• Jan. 09, 2020

  • “New Crafts”: appealing to a matured society

  • Interview with Yuji Akimoto,
    Director of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music

    photographer YUBA HAYASHI
    translator ELAINE CZECH

Director, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music

Yuki Akimoto

Director and professor at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Director of the Nerima Art Museum, Specially Appointed Director of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, and Emeritus Professor at the Tainan National University of the Arts.


Born in Tokyo in 1955. After graduating from the Department of Painting at Tokyo University of the Arts, from 1991 to 2006, he was involved with Benesse Art Site project on Naoshima. Since 2004, he has been the director of the Chichu Art Museum and Artistic Director of Benesse Art Site Naoshima. Additionally, from 2007 till March 2017, he was the Director of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa.




“Naoshima” and “Kanazawa’s 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art.” Many people have heard of the names of these two places. Naoshima is widely known as a sacred place for art, and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa is a major tourist attraction for the area.


Yuji Akimoto, whom is the subject of this interview, played a major role in these two places. In university, he majored in oil painting at Tokyo University of the Arts. After graduating, he worked as an art writer and joined Benesse in 1991. Since then, he has helped to develop the pilgrimage worthy site of contemporary art on the island of Naoshima in Kagawa Prefecture. Bringing excitement to the art scene.


Currently, since 2015, he has been the director of Tokyo University of the Arts in Ueno.

This will mark the third year since leaving the position of director of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa. But after 25 years of working in two distinct regions, the Setouchi islands and the Hokuriku region, I believe Akimoto must have acquired a unique knowledge about how culture plays a role in establishing local identity. 


“Culture is something that envelopes our lives. Sure, economic policies are important, of course, but whether it was with Naoshima or Kanazawa, Fukutake (the President Benesse: then), Miyake (the Mayor Naoshima: then), Yamade (the Mayor Kanazawa: at that time), we all believed “The need culture not for tourism, but for shaping the local identity.”


With Naoshima, the islanders are introducing their experiences and feelings through their work. The purpose wasn’t just meant to be a more “comprehensive” commentary on the authors or their works, but rather a way for audiences to get a direct look at how the artists’ produces their work. By understanding that, when an audience member looks at the work, they are able to feel the real connection and life that has created between the artwork and the land itself.


Overwhelming unconstrained contemporary art

To begin with, Akimoto became interested in contemporary art because from an early age he had many opportunities to interact with a variety of art forms, such as the theater and performance. Among these art forms, Akimoto said that he particularly loved contemporary art because “there are no restrictions on expression.” Despite being an “unconstrained” art, there are some restrictions due to conventional art materials and motifs. Still, Akimoto longed to be free of these restrictions and admired contemporary art which seemed to be able to create a world of its own.

In the 1980s, after enrolling at the University of the Arts, he spent time with classmates who were “not satisfied with the status quo and were not willing to live like other people.” During this era the world was in the midst of a bubble economy. This economic influence allowed contemporary art gradually capture global interest. In the 1980s and into the early 1990s, contemporary Japanese art was introduced to Europe. With globalism as a catalyst, countries across Europe began to adopt more open policies, weakening interstate boundaries readying for EU integration.

 “I think it might be a European situation, but as globalization advances and multiculturalism ideas emerge, curators of European museums in the United Kingdom and Germany are taking more and more interest in Japan and conducting research. Probably this interest in the modernization of Japanese and South Korean art is because our cultural roots are very different from Western counterparts.”



Akimoto explained to me the the state of contemporary Japanese art in the 1980s and early 2000s.

“The art movements (* 1) represented by the 1960s and 1970s were mainly in Europe and the United States. It was something that was across the sea. If you were in Japan, the only way to view such works was through art magazines such as “Art Notebook” (published by Art Publishing Company). For someone like me to show off my work, I’d have to rent gallery space in Kanda or Ginza. At that time, Japanese contemporary art just roamed around through rented gallery spaces. Not only the artists, but also the curators, art reporters and critics slowly gathered in order to create the art community.”

There were many galleries for rent, but it wasn’t until the 80s when commercial galleries dealing with contemporary art.

