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Tokyo Immigration Museum—A Voice for Japan’s Foreign Residents through Art

Date: 08.03.2020

Tokyo Immigration Museum (IMM) is not a bricks-and-mortar museum. Based in Adachi city, Tokyo, it is a project that organizes various artistic and cultural pop-up exhibitions connected to the lives of non-Japanese residents. Fine art, photography, dance, video, and oral history are just some the media that have been represented so far.

IMM is spearheaded by director and artist Shigeaki Iwai. In addition to his role at IMM, Iwai is a dean at Akita University of Art. When asked about IMM’s name, Iwai admits that it often throws people, and this is exactly the reaction he had wanted when he chose it. Having traveled extensively around Asia, Europe, and Australia, Iwai became very interested in multiculturalism and how it is celebrated and preserved in a society. This interest naturally led Iwai to ponder how he could contribute to something similar back in Japan.

Shigeaki Iwai (right) and Nippon Fukuzatsu Kikou Editor in Chief Hiroki Mochizuki (center). Photo from a session at “The Power of Art in a Multicultural Society” 2019 symposium.

“Many other countries have some kind of immigration museum, but I realized that Japan probably won’t establish an official museum of this kind. So, the name Tokyo Immigration Museum was chosen to make people think,” Iwai explains. “This has more impact than if, for example, we had just called the project an art museum. The name catches people’s attention. It’s a little bit cynical, I guess.”

Iwai points out that while Japan has more than 2.9 million registered foreign residents, many Japanese people still tend to think of non-Japanese people as tourists or short-term visitors. In other words, society is still in the ‘intercultural exchange’ phase, rather than one of ‘multicultural existence’. He sees IMM as a catalyst for changing people’s perceptions and a way to create new connections.

IMM is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. It started out in the suburban city of Koganei, and after operating for three years in that location, it then moved to Adachi city in 2013. For the past seven years IMM has been operating under the auspices of Art Access Adachi, which in turn is supported by Arts Council Tokyo Adachi city and other entities. Arts Council Tokyo is an umbrella organization promoting various artistic and cultural initiatives throughout the city.

I ask Iwai if the decision to move to Adachi had any connection with his own roots. “No, I’m actually from Chiyoda city!” he says with a smile. “It was based on receiving an invitation from a trusted organization and also funding as well, since we can’t do anything without funds. But Adachi has the third largest non-Japanese population in Tokyo. There are various foreign communities, including Filipinos, Chinese, and Nepalese.”

“Memorial Rebirth Senju” from the Otomachi Project. Photo by Ryohei Tomita.

Another connection to Adachi comes through the Tokyo University of the Arts (TUA), with the Senju campus being located in the city. TUA has been a major ally for IMM and also happens to be Iwai’s alma mater. Moreover, he teaches there on an adjunct basis.

Travel restrictions because of the current COVID-19 pandemic have affected IMM’s activities as well as those of international students. However, IMM normally has TUA students helping out as program staff or as volunteers. According to Iwai, these international students can play a vital role in connecting IMM with non-Japanese communities in Tokyo and facilitating communications.

IMM projects are very much about allowing all stakeholders to share their experiences and learn from each other and are designed to resonate with both Japanese and international residents alike. “We don’t shy away from exploring serious topics—ones that might not necessarily be easy, but which are important,” Iwai points out.

Iwai is seeing oral history as an area of growing importance. He believes there is great value in hearing about the lives and experiences of individuals. “We can learn a lot from ordinary people—those whose voices are not often heard,” he says.

Video installation, “Makilala” 2016. Photo by Ryohei Tomita.

As one example, he mentions Makilala, IMM’s 2016 project which ran for two years and means “get to know” in Tagalog. This initiative included a video installation about interviews with Filipinos living in Adachi and small-group workshops. The culmination was a lively party, featuring traditional food, music, and dance from the Philippines. 

Scene from the 2016 “Philippa Pipo !!” event. Photo by Ryohei Tomita.

“There is no fixed format for our projects. It really is on a case-by-case basis,” says Iwai. All members of his team are juggling their work for IMM with other jobs, and Iwai himself commutes from his main base in Akita to Tokyo as necessary.

Community house in Adachi

‘The projects and exhibits operate as pop-up events in such diverse locations as the TUA campus, empty shops, and even a church. As Iwai points out, this offers flexibility and suits the eclectic nature of IMM’s activities as “part of the community.”

On the other hand, there are obvious advantages to having a fixed space for IMM in the future, and Iwai would be delighted if IMM could eventually become some kind of permanent exhibition exploring and celebrating the lives of foreign nationals in Japan.

There was no major project in 2019 since Iwai and his team were using the time for research and discussions concerning a major event in 2020 to mark the tenth anniversary of IMM. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has meant that the opening of this event had to be delayed, but rest assured, with careful consideration of the current social climate they are doing all they can to advance the project!

The theme of the project slated to open in 2020 is “Seeing Us: Living in Japan with Roots Overseas” and the project comprises three main sections. The first of these is artwork sent in by international residents of Japan in response to an open call for submissions. All entries can currently be viewed online. The second section will be multimedia exhibition led by professional guest artists from a wide variety of disciplines. Finally, there will be an exhibition about NPOs and other organizations from international communities across Japan that use art and culture in their activities in some way. There will also be events where members of the public are invited to participate.

Iwai hopes that these artists and groups will help to inform and inspire visitors and will contribute to the overall conversation about what it means to be a person with international roots in Japan. “Most of these activities are done by grassroots civic groups. They continue to achieve so much. Please come along and see and learn for yourself!” he says.

For information on the latest project:

To view artwork from the open call:

For those interested in volunteering as an IMM Program Member:

This article was written by Louise George Kittaka.

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