The third Setouchi International Art Festival is currently taking place across 12 islands and two coastal ports in the Seto Naikai, or Inland Sea of Japan. The Sea boasts over 700 islands in total. The islands, which never underwent rapid industrial modernization, have maintained their original backdrop of lively Japanese culture, tradition and rusticity. But the legacy of that harsh era remains, with many islands grappling with unauthorized dumping of industrial waste, environmental pollution, and rapid depopulation. The festival, which aims to revitalize the islands through modern art, has proved a successful joint effort by companies and the local community. To glean some practical pointers, we looked at activities on two Inland Sea islands: Naoshima and Teshima.
Naoshima: Modern art boosts local attractions, and local pride
Naoshima Island began housing contemporary art projects in 1989 as the Benesse Art Site Naoshima. The island’s economy was fueled and subsequently polluted by smelting industries. Tourist numbers dwindled and the island’s population thinned. Naoshima Town and Benesse Holdings (originally Fukutake Publishing) agreed to cooperate to revitalize the island and transform the natural environment and cultural assets into a sustainable center of culture and education.
In 1985, the founder of Fukutake Publishing and the mayor of Naoshima subsequently agreed to cooperate in developing the south side of Naoshima as an educational and cultural site. Naoshima, now known as “the island of contemporary art,” invites well-known artists to participate in various modern art projects.
Benesse invested 25 years in making the Naoshima project a success. Compared to failed attempts by a previous company to develop the island as a tourist resort, Benesse encouraged site-specific, local-inspired artworks created by international artists, and more importantly, ensured it, as a company, maintained just the right distance from the local population.
Today, the unique artworks with their exquisite blend of island history and culture attract visitors from all over the world. Compared to less than 20,000 visitors in the 1990s, tourist numbers on Naoshima have risen sharply. In 2013, the year of the Second Setouchi International Art Festival, Naoshima (population: 3,200) welcomed a record 700,000 visitors. Interacting with young tourists has served as an invigorating boost to the aging local population.
Benesse’s involvement has changed the image of Naoshima Island dramatically. Admittedly, some people still yearn for the island’s calmer days, and some wonder if the current situation is sustainable, but the 25-year project has without a doubt revitalized the island and afforded the local population renewed pride in their precious and beautiful island home.
Teshima: Conclusion of industrial cleanup battle shifts focus to local revitalization
As part of the Benesse Art Site Naoshima and other art events, Teshima has its own museums and artworks. But at the moment, the island seems determined to maintain a distinct distance between the local community and outside company involvement, instead focusing on returning the island to its original natural state.
Teshima means “a rich, fruitful island.” As its name suggests, Teshima was blessed with bountiful nature and abundant agriculture, fishing and dairy farming. However, after industrial players began illegally dumping waste in Teshima in 1978, local residents applied to Kagawa Prefecture for public damage arbitration. Following a bitter, 20-year fight, arbitration was finally enacted in June 2000, when the total amount of industrial waste and contaminated soil estimated to exceed 900,000 tons. Cleanup operations are expected to be completed in March 2017.
To date, Teshima Island has chosen not to team up directly with corporates but to work mainly with non-profit organizations, which were set up with the launch of the industrial waste cleanup, but companies such as global casualwear retailer UNIQLO do participate in NPO-led local activities by regularly dispatching volunteers. The steady combined effort has helped the island regain its traditional aesthetic, and encourage the return of long-absent living species and plants.
These two small islands in the Inland Sea of Japan have already unearthed invaluable hints on how companies should and should not play a role in regional redevelopment, and how to observe just the right distance between corporate action and local society.