The Sleeping Island

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At the beginning of this year, it was reported that “Japan’s government is offering 1m yen ($7,500) per child to families who move out of greater Tokyo, in an attempt to reverse population decline in the regions.” Even if the desired outcome would appear to be rather modest — “The government is hoping 10,000 people will have moved from Tokyo to rural areas by 2027”, the fact that the country’s notoriously inflexible government would offer such a program hints at the scale of the problem. Japan’s rural areas are rapidly aging and losing its younger population for big cities such as Tokyo or Osaka.

Just like in the case of the deindustrialized regions in the US or Europe, this development appears to now have spawned its own photographic topos, of which Kentaro Kumon‘s Nemurushima is a recent addition. The title translates as Sleeping Island, and the island in question is Teshima, one of the many small to mid-sized islands that are part of Japan’s Inland sea, a body of water that is almost completely surrounded by the three main Japanese islands Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshū. Teshima is located southeast of Okayama and lies roughly halfway between Hiroshima and Osaka.

As a brief aside, the view with Google Maps reveals two locations on the island whose names make me want to pack up and visit right away. Who wouldn’t want to see the Place of Sea Dreamers or the Remains of shadowing? Deepl translates the former’s 海を夢見る人々の場所 as A Place for People Who Dream of the Sea (a piece of art apparently) and the latter’s かげたちのみる夢 as The Shadows’ Dream (a museum).

After I published the original version of this review, the photographer contacted me to tell me that I had found the wrong Teshima. There is another one that he had visited, a place that, in his own words, has “a population of about 10 people and a circumference of 7 km”. With the help of Google Maps, I had confused one Springfield for another or one Frankfurt for another (or whatever a locale might be where you live where there is more than one with the same name). In the US, you’d use the state to find the right Springfield, and Germans add the river to specify their Frankfurt.

In Japan, though, you simply have the place name itself, albeit written in Japanese characters. There’s 豊島, the Teshima I had found through Google Maps, and there’s 手島, the Teshima from the book. If you look closely, you’ll see that both places share the kanji 島 (shima: island). There are thousands such kanji in Japanese, which make a learner’s experience miserable (for more reasons than one). Ironically, though, the Teshima in the book contains two of the less than 100 kanji that I already know.

Even more ironically, when I used Street View to look for the view from which one of the pictures was taken (the ferry I’m talking about below), I was unable to find it. There was only one ferry landing, but it didn’t look right. The visual person in me should have distrusted what he found. Alas, he didn’t. Regardless, when you look up 手島 Teshima, Google Maps will show you what it calls Te Island.

In the map above, there’s a red marker on it. In that map, you can also see the other Teshima (豊島), which lies roughly 20 miles away. The photographer told me that that Teshima has seen a revival with an arts festival (hence the spots I got excited about, given their names), whereas the one in the book has remained as a quiet, lovely spot. In the following, for reasons of simplicity, I’ll refer to the island in the book as Teshima (if you’re worried about confusion just imagine seeing the kanjis 手島 right next to it). However, even though I confused the islands, what I wrote about the book can remain unchanged.

As it turns out, Teshima appears to have much in common with what was described by Donald Richie in The Inland Sea (a book that, I should note, I enjoyed a lot more when I knew a lot less about the country and its culture; I recently re-read it and found its willfully distant arrogance rather off-putting) or, more recently, by Amy Chavez in The Widow, The Priest, and The Octopus Hunter. “Teshima was famous for its navy during the Warring States period (1467-1568),” Kumon writes in his introduction, “and the islanders’ shipbuilding and shiphandling skills were highly valued in the Edo period (1603-1868). But now there are only a dozen or so inhabitants; […] and although his boat still bobs in the harbor, the island’s last fisherman died a year ago.”

In the first picture in Nemurushima, we see a ferry leaving a rather desolate looking harbour on a rainy day, which sets the stage for the remainder of the book. Please note that the end papers both feature photographs, the one at the beginning showing the very harbour from which the picture I mentioned was taken. Thus, you could argue that it’s the second and not the first picture that depicts the ferry (as always I’ll leave the nitpicking to the readers).

The leaving or arrival of the one ferry that might visit just once a day marks an important time marker for these small islands: they’re worlds onto themselves but only almost. Once the ferry is gone, you’re stuck on this particular world and the one beyond, visible in the form of other islands, feels like an eternity away. I have not been to any of these small Japanese islands, but I remember what I imagine to be a very similar feeling on a number of islands on Scotland’s west coast. There is a finality to seeing the ferry leave, even as that finality is obviously completely overwrought: the next day, it will be back. But for now, you’re stuck.

Nemurushima proceeds to unfold through a series of photographs of old houses, dilapidated infrastructure, and the occasional human figure — inevitably an older person. There also appear a number of interiors of traditional Japanese homes, with one showing a get together of a group of people (all elderly) sharing food and drink. The work feels very serene, and what on the computer screen’s map comes across as a rather small island appears to be larger than anticipated.

Visually, the photographs alternate between two modes, one blueish and moody, the other one cast into the warm (possibly overly so) light of the setting sun. Even as I realize that such games with colour are not uncommon in contemporary Japanese photography, there always is the risk of things becoming maybe a bit too formulaic. I get it, it’s an isolated island that has seen better days, and yet the community of those living there still is vibrant. I would probably prefer for the location to simply reveal as much, without there needing to be that visual push.

And then the ferry leaves again in the final photograph (or in the penultimate one, see my disclaimer above), this time in slightly nicer weather, with an old man on a bicycle watching. The island is going to sleep again. I know that were I to visit the island, it would present itself very differently to me. It’s not just that I’d be a foreigner; it’s also that my eyes and my life history are very different. What we’re seeing in Nemurushima is Kentaro Kumon’s view, a view that might in fact be less centered on this specific island than on what it stands for: an older Japan that now is being left behind and that its government is somewhat desperate enough to revive again.

It might be a moot point to consider to what extent there is an overlap between Japanese ideas of what is lost in places like Teshima and Westerners’. After all, there appears to be a considerable repository of Western writers who flock to Japan to discover a country that conforms to their ideas — instead of allowing the country to simply be what it is. For sure, photographers all over the world are drawn to what is getting lost or what already has been lost. There’s patina to be found, and as visual creatures, we equate patina with something that is more fulfilled than the (actually very convenient) contemporary lives we are living.

Regardless, whatever you might be making of the above, Kentaro Kumon‘s Nemurushima presents you with an important aspect of Japan, and it’s very much worth your time.

Nemurushima; photographs by Kentaro Kumon; texts by Kentaro Kumon and Matthias Harder; 96 pages; Kehrer; 2022

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