Japan’s Hidden Social Problems

On February 26th 2018, Professor Adrian Favell and Vincent Mirza kicked off their lecture “Japon : comment gérer et vivre dans une société post-croissance” (Japan: How to manage and live in a post-growth society) at the Université de Montréal with familiar images. Doraemon, Pikachu, Prime Minister

Shinzo Abe as Super Mario
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dressed up as Super Mario makes an appearance during the closing ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics on Aug. 21, 2016. (Kyodo). Photo by Deohayer

Shinzo Abe announcing the Tokyo Olympics as Super Mario… This is part of the “Cool Japan” branding Japan wants to world to see. Behind the bright futuristic Tokyo lights, manga, anime lies the side of Japan the Japanese want to hide: failed modernity. Through postmodern art, Professor Favell showed the modernity artists reject: the one that fails to protect Japan from natural disasters, the one that empties the countryside, and the one that causes the youth to withdraw.

Modernity Powerless Before Natural Disasters

Professor Favell focused on art produced after 2009: “Fukushima heavily affected the people of Japan”. The three major natural disasters of 2011 showed the Japanese no technology, no concrete walls can protect their country from earthquakes, tsunamis, and power plants such as Fukushima exploding. Toyo Ito and his group of fellow architects answered the fears with the House for all (mina no ie). It was presented at the Japanese pavilion of the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale. The objective was to help the residents of Rikuzentakata, which was destroyed by the tsunami, reconnect with nature as well as with each other as a community.

Leaving the Country for Tokyo

“In Japan, there are 8 million abandoned homes in the countryside”, said Professor Favell. Natural disasters are not the only reason the Japanese leave the country: there are more employment opportunities in big cities such as Tokyo. Professor Favell humorously referred to the island of Momoshima: “The people are moving away and the island is being invaded by boars, cats, crows and spiders.” Schools, factories, and hospitals in small villages are abandoned because most of the residents left there are elderly women. Some artists such as Chiharu Shiota highlight this rural exodus with works such as Farther Memory, a tunnel built to commemorate the last birth in the village of Ko, in Teshima. Other artists such as Yanagi Yukinari bring their students to rural areas. This serves two purposes: getting students to appreciate rural areas, and breaking the isolation of the elderly. But isolation is not just a problem affecting the elderly.

Isolation of Japan’s Youth

The youth of Japan are highly educated but can’t find work even when they move to big cities. Fewer Japanese people get married and fewer have children. These problems stem from the bubble economy of the 1980s, the lost decade (1990s–2000s), and the debt crisis. Because of this, youths tend to isolate themselves and retreat from society. “Economists call these youths ‘make inu’ (loser dogs), ‘parasite singles’, and ‘hikikomori’ (people who withdraw socially)”, says Professor Favell. Some artists who are labelled these things founded the Shibu House. It is a collective renting a house in the Shibuya Ward of Tokyo. Other artists such as Kyohei Sakaguchi, as a response to the economic crises of Japan, wrote the Zero Yen House, a book on how to live without money.

Is Art a Solution?

The Japanese are truly concerned about their image on the world stage. The postmodern artists Professor Favell presented draw attention to the social and economic problems Japan is ashamed of. Professor Favell himself said that some methods the artists have been using as solutions to these social problems work more or less well. However, this artistic activism has an effect that can soothe the anxieties cause by ills of Japanese modernity: it brings people together.

National Japanese Pavilion
A piece from Japanese pavilion of the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale by Toyo Ito et. al. in the same spirit as the house for all. Photo by Dalbera.











If you like contemporary Japanese art, follow the link below to Adrian Favell’s book.

Adrian Favell’s Before and After Superflat (from his own website)



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