Inujima: Reclaiming the Past to Envision the Future

Inujima: Reclaiming the Past to Envision the Future

In spring the sustainability director of ARUP showed me the incredible designs for Inujima Art Project, and I had known immediately that I wanted to visit and see it for myself. In an earlier post, I discussed its zero energy use through a creative natural cooling, heating and lighting system, and its wastewater recycling program.

Also listed was the the architecture by Sambuichi Hiroshi, art by Yanagi Yukinori using elements from Mishima Yukio’s house and writings, and the benefactor Fukutake Soichiro, Benesse‘s owner and the creator of nearby Naoshima, another island in the Seto Inland Sea.

Inujima: Ruins and Forest

Visiting Inujima on a beautiful fall day in October and spending the night in a school house closed many years ago and converted into a hostel was an incredible experience combining nature, recent history, art, and questions about Japan’s industrial past and its 21st century future.

Inujima: Reclaiming the Past to Envision the Future

Inujima in the early 20th century was a small island with over 3,000 inhabitants in the early 20th century. In a brief period of ten years, Inujima was the site of a massive seirenshou, or copper refinery, placed in the Seto Inland Sea to keep the intense pollution away from Japan’s population centers. With the collapse of copper prices after only ten years, the refinery closed and the island entered a long period of decline.

Inujima: Reclaiming the Past to Envision the Future

Today there are approximately 50 residents, with an average age of 70 or more. The chimney built just before the refinery closed now serves as an integral part of the zero emissions temperature system in the new museum structure. Earlier chimneys had less structural integrity, and large parts of the refinery, including its original power station, are now being reclaimed by thick forest.

After the jump, a discussion of the art work and the island today.

Inujima karami brick

Photographs are not allowed inside the museum, but it is a wonderful building and experience. Visitors first pass through a plaza made of karami brick walls, made from slag remainders of the copper refining process. Leaving the sun and view of the sea, visitors enter the museum through a long dark tunnel full of steel and mirrors that is used to bring the temperature to a steady subterranean earth temperature. You pass through the tunnel one by one, and it is a disorienting and strange feeling.

Once inside the main exhibit room, you see elements of Mishima’s incredibly humble Tokyo home suspended by cables above an enormous slab of granite. Some of the slab contains shallow reflecting water, and the far wall is a dark semi-circle with a ring of sunlight, resembling a solar eclipse. One small room features a strange projection of blood-red text by Mishima that cascades down fusama screens. A porch like area has another Mishima text deconstructed in gold-colored metal kanji that catch the wind and scape against river stones below them.

Mishima Yukio

One of the texts is Mishima’s famous speech before he committed suicide in a ritualistic seppuku at the Tokyo military headquarters. The exhibit makes clear that his call for a nationalist revival under the emperor went unheard by the soldiers who jeered him. The artist and museum seem to sidestep the merits of his nationalist fervor, and instead frame his voice as one that spoke against the purely economic goals of the post-war modernization.

Inujima recycle illustration

One of my Japanese colleagues, a scholar of Mishima, was disturbed by the ambiguous use of Mishima in the art project. More effective, in my mind, was the memory of the brief, polluted and historically important boom that made this island part of Japan’s history, and the contrast with the futuristic zero-energy building now pointing towards a new future for Japan. Above, a simple illustration over the men’s urinals depicts the heating and cooling systems, as well as a wastewater recycling program that irrigates a small orchard of fruit trees. Below is the orchard, just starting to grow in.

Inujima fruit orchard

The town itself was fascinating, and I am glad that a member of our group discovered that it is possible to spend the night on the island. We were warned to bring our own food, as the museum cafe closes at 4.30 pm and otherwise the island only offers a liquor store and one vending machine.

Inujima tako rice

We ate some wonderful tako (octopus) rice at the museum cafe, and then later cooked our own meal at the hostel. The island town was an interesting mix of old houses, small vegetable gardens, and ruins being subsumed by forest. Like Naoshima, in future years other art structures and hotels may be built.

Inujima garden Inujima plant Inujima house Inujima sunset Inujima: Reclaiming the Past

The group included Kobayashi Kenji of Sinajina (品品), a grow light entrepreneur from Shikoku, Jason Dewees of Flora Grubb Gardens, a Tokyo University of Agriculture research fellow, a modern dancer, and a Japanese novelist.

Inujima group


  1. I was there in October, too, and found the whole place and experience incredible! Thanks for posting this very good description — and beautiful photos — of what it’s like.

  2. Please, what is the name of the inn where you stayed in inujima? Do you have a phone or fax number to contact them? Are there some others places to sleep there?
    Thank you to help me to organize my stay for the setouchi festival.

    1. Gabie, to call it an inn is not accurate. The only place to stay on Inujima is a former school building that is open to visitors. You must bring your own food since there are no restaurants beyond the museum one that closes around 4 pm. You might find it more comfortable to stay in Naoshima and make Inujima a day trip. I believe you can find out about the school accommodation on the Inujima website linked in the original post.

  3. Thank you. I’ll make a day trip from Naoshima where I have yet reserve two nights, hoping that Inujima will become soon as attractive as Naoshima with great accomodations!

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