Our Lives | JAPAN LITE

Can art bring people back to Japan's depopulated islands?

by Amy Chavez

Just over a year ago, I wrote about the problem of depopulation where I live on Shiraishi Island, a community of 547 people in the Seto Inland Sea. (The population was 563 at that time.) Despite various NPOs’ attempts to save us, nothing has really worked.

I admit that I’m not one to favor government funding to try to turn communities around, mainly because the NPOs coming here have been unimpressive. Quite honestly, it has seemed like a huge waste of government resources. Over the years, we have been endowed with an unprofitable seaweed business, an unprofitable international villa, a semi-profitable mulberry business that no one wants to invest more time in, a weaving business that died before it ever took off, and a group that — for some reason I haven’t quite figured out yet — comes out to light a few hundred candles once a year. I’m just one of the 547 people bemused by the efforts to turn our community around.

But the idea of an NPO riding on the coattails of a successful art trend in the area strikes me as having some promise. At first I was skeptical, since most NPO activities are ideas from outside that the islanders themselves are not interested in pursuing (e.g., traditional weaving). Other times, they’re just not sustainable due to the lack of a workforce (seaweed and mulberries). Yet others are unprofitable because of mismanagement (the international villa). But every year, these industries are propped up by ever- dwindling government funds.

So if the island is to survive, it has to come from the will of the people who live here. Enter the Art Bridge Project, part of Heart Art Link, an Okayama NPO.

“Art fascinates, inspires and makes people smile,” says Tomoko Tano, executive director of Heart Art Link.

The revitalization of Inland Sea islands via art started when the Fukutake Foundation invested in an island in Kagawa Prefecture, in what is now called Benesse Art Site Naoshima, which offered people the chance to experience contemporary art amid the backdrop of the Seto Inland Sea.

The Art Bridge Project differs in several ways, but mainly in that it operates on a local level. This year’s “artist in residence” program invited four artists (two from Tokyo, one from Nagano and another from Kagawa) to give exhibitions on Shiraishi Island over the Silver Week holiday. When the artists arrived in July, I asked them what kind of art they were planning on producing, and to my surprise, they all said they didn’t know yet.

“The point of artists in residence is not for the artists to come here, present art and leave,” explains Tano. Instead, they are expected to create something new together with the community by interacting and reflecting on what they’ve learned from the people, their history and their interests.

The artists were chosen for their previous experience using materials related to historical aspects of the island. Two were chosen for their work with textiles, since wata — a type of Japanese cotton — was something previously grown and woven here. Another artist was selected for his work using water as an art form. The other was chosen for his photography and videography skills to create a visual aspect of the beauty and history of the island, including the Shiraishi Bon dance, a national intangible cultural property.

All the venues for the exhibits were old Japanese-style houses dotted around the island, encompassing the port, the beach and the path up to the island’s temple at the bottom of the mountain.

“Art isn’t a passive form just to be seen or admired. Art is active,” says Tano. “By getting the island people involved, art is no longer static because people are working together to create something live.”

So it’s important not just to create something people can look at, but something that makes people think for a long time afterwards.

“Something tangible that the public can grasp adds to their sense of values. Too often in our society people like things because everyone else likes them. If a famous person appears on TV eating at a certain restaurant, and he or she says it’s delicious, then everyone wants to go to that establishment! It’s easier to let others decide things for us,” Tano explains. “One purpose of the Art Bridge Project is to encourage people to consider their own individual values.”

One artist, Kotaro Nagira, asked islanders to donate their favorite clothing for an exhibit he would make with them. As basic as it may seem, this conscious selection of textiles, and having an investment of themselves in the exhibit, fosters interest and joy in the project.

Such activities also generate curiosity from outsiders. “Many Japanese people are interested in coming to see what these artists are doing in the island communities,” says Tano. “They are studying how to help and revitalize their own communities and learning what works and what doesn’t.”

Another artist, Naoto Shimizu, recreated this area of the Seto Inland Sea in the floor of a house. While he was cleaning out and preparing the previously abandoned building, he came upon handwritten letters sent home from family and friends who had left in 1965.

“I apologize for not coming back,” said one letter; “I really miss my family,” confessed another. These missives documented the very beginnings of the migration of islanders to the economic opportunities in the cities, and the first generation of elderly islanders left behind to live on their own. The letters, pasted onto the inside walls of the house, form the backdrop to the hand-carved wooden boats floating on water that was previously a tatami-mat floor.

When I asked Tano how such artist activities translated into actual revitalization, she said that in the future, as these projects grow and become more popular, infrastructure will grow up around them and also attract people. The goal is for the islands to become places where people can go and relax for a few days and enjoy themselves. Already, she noted, art museums have become more popular in several areas of the Inland Sea.

“Japanese people have to learn that they don’t have to go on a trip and come back home the same day,” she says. “To get to the islands, you have to take a boat, so you can relax and stay overnight in a ryokan (inn) and just enjoy the sea, the quietness and the atmosphere. If more people start taking trips around the islands, then more ryokan, cafes and restaurants specializing in local cuisine will open up.

“And when they come they may realize that life here is abundant in so many ways: history, beauty and nature. They’ll admire the lifestyle here. Maybe they can’t live here because of work and other responsibilities, but they can enjoy spending time in the islands.”

Japan Lite appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp