In 2017-2018 Feral Studio visited Asia to research ways in which artists, arts organisations and community projects are addressing challenges faced by rural communities. Findings revealed a pertinence to the rural context in the South West include ageing rural populations, the decline of farming, the connection between urban and rural contexts and community engagement.
During the research period we connected with organisations and projects in Japan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand and Taiwan. These include Yoshino Cedar House, Jatiwangi Art Factory, Kamiyama AIR, Sangwoodgoon, Satoyami Mirai and The Land Foundation.
The research trip was part funded by the Arts Council's Artists' International Development Fund and forms part of wider research into international rural practice that has been conducted by Feral Studio over the last few years.
We are grateful for support from the following contributors:
Arief Yudi Rahman, Loranita Damayanti, Arie Syarifuddin, Ismal Muntaha, Ayako Oki, Rei Maeda, Fram Kitagawa, Keiko Kudo, Kazuhiro Takeuchi, Ayumi Kawano, Eri Takasu, Ikuko Miyatani-Axiak, Mitsuyasu Omotani, Teruichi Ishibashi, Natalie Lo Lai Lai, Sedhapong Kirativongkamchon, Pisithpong Siraphisut, Po-Chih Huang, Maureen.
Situated in a valley on the banks of the Yoshino river, Yoshino Town is 60km south of Osaka in Nara Province. While famed for it’s annual Sakura; the profusion of springtime cherry blossom, this is Japan’s timber territory - the densest cedar planting in the world. The air is punctuated with the scent of resin, there’s a distant whir of band saws and wood smoke drifts vertically from the few remaining active timber mills. With the increased ubiquity of steel and concrete in domestic construction Yoshino witnessed a slump in timber demand which has had major impact on the local economy and community identity.
Yet despite the reduced output from the mills during the last few decades, timber tradition still runs deep in Yoshino and is deeply rooted in all aspects of life; the municipal office presents infants with wooden toys shortly after their birth and at Kindergarten children immerse in the learning about trees and uses for timber. At Junior High School students work with cypress to construct the desks that will accompany them through their entire learning journey. The desk then follows its creator on graduation from High School.
Like the majority of provincial towns throughout Japan, Yoshino suffers from the multiple challenges associated with an ageing population – 47% are over 65. This means it’s current population of 7600 is declining by the day. Add out migration of the younger generation to the urban centres and it’s clear that Yoshino is facing an existential crisis; the viability of economy and community life are at stake.
The Yoshino Cedar House was conceived as a showcase entrepreneurial project designed to address these urgent concerns by:
- Preserving and celebrating regional culture and tradition
- Strengthening the local economy through new income generation opportunities
- Connecting visitors to local community and Japanese rural life
- Reflecting the uniqueness of Yoshino as a timber destination
Built on the site where a timber inspection station once stood (logs were graded before continuing downstream to Osaka) the Cedar House has been designed to inspire an intimate connection to Yoshino’s narrative. Measuring 22m x 3m, both the interior and exterior are clad in local cedar and cypress creating a warm and still environment; a space for contemplation that intimately showcases the movement of grain and form highlighted by natural light. The ground floor forms the social area and is dominated by a 4.5m low table made from a single piece of cedar surrounded by seating recessed in the floor. The private accommodation space is on the first floor; two long and narrow rooms both with A framed windows maximising surise and sunset views over the river. The design throughout is exquisite; minimal and sensory.
The local community have been involved in the project since it’s inception; architects and designers worked closely with foresters, timber yards, carpenters and builders to realise the construction phase. The management of lettings is organised by 28 paid local hosts (50% from the timber industry) and local groups use the space for community provision – child care, homework groups and social meetings. Income from Airbnb lettings is re-invested in social initiatives – events, third age provision and equipment for the local fire station.
With Yoshino Cedar House acting as a successful interface between guest and community (activities include forest walks, visits to timber mills, sake distilleries, chopstick factories) it’s making significant strides towards attaining it’s long term vision - contributing to a vibrant rural community, revitalising tradition and providing new opportunity for it’s younger generation.
The decline of community life is felt hardest in rural Japan. Towns and villages are filled with empty homes, closed schools and abandoned businesses. Out migration and shrinking investment means these communities have little long term viability; they are simply dying. However, during the past decade an innovative programme of assistance has offered an economic lifeline.