From that time on, Japanese contemporary art began to attract more and more attention from overseas. From the United Kingdom, David Elliott, who later became the first director of the Mori Art Museum, promptly came to Japan to study. His goal was to bring Japanese contemporary art to the Oxford Museum of Modern Art, where, at the time, he was the director. Elliott’s efforts led to the introduction of contemporary Japanese art to Europe. Since then the situation has changed dramatically in Japan and abroad, with young Japanese artists being introduced at the Venice Biennale’s Aperto (* 2) and elsewhere. Prior to that Biennale, the exhibition’s in Venice had only been the Japan Pavilion, which was mainly about representing Japan as a country not necessarily art.  During the 90’s it became common for Japanese artists to participate in international exhibitions. By the year 2000, artists have participated in international exhibitions in places like South America, Southeast Asia and China. “It was a time when I thought, even while in Japan I am in the center of the international art scene,” Akimoto recalled.



(* 1) “Fluxus”, which attempts to make art out of everyday actions, “Alte Povera”, which uses newspapers and unprocessed stones, “Minimalism”, which minimizes expression in works, and “Conceptualism” that places the highest importance on thoughts and intentions.

(* 2) Biennial Young Artists Category

Biennale impact

 At the time, artists in their mere twenties, such as Tatsuo Miyajima, Yasumasa Morimura, and Tomoaki Ishihara, now all considered masters, were suddenly selected to participate in various international art exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale.

“It was as shocking. Like a girl walking down the streets and suddenly being discovered for a Hollywood debut (laughs). Success turned out to have nothing to do ‘taking it one step at a time or paying dues as a writer’ as I had previously thought. It was all about the moment. ”

 Miyajima told me this at a later date. He had been in a cafe after setting up some works and over heard “Well, I guess we are on the international league now.” A group of people who had overseen the setting up were discussing a table over from him. And he realized, they were talking about the art business.

At the Biennale there were not just artists but museum directors, curators, galalists and collectors. That the exhibition had not been a final goal but actually the starting point. Now I think, no doubt, the Venice Biennale helped kick things off.


Below, photo by Tatsuo Miyajima (Photo courtesy of Tatsuo Miyajima Office)

SEA OF TIME, 1988, Installation view at Hara Musuem, Photo Tadashi Hirose (Tatsuo Miyajima Office)

COUNTER LINE No.2 1989 (Tatsuo Miyajima Office)

Counter Circle 1993 (Tatsuo Miyajima Office)

In the 1980s and 1990s Japanese society was opened to the world. Japanese contemporary art such as Tatsuo Miyajima, Yasumasa Morimura and Tomoaki Ishihara, as well as Tadashi Kawamata and Toyomi Hoshina took the led, followed by Yukinori Yanagi and Takashi Murakami. One after another they emerged and debuted overseas. But not only artists, but also many great Japanese curators such as Nobuo Nakamura, Fumio Nanjo, Akira Tatehata, Eriko Osaka, and Yuko Hasegawa sprang out into the world.

“I think the late 80’s and 90’s were a time when the world changed dramatically. As globalism and multiculturalism expanded, the focus on Europe and the United States as the center shifted, and various people began to get involved. This atmosphere that art is found equally throughout the world arose.”

But I should clarify, when Akimoto talked about “various people” he meant that not only were artists, curators and galleries from various countries getting involved, but also regular people living in the towns.

In fact, at the exhibition “Chambre Dami (Friend’s House)” (curator: Jan Hoot / Ghent) in Ghent, Belgium in 1986, it was the citizens who provided the exhibition space and participated as management staff, which allowed for the art became a work by “everyone.”  

Additionally, in the 1989 “The Magicians of the Earth” exhibition (curator: Jean Hubert Martin / Center Pompidou), intermixed contemporary art, African masks, and Asian mandala. By the way, four artists participated in the exhibition “The Magicians of the Earth,” included Hiroshi Teshigahara, Tatsuo Miyajima, Atsushi Kawahara, Tatsuo Kawaguchi. While it seems obvious to state, the significance of these two exhibitions should not be taken lightly. 

