This story appears in the September 2022 issue of Forbes Asia. Subscribe to Forbes Asia
Above picture: Opened in 2008, the Inujima Seirensho Art Museum is built on the ruins of a century-old copper refinery.
Once buried under nearly a million tons of illegally dumped toxic waste from scrapped cars, Japan’s Teshima Island exemplified the excesses of the country’s meteoric, but unbridled, industrial growth. Yet today, tens of thousands of people flock to it every year for world-class art, architecture and dramatic vistas, created through the vision—and investments—of Soichiro Fukutake.
Over the past three decades, the former chairman of Tokyo-based education firm Benesse Holdings and his family spent $250 million of their fortune to transform Teshima and roughly a dozen neighboring islands in the Seto Inland Sea into a global art destination. In doing so, they have revitalized a region that served as an economic and cultural crossroads for a millennium.
Soichiro Fukutake, former chairman of Benesse Holdings.
Visitor numbers, which have grown steadily since the first of the area’s some three dozen museums and galleries were built in 1992, typically surge during the Setouchi Triennale, an international contemporary arts festival held every three years. Nearly 1.2 million came during the 2019 Triennale, with overseas visitors, primarily from Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China, adding an estimated ¥18 billion ($132 million) to the economy of Kagawa Prefecture, where most of the islands are located, according to a 2020 report from festival organizers and the Bank of Japan.
So far there have been far fewer visitors at this year’s event, which runs until November. Numbers are down by 40%, largely due to pandemic border restrictions that make it difficult for overseas tourists to visit Japan, though Fukutake is optimistic that inbound tourism will pick up once lifted.
“I’m not in it for the economics,” stresses the 76-year-old, who had an estimated net worth of $1.1 billion on this year’s Forbes World’s Billionaries list. He inherited the family’s Tokyo-based publishing company, which started in Okayama Prefecture, after the sudden death of his father, Tetsuhiko, in 1986. His dad had a dream to build an international children’s campground on Naoshima Island, one of the many smaller islands including Teshima that lie off the Kagawa and Okayama coasts.
Soichiro Fukutake (far right) during a visit to Naoshima in 1987 with the island’s then mayor, Chikatsugu Miyake (far left).
It was during visits to oversee the project there that Fukutake “saw the damage inflicted from the excesses of modernization and urbanization on Naoshima and Inujima [Island], both left barren from copper smelting, and Teshima,” he says in May on a video call from New Zealand where he has lived since 2009. “I became enraged and decided to use art to fight against what society had done.”
He brought more land in addition to the campground on Naoshima and enlisted the help of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando—known for his smooth concrete, sharp angles and natural lighting—to design the Benesse House Museum and hotel. It was the first of dozens of art sites that today sprinkle the islands and feature works by the likes of Andy Warhol, Lee Ufan and David Hockney. To support the sites and exhibitions, Fukutake started his eponymous foundation in 2004, with the family gifting shares that eventually totaled 8% in Benesse. Now worth $136 million, they provide about $3 million in annual dividends. This is in addition to the family’s own investments that Fukutake estimates at $250 million. The company chips in too, building, then donating, museums to the nonprofit.
Hideaki Fukutake, No. 2 at Fukutake Foundation and a Benesse board director.
His 45-year-old son, Hideaki, Fukutake Foundation’s No. 2 and a Benesse board director, says in a separate interview that while the Triennale festivals have some public funding, the organization doesn’t accept outside financial help to avoid compromising its vision.
“We want to be on the edge and have a viewpoint, but not to the extent that we end up being very exclusionary,” says Hideaki, who joined the foundation in 2012 and Benesse in 2013. “But we don’t want to appeal so much to popular tastes that we lose our uniqueness. That balance is important, and to accomplish that we need to have independent financial resources,” adds Hideaki, who Fukutake says will take over the foundation in the “not too distant future.”
Fukutake’s lodestar is the emotional resonance of the art—something his foundation and Okayama University currently are working to measure scientifically, he says. Still, the economic impact is clear for at least one island community. While other municipalities are losing people, his efforts in part have helped stabilize Naoshima’s population, according to a Kagawa prefecture official. Fukutake shares a national concern over shrinking rural numbers as younger people move to cities, with well-funded government rejuvenation projects across the archipelago having little to no impact. “Those left behind are losing hope and dreams for the future,” he says. “We’ve shown the power of art to revitalize rural areas.”
