Businessman's mission to revive Japan's Seto Inland Sea

A Japanese businessman's 25-year quest to reverse the declining fortunes of the Seto Inland Sea has given rise to a unique artistic community, writes Julian Ryall

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 June, 2013, 9:31am

Twenty-five years ago, Japan's Seto Inland Sea was little more than a series of deforested islands that had been ruined by unchecked industrialisation and illegal waste dumping.

The environmental damage was reflected in the residents of the islands; young people were abandoning their homes in search of work and a better life. Those who were obliged to stay lived in dilapidated houses.

That changed in the summer that businessman Soichiro Fukutake sailed through the islands.

Twenty-five years later the islands are hosting the second Setouchi Triennale, an art event held in the summer and autumn. The chairman of publishing and education company Benesse and a confirmed urban dweller, Fukutake says that his journey through the islands of the Inland Sea completely changed his perspective on daily life and Japanese society.

I thought it was just an impossible dream that would never become reality
Tadao Ando, architect

"It is easy to conclude that there are many wonderful things to see and do in big metropolises like Tokyo. But I also realised that, although people live in cities, they are not always happy there," he says. "Happiness cannot be achieved in that competitive society.

"So what is a community of happy people? I believe it is one where a lot of elderly people live together. They may have imperfections, they may no longer be physically fit and their mental capabilities may be fading, but they have achieved a long life and can have a happy community."

Seeing the "terrible legacy of industrialisation" that had been wrought on the islands - despite the region being designated a national park - Fukutake says he was "filled with a tremendous sense of anger".

The damage being done to one of Japan's most scenic parts was a destruction of a part of the national identity, he says. A colossal smelting works on one of the islands had destroyed the forests, and toxins had been released into the sea. Another island had been set aside as a leper colony. Beaches and hillsides were coated with human debris.

Fukutake set about convincing world-class artists, designers and architects of his vision for a rejuvenated and thriving community based on art across the islands.

But was not an easy sell. "It was back in 1988 when, out of the blue, Mr Fukutake told me that he wanted to create something new, something that would be unique in the world of art," renowned architect Tadao Ando says. "He told me how the Seto Inland Sea was an area of unprecedented beauty and that he wanted to create a utopia.

"Immediately, I thought it was just an impossible dream that would never become reality," he recalls. "I told him straight off that I thought it would be impossible to attract world-class artists to the region. But he replied that he wouldn't give up so easily. So I joined hands with him."

Fukutake and Ando agreed to start off relatively small, working together on a campsite for children that opened in 1989. In the intervening years, the transformation in the inland sea has been little short of incredible.

Naoshima, one of the major islands is home to the semi-subterranean Chichu Art Museum (with its remarkable collection of no fewer than five of Claude Monet's Water Lilies series, all displayed under natural light) and the Lee Ufan Museum, designed by Ando to highlight the works of the Korean-born artist.

The Benesse House Museum, which opened in 1992, brings together the art museum and a hotel based on the concept of the coexistence of nature, art and architecture. The Ando Museum, in a restored traditional-style home, is the most recent addition.

Naoshima is also famous for the oversized, multicoloured pumpkin created by Yayoi Kusama that sits on a wharf looking out to sea. Nearby Teshima is home to about 1,000 people, and hosts Junya Ishigami's Mountain Project, the Teshima Yokoo House and other works and installations throughout the Triennale, including Lin Shuen Long's Beyond the Border - the Ocean project, Big Bambu by Mike and Doug Starn, and Lee Suk Nga's Taste the Buddhism.

The festival officially began in March, but is spread over spring, summer and autumn to provide space for the maximum number of artists and to give as many people as possible a chance to visit.

Similar events will be taking place on Megijima - where Leandro Erlich's The Presence of Absence is sure to catch the eye - Ogijima, Shodoshima, Oshima, Inujima, Shamijima, Honjima, Takamijuma, Awashima and Ibukijima, as well as in the towns of Takamatsu and Uno.

The presence of art has done so much more for these communities, Ando says. Fukutake's vision has been stretched to incorporate cultural programmes that support the Ibukijima dried sardine plant and the Naoshima rice-growing project. A public bath on the same island is probably the only place in the world where a visitor can scrub away surrounded by modern art.

A food project was opened in conjunction with the 2010 Setouchi Triennale and is going strong; a museum on Inujima explains the history of the island's granite quarrying and copper smelting industries, as well as the people who made the island home in generations gone by; and the Art House Project on Naoshima is supporting an elderly couple who have decided to eschew retirement to operate an udon restaurant.

Fukutake believes all that has been achieved in the Inland Sea could serve as a blueprint for Japan's wider society and be exported beyond its shores.

"I believe that 10 per cent of a company's shares should be held by a foundation set up to help local communities and enhance culture," he says. "I want to promote this new kind of capitalism. People should be happier as they get older and I believe that the economy should serve culture, not the other way around."

The Setouchi Triennale runs from July 20 to September 1 and from October 5 to November 4 across 12 islands of the Seto Inland Sea and the towns of Takamatsu and Uno. For more details, go to