October 14, 2021
Community Spotlight: Meet Courtney Ozaki, Founder of the Japanese Arts Network - A resource for artistic collaboration and connection through Japanese-American & Japanese cultural arts
Founded in 2018 by creative producer and cultural consultant, Courtney Ozaki, the Japanese Arts Network (JA-NE) is a national resource for artistic collaboration and connection providing access to resources and development programs and platforms that support and strengthen visibility for Japanese and Japanese-American artists in Colorado and nationally. Community and connection are at the heart of JA-NE, and the organization has collaborated and partnered with local arts organizations such as Cleo Parker Robinson Dance and Warm Cookies of the Revolution, to produce programming that shares and amplifies the stories and experiences of BIPOC communities. I had the wonderful opportunity to connect with Courtney and discuss her passion for the arts and how JA-NE celebrates the diversity and intersectionality of arts and culture.
Hi Courtney! How have you been doing?
I’ve been doing well, thank you! I’m grateful every day. It’s a period of transition for me as I’m moving back into managing the Japanese Arts Network and creative producing full-time again… so that comes with great excitement as well as unique challenges.
How did your connection to the arts begin?
We had a piano in the house I grew up in that belonged to my mother, which she herself grew up playing in her family home in North Denver, so I asked if I could start learning to play around the age of six. I also began learning the art of taiko (Japanese drumming) from my aunt and uncle (Nancy Ozaki and Gary Tsujimoto of One World Taiko) alongside my cousins when I was eight years old. When we grew a little bit older, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to perform with our aunt and uncle as “special guests” at Disney World’s Epcot Center in the Japan Pavilion for a couple of summers.
I grew up in very music, theater, and arts-loving household, and my parents supported my interest in and love of the arts from an early age - they invested in piano lessons and ballet classes, drove me to taiko practices, and made sure I had access to as many opportunities as possible to experience live arts at institutions like the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. They always encouraged my creative and cultural exploration. I also grew up watching music television like Kids Incorporated and the Mickey Mouse Club, aspiring to sing and dance like Jennifer Love Hewitt and Deedee Magno (from The Party) like many other ’80s and '90s kids… haha...
What inspired you to found the Japanese Arts Network? Could you share more about the organization and its mission?
Japanese arts have been integral to my life from an early age – as I mentioned, I started playing taiko (Japanese drums) at eight years old. Taiko allows me to connect on a deeper and more intrinsic level with my Japanese heritage and culture. I continuously explore how taiko and other Japanese arts may more universally connect people, cross boundaries, and create opportunities for intersectional collaboration between traditional and modern art forms and cultural communities of the global majority. Beyond playing taiko, I have always been around Japanese arts which are integral to my cultural identity as a third and fourth generation Japanese American, whether attending the annual Denver Cherry Blossom Festival and exploring breathtaking ikebana and bonsai displays and watching multiple generations sing, dance, and demonstrate martial arts on-stage, or dancing traditional folk dances during our “Obon” season in the fall honoring ancestors and loved ones who have passed, I have always been surrounded by Japanese cultural arts.
I recognized the need for something like the Japanese Arts Network to exist after I moved to NYC and earned my MFA in Performing Arts Management from Brooklyn College; I pursued this opportunity to build a foundation of knowledge and grow my skill sets so I could return to Colorado to have a meaningful impact locally on this community that raised me and the art which serves it. My time in NYC helped me to expand my global views and to consider more seriously how I might best contribute to the arts and broader Japanese communities in America. I also started to realize that my cultural identity might be a professional barrier that I hadn’t realized existed. As I evaluated the noticeable lack of Asians in higher-level executive positions within arts institutions, I also saw noticeably less on-stage visibility for Asian performers apart from supporting and stereotypical roles.
Several years into being back in Colorado, I dove into serving on Boards for Japanese community organizations and soon after started the Japanese Arts Network. Given my experience in multiple arts fields, many artist friends and colleagues both from within and outside of the Japanese continuum had been reaching out to me to inquire about connecting the art of Japanese people in America to broader audiences. The voices of Japanese and Asian artists in America are marginalized and often categorized or placed into “cultural” stereotypes in order to check proverbial boxes instead of being recognized for the value and artistic merit of their work. The Japanese Arts Network (JA-NE) centers these artists and provides opportunities for them to share their lived experiences through art and self-expression while being paid in an equitable way. JA-NE is a national resource for artistic collaboration and connection; we aim to lift up and support Japanese Artists in America, connecting them to collaborators, stakeholders, and audiences with cultural intention by bringing communities of diverse backgrounds together into spaces that center the arts where they are able to gather, learn and grow.