Launched in 2008 the ‘Fursosato Nozei’ (literally meaning ‘hometown tax’) has eased the rural – urban economic disparity. The Furosato Nozei enables individuals to donate to a municipality of their choice (even if they were not born there). Donors see the amount pledged through their donations deducted from their national and municipal income taxes.
The effectiveness of the program is due in part to its reciprocal altruistic nature – beneficiaries of tax donations offer a selection of regional produce as gifts which are sent to donors to express gratitude. This reinforces a connection between urban and rural communities, creates an awareness of rural challenges and promotes a greater understanding of the processes involved in the production of rural goods. As well as diverting a record £190 million in 2016 to rural communities, the programme has reignited an interest in rural life and has been a major factor in the rise of domestic rural tourism. Some small towns have even witnessed a small population increase.
Satoyami Mirai has been a direct beneficiary of both the Furosato Nozei and the Rural Reactivating Initiative (a government scheme that offers grants to rural start-ups and incentivises urban residents to relocate to rural areas – currently 4000 beneficiaries are now in rural based projects) Established in 2014 as a non profit making organisation, Satoyami Mirai is based in the mountains of Kamiyama in central Shikoku province. Their mission is to ‘revitalise and enliven agricultural production’.
Traditionally, the region specialised in the production of the blue plum and sudachi lime with the former being highly valued as essential flavour component in sake. However during the past few decades the consumption of plum sake has diminished resulting in significantly reduced demand for the Kamiyama blue plum. In order to alleviate the challenges associated with reduced outputs faced by local producers, Satoyama Mirai worked with farmers to research traditional approaches that would effectively add value to local plum varieties. Various plum varieties and processes were investigated and, through additional research into market demand, Satoyami Mirai and the farmers revitalised the ancient technique of plum pickling. The pickling process, which takes at least six months, maximises the regions plum diversity and history to produce a highly bespoke end product that celebrates the depth and variety of plum flavour. Hand crafted boxes containing different varieties of plums (farmers and plum variety are profiled in each box) are dispatched to Furosato tax donors and supporters at the end of each season.
In addition to plum diversification activity, Satoyami Mirai works directly with 48 Tokyo-based restaurants to promote and supply Kamiyama’s sudachi lime. The sudachi lime is still a peripheral ingredient in urban areas yet it’s profile is on the increase due to a series of festivals and tasting events in the capital.
The Kamiyama Artist in Residence Program (KAIR) offers local and international artists the opportunity to immerse in and draw inspiration from Shikoku’s unique rural environment. Since it was first initiated in 1999 (in part motivated by Tokushima Prefectures concept of creating an International Culture Village), the programme has promoted a mutual cooperation between participating artists and local residents (KAIR has a policy of involving the community in the process of recruiting artists).
Kamiyama has a unique and enduring history of ningyo joruri (traditional puppetry) and an active community comprising of numerous artists, designers, craftsman, programmers and rural innovators. Programme artists are facilitated in their production by these local craftsmen and access raw materials sourced from the community (stone, paper, timber etc). They are supported by volunteers who are paired with the artists-in-residence to provide both practical support for the production of their work and support for the logistics of daily life.
As well as more ephemeral and temporary works this successful interaction has been instrumental to the creation of KAIR’s most enduring legacy – an extensive art trail which features work from more than fifty residency artists from seventeen countries. The trail leads the audience through Kamiyama’s unique landscape; a mountainside cedar forest, a traditional public bath fed by mineral-rich thermal waters, a disused school, verdant rice fields, an ancient theatre and a co-working satellite space. Local community members care and maintain for all aspects of the trail; path clearing, fence building and servicing the installations.
The trail reveals a smartphone-enabled torii gate (a traditional Japanese gate found at the entrance of a Shinto shrine) constructed with hundreds of waste speakers by Benoit Maubrey, a hidden library by Hideaki Idetsuki made of cedar wood where anyone who lives or works in Kamiyama can donate three books that have a had significant impact on their life, Charlotte McGowan-Griffin’s paper cutouts in the public bath inspired by local puppets shows and folk tales and Stuart Ian Frost’s dome made of interlinked bamboo pieces that organically emerges from the woodland.