“We’ve shown the power of art to revitalize rural areas.”
Teshima Art Museum
Teshima may be the best example of a turnaround in local mindset and physical reality. Because of the environmental and reputational destruction, residents there “lost most of their pride in the island and self-confidence,” says Fukutake. Their decades-long struggle to clean up the nation’s largest case of illegal dumping of toxic waste is now reaching a finale. At a mainly taxpayer-funded cost of ¥82 billion, the government expects to finish remediating contaminated groundwater this year, dovetailing with Fukutake’s own philanthropic efforts. Today the island is home to one of the foundation’s crown jewels, the Teshima Art Museum—a white, droplet-shaped concrete structure and art installation designed by Pritzker winner Ryue Nishizawa and artist Rei Naito. Among Fukutake’s chief hopes are that the foundation’s museums “serve as a catalyst” for rejuvenation elsewhere (see sidebar below).
Teshima Art Museum—a white, droplet-shaped concrete structure and art installation designed by Pritzker winner Ryue Nishizawa and artist Rei Naito.
While he started on the first art sites in the early 1990s, it was a 2003 visit to an arts festival in northern Japan that planted the seed for the Triennale. Over the next seven years, Fukutake and his foundation worked with local and national governments to hammer out festival plans and hold town halls to gain support. In 2010, the first Triennale opened, the same year as the Teshima museum.
Fukutake says his family’s projects for the 2025 Triennale include building a three-story (two underground) museum on Naoshima that’s focused on Asian artists and converting a former junior high school on Teshima—with a design by a yet-to-be-named Japanese architect—into a gallery. Hideaki adds a key issue is ensuring the foundation’s sustainability through funding, staff development and holding fast to its independence.
When the family talks about the long term, they think in decades. “Ultimately, we do have a [return on investment] target, but it’s not measured by a quarter, a year or three years. It’s on a generational basis,” Hideaki says. (The family moved to New Zealand to escape the 50% Japanese inheritance tax that would make it “impossible” to continue family support of the foundation.) “If my son can recover the investment, that’s okay.”
Hideaki faces his own dilemma: Avoiding the temptation, once he takes the organization’s reins, to put his imprimatur on it. “My personality is to want to change things, so it’s a bit of an internal, personal battle. So it will be important to slightly change things to evolve,” he says.
Inujima Seirensho Art Museum.
1955: Tetsuhiko Fukutake founded educational publisher Fukutake Publishing in Okayama City.
Benesse House Museum and hotel.
1989: Naoshima International Camping Ground opened on Naoshima Island.
1992: Pritzker Prize winning architect Tadao Ando’s Benesse House Museum and hotel opened on Naoshima.
1993: Fukutake Publishing acquired global language learning firm Berlitz International.
Yayoi Kusama’s “Pumpkin” sculpture.
1994: “Open Air ’94 Out of Bounds,” an outdoor exhibition, opened, debuting Yayoi Kusama’s now iconic “Pumpkin” sculpture.
1995: Fukutake Publishing changed its name to Benesse, combining Latin words bene (well) and esse (being). In the same year, it listed on stock exchanges in Osaka and Hiroshima.
1998: “Kadoya” opened on Naoshima as part of the “Art House Project”—a repurposing of old homes into galleries for permanent and rotating exhibits.
2000: Benesse listed on the Tokyo stock exchange.
Chichu Art Museum.
2001: Forerunner of the Setouchi Triennale, “The Standard” exhibition kicked off with 13 artists on Naoshima.
2004: Chichu Art Museum opened on Naoshima, featuring works by Claude Monet and James Turrell.
2008: Inujima Seirensho Art Museum unveiled on the former site of a copper refinery, Inujima Island.
2010: First Setouchi International Art Festival opened across seven islands and Takamatsu City. Teshima Art Museum unveiled.
2012: Soichiro Fukutake and his family gifted 5.2% of Benesse stock to launch their namesake foundation (gradually raised to 8% in 2020).
2022: Fifth Setouchi Triennale. On Naoshima, Sugiura Gallery opened and Ando-designed Valley Gallery unveiled.
Yayoi Kusama’s “Narcissus Garden” installation at the Tadao Ando-designed Valley Gallery on Naoshima.