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Revitalizing Rural Japan: the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale
Multinational Crowds Throng to Art Festival in Niigata Prefecture

More than 500,000 Visitors

The Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale is a spectacularly successful example of energizing regional revitalization with art. Depopulation has enervated vast swaths of the Japanese countryside, and Japan’s national and local governments are undertaking diverse initiatives targeted at revitalizing cities, towns, and villages in nonurban regions of the nation.

Art festivals bring a distinctively cosmopolitan flavor to the measures for rekindling cultural, economic, and social vitality in the Japanese countryside. Japan’s two biggest regional art festivals are the Setouchi Triennale and the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale. The former takes place on 12 islands and at two seaside ports in the Seto Inland Sea, and the latter in southern Niigata Prefecture in the city of Tōkamachi and the town of Tsunan.

The latest of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale took place this year, while the Setouchi Triennale will be held in 2016. Niigata is subject to heavy winter snows, so the organizers of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale schedule it for the summer months. This year’s event, the sixth, opened on July 26 and ran until September 13. It presented some 380 works by artists and teams of artists from 35 nations and regions, drawing more than 500,000 visitors.

The 2015 festival unfolded across 10 sites that comprised about 760 square kilometers. Twice-daily guided tours afforded visitors the option of navigating the expansive grounds in the summer heat aboard air-conditioned buses.

Supplementing the triennale’s appeal for visitors are the scenic attractions of the Tōkamachi Basin. Highlighting those attractions is a breathtaking system of river terraces that snake through a vast canyon.

Hands-On Experience

The triennale’s general director, Kitagawa Fram, characterizes the event as “a place for interchange between people and nature, between cities and the countryside, between the living and the dead, between the familiar and the unfamiliar.”

Kitagawa has headed the event since its inauguration in 2000, striving prodigiously to tug the Japanese public away from urban museums and galleries and out into the countryside. He has proselytized famously for tapping the power of art to invite attention anew to the distinctive identity of different regions.

The triennale has reawakened visitors to the symbiosis with nature that traditionally underlay village life in Japan. It has highlighted, too, the role of craftsmanship in Japanese society. And Kitagawa has worked effectively to foster a sense of solidarity in and among rural communities.

In the official 2015 guidebook, Kitagawa insists that the festival is “more a journey to be experienced than an exhibition merely to be viewed.” A spirit of camaraderie arises between the artists and the members of the community through the process of erecting or installing the works. Elderly residents evince renewed vigor as they watch the work progress. And the young and youngish artists blend into the community during their stay, imparting creative energy through their work.

Kitagawa returns to his “journey” metaphor in describing his hopes for contributing to revitalizing the triennale’s host communities. “This is a journey through time and space via the lifestyles and pastoral symbiosis mediated by the works.” Kitagawa is expressing confidence in the potential for drawing people back to the countryside and for moderating the depopulation and demographic aging that afflict rural Japan.

The attendance figures for 2015 attested to the undertaking’s continuing success in attracting people to the countryside. Among the regular visitors are a growing number of non-Japanese. Before the advent of the triennale, its rural sites rarely figured in the itineraries of foreign visitors to Japan. So the international complexion of the turnout is further evidence of the festival’s value in revitalizing its host communities.

  • [2015.10.13]
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