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Contemporary art revives tired islands and towns in Japan

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Key Points
  • In the last two decades, sleepy islands and towns in Japan have been hosting a new wave of contemporary art and design set-ups attracting tourists — and a trickling of new residents some of whom are staying for good.
  • At least one island has attracted enough residents, including children, to prompt the reopening of a school and kindergarten.
  • While such initiatives may generate buzz for the local community and rejuvenate some of them, the outlook remains bleak for the "extreme" demographic challenges facing Japan, said Rajiv Biswas, Asia Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit.
A large sea bream object, made from colourful debris found drifting at sea, such as plastic tanks, toys and wires, and produced by Japanese art group Yodogawa Tecnique, is displayed at the Setouchi Triennale art event at the port of Uno, Okayama prefecture in western Japan on May 19, 2013.
Jiji Press | AFP | Getty Images

One of the many challenges that Japan faces is rural depopulation amid a fast decline in birth rate — but a recent trend may help revitalize some local economies.

In the last two decades, sleepy islands and towns in Japan have been hosting a new wave of contemporary art and design set-ups attracting tourists and new residents, some of whom are staying for good.

"The rural arts festivals tended to have local and regional regeneration and revitalization as their main aim, hoping to solve social problems of depopulation, and an aging population, whilst urban arts festivals were aimed largely at cultural development and regeneration," wrote Naoko Takahashi, an arts events manager and writer in a 2015 discussion paper on the subject published by the Arts and Festivals Management department at De Montfort University in Leicester, England.

Japan held more art festivals in 2015 than any other country studied, Takahashi found.

The small island of Ogijima in the Seto Inland Sea has been held out as an example of being particularly welcoming to younger people relocating there. Those moving include artists, families or people seeking a quieter life.

The population growth even spurred the reopening of a kindergarten and school for children, the Japan Times reported in 2016. That is a big step up from 2013, when there were no children residing on the island at all, a new resident wrote on the Setouchi art triennale's official blog in 2018.

The Setouchi Triennale 2019 received 1.2 million visitors in its entire duration over six months, its organizer said.

A yellow pumpkin sculpture by Yayoi Kusama, a Japanese artist. The installation is located on the island of Naoshima in Japan's Seto Island Sea.
Xavier Testelin| Gamma-Rapho | Getty Images

Contemporary art on the islands was thrust into the limelight by the Benesse Foundation funded by the Benesse Corporation, which former chairman was Soichiro Fukutake.

Naoshima is the most popular of the islands in the cluster. Home to two massive pumpkin sculptures by celebrated artist Yayoi Kusama, Naoshima also houses several museums designed by Pritzker Prize laureate Tadao Ando.

Another art festival located in the country is the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, which attracts about half a million visitors once every three years.

Located in the rice-growing district of Niigata prefecture, the event sprawls across 200 villages, forcing artists to "have no choice but to create their artworks on someone else's land, requiring interaction with locals," said the festival's official website.

The next Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale will be held in 2021.

Folk Art at Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial 2006's opening in Tokamachi, Japan.
Jun Sato | WireImage | Getty Images

While such initiatives may generate buzz for the local community and rejuvenate some of them, the outlook remains bleak for the "extreme" demographic challenges facing Japan, said an economist who has studied the problem in the country.

"Specific initiatives such as art festivals may help to revitalize some communities, but the megatrend of demographic ageing and the falling population will continue to result in the long-term decline of many regional villages and townships," said Rajiv Biswas, Asia Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit.

"The depopulation of regional towns and villages will continue to be a long-term problem for Japan's ageing society," Biswas told CNBC.