Tohoku Update: A change of art

How a new arts festival is aiming to become a symbol of recovery from the triple disasters of 2011

By Nick Narigon

It was the longest four days of Tatsuo Miyajima’s life. The vice president of Tohoku University of Art and Design was in the Kanto area when the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit. It took four long days for him to return to the Yamagata campus in northern Japan and confirm that his students were safe.

Miyajima, one of Japan’s most renowned contemporary artists, was soon getting his hands dirty – raking mud out of tsunami-stricken homes in nearby Ishinomaki. Once the immediate tasks were complete, the 60-year-old turned his mind to how he could use his talents to help the area rebuild.

‘I had always wanted to contribute to Tohoku in some way as an artist,’ says Miyajima. ‘I started thinking about creating an artwork to both embolden and repose people.’ He wasn’t alone – and the Reborn Art Festival is the result.

Over the course of 51 days, from this July 22 to September 10, approximately 200,000 people are expected to descend upon the Oshika Peninsula, the closest landmark to the earthquake’s epicentre, for the Reborn Art Festival. The festival blends the works of world-class artists, including Miyajima, with masterclasses from Japan’s top chefs and local artisans, all soundtracked by performances from some of the country’s best live bands.

Takeshi Kobayashi's Bank Band

‘This is a festival with many elements,’ says spokesperson Emiko Suzuki. ‘We want to cheer up the people who live here, but also have an economic effect.’ ‘The damage was serious, but we thought we could support the revival of the area through the power of art and music,’ continues Suzuki. ‘The local people told us directly that they want people to come and visit.’

Reborn Art Festival draws on the theories of Shinichi Nakazawa, a director at Meiji University, who was the first to suggest that an art festival would have a long-lasting impact on Tohoku.

Nakazawa says the goal of the festival is to affect all aspects of life for Tohoku residents, including technology, economy and ecology. ‘Tohoku should not rebuild [in the sense of returning to the original], but must advance to create something new,’ says Nakazawa. ‘Reborn aims to help Tohoku open up potential possibilities and move forward.’

But the festival would not have happened if it hadn’t been for music producer and social activist Takeshi Kobayashi. Known for his work with pop-rock icons Mr. Children, in 2003 Kobayashi, along with others, provided the seed money for AP Bank, a money-lending mechanism for organisations dedicated to environmental causes.

AP Bank was already conducting charity work in Ishinomaki, where the elevation was lowered 1.2 metres by the tsunami, so putting Nakazawa’s ideas into practice there was a natural choice. To complete the circle, Kobayashi’s Bank Band, fronted by Mr. Children singer Kazutoshi Sakurai, will headline Reborn.

The event will be a sprawling affair with the Oshika Peninsula serving as the main site, while other events will be held in Ishinomaki City and surrounding towns, including the fishing village of Onagawa, which lost 70 percent of its buildings under 15m waves in 2011.

Tatsuo Miyajima's 'Sea of Time'

Miyajima aims to reflect the region’s complicated relationship with the tide in his art installation, titled ‘Sea of Time’. The project, made with assistance from Tohoku artists who were affected by the disaster, entails a series of LED lights installed at the bottom of a pool displaying a continual countdown from 9 to 1.

‘The people of Tohoku had always lived together with the sea. And even when the sea took everything from them, they did not hold resentment towards it,’ says Miyajima. ‘We are helping them to create the future.'

The Reborn Art Festival takes place July 22-September 10 in Ishinomaki City and surroundings.