The KAIR programme has been a successful catalyst for wider redevelopment and regeneration. Although it targets more visitors to the area to experience the residency’s outputs, the emphasis has focussed more on building capacity to sustain the community over increased short term footfall. The KAIR programme has enabled Kamiyama to present itself as a place that values exchange and creativity, which subsequently created increased interest in the village and led to the launch of a website detailing aspects of both the residency and wider community life. The website also included details on availability of vacant traditional properties for both residential and commercial use which drew both entrepreneurs and potential residents to Kamiyama.
This demand subsequently meant restructuring the KAIR project; in 2004 Green Valley was established as a non-profit corporation with a mission to ‘transform rural Japan into a wonderful place to be’. Green Valley became an umbrella organisation for Kamiyama’s initiatives; KAIR, Settlement and Interchange Support, Work in Residence, the Adopt Programme and the Office in Kamiyama Programme.
Despite the fact that over the last sixty years Kamiyama’s population has fallen from 21,000 to 5,400 and that the Japan Policy Council put it at very high risk of disappearing, Kamiyama’s in-migration now surpasses its out-migration (with 20-30 new people moving to the town every year). With the community now populated with bakeries, farm to table restaurants, guesthouses, shoe makers, tech hubs, young farmers and start-up entrepreneurs, today Kamiyama is a flourishing example of the transformative impact culture and art can have on a rural community.
The Oku-Noto Triennale is a new triennial taking place in and around Suzu, in the northern area of the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa prefecture on the northern coast of Japan. Organised and curated by Art Front, the organisation behind the successful rural Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, its first manifestation took place from 3 September to 22 October 2017.
Once a thriving trading port, the shift in transportation from sea to land left Suzu in decline and led to steep depopulation - declining from 38,000 to 15,000 over a 60 years period. The region, which is both remote and rural, is seen as one of the most isolated places in Japan and has limited public transportation infrastructure. Due to a drop in demand as of 2005 the private train line that runs to Anamizu (over 40km away) no longer continues to Suzu making the peninsula even harder to reach.
Faced with this decline the Chamber of Commerce proposed the idea of large-scale art event to the City of Suzu in 2013 and after a year of lobbying their suggestion was accepted and a budget of 3% of the city’s budget was allocated for the event. Art Front, whose track record of working in rural contexts and is internationally known, was then appointed to provide the artistic vision.
One of the aims of the resulting Oku-Noto Triennale was to revitalise the region by attracting more visitors to the area. The triennale encouraged visitors to experience the place in a new way by drawing them to otherwise overlooked places of local historical, geographical, industrial or social relevance beyond the usual tourist sites. It presented works by 39 artists utilising spaces both within the city of Suzu and across the peninsula. A number of sites included disused buildings such as; a mosaic tiled former public bathhouse dating back to 1952 where Japanese artists Shoko Aso and Yui Inoue presented installations (the former of foam and the latter of dyed fabric), an abandoned boat building workshop utilised by Taiwanese artist Bunpei Kado the doorway of which frames the landscape against which silhouettes are hung, a disused theatre where Yoshitaka Nanjo created an evocative time-based installation of sound and light, old train stations of the region where artists utilised the former waiting rooms and platforms, a derelict bar, and a closed school.
Other works referred to the industries of the region; the fishing industry referenced by Wu Chi-Tsung and Chen Shu-Chiang in their work Passing, the creation of Suzu-yaki pottery dating from the 11 th Century evoked by Liu Jiangshua’s Drifting Landscape of Suzu-yaki ceramic and Jingdezhen pottery presented as if washed up on the shoreline, the production of diatomite grills in the Noto Aburi Project and agehama salt production in Chiharu Shiota’s work.
Artists also drew on the natural beauty of the landscape and the emphasis on satoyama satoumi /the conservation of human-influenced natural environments including; Chiharu Shiota’s The boat which carries time, a work that referred to the agehama salt production tradition, a boat sculpture by Allora and Calzadilla that was located on the seashore and a shrine sculpture made out of plastic waste washed up on the shore by Takafumi Fukasawa.
As well as the short-term aim of attracting visitors to the region the city also sees the initiative as part of a wider strategy, which includes their Satoyama Satoumi Masters porgramme run in collaboration with Kanazawa University, to promote the resources and opportunities in the region thereby encouraging young people to move there.
The longer-term impact of the triennale is yet to be seen and will become apparent after a number of iterations but the bold move by the city to stage the triennale and to invest £2.5 million on the first triennale (75% of which came from the city’s own budget) as well as the community’s support, as demonstrated by its extensive volunteer programme, signals an awareness of the need to revitalise the region.