Art in the (Japanese) Social Sphere – Bound in Japan

Thien-Kieu Lam is an artist who is producing Bound in Japan. Bound in Japan is a community book art project that aims to promote awareness about diversity in Japan and enhance intercultural understanding by engaging native and non-native residents in the creation and sharing of book art. Below is Kieu’s story of her relationship with Japan and the motivation behind Bound in Japan. Learn more about the project at

Japan, quite frankly, was an unexpected twist in my life. As an ethnic Vietnamese American who graduated with a degree in fine arts and a second major in Mandarin Chinese, I certainly had my sights on Asia, but Japan was always on the periphery. Japan didn’t really register on my radar until I was a college senior facing that daunting question mark: THE FUTURE. I had always dreamed of living abroad, and one day a friend suggested that I apply for the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. I did and it was a fateful decision. It was the beginning of a lifelong relationship.

After three years of teaching English in Kagoshima and four years of working at the Embassy of Japan in Washington, DC, I’m ready to take this relationship to a different level. I’m going back to my roots—the arts—and crossbreeding it with social activism.

My parents are immigrants. I know very well the kind of challenges my parents have faced and continue to face during these thirty odd years. I myself have faced similar challenges while living in Japan. I had never expected to fall in love with Japan. It made me think about what it would be like if I chose to settle there, to make Japan my new—and permanent—home.

Every time I go to Japan, it doesn’t feel like I’m traveling. It feels like going home. I have numerous Japanese friends, and for the most part, I can confidently navigate the physical and social geography. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to live in Japan.

Japan has been a mostly homogenous society for centuries. It hasn’t had to think much about the less than 2% of the population who are non-native residents. And it shows. There’s a lack of integration. A lack of infrastructure. Even now, immigration policy continues to take a backseat despite the steady increase in immigration over the years. Despite the fact that opening up immigration is one of the few viable solutions to the current challenges presented by Japan’s changing demography. Lots of words are being said, but where’s the action?

Local communities are taking matters into their own hands. There are many organizations whose mission is to assist foreign residents with language, culture, and legalities and who seek to enhance intercultural understanding. This makes me very hopeful. I believe that any sort of social change will begin locally at the grassroots level. It has to begin with public consciousness.

Art can play a role in this. Art, after all, is about expression. It’s a way to communicate. This is the goal of Bound in Japan. Participants will be able to engage in an educational and enjoyable activity that allows them to share their stories with others. Through the process of creating art about their experiences in an adopted homeland and the act of sharing it with others, there are many opportunities to learn about each other, to start new dialogues, and to engage in community building.

Bound in Japan is a collaborative art project. Its success depends on the active participation of the community. This success can be defined as the personal enrichment of individual lives as well as the enrichment of an entire community.

I know that there are many people like me, who love and consider Japan a home. There are many ways you can support Bound in Japan. A project like this requires a significant budget. Consider making a donation to the Bound in Japan IndieGoGo campaign ( Know of an organization in Japan that would like to participate in the project? Let me know. Are you living in Japan right now and would like to take part in Bound in Japan? I would love to hear from you.


I’m incredibly excited to be at this juncture, of getting ready to head to Japan to fulfill my vision. Of course, it has been a long and challenging road. Anyone can come up with a great idea. Making it happen can be a lot more difficult, especially if you’re doing it on your own. But don’t let that discourage you!

Here, I’d like to share some of my insights on undertaking a BIG PROJECT.

First of all, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. For the purposes here, “project” refers to a short-term endeavor with a specific goal. There is usually a fixed period with a beginning and an end. Contrast this with a “program,” which is usually a long-term effort with a broader goal.

Define your goal.

This is crucial and should be your No. 1 priority. This is your anchor, your destination. What is the purpose or mission of your project? Every organization and business has a mission. So should your project. And everything you do should point you towards this goal.

Be realistic.

End world hunger. As admirable as this mission is, you’re not going to achieve it on your own and you’re not going to achieve it with just one project. Be specific. Relieve hunger in XX community by organizing a food drive. Now, this is absolutely doable. Just an example!

Be patient.

The little spark that eventually became Bound in Japan first occurred in the autumn of 2008. I knew that I wanted to give back to a community that had become very important to me. And I knew that I wanted to utilize my artistic skills. It took me at least a year to form a concrete outline of what the project would look like and how it would be implemented. Add another year as I mapped out a game plan and continued to refine the details. You won’t achieve your goal overnight so take the time you need. This is your project—you determine the timeline.

