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How a ‘People Dam’ Helped Save a Regional Community in Japan

Images credit: Otsuka Museum of Art

Naruto City, on the northeast tip of Tokushima PrefectureShikoku, Japan. The Naruto Strait’s whirling tides are popular with tourists, but in recent years the region, like many others, has struggled to cope with the exodus of people and industry to urban areas.

Japan’s Otsuka Group operates 180 companies in 28 countries employing approximately 50,000 employees, but the Group’s most treasured location is its birthplace, Naruto City. Twenty years ago, the Group’s fond feelings, technology and imagination inspired the building of the Otsuka Museum of Art. The late Masahito Otsuka, Group president at the time and the first director of the Otsuka Museum of Art, predicted the city’s downward trend. Current managing director Shusaku Tanaka has detailed knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the museum’s creation.

“In the late 1980s, the people of Shikoku welcomed the decision to build the Akashi Kaikyo bridge, linking Tokushima with the main island of Honshu,” Tanaka said. “However, considering Japan’s experience, Masahito Otsuka worried that, instead of providing much-anticipated local development, the new bridge would lure people and wealth away from Tokushima and Shikoku to the nearby cities of Kobe and Osaka. Building the art museum in Naruto City was an attempt to stem that tide; a “people dam” to encourage people to stop in Tokushima.”

The museum project was fueled by fond memories and gratitude to its birthplace, but it also showcased Otsuka Group’s latest technology.

“The project was expected to use Otsuka Ohmi Ceramics’ technological expertise in ceramic tiles. Given this technology was used for pottery decoration and artistic creation, it seemed fitting to build an art museum,” Tanaka explained. “Masahito Otsuka had little knowledge of art, but he was keen to use his firm’s superior technology to contribute to society and promote business.”

An art museum in a national park

The museum project faced two major hurdles: First, locating the museum in a national park presented challenges relating to strict regulations around construction permits, and the protection of cultural assets and nature parks. Second, creating full-scale ceramic reproductions of famous masterpieces required careful copyright negotiations.

“Masahito Otsuka was adamant about building the museum in the national park because he wanted to create a ‘people dam’,” Tanaka said. “Proximity to famous Tokushima tourist spots was vital for maximizing synergy benefits. He could have built a beautiful museum in the city center, but no one would have visited. In the end, Naruto City, Tokushima Prefecture and Otsuka worked together for five years to gain the necessary permits and licenses. Then, they set about acquiring the rights to create ceramic reproductions of multiple world masterpieces.”

The Otsuka Group had very little experience of art, so they relied on Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK. Masahito Otsuka was a member of the NHK management committee.  NHK shared Otsuka’s vision and helped progress the project. Six art historians including Masanori Aoyagi, then-VP of the University of Tokyo, were invited to form a selection committee. Armed with a budget of 40 billion yen, the team systematically selected artwork from six eras, creating a representative collection of 1,000 works to serve as a comprehensive educational tool.

“In Japan, many students only ever saw small pictures of Western artwork in textbooks. They had no real concept of the size of masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa or Sunflowers,” Tanaka said. “When establishing the finance company, Masahito Otsuka said that he wanted to use ceramic technology to create real-size reproductions of masterworks that budding art students from elementary school through university could examine until they earned enough money to go to Europe to see the originals.”

Creating a systematic, 1,000-piece art collection for educational purposes requires focusing almost exclusively on famous artworks. It was a huge task to obtain copyrights and reproduce each piece from gallery photographs or onsite inspection. Reproducing expansive decorative chapel artwork required scaffolding and large-scale cameras to photograph the original work. The team required many days and multiple photographs to create a ceramic reproduction of Italy’s Scrovegni Chapel alone.

“It is impossible to see expansive Western art such as ornamental chapels and murals, so this museum has huge educational value,” Tanaka said. “The unique educational approach of using ceramic tiles enables people to vividly appreciate the size and technique.”

Today, the Otsuka Museum of Art is well respected, but initially, the ceramic reproductions provoked a strong adverse reaction. The volunteer guides reacted negatively, news magazines poked fun at the museum and some well-known figures voiced criticism in the media. However, Aoyagi and others worked hard to help specialists understand the significance of the project by swiftly raising their hands to convene a meeting of the art history association at the museum. The strategy paid off: The art experts were bowled over the moment they saw the exhibits. Their enthusiasm helped the broader public understand what the Otsuka Museum of Art was about. In fiscal 2016, the number of visitors to the museum totaled 381,000, bringing total visitor numbers through December 2016 to over 3 million. Visitor numbers continue to rise today.

“The city of Naruto must be delighted. The art museum has helped check the gradual decline in visitor numbers to Naruto Park over the past twenty years,” Tanaka said. “Our ultimate aim is to educate children, and we want to continue doing that.”

To mark its 20th anniversary on March 21, 2018, the Otsuka Museum of Art plans to open a new exhibition hall, and is determined to continue to tackle new challenges together with residents and future generations.

Since 2003, the genesis of environmental and CSR communication in Japan, SUSCOM (Sustainability Communication Hub) ( has attracted experienced planners, directors, editors and designers who have established strong CSR communication parameters for leading companies. Not only publishing CSR reports,… [Read more about Sustainability Communication Hub]

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