What are some of the programs or educational resources that JA-NE offers to the community?
JA-NE develops programs and educational resources as the opportunity or needs show itself. We most recently are working on a Five Points neighborhood mapping audio and art installation tour for which we are collecting Stories of Solidarity between cultural communities in Denver through oral histories captured from former or current residents of Five Points who either identify as Japanese or have had a memorable connection to the Japanese community. Just as with our previous audio/visual/tactile immersive driving experience, ZOTTO, our aim is to share pieces of history that are lesser-known or have been forgotten which may help to bring disparate communities together and carry forward the history by passing it along to future generations. We also work as cultural consultants and conduits for anybody who is seeking to learn more about Japanese culture and/or to integrate it into the work that they are doing - for example, we are excited to be involved with Musa Bailey’s upcoming Samurai Stop-Motion Puppetry short film, Assassin with Son, as a cultural consultant.
Can you tell us about your cross-cultural work in the community? (collaborating with the local arts community like the Black Actors Guild and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance) Why is this important?
Our communities and lives are all interdependent and interconnected. Working together through collaborative creation and partnership allows us to support one another and recognize our intersectional humanity, while also encouraging us to learn from and be inspired by our differences. During the height of the pandemic last summer, and somewhat soon after the killing of George Floyd, I sought within myself to understand how I could support a community that was grieving, and financially, emotionally, and mentally distraught. We produced ZOTTO as a safe way for anybody to be able to get out of their houses, enjoy art, and also learn some important historical background about Denver which isn’t often shared. When casting for the production, we immediately thought to reach out to the Black Actors Guild because we highly respect their actors and wanted to support their organization and the great community work they do. Our main character for ZOTTO did not have a set gender or racial ethnicity, the goal was for the audience to be able to embody the character themselves on this supernatural journey through historic Denver.
I have loved working with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance (CPRD) over the past several years - Cleo is such a beautiful cross-cultural connector herself! She recognized that the Japanese community has long been a part of Denver and knowing that I was Japanese and a taiko artist invited me in 2019 to share elements of Japanese New Years' celebrations with CPRD audiences during her annual Granny Dances a Holiday Drum production. I enjoyed working with the very talented Christopher Page-Sanders and the young CPRD company dancers to bring to life a Japanese “Shishi-mai” lion, and I taught the two main characters of the show, ‘TiSean’ and ‘Nikia’ how to play a traditional taiko rhythm to accompany the festival dance. I’ve also taught taiko and ‘odori’ folk dance at the CPRD International Summer Dance Institute for several years, which has been a joy.
Our community is increasingly multi-racial with each generation, and it’s important that we appreciate and learn about many cultural traditions and perspectives to build trust and understanding amongst one another. There are many values and principles that are present throughout Japanese culture and other cultural artforms that I feel have opened my mind and heart, and have dispelled pre-conceived cultural biases - I hope that these opportunities can do the same for the broader community.
Amplify is a digital publication initiative of the Japanese Arts Network. Can you share what Amplify is about and what type of content is featured in the publication?
Amplify is a multi-platform media project that intends to uplift Japanese artists in America from beyond the margins by giving them space to share what is important to them - and sharing their inspiring stories and perspectives with broader audiences. We believe that art should be valued for its vital contribution to society, and so should the many talented artists and creatives who make art happen. We are proud to connect these inspiring humans to the public through monthly ‘issues’ of our Amplify blog, featuring a new Japanese identifying artist each month and providing a deep-dive into different areas of interest related to that artist, their creative process, and how they identify. We also are producing conversational interview episodes with each featured artist on our YouTube channel with a series called “Everything Goes with Rice” and a podcast (coming soon) featuring and highlighting conversations with and dialogue between featured artists.
What’s on the horizon that you’re excited about?
In addition to next June’s Stories of Solidarity Five Points project, we have several other partnerships we’re looking forward to February, JA-NE will partner with Denver Young Artists Orchestra to perform two pieces for taiko and orchestra, and in April we look forward to partnering with History Colorado Center on an art exhibition centering the Asian diaspora in Colorado and our relationships to food and culture.
How can we stay connected?
To learn more and connect with JA-NE, contact Courtney at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also visit their Patreon page for those interested in being more deeply engaged in the work of the Japanese Arts Network.