Decline or Opportunity for Growth? – Kyushu Meeting of Experts, November 2016

How can art and culture help breathe new life into economically depressed areas with shrinking populations? The second Holland-Kyushu meeting took place from 8 to 12 November in the prefectures of Fukuoka and Oita. The work visits to Kyushu have proven valuable because they bring together people from the Netherlands and Japan who are working on the same ideas, thus providing an opportunity for further study, reflection and possible future collaboration.

The Dutch delegation for this second visit consisted of representatives from cultural institutes that contribute to the revitalisation of areas in decline in the Netherlands. During the meeting of experts they discussed a variety of topics with some 30 Japanese participants in order to share knowledge and gain inspiration about how to breathe new life into depressed areas with the help of art and culture. Ludo Diels (IBA Parkstad) looks back at the meeting with enthusiasm: ‘Rather than simply being a visit, it was more of an experience and, to a certain extent, a discovery. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much at home while being so far away from home. And as for the topics, the excursion also tied in perfectly with what comes up within the context of my own work in the Parkstad Limburg region. A valuable experience and eye-opener.’

Shrinkage in the Netherlands and Japan
Like other developed countries, the Netherlands and Japan have areas that are ‘shrinking’, with few or no young people, vacant houses, overgrown fields, empty schools and abandoned industrial terrains and factories. In the Netherlands, demographic shrinkage started in the outer regions of the country, such Limburg, Groningen and Zeeland, after the urban renewal projects of the 1980s and 90s that were meant to combat the problems existing in Dutch cities at the time. The demographic shrinkage in the Japanese countryside was largely due to the post-war economic growth, which drew the population, businesses and services to the big cities. In Japan, regional revitalisation was on the political and administrative agenda even sooner than in the Netherlands. However, despite a great deal of investment by the central government, no one has yet come up with the ‘Egg of Columbus’.

Outsiders, young people and idiots
The Japanese have an expression, ‘Yosomono (outsiders), wakamono (young people) and bakamono (idiots)’, for the people who are needed in order to revitalise areas in decline. A shrinking community often needs the neutral perspective of outsiders in order to see where there is room for innovation and improvement. What’s more, such areas also need people who can come up with and carry out ideas without having to worry too much about traditions and what the neighbours think. The municipality of Ukiha, which welcomed the delegation and made this meeting possible, is a good example of a Japanese community that uses the vitality of outsiders by working with Dutch cultural organisations such as the Mondriaan Fund and Dutch artists (Ukiha & Holland Jazz Night).

Importance of bundling
The delegation was especially impressed by the Japanese expertise and attention for detail. Says Sjoerd Wagenaar (PeergrouP), ‘I see strength in the simplicity and attention for detail shown by the people in Japan. I enjoyed the meticulous way they do everything, from preparing food to making and presenting products.’ Sjoerd Westerhof (Leeuwarden Cultural Capitol 2018) agrees: ‘What struck me is that Japan still has a widespread infrastructure for crafts, which from what I understand is also because the government has set up special subsidies or fiscal provisions for that. As a result, the country has a basis; there is still an interest in quality acquired through tradition – a tradition that at the same time can be a source of inspiration for future developments.’ On the other hand, according to Naoki Ezoe, owner of a branding business and producer, there is a lack of a professional infrastructure that enables different networks to work together and bundle their strengths, something which the cultural sector in the Netherlands is very good at.

The concrete result of the visit is that the participants took the initiative themselves and decided to meet again the following year for more discussions and collaboration. Two follow-up visits have already been planned for 2017, in the Netherlands as well as in Japan.

The members of the Dutch delegation were:
Oeds Westerhof (director Network & Innovation Leeuwarden Cultural Capital of Europe 2018)
Sjoerd Wagenaar (artistiek directeur PeerGrouP)
Ludo Diels (hoofd Strategische Communicatie en Cultuurprojecten IBA Parkstad)

Gemeente Ukiha, Japan

In samenwerking met:
Naoki Ezoe (Bunbo)
Toshihiko Nishida (Taketa Art Culture)
Shigeki Hara (Cinematheek Liberté)
Kazutaka Mori (Sorriso riso)