Innovative at the time, the keywords used to describe the “Chambre Dami:” site-specific, installation, participatory art, as well as those used about “The Magicians of the Earth:” postcolonialism, multiculturalism, primitiveism, etc. are now common descriptors used today. 

The internationalized Japanese art boom of the 90s carried through to early 2000, with the flourish of contemporary art museums. To begin with in 1990 came the Mito Art Museum in Ibaraki Prefecture, then with Akimoto at the reigns 2004 saw the Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima in July, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa in October, and the National Museum of Art in Osaka in November. And with that, contemporary art permeated society. 

The main visitors to such museums were young people in their 20s and 30s. With the advent of the Museum of Contemporary Art, these visitors found they were able to enjoy contemporary art despite not having any prior knowledge. The seeds for appreciating contemporary art began to grow. Contemporary art was featured in cultural and lifestyle magazines, and introduced on the NHK art program “Sunday Museum.” Contemporary art has changed from something “limited to only those with specific knowledge” to a means of “intellectual play for ordinary people,” mused Akimoto. 

The Chichu Art Museum had about 70,000 visitors when it first opened, but in 2016 they had about 180,000 visitors. While the number of visitors to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa in 2018 increased from about 1 million to 2.58 million. I think it is safe to say that contemporary art has become popular.

Craft Power, Japan

In July of 2018, Akimoto published his book, Naoshima Birth, (Discover Twenty One). In his book he describes the development of “Art Spot Naoshima.” The efforts taken to not only draw out the essence of art, but also how to communicate contemporary art as local property. And so I wonder, as a person who has worked on so many art projects, is there any one thing that Akimoto seems to be constantly aware of?

I care very much about how people share their values. It’s still the hardest thing to do. People think based on their own experience, even if we all hear or see the same thing we are attracted to certain things based on our experiences. It’s important to balance any discrepancies that can occur between people with different backgrounds.

In the past, we were able to understand each other by living together. However, with globalization bringing with it a variety of cultures and feelings, the range of our exchanges has expanded. So when you start to communicate only with words, it is too ambiguous and what you mean to convey is lost. “If you try to convey details through the boundaries of words, your expression will be cut off.”

 To understand what cannot be expressed by words, is perhaps something that can only be understood by those in a close-knit society. Much like that which exists in Naoshima or is created through sub-culture communities. 

“However, currently societies strive to be open.”

More and more openness is become the norm, and because of this society’s values are relativized. Starting to feel the limits of globalism, Akimoto called for two exhibitions at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa: “Design and Crafts Boundary” and “Future Crafts” which focused on locality and craftsmanship. 

“Globalism, multiculturalism, have helped to spread contemporary art around the world. While the context has become somewhat unified, at the same time we still can’t break away from Western dominance.As contemporary art becomes mainstream, the markets will be there and prices will rise. But the result will be that only the rich, so-called social winners, can enjoy it. But the real world is not just theirs, right? That is like trying to survive on weak meat. Society can’t be sustained if only the top tier is able to be understood and valued. That is why focusing on “globalization” is ultimately unilateral. That’s why I believe we can live in an open society, but should never really be completely open.

As more and more societies open up, they pursue free economies to fulfill our human desires which has lead to overwhelming wealth disparity.  As a result, movement against globalism have also appeared. Such as British withdrawal from the EU and Trump’s Americanism, countries are placing themselves as priority resulting in much “conflict.” 

 “It’s a difficult time, but it’s about choosing globalism or localism, we have to find a third way,” said Akimoto.


By looking at the seemingly conservative crafts from a different point of view, we can see a new possibility to stop globalism and localism.

Craft waves are also happening in Western Europe. Various Craft Biennale projects have been launched, with Spanish leather brands hosting the Loewe Craft Prize. 2016 marked the first Biennale which was held in Spain and the second was held in the UK, and for some reason the third time was held in Japan and Tokyo. Why didn’t they choose a Europe or American location? When Akimoto asked the officials, they said, Because Japan is a craft power.

