[Viewpoint]Out-of-the-box thinking turns island to art

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[Viewpoint]Out-of-the-box thinking turns island to art

‘Why is this pumpkin here?” Naoshima is a small island town in the Seto Inland Sea, a remote part of the Kagawa Prefecture between Honshu and Shikoku, Japan, with a population of around 3,470. The first thing that caught my eye when I arrived at the island about a month ago was a large pumpkin sculpture sitting on the end of a dock at its port.
The pumpkin is 4 meters (more than 13 feet) high with a diameter of 7 meters at its widest. It’s a shame that I only found out later that it is the work of an internationally renowned contemporary Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama.
The triangular traffic signs, huge trash bins and wooden boats on this island are all artworks. It was as if the island itself was turned into a work of art. There was another shock waiting for me. When I entered the hotel restaurant for dinner, I was surprised to find that it was full of foreigners and conversation filled the room in a variety of languages. Of course, I myself was a foreigner, too. Tourists from all over the world are flocking to this small island, with a circumference of only16 kilometers (9 miles), to see nothing but the very ordinary scenery of a secluded island.
During my visit, hotel reservations were said to be fully booked for more than three months. The number of tourists visiting the island was merely 20,000 to 30,000 just five years ago, but climbed above 190,000 last year. This is more than 55 times larger than the population of the island. Needless to say, most of the tourists are foreigners. As word about the island has spread, it has become a candidate location for the shooting of a 007 blockbuster movie.
What is it that makes this island so popular all of a sudden? In fact, it’s not something that has taken place suddenly, but the result of an 18-year-old “Naoshima project.”
The Naoshima of today was made possible by the self-sacrificing investment of Benesse Corporation, the largest publishing and education-related business group in Japan, to develop Naoshima as a place where children and people from all over the world could come and enjoy major works of contemporary art in a natural setting. An international children’s camping ground was established on the island in 1989, and in 1992, an art museum combined with lodging facilities called the “Benesse House” was constructed. In 2004, Benesse proudly opened an “underground art gallery,” which was designed by internationally renowned architect Tadao Ando. Benesse transformed the outlying island town into a living and breathing “island of the arts.”
The island has earned the appellation “nao,” a Chinese character denoting honesty and innocence, because its people are noted for honesty and simplicity.
Was the “Miracle of Naoshima” possible with the construction of a few museums?
Haruki Danaka, 76, a volunteer tourist guide, says, “Not at all. Why would we want strangers on our island? However, we had no choice but to change our minds because they made it possible for us to develop the island independently and provided us job opportunities.”
Starting in 1998, Benesse restored more than 200 old wooden houses in Naoshima that were practically abandoned, and transformed them into artwork. It was called the “house project.” Inside the houses, the artists installed artwork created with the direct participation of local residents. It was an island development project where traditional and modern arts co-existed and the residents directly participated. All came out with their sleeves rolled up to help out, including grandpas and grandmas. They voluntarily cleaned streets and decorated their porches with flowers. A change of paradigm has taken place throughout the island.
In 2003, Naoshima accepted a proposal to build a disposal facility for industrial waste from Deshima, an island 5 kilometers away. All other local autonomous organizations in the region staunchly opposed the plan to build a waste depot in their area, but Naoshima was different, because it had already experienced reviving things seemingly worthless and seeing them changed into art. Perhaps it is thanks to this out-of-the-box way of thinking that the average per capita income of Naoshima ranked first out of 35 local administrative districts in Kagawa Prefecture, according to data announced in March.
Let us take a look at the situation in Korea. Korea’s tourism income is decreasing each year. Foreigners who visit Korea once hesitate to come again. They say there is not much to see in Korea.
But how can there be not much to see in Korea? There is Hong Island, which is a natural monument in itself, and the scenery of Jindo Island or Bogil Island is sure to be better than Naoshima; there are countless other beautiful places in Korea. The problem is the will for development. There is limited support from the government, which normally stops at providing a push.
I hope Korean businessmen will visit Naoshima and learn from the bold and creative minds of Benesse. Let’s learn a lesson from the development of Naoshima, and create a “Miracle of Hong Island” and a “Miracle of Bogil Island.”

*The writer is the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Hyun-ki
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