Be flexible.

The fine-tuning never really ends. Circumstances change. Your project may need to change. There are many ways to achieve the same goal. Be willing to backtrack and try another path.

Be willing to learn.

Bound in Japan aims to promote awareness about diversity and enhance intercultural understanding in Japan. I saw this as a need based on my personal experiences and what I knew of others’ experiences. However, I knew that I needed more than just personal experience and anecdotes to garner support. I needed a solid foundation based on fact. So I researched Japan’s immigration policy and history, I looked into the attitudes regarding immigration and non-native residents, and I read up on what was being done to address the increase in immigrants and to integrate them into local communities. I had to learn a lot of other things as well: how to apply for grants, how to build a website, how to be my own publicist. The list goes on and on. If you don’t already have the skills or tools to realize your project, don’t let that stop you. Learn!

Be creative.

This can be applied in various ways, but I’ll only address one here: fundraising. This has been the toughest challenge so far. There’s a lot more funding for organizations (versus as an individual), so collaborating with an organization or obtaining sponsorship is worth considering. When you are applying for grants, identify the different categories that reflect your project and apply for all of them. Some of the categories for Bound in Japan: art, community, Japan, international exchange, immigration, social issues. Are you female or belong to an ethnic minority? There are grants for these groups. There are also many regional grants so look into programs specific to your community, state, etc. Micro-fundraising (crowd-funding) is another option. This means tapping your personal network and local community for donations. With the development of social media, this has become even more viable. There are also online platforms specifically for this purpose, such as IndieGoGo ( and Kickstarter ( If you are an artist (visual, performing, etc.), Fractured Atlas ( offers a fiscal sponsorship program.

Ask for help.

A big project is a lot of work. And if you’re on your own, it means you’ll be doing most of the work. Notice I did not say all.  You can ask for help! Yes, we all lead busy lives, but if you reach out to others you will find that most will make time for you. Your friends and family care about you, and they want you to succeed. When making a request, make sure it is something that falls within their capability or expertise. Give them advance notice so that they have enough time to complete it. My Japanese-speaking friends help me with translations, my computer savvy friends troubleshoot my website problems, and there are friends who lend their ear and perspective and help me work through issues. I have also reached out to complete strangers and have always been humbled and impressed by their generosity with their time, knowledge, and advice.

Toot your own horn.

I have to admit that this is my least favorite part of the process. But there’s simply no getting around it. It’s your project—you have to promote it. The upside is that the more you do it, the easier it becomes. If you want support, funding, and opportunities, start practicing. Talk about your project, write about it, and let people know what you are doing and why.

You will sometimes think “I am crazy to be doing this.”

Yes, you are. I tell myself that about every other day. Accept it, take a deep breath, and plow on. If you really want to accomplish something of this scale, you have to be passionate and a bit obsessed. This can also be called determination.

Take a break.

We’ve already established the fact that a big project is a lot of work. As a matter of fact, it’s like having a full-time job. And if you’re already working full-time, well, it can be stressful. Allow yourself to take a break. If you need to, take a day off—or two. Do whatever you need to do to re-energize and stay motivated to keep working. Remember: You’re doing this because you love it, because you believe in it. It should give you fulfillment, not headaches.

Don’t be afraid of failure.

During these more than two and a half years, I have never once contemplated quitting. There is no rational reason for quitting. Bound in Japan is not an impossible dream. There are certainly many challenges, but those can all be overcome with hard work and dedication. However, I have considered the possibility of failure, and I have decided that even if everything falls through, every minute spent working on this project has been worthwhile. Through this experience, I have expanded my knowledge, skills, network, and confidence. These things will remain with me for the rest of my life, and they’ll be there when I’m ready to tackle my next big project.

Last but certainly not least—say “thank you.”

Always say thank you. To the people who hear you out, to the people who help you, to those who have contributed funds and services. Thank your friends and family for their unwavering support. Working on your big project can sometimes seem like a lonely path, but you are never truly alone.

Contact Kieu at .

Follow Kieu and Bound in Japan on Twitter @KieuLam.

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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4 Responses to Art in the (Japanese) Social Sphere – Bound in Japan

  1. Pingback: Art in the (Japanese) Social Sphere – Bound in Japan | JapanLike

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  3. Pingback: do you have a vision? « Bound in Japan

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