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Arts and dementia in Japan: Report from a research visit

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approaches to dementia care, arts and theatre, research

Japan is a ‘super ageing society’, in which a currently reported 4.6 million people live with dementia. This figure is expected to nearly double over the next 10 years. While Japan has much to teach the world about being a society living with dementia – the UK’s Dementia Friends movement originates there, for example – its arts and dementia field is still very young.

When I was offered the opportunity to speak at an event in Tokyo, I jumped at the chance to combine this with further research visits and conversations. The Arts, Memory and Aging symposium at Tokyo’s National Arts Centre on 8 October 2018 was jointly planned and delivered by Arts Alive, an organisation which offers MoMA-inspired art discussion sessions, and Aoyama-Gaukuin University.

In the keynote, leading US neurologist Professor Peter Whitehouse talked about the imperative for society to experiment with new ways of caring, including those informed by intergenerativity, internationalism and interdisciplinarity.

Yoko Hayashi introduced Arts Alive’s art discussion programme, Artrip and two participants affected by dementia spoke about their experience. Adriane Boag described her work as co-ordinator of the arts and dementia programme at the National Gallery of Australia. Herb Fondevilla, Associate Professor at Aoyama-Gaukuin University presented thoughts on how arts and dementia might be introduced into Japan.

My own presentation, based around my PhD research within the TAnDem Doctoral Training Centre, focused on how arts and dementia practice and commissioning requires a combination of academic research including attention to theorisation and context, along with appropriate evaluation, and sensitivity to narrative and stories. During a panel discussion and questions we touched on issues including conceptions of ‘disability’, citizenship and human rights in relation to dementia as well as how arts activities might be evaluated and researched.

In 2004 the Saitama Arts Theater established its very active Saitama Gold Theater. This is a company specifically for those over the age of 55. I visited during the first World Gold Theater Festival. This included a full programme of events, including a Japanese version of ‘Bed’, co-created with David Slater, artistic director of the UK’s participatory arts company, Entelechy Arts. I saw a wonderful musical version of Moliere’s Malade Imaginaire, performed by a cast of 400 older people. Performers were orchestrated by the director from the back of the auditorium. Stage hands enabled, prompted and supported on stage throughout, making these actions a natural and integral part of the show. The enthusiasm and pleasure of participants was obvious.

Outside of Tokyo, and with Noriyo Washizu, an Alzheimer’s Association of Japan board member, I visited the SAIIN day-care centre in Kyoto, observing an art therapy session. A group of people living with dementia sang about and paid attention to the colour, taste and material nature of a perfect apple, and used fine tissue paper to represent it. Each beautiful resulting picture was then discussed by the group over tea and cake. Concentration throughout the two-hour session was impressive.

We also visited a non-profit organisation called Tanpopo. I was interested to understand its ‘arts and care’ social enterprise model, connecting people with disabilities to business, enabling them to use their creative capacities, and to be paid for their work as a group. This is facilitated because of a requirement for Japanese companies to, by law, employ a percentage of disabled workers. I met talented, happy and engaged individuals, proud of their work and their contribution to the group and society.

Back in Tokyo I observed an Artrip session in another day-care centre. Participants with dementia demonstrated their sensitivity to the nuances of a set of pictures, Western and Japanese, bringing their own knowledge and histories to the discussion with humour and intelligence.

I also had interesting conversations with Yasuko Murato, President of the Japanese Society for Person-Centred Dementia Care, and Michiko Nakagawa who is currently translating the second edition of Dawn Brooker’s Person-Centred Dementia Care.

The funding system for the arts is very different in Japan, as are provisions for health and social care. There is little state funding for culture or the arts, a tax system that does not incentivise private philanthropy, and few charitable organisations working in the field. Few cultural organisations have outreach or education departments. The nascent arts for health movement has no existing national networks to support practitioners.

A comprehensive private insurance system pays for individuals’ health and social care. While person-centred care principles may be well understood in some areas and there is wide-spread social awareness of dementia, I suspect there are opportunities for arts practitioners and organisations to develop a miore in depth understanding of both. Similarly, members of the hierarchical and highly-respected health professions may need persuading of the range of outcomes that can result from arts participation. There is also significant scope to increase the involvement of people living with dementia in both arts and dementia research and practice.

A further difference in the Japanese context is its well-advanced model of corporate social responsibility, leading to involvement of business in the provision of public services and goods. This sits alongside recent growth of what has been termed ‘venture philanthropy’.

All of this means that the environment in which arts and dementia work will be implemented, commissioned and delivered is quite different to that in the UK. My sense is that new and contextually appropriate stakeholder relationships between arts, health and commercial or business partners will need to evolve if arts and dementia projects are to succeed in Japan. In addition, attention will need to be paid to very particular ways in which ‘value’ is conceived and captured in relation to the involvement of people with dementia in the arts in these contexts.


Some links

Arts Alive – www.artsalivejp.org

Meet me at MoMA – https://www.moma.org/visit/accessibility/meetme/

Whitehouse, P. (2017). From Intergenerational to Intergenerative: Towards the futures of intergenerational learning and health. Journal of Intergenerational Relationships - https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15350770.2018.1404862

TAnDem Doctoral Training Centre - https://www.worcester.ac.uk/discover/tandem-phd-studentship.html

Saitama Gold Theater - http://www.saf.or.jp/en/about/

On funding for the arts in Japan:

Potts, J. (2015). The way of the mécénat: corporate arts funding in Japan. The Conversation - https://theconversation.com/the-way-of-the-mecenat-corporate-arts-funding-in-japan-38662
Kawashima, N. (2014). The development of art projects in Japan: Policy and economic perspectives. Field: A Journal of Socially-Engaged Art Criticism - http://field-journal.com/issue-8/the-development-of-art-projects-in-japan-policy-and-economic-perspectives

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Great blog, thanks Karen. Another interesting perspective on Japan is given by Prof Ira Leroi from Manchester on what she calls Psychogeritechnology, 

see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29855080

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