 In fact, this year’s winners of craft exhibition were works by Japanese artists. Although different from crafts, global interest in folk art from Japan, known as “MINGEI,” has also increased. Rather than telling a concept or a story like art, the MINGEI work itself is empowered and able to convey meaning through its appearance alone. For this, the Japanese approach to manufacturing is highly valued. That is why “the potential of Japan is quite high.”

 Says Akimoto,”“I think that thinking of art as technical skill is a characteristically Japanese. There is a pursuit for precision that is seen throughout the arts. A desire to be able to convey a concept through the labor.” Possible this is due to the nature of crafting history which has always been intertwined with the rise of technology.


New frontier, new craft

 It is said that the wave of handicrafts coming from Western Europe to Japan is similar to the wave of contemporary art in the 1980s. Which may be the key to our search for a way out of an over-matured society. Akimoto says that “crafts are a new frontier.” A countermeasure for art that is overly dependent on concept, like slow food being the counter for fast food or organic farming for pesticide reliant agriculture. It is an ideology of “crafts”, just as slow food and organic farming are a kind of ideology.

 “Firstly, crafts require materials as a prerequisite.And, materials are of nature and eventually decay. Meaning there are physical limitations. Also, technology is necessary. The good thing about having such limitations is that it can curb human fantasies and desires. On the other hand, there are disadvantages.In order for crafts to be viable, an ecological recycling-based society based in community with shared values is important. It is also important that we don’t allow for overconsumption due to oversaturation”

In order not to be a mere consumer good, it must become a part of life. But it is difficult to make such ideals work in today’s society where consumption is key. However, crafts have a history of blending into our lives and in various places are still being handed down generationally. But few are still barely left. Akimoto then talked about his dream of rediscovering the goodness of craft and adapting it to the times.

 As noted, Akimoto was heavily involved in the Art Spot Naoshima. An American curator visited Naoshima and said to him, “Contemporary art on Naoshima looks quite idyllic.” The various works that spot Naoshima were created by contemporary art masters such as Yayoi Kusama, Walter de Maria, and James Turrell. Their works are rather minimalistic and conceptual, not exactly what one would call idyllic. However, when placed in a location like Naoshima, even such works take on a serenity. “That’s probably what Naoshima does,” replied Akimoto. Seto Inland calm sea and island life. Art linked to the culture and history of Naoshima is able to look like that.


When we think about the future of art, “region” as a place to establish art may become important once again.

 The possibilities of things to change are infinite. How will the individuality that has cultivated independently in various parts of Japan be able to relate to the world and form a society in the future? And how will Akimoto introduce the such new crafts that have been formed to society? 


Director, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music

Yuki Akimoto Profile

Director and professor at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Director of the Nerima Art Museum, Specially Appointed Director of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, and Emeritus Professor at the Tainan National University of the Arts. Born in Tokyo in 1955. After graduating from the Department of Painting at Tokyo University of the Arts, from 1991 to 2006, he was involved with Benesse Art Site project on Naoshima. Since 2004, he has been the director of the Chichu Art Museum and Artistic Director of Benesse Art Site Naoshima. Additionally, from 2007 till March 2017, he was the Director of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa. Some of his previous exhibitions and projects include “Naoshima House Project”, “Naoshima Standard I, II”, “Kanazawa Art Platform 2008”, “Kanazawa World Craft Triennale”, “Future Crafts”, “Koji Kakinuma’s Book Path”, and “Yuichi Inoue Exhibition.” He was a visiting professor at Akita Public Art University from April 2013 to March 2017 and at Tokyo University of the Arts from April 2013 to March 2015. Since 2018 he has been a member of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games Organizing Committee for Culture and Education and acting Director of the Asian Cultural Council Nippon Foundation. He is author of two new books, one produced by Shogakukan, “Traveling in Contemporary Art in the Japanese Archipelago” and the other “Kanazawa of Surprise” (a Kodansha Plus α), as well as “Birth of Naoshima” (Discovery Twenty One), “Weapons and Intellectual Education-Western Art Appreciation” (Yamato Bookstores), and “Intellectual Education at a Glance @ Appreciation of Japanese Art”, (Daiwa Shoten), just to name a few. 

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