Christian Polak a French collector in Japan

Tokyo (Japan). The name of Christian Polak probably doesn’t mean much to the French. And yet, in Japan, where he has lived for fifty-three years, this Frenchman born in 1950 in Nogaro, in Gers, has become a well-known face to readers of the Nihon Keizaithe country’s leading economic daily (3 million copies), which has been chronicling episodes of his life for years.

But there’s more: the Emperor of Japan, Naruhito, awarded him last November the prestigious Order of the Rising Sun – the highest distinction in the archipelago – an order established by Emperor Meiji in 1875. Category « Golden rays with rosette. Before him, another French civilian received the same title, in 2021, at the age of 101: Pierre Soulages.

There is a reason for this recognition: Christian Polak has become the reference historian and the best specialist in diplomatic relations and Franco-Japanese exchanges. He is also the living memory, the man-symbol of an era which saw France play a capital role in the modernization of Japan, after its two and a half centuries of closure. Built over decades, its collections of lithographs, prints,ukiyoe and of doro-e (artistic movements of prints from the Edo period), old photographs – he is said to hold the largest collection of Japanese ambrotypes –, letters, outdated notebooks and unpublished old documents and other iconographic works, have, said -on, no more prices. Meiji University in Tokyo acquired one of them in 2010: a treasure of 8,000 pieces.

Through his collections, Christian Polak brings to life “French people dear to his heart”– diplomats, missionaries, soldiers, sailors, artists, adventurers – having marked the history of Japan. Like the polytechnician and captain Jules Brunet (1838-1911) – the real “last samurai”–, sent to Japan in 1867 with a handful of officers to help modernize the country’s land army and who, in the middle of the civil war, rebelled with soldiers of the defeated shogun against the new imperial power. Or like the Breton painter Noël Nouët (1885-1969) – “the other Hiroshige”, say the Japanese –, who lived for thirty years in Japan and left prints representing Tokyo, typical of the shin hanga (new print) movement. As for the portraitist Paul Jacoulet (1896-1960), nicknamed in Japan sometimes “the Gauguin of Asia” Or “the other Utamaro”, Christian Polak patiently insisted, for forty years, on restoring his genius. Among other things, he convinced Jacoulet’s adopted daughter to transfer to France and the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac the 3,000 works she held from her father. A donation which gave rise to the first retrospective dedicated, in France, to Jacoulet, in 2013, at the Quai Branly. “I wanted to reveal to the public magnificent artists, like Noël Nouët, Georges Bigot, the painter-traveler Félix Régamey, Jacoulet and others, unknown to the French, fallen into oblivion”explains, all smiles, navy blue suit, the collector, slender, behind his desk overlooking Nihombashi, in the heart of Tokyo.

Dreams of Asia and ideograms

In 1968, while some were hitting the streets, he was already dreaming of Asia and ideograms. The dream takes him to Paris to study at the National School of Oriental Languages, Japanese section. After graduating, he went to Japan, joined the Japanese university and, at the same time, the services of the French embassy for two years. Soon he was a collaborator and interpreter of the cultural advisor, the writer and future Secretary of State Thierry de Beaucé – in 1979, they signed together The Absolute Island (ed. Orban), an essay on Japan’s island identity. Christian Polak then makes “extraordinary encounters”, he says: André Malraux, Roland Barthes, Claude Lévi-Strauss, the writer Maurice Pinguet – who was an essential figure in the interest of French intellectuals for Japan –, or even the philosopher Michel Foucault, with whom he met. friendship. All on a trip to Japan.

In Tokyo, after concluding nine years of public law studies at Hitotsubashi University in 1980 with a doctorate on the history of Franco-Japanese diplomatic relations between 1914 and 1925, he founded a consulting company specializing in automotive, aeronautics and the environment. The success is there. Christian Polak cooperates with large French and Japanese groups, among others Soichiro Honda, father of the Honda Motor Company (with whom he went to France to visit Marc Chagall), who knighted him and introduced him to Masaru Ibuka, co-founder of Sony .

At the same time, he continued his academic activity at Hitotsubashi, in Meiji, and published Silk and Lights (2002), Saber and Brush (2005), Lily and Canon (2014), Georges Bigot and Japan (1882-1899), published in English (Renaissance Books, London, 2018), portrait of this dazzlingly talented French caricaturist. A number of exhibitions, in France and Japan, followed, as well as at the Intermédiathèque, an avant-garde museum co-managed by the University of Tokyo.

“Japanese “soft power” is in decline”

Much in demand since his imperial decoration, Christian Polak has just, in complete freedom, shot a few arrows. In a rather resounding interview given in mid-October to the magazine of the Dentsu Institute, widely read in the country by employers and the establishment, he notes “that during the Covid-19 epidemic, Japan has become even more insular. Japan then imposed very harsh restrictions on foreigners. The Japanese could leave and return, but not foreigners established in Japan. Result: I was stuck for two and a half years. As if held in captivity. I spent my life in Japan, devoted myself to it and was therefore very saddened. »

In a corridor of his offices transformed into an art gallery, Christian Polak adds that “In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Japan was more open. Today, the country has lost its aura in the world because Japanese “soft power” is in decline. Look at the South Koreans who export theirs brilliantly! In art and culture, the Japanese do not tend towards the universal. Japan has a splendid culture, but it fails or struggles to speak to the world. I have lived there for more than fifty years and this country still reminds me every day that I remain a foreigner, an external actor! »

“Christian Polak always says things, even when he doesn’t like it! “, confides a thirty-year-old relative. But the paradox also dictates that it is for his honesty that his very numerous Japanese friends – including former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda – admire and support him. The collector, for his part, keeps his two-headed love, whose past he continues to dissect in the hope of serving the present, or even the future, of an exceptional fresco. France for Japan, Japan for France. Crossed perspectives and axis, in which he believes, of the senses, of the arts, of knowledge, of beauty. And some common interests… “I live for this”, he said. These days, as usual, Christian Polak is browsing the booksellers in the Kanda booksellers’ square. We call him for new conferences, in Gifu, in Yokohama, in Tokyo at the Franco-Japanese House…


Departure for Germany, at the age of 12, by father’s decision, to learn German and fight against “Franco-German hatred”. A taste for travel is born.

October 4, 1971

Graduated in Oriental Languages, departure for Japan, via Moscow, aboard a JAL DC-8 which also brings back Emperor Hirohito.

nineteen eighty one

Establishment of Séric (Industrial and Commercial Study and Research Company) and cooperation with Honda, Sony, Toray, Toyota, etc.


Curator of the exhibition “The Floating Universe of Paul Jacoulet” at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, an artist emerging from oblivion after forty years of effort.

November 27, 2023

Presentation of the Order of the Rising Sun in Paris. The Japanese ambassador to France welcomes a “promotion of mutual understanding” between France and Japan.

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