Bohemia along the Sumida: In search of cultural capital

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

On paper, the Japanese government supports the arts, which are considered important vehicles for promoting Japanese culture globally, enhancing the country’s image as a tourist destination and stimulating declining regional economies. But, where does the content for Japan’s increasing number of art festivals actually come from? There are no national mechanisms for supporting individual artists, with funding programs primarily aimed at institutions and community initiatives.

A couple of factors contributing to a rise in contemporary art in Japan may be economic precarity and a desire for greater freedom in choosing when to work, rather than increased government support. Though the number of full-time employees has increased by 760,000 compared to 2016, as reported in the Nikkei Asian Review earlier this month, the general trend since the mid 1980s has been rising non-regular employment, according to Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications statistics.

Leaving aside the small number of international celebrity artists, such as Hiroshi Sugimoto and Yayoi Kusama, who are wealthy enough to create their own museums and fill them with their work, a significant proportion of contributors to regional art biennales and group exhibitions at large-scale venues have done the millennial equivalent of Timothy Leary’s turning on, tuning in and dropping out.

Takuya Kawahara, for example, graduated from the University of Tsukuba in 2010 with a master’s in visual communication and, keen to continue making art on his own terms, he started an artist-run space, “Float,” in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward with other art graduates. While converting a small manufacturing workshop near Tokyo Skytree, Kawahara spent some nights sleeping in the unheated space with the occasional cockroach scuttling over him. He also worked night shifts at a video and music rental store to make money.

He has recently left the artists’ collective to start his own studio, which, along with “Float,” is part of the “Studio Network” (s-studionet.com), a loose association of artists and other creatives in the area. Now earning money repairing mannequins and as a care worker for people with disabilities, he keeps up with contemporary art by attending a private study group run by artist and academic Kenjiro Okazaki (poststudium.net).

Talking about his choice of lifestyle, Kawahara says: “I have more free time, and that helps with being able to make work, study art and go to exhibitions. But, on the other hand, you know, I’m poor.”