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2022.03 Japan’s Contemporary Art Institutions Take the Lead in Creating Local Culture Creativity abounds in Japan’s local art cultures

Photo credit: Keizo KIOKU (courtesy of Warehouse TERRADA (WHAT MUSEUM))


Japan has over five thousand museums nationwide. Many of them are concerned with history and historical art, but there are some that wish to inspire new artists to create by displaying contemporary art in new and unusual ways. They show us that art is always changing and challenge us to decide what art means to us as individuals, as well as demonstrate that art is an entire experience unto itself.

Three contemporary art museums—WHAT MUSEUM, Towada Art Center and Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka—are doing just that. They are pushing us past the boundaries of reality into the artistic realm. The buildings themselves are works of art, and the creativity of the pieces they exhibit – from artists around the world – know no bounds. If you visit these museums, you’ll see that creativity in Japanese art has evolved through both internal and external influences and yet still always holds a uniquely Japanese quality.


Making waves in Tennozu Isle: WHAT MUSEUM

WHAT MUSEUM will make you contemplate just what art is.
Photo credit: Warehouse TERRADA (WHAT MUSEUM)


WHAT MUSEUM opened in December of 2020 on Tennozu Isle. Urban planning of the isle itself has been developed to foster artistic creativity and intelligence with beautiful waterfronts and greenery, numerous art galleries, sculptures and street art, as well as warehouses full of art and theaters for spectacular performances. WHAT MUSEUM is one of the newer facilities cultivating the creative environment here. Its exhibitions display any type of art you can imagine: paintings, three-dimensional works, architectural models, photography, literature, film and more.

Photo credit: Keizo KIOKU (courtesy of Warehouse TERRADA (WHAT MUSEUM))


We all know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what is art if not an expression of beauty? Following from an idea that art is not the individual pieces themselves but “the something that takes root within those who experience it”, WHAT MUSEUM exhibits works scene side-by-side with the thoughts of the collectors as well as the artists, offering an innovative space for the appreciation of art. Admirers of the piece may discover what the piece evoked in another and thereby nourish the ideas and feelings that are evoked within themselves.

Photo credit: Warehouse TERRADA WHAT MUSEUM


Unexpected art in Aomori: Towada Art Center


In 2008, the Tohoku region saw the opening of its first contemporary art museum: the Towada Art Center. Surprise, wonder and delight are what this museum offers its visitors, with permanent exhibitions featuring pieces from artists such as Yoko Ono, Yayoi Kusama and Ron Mueck renowned for their captivating peculiarity.


At Towada Art Center, works aren't just found on the walls. Floors and even whole rooms can be an immersive art piece.
Photo credit: Towada Art Center


A prominent feature of the museum itself is the glass corridors that connect the individual buildings. They incorporate nature into the building by bringing outside in. At the same time, you can get a sneak peek at what’s inside and get a taste of the new and unusual experiences within.

Shiota Chiharu took inspiration from Lake Towada, which was formed from volcanic activity, and combined it with her signature thread style in Memory of Water.
Photo credit: Oyamada Kuniya (courtesy of Towada Art Center), Shiota Chiharu “Memory of Water”
©2021 JASPAR, Tokyo and Shiota Chiharu


Being able to walk under, around and even through many of the pieces make this museum uniquely interactive. Leandro Erlich’s Edificio — Buenos Aires (see pic) was most recently added to the permanent collection. It combines art, architecture and the ability to physically immerse yourself into the piece itself in positions impossible in reality. You’ll have to try it yourself to believe it.

Be a part of the art in Leandro Erlich's Edificio – Buenos Aires.
Photo credit: Oyamada Kuniya (courtesy of Towada Art Center), Leandro Erlich Edificio "Buenos Aires"


Of course, if the outside can be brought in, then it only follows that the inside can be brought out. You’ll find just as many works in the Art Square as there are inside. Don’t be surprised when you see a giant ghost pursuing an unknown mass and a wonderland of sculptures covered in Yayoi Kusama’s iconic spots. They’re all part of the fun.

The outdoor installation Ghost & Unknown Mass by artist inges idee invites you to experience it from many angles.
Photo credit: Oyamada Kuniya (courtesy of Towada Art Center), inges idee " "Ghost, Unknown Mass"


The artistic tendrils of Towada Art Center spread further still, spilling out into the surrounding streets. In case you get tired from exploring the city or the museum, the street furniture installations have got you covered. Some of the seats reflect the sky above while others take the shape of a cloud or pillow. All of them invite you to sit and enjoy being a piece of art with them.


Connecting culture in Osaka: Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka

Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka aims to honor past Osaka artists and inspire new ones.
Photo credit: Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka


The Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka opened in February 2022 after decades of planning. Over the years, the concept for what the planners wanted the museum to be has changed again and again. In the end, the museum, located on Nakanoshima Island in Osaka, came up with four main principles for its vision: to connect with history and create the future; to circulate information, knowledge, discovery and amazement; to use connections as its driving force; and to contribute back to the city of Osaka.


Photo credit: Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka


Waiting outside since 2021 for the doors to open is SHIP'S CAT (Muse) – a sculpture by Osaka native Kenji Yanobe. Much of Yanobe’s work follows the theme of survival, and this cat is no exception. Although it has a somewhat cartoony style that seems to be juxtaposed against the stark black cube, its spacesuit fits the otherworldliness that many visitors have said the building exudes. The Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka honors many Osaka-born artists, such as Yuzo Saeki, but also features the work of other non-Japanese artists, such as Italian painter and sculptor Amadeo Modigliani.

Photo credit: Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka


Despite having opened so recently, the museum has approximately 6000 pieces to exhibit. For its opening exhibition “Hello! Super Collection—99 Untold Stories”, the museum chose around 400 of these pieces and added 99 stories related to the artworks, asking you, the visitor, to round this number up to 100 by adding your story to it. In this way and others, the museum is hoping to further engage the public in contemporary art.


Getting off the beaten path in search of new art experiences


WHAT MUSEUM is located not far from the city center of Tokyo and the Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka is right in the heart of Osaka. But Towada Art Center, out in the far north of Japan’s main island Honshu, is but one example of how you can find hidden art gems by going further afield than the average traveler.


You can travel out to Japan’s “snow country” Tokamachi, where you’ll find exceptional examples of Japan’s historic and contemporary creativity. The Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum has a permanent collection proudly exhibiting works by Nagasaki artists or with Nagasaki themes. You can even participate in workshops that teach how to create local art styles, such as pottery in Ontayaki Pottery Village down south in Kyushu, dolls in Iwatsuki, Saitama, a day trip from Tokyo and geothermal steam-dying in Hachimantai, Iwate, not far from Towada Art Center.


From top to bottom, Japan’s art history, present and future is an enlightening and inspiring experience not to be missed.

Unusual materials and technology collide in Nawa Kohei's Pixcell-Deer#52.
Photo credit: Oyamada Kuniya (courtesy of Towada Art Center), Nawa Kohei "PixCell-Deer#52" (2018, mixed media, H2173xW1896xD1500mm)


Business hours


Due to measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, business hours may be subject to change; please check with the venues before visiting.





Towada Art Center


Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka


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