Proposal for Hokusai exhibit at British Museum raises concern


Renowned ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai has been attracting renewed attention in Japan.

In November, the Sumida Hokusai Museum opened in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward, where Hokusai (1760-1849) spent most of his life, displaying about 1,800 items, including artworks and documents. The artist has recently been featured in a television program.

In the midst of the latest Hokusai boom, the Hokusai-kan museum in the town of Obuse, Nagano Prefecture, is discussing a proposal to loan one of its exhibits to the British Museum. Hokusai, highly acclaimed for such works as “Fugaku Sanjurokkei” (“Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”), spent his later years in Obuse.

Hopes are growing in the local community that the project will increase the number of visitors to the town, but concerns about heavy costs have left the proposal divisive.

The museum is looking at plans to lend Kammachi Festival Float to the British Museum in London. The ceiling of the 4.8-meter-tall float has Hokusai paintings of waves, one of the signature elements of his works. The float’s stage features a carved wooden figure of a character from the Chinese classical novel “Suikoden” (“Water Margin”) that is said to have been created under Hokusai’s supervision.

The Hokusai-kan was approached by the British Museum with an offer to display the float during a special exhibition from May to August 2017, according to Hokusai-kan officials.

In October, art transport operators and specialist carpenters conducted an on-site survey and concluded that the float could withstand disassembly, transport and re-assembly.

Tsugio Ichimura, a member of the board of the Hokusai-kan, believes that billing the float as having been exhibited at the British Museum would help to promote tourism.

“It would be a good opportunity to publicize Hokusai’s impressive track record in Obuse both at home and abroad,” said Ichimura, 68. “We can’t afford to blow the opportunity of the Hokusai boom.”

The main challenge is the total cost of the project, which is estimated to be millions of yen, mainly for the disassembly, transport and re-assembly of the festival float.

Hiroyuki Ichikawa, a 46-year-old board member, said, “I think we could raise the money if we ask for donations and use crowdfunding.”

However, Kaisuke Hiramatsu, chief of the board, is cautious.

“Museums across Japan are in a winter-like period of hardship, and some people are worried about the lack of clear prospects for recouping the costs. I’ll give careful consideration (to the British exhibition proposal),” said Hiramatsu, 81.

Masaki Sakurai, chief of the Obuse culture and tourism association, is looking to the likely positive effects on local tourism.

“The number of foreign visitors to Obuse has been on the increase. I hope Hokusai will attract attention and in turn encourage tourists to visit here,” said Sakurai, 51.

The Hokusai-kan hopes to reach a conclusion on the issue early in the new year.