Japan has the world’s oldest population, with almost a third of its citizens clocking in over the age of 65. Many of the ageing population live in rural areas, where successive generations of job seekers leave for larger cities offering higher-paid and less demanding work opportunities. Coupled with a negative birth rate, Japan’s countryside demographics are far from faring well, especially in the Seto Inland Sea, where several isolated islands have long since felt the effects of this loss.
In the last few decades, however, some islands of the Seto Inland Sea have undergone a novel rejuvenation process, one fuelled by art. Since 1992, the Benesse Corporation, in collaboration with Tadao Ando – one of Japan's most influential contemporary architects – have gradually transformed the island of Naoshima, and then Teshima and Inujima, into international-calibre contemporary art destinations. There are Ando-designed museums housing works by the likes of Jasper John, David Hockney, and Bruce Nauman, and also outdoor installations, like Yayoi Kusama's iconic pumpkin sculptures. Local residents have been actively involved in the process: many offered up properties for restoration, which now house galleries. Others house inns and cafes.
Innovation has since poured into proximate islands, where locals and inbound creatives have set in motion a wave of projects that are transforming these practically forgotten places into a celebration of local artisans, ancient traditions, and dynamic modernity. A gruelling task, yet one that, here, looks almost easy amid the encircling teal waters.
Take Omishima, a land dappled with citrus trees full-to-bursting, colouring the horizon in infinite shades of orange, yet now an unconventional oasis of contemporary architecture. 2011 saw the opening of a branch of the country’s first architecture museum by Toyo Ito, one of Japan’s most well-known architects. The Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture (TIMA) celebrates the island of Omishima and works closely with local communities and schools to inspire sympathetic change that honours past traditions.
Discussions with locals led Mr. Ito to collaborate with two renowned Japanese architecture schools to create Project Omishima, a network of novel and restorative enterprises that attract an influx of visitors to the area. Part of the project is a series of design-led, community-driven creative programmes in which tourists and residents are encouraged to meet, work, and converse – inspiring ways to cement a circular tourism economy on the island. The project encompasses a number of industries, from food and drink to hospitality, and includes a communal workspace called Everyone’s House, a boutique winery, a beer brewery, and a sustainability-minded hotel, Omishima Rest House, in a redesigned vacant elementary school. The spirit of past generations collides with the innovation of Mr. Ito’s project, precipitating not only a stable economy, but also a respect for both the ancestral and modern way of life that has totally transformed the previously withering island into a place of new life.
With today’s shifting attitudes and interesting art and architecture projects popping up that favour the route of regional revitalisation, perhaps the plight of the Seto Inland Sea’s depopulation may see a fortunate turn of fate.
Rachel E T Davies
Rachel E T Davies