, and work to bring them to the UK has culminated in a current exhibition at the British Museum, coming to Norwich next summer. Mr Kaner promises that the event will be a lively, comparative affair featuring some 65 Japanese designated national treasures alongside similar pieces from the Balkans.

“We are working with contemporary artists to get modern interpretations and also bringing the famous goddess figurine from Grime’s Graves back to Norfolk for this exhibition to make a nice local and international focus.”SISJAC is an extension of the Sainsburys’ deep appreciation of Japanese art, and also their relationship with Norwich. An interest in established and emerging European artists was developed into a collection of world objects spanning thousands of centuries.

From the late 1960s, their energies were channelled into collecting Japanese works and, when looking for a university to house their items in 1973, they were eager that they be displayed together, and the spacious new campus of UEA was deemed perfect.

The donation was housed inside Lord Foster’s first major public building, an innovative design close to the River Yare that blends perfectly with its environments and creates an unusually airy and light atmosphere within.The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, which has been described as perhaps the greatest resource of its type on any British campus, now features Picasso and Bacon alongside ancient world arts, with the Japanese objects comprising of J�mon ceramics, Buddhist sculptures, hanging scroll paintings and lacquerware.

Artistic links between Norwich and Japan are further enhanced by Norwich University College of the Arts having working relationships with two similar institutions in Japan, a collaboration that produced the Locus Movements exhibition (a comparison of social and artistic trends) in Norwich earlier this year.

Meanwhile, grassroots connections between Japan and East Anglia were explored in the East Meets East project with a series of events at the Forum in Norwich during September. For studying, or merely appreciating, the arts of the orient, SISJAC is leading the way in making Norwich the place to be.

For further information about the Sainsbury Institute, its work, forthcoming events and the Third Thursday lecture series, contact 01603 624349 or visit