Origin Myths

Wells on Naoshima.


By A. D. McCormick

For generations the residents of Naoshima drew their water out of wells. Deep below the island villages, underground aquifers provided a steady supply of fresh water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. As the island population rose to nearly 8,000 in 1958, local agriculture and fishing quickly became insufficient to feed the town, and products imported from the mainland kept the people nourished. But the water they drank was local, hoisted or pumped from the cold, dark lakes deep below. In this way, the island grew and thrived. There was a problem, however: the water smelled terrible.

The layers of minerals whose slow filtration kept the groundwater pure had a notable downside, leaving traces that were unmistakable to residents on the surface. It was clean, healthy, and reliable, but it reeked of sulfur. The people grinned and bore it, because what choice did they have? Shipping water to the island was impractical, and building a pipeline from the prefectural capital on mainland Shikoku, an hourlong ferry ride away, even more so.

Chikatsugu “Shinren” Miyake.

Enter Chikatsugu Miyake. Miyake, known locally as Shinren, was mayor of Naoshima from 1959 to 1995, as well as priest of the island’s main Shinto shrine. No mere politician, Shinren was a forceful influence on the town and a major, if largely unsung, contributor to its current destination status. But we were talking about the water.

Shinren smelled the water just as well as anyone, and at some point decided the grin-and-bear-it period was done. Knowing support from distant Shikoku would not come, he took a different approach. Neighboring Okayama Prefecture was much closer, and though it was in a different government jurisdiction, he saw a glimmer of possibility there. So he invited the mayor of the nearby city of Tamano to Naoshima, and served him tea.

Of course, the tea was made with local water, and when the visiting mayor sipped it, he was revolted. He exclaimed, “You people can’t continue drinking this water!”

When he returned home, he began lobbying for a pipeline to bring water to the factory island to the south. Within a few years, it was built, and Naoshima soon stopped using its wells.

I heard this story secondhand; it was told to my partner by an old man on Naoshima who once worked for Shinren, and he may very well have been free with the facts. But whether it is true to the last detail, a complete fabrication, or something in between is, I think, not really that important. Call it a local myth. The real value is to remind us that, when we think of little places around the world like Naoshima that seem to lack much intrinsic power, we should use caution when assigning responsibility for major events to outside forces.

Naoshima is now a major tourism success story. [Read more here.] By some counts, half a million people or more visit its art attractions every year. This tourist boom has created a new sector of businesses in what was once a strictly heavy-industry and fishing economy. The quirky shops and restaurants and the visitors who patronize them have added vibrancy and an almost cosmopolitan quality to the island that has even encouraged a trickle of younger people to immigrate, and some natives to stay who might have otherwise left. Even as the island’s population continues to slowly shrink and age, it’s possible to imagine a stable future and a continued vitality, an unlikely scenario in many neighboring municipalities.

This success has drawn much commentary from within Japan and around the world, all of which invariably points to outsiders as the change agents, particularly the billionaire investor-philanthropist Soichiro Fukutake and his star team of artists and consultants. Some accounts (particularly the official ones) paint Fukutake as the visionary donor bringing his extraordinary creations to life as part of a benevolent revitalization plan. A writer at Forbes went so far as to credit Fukutake with transforming “what were dying industrial waste dumps into a glamorous destination for art lovers.”

The “dying industrial waste dump” of Naoshima.

Others less generously give him puppet master qualities, suggesting he built his legacy on the backs of desperate locals who made a devil’s bargain for survival.

So what does this have to do with the well water?

In 1987, Fukutake’s father bought the land that would over the ensuing decades be developed with the multiple Tadao Ando-designed concrete museum buildings that adorn it today. Seventeen years earlier, Shinren was already working with a different prestige architect, Kazuhiro Ishii, to design new elementary and middle schools at the center of the island, part of his grand, decades-long rezoning plan that drastically and permanently altered the built and “natural” environments of the island. Schools that were once scattered among communities were brought to a previously undeveloped, central location, uniting villages on the east and west coasts in a “Cultural” corridor that cut across the island’s middle. Above this zone, the Mitsubishi Materials factory and related enterprises lodged between stark, treeless hills were collectively labeled the “Economic” zone. And to the south, a fertile and forested area with a small stretch of mostly fallow or abandoned farmland, was to become a third zone for tourism—eventually.

The Kazuhiro Ishii-designed elementary school on Naoshima.

In other words, long before the billionaire came to town, the town was already undergoing radical change, led by local interests. That Shinren died shortly after the first “art house,” Kadoya, opened in 1998, and five years before the opening of Chichu Art Museum “triggered the shift from niche to mass tourism”[1] in 2004, is almost irrelevant. The groundwork he laid is impossible to overstate, and it is impossible to imagine Naoshima’s successes today without it.

In the particular origin myth offered by the Fukutake Foundation, Chikatsugu Miyake is mentioned, at least in passing, as part of the project’s origin. However, while Fukutake is quick to recognize Shinren as well as his father, their contributions are cast as a first phase bearing little resemblance to what would follow. Indeed, in 1995, after the elder Fukutake’s death and around the time Shinren retired, the Fukutake Corporation was renamed Benesse, and soon thereafter, what had been the Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum became Benesse House, part of Benesse Art Site Naoshima. With this rebranding that seemed to encompass the entire island, Fukutake made a bold claim of ownership of the island’s new phase.

Today, it seems that much of the world takes this claim at face value, for better or worse. While many tourists visiting Naoshima do not know what Benesse is, the word’s ubiquitous presence on signage, flyers, brochures, and the sides of buses draws a clear line from the contemporary art that people have come to see to the corporate entity that sponsors it. Outside commentators point to the “top-down” interventions of Benesse on the island as evidence of foreign influence pushing aside local identity and agency to draw regular tourist crowds. There is merit to this analysis—for example, though the island's iconic yellow Yayoi Kusama pumpkin, set on the museum grounds, appears in blog posts and travel guides around the world, the town office is forbidden to use photographs of it without first getting permission from Benesse. The rest of us are under no such limitation, putting the town at a very particular and seemingly nonsensical disadvantage.

I can use a photo like this without permission from Benesse Holdings, but the town of Naoshima can’t.

Such power imbalances on Naoshima now cannot negate the fact that Naoshima’s future was set in motion decades ago by local forces, culminating in a special and reciprocal arrangement between public and private sectors that has played a central (if still not fully explored or explained) role in the island’s revival today. Did Shinren have the support of Naoshima’s people behind him when courting wealthy sponsors for his grand designs? Given the diversity of opinions and perspectives on the island today, something tells me that he faced some dissent. Even changing the island’s water supply would have invited skeptics. But in both cases, and whatever locals and outsiders may think of the results, to select the myth of the outside interventionist over that of the local visionary unfairly favors the unremarkable power of wealth over the much less expected, homespun variety that is yet often at the heart of momentous change.


1. This quote and much of the historical data in this article came from “Island in Transition: Tourists, Volunteers and Migrants Attracted by an Art-Based Revitalization Project in the Seto Inland Sea,” by Carolin Funck and Nan Chang, published in 2018 in Tourism in Transitions: Recovering Decline, Managing Change.