Designs on Japan’s student potential

by Samuel Thomas

Special To The Japan Times

Japan’s creative industries are world renowned, yet the country’s education system more often than not is perceived as a grueling succession of cram schools and formulaic exams that prepare its youth for a life of apparent conformity.

As Japan becomes ever more reliant on Cool Japan-driven “soft power” to promote its creativity, this discrepancy with education is not only becoming impossible to ignore, but also a potentially damaging undervaluation of young potential. Shining a light on this student talent pool is Gakuten, a new event from the group responsible for the Design Festa biannual international art fair. There’s only one requirement of Gakuten participants — that they be enrolled in an educational institution.

“The whole concept first came about simply because we got too big for the Big Sight venue where we currently hold Design Festa — we became too successful,” explains PR manager for Design Festa Sarah Feinerman. “We were having to turn away potential exhibitors in their hundreds, and there was no way of adding any more capacity. So we realized we needed to come up with a new event.”

The concept of Design Festa is to support artists, not to be a business, Feinerman adds, explaining how the event was actually in the red for years.

“We thought, who needs our support most at the moment? And that has to be students, kids and even adults who have the talent and drive, but maybe not the experience,” she says. “People who have proved themselves in the classroom or academic setting, but need support to go beyond that to get an audience and make the connections they need to succeed.”

The event’s name “Gakuten” and school-badge logo branding may suggest a focus on kids and teens in compulsory education, but Feinerman stresses that any kind of student is welcome — from those in elementary school to adults at culinary collage: “Our youngest applicant is 8 years old and our oldest is a 64-year-old university professor. Ultimately, we wanted a criteria that would focus on those who needed exposure, because those at the main Design Festa event now include a lot of small companies, as well as people who started as amateurs but then became professionals.”

In keeping with the school theme, the event has added two new areas to the Design Festa line up: a campus area where schools can present the best work of their students and teachers; and an installation area for non-conformist students.

It is the installation area — where students can rent space by the square meter and do whatever they wish with it — that Feinerman adds, “were the first spaces to sell out.”

Japan has a long tradition of bunkasai and gakuensai (cultural festivals in school), where educational establishments open their doors to show off their students’ creative and academic endeavors, as well as to improve ties with locals. But not one has attempted to take these Bunkasai festivals to a national level.

“It’s great that there is this framework for students, and it works on a small scale, but our first goal is to expand that framework to a much bigger scale — to the point where schools across Japan send representatives to display their creations and celebrate others,” continues Feinerman. “Our second aim is to bring in the international community.”

Yet Gakuten also has to continue to support those students who did, or still do, exhibit at the main Design Festa as a platform to express themselves in ways they can’t at school. For this reason, she explains that even though the students may attend a school, they are not “official envoys.”

The success of creative festivals and fairs in Japan may seem surprising to some.

“I think people would expect Japanese creatives to be less public,” replies Feinerman to the question of Design Festa’s success. “But so far they have ignored the potential of the Internet compared to those abroad, who have made sites such as Etsy popular.

“There is, however, a history of matsuri (traditional festivals ) in Japan, when people get together to exchange ideas and to work together, not in isolation. Once you are face to face in a festival environment the barriers come down. We pitch the event as a chance to express oneself, and that is all the encouragement they need.”

Given that this is the first event of its kind in Japan, Design Festa has also been helping students prepare for Gakuten with parties where participants can meet each other in advance, display their work for free (at the Design Festa Gallery in Harajuku), and learn from feedback.

“This has been especially important for the international students based in Japan, as they don’t have so many chances to make friends and contacts,” says Feinerman. “There is also a sense of the Japanese ganbaru, or perseverance, that international students can learn from other students. It is one thing to be inspired, but another to actually get on and create.”

Gakuten — All Student Art Festival takes place at Tokyo Big Sight from Aug. 9-10, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is ¥800 in advance and ¥1,000 at the door. For more information, visit www.gakuten.jp/en.


Featured Gakuten artist: Marianne Wallois

Having studied painting at Temple University Japan, Marianne Wallois decided to participate in Gakuten at a live painting booth where artists are given a blank canvas which they fill over the course of the event:

“As an abstract artist I like the idea of creating at the time and place, instead of showing a finished work. I think that when it comes to abstract painting, the process is as important as the finished artwork. During my studies in Japan, I discovered through traditional Japanese artworks that many things we think of as beautiful have no clear subject, light or reflections and so resemble what could be called ‘abstract’ art.”