Living in a Beautiful Japan


Recently elected prime minister Shinzo Abe declares that he wished to create a “Beautiful Japan.” This comes at a time of increasing social divisions between the economic “haves” and “have-nots,” problems with the education system and adolescent bullying and the unfortunate comment by health minister Hakuo Yanagisawa that women are “baby-making machines.” Amid such political and social ferment, the arts in Japan are also experiencing unprecedented change. Although the booming European and American contemporary markets benefit Japan’s top tier galleries, the view on the ground reveals a complex and difficult situation.

A major issue insufficiently addressed in the Japanese arts media has been the institution of self-governing laws for the country’s many municipal museums. This corresponds with a general reduction in government funding for arts and culture, forcing museums to make business plans to attract greater audiences and income. Museums must submit their management to a process of open tender, which has led to some unlikely organizations vying to run art institutions. For example, the famous comedian management company Yoshimoto Kogyo was among the bidders for the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art. The firm planned to appoint a veteran comic, Sanshi Katsura, as director. Although Katsura may have initiated interesting new practices, the bid ultimately went to the Museum’s current management, the Hiroshima City Cultural Foundation.

While this was a rather extreme case, museums across Japan face a variety of crises: public collections, scholarship and museum access are, in essence, at the mercy of the most impressive economic plan. A pressing problem with the new law is the job security of museum curators and staff in the effort to streamline art management.

Museums’ reluctance to work with outside sources on exhibitions and the limited exhibition project support available from art and cultural foundations make it almost impossible to survive in Japan as an independent curator. However, a number of notable exhibitions, projects and initiatives organized outside museum structures since 2001 demonstrate the new possibilities created by independent organizations.

Arts Initiative Tokyo is indicative of this shift. AIT was founded by six young curators and arts organizers after the first Yokohama Triennale in 2001, with the goal of addressing essential needs that municipal institutions in Tokyo were not fulfilling, such as artist-in-residence programs and broadly-based contemporary arts learning platforms. AIT developed the first curatorial studies course in Japan and is among the first curatorial collectives there with a focus on arts infrastructure and discourse building rather than exhibitions. In 2006, the government-funded Japan Foundation invited AIT to curate the Japanese participation in the Bangladesh Biennale, the first time a non-museum body was given such a responsibility. This development represents a turning point for the government, which previously focused on museum curators as commissioners.

Elsewhere, Makoto Hashimoto, former curatorial student at AIT, has initiated a project called “Dialogue with the City,” an ambitious multi-city exhibition project featuring work by seven artists. Mizuki Endo of Art Space Tetra in Fukuoka will spend six months in the US with support from the Asian Cultural Council as a “roving research antenna,” funneling information to the AIT school in Tokyo via blogs, video conferencing and event he postal service. This renewal of curatorial research grants, which ACC had been supporting for many years, is another welcome development.

Recent institutional staff shifts—the appointments of Yuko Hasegawa to Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Fumio Nanjo as director of the Mori Art Museum—may galvanize institutions to forge links with a broad range of initiatives. A number of highly experienced museum curators, such as Kenji Kubota, formerly of Art Tower Mito, have also recently “dropped out” to work independently. Some museums are following suit, reconsidering their programming and fund-raising strategies, developing creative community and public programs and acting as cultural catalysts for their regions. Contemporary Art Museum Kumamoto, under the bold directorship of Hiroshi Minamishima, for example, has focused on difficult social issues by displaying art by leprosy patients, as was the case with the exhibition “ATTITUDE2002.”

This has been met with an influx of municipal initiatives like Tokyo Wondersite, spaces in Yokohama such as BankArt 1929 and ZAIM and the soon to open Towada Art Project in Aomori prefecture.

Even in the commercial sphere, new galleries and project spaces, including Misako + Rosen, Mujin-to Productions and TAKEFLOOR 404&502, have been opened by former staff of blue-chip galleries.

This period of upheaval and uncertainty in Japan’s art institutions presents an opportunity to reflect on the failure of cultural policies over the past 15 years. The role of curators and organizers as informed and engaged mediators, information gatherers and project directors can be crucial in connecting institutions and regions with artists and communities. For these efforts to succeed, much discussion is required, as well as the writing of curatorial histories in Japan, informed by global debates.