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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Antonini

Setouchi Triennale Trip: Part 8 - Oshima

The island of Ōshima is the last I have visited on my Setouchi Triennale trip, but definitely, the one with the strongest emotional impact.

The ferry to Ōshima is surprisingly free of charge, although there are only 3 boats per day; visits have to be timed accordingly. I chose the first ferry in the morning, leaving Takamatsu port around 09:00 a.m. to make the most of my time on the island. The ride takes only 20 minutes and is smooth due to the proximity of the island to the shores of mainland Shikoku.

I decided to go to Ōshima just out of my curiosity to see the smallest of the Setouchi Triennale islands and a couple of the site-specific installations. Much to my ignorance, I knew absolutely nothing about this island’s tragic history. While I was on the ferry, I checked the internet for some extra information about Ōshima; and I was literally punched in the face by what I discovered. The island had been for many years, and still was, a sanatorium for patients with Hansen’s disease, most commonly known as leprosy.

Before going ahead with my story, let me give you some historical background, based on what I have learned in Ōshima. At the beginning of the 20th century, not much was known about Hansen’s disease; and the social stigma deriving from this very conspicuous condition was rampant. In 1907, the Japanese Diet promulgated a leprosy prevention act leading to the creation of sanatoriums in various remote areas of the country, where patients were to be kept in isolation.

As soon as the infection showed, patients would be literally wrenched from their families, forcibly deported and confined to Ōshima. These people, whose only fault was to be ill, were even deleted from the local family registers as if they had been pronounced dead. Once on the island, patients were divided into subgroups: men and women; older and younger; the more and the less affected by the disease; the able and the unable to work. Those who were able to work were required to perform daily tasks to help the medical staff stationed on Ōshima and contribute with their work to the activities of the sanatorium.

Patients in Ōshima (and other isolation centres throughout Japan) were estranged from their families, unable to go back to them. They lived as outcasts, without any hopes for a cure; the island was their only world, and some of them understandably developed love relationships to escape solitude. Some patients would eventually marry and create families, but giving birth to children was prohibited. Women were forced to abort in case of pregnancy and subsequently sterilised. It was basically an inhuman concentration camp disguised as a hospital.

Things started to change after WWII, when finally Promin, a treatment for Hansen’s disease, was discovered. The patients’ conditions gradually improved, but the Japanese government continued to impose confinement on patients until many years later. In 1955 the number of residents in the Ōshima sanatorium peaked at 694, and from that point on, it started decreasing. In 1961 the obligation for patients to work in the sanatorium was finally lifted, and tasks were passed on to regular employees, making the confinement a little less abusive. But it took another 35 long years for the government to finally abolish the Leprosy Protection Law altogether.

From 1996, patients are theoretically free to leave the island and go back to their homes. But the hard truth is that such long confinement has eradicated them from their place of origin. For the 50-something remaining residents of the island (all of which elderly), it makes no sense at all to go back. Ōshima has become the only universe they can relate to.

In this sad historical frame, the Setouchi Triennale and its artworks have been instrumental in revitalising the island; they show the world its powerful legacy without denying the horrors of the past. Visitors are drawn to the island to visit the art, but, at the same time, they are inevitably confronted with the dismal history of the place.

Ōshima Community Centre

Upon disembarking, I made my way to the local community centre. A local guide was in charge of the introductory mini-tour to explain the island and gave all visitors numbered badges to be returned at the end of the day. This is a measure to avoid that day-trippers are inadvertently left behind, stranded on the island, after the last ferry leaves. From the guide I learned the sad history I summarised above and visited the cenotaph in memory of all the patients who sadly passed away on the island.

Ōshima is entirely pedestrianised, and the street corners are dotted with loudspeakers constantly playing jingles. I was told that they are meant to help the patients navigate the streets because many of them are sight-impaired due to the effects of leprosy on the optical nerve. After learning this, what initially seemed to be a cheerful melody suddenly became an eerie and haunting sound that -to this day- I cannot get out of my head. The guided tour then finished, and we were left free to wander on the island to explore the artworks.

Ōshima has forested hills to the north and south, with the flat, inhabited area lying at the centre. The northern mount is entirely circled by a 1.5km loop-shaped walking trail; it was created by a group of young residents of the sanatorium but subsequently fell in disuse.

Artist Tomoko Konoike restored the path and disseminated her works (mainly sculptures and painted material) here and there for the hikers to discover fortuitously. Aptly named with the German word “Ringwanderung” (wandering in circles), the walking trail/installation offers moments of solitude and beautiful views of the sea and neighbouring islands.

My thoughts about the horrific past of Ōshima were eased for a short while by the shrill singing of the cicadas, the sound of the sea, and the breeze moving the branches. At random points, a hidden artwork would suddenly appear as a vision through the greenery of the pines or the swaying bamboo.

Back at the starting point of the circle trail, I made my way to the main exhibiting area of the Triennale, located in what used to be one of the residential quarters on the island. While "Ringwanderung" connected more with Ōshima’s nature and topography, the installations in this lower area had a deeper relation to the meaning of life in confinement and struck very sombre notes.

"Strait Songs", by Fuyuki Yamakawa, reenacts the desperate attempts of some residents to escape the island by swimming across the strait to the mainland village of Aji. The artist, wearing a wetsuit and a special camera, filmed the whole length of the crossing in a long video. It underlines how the seemingly nearby shore of Shikoku is, in fact, much farther than it looks. The length and slowness of the video end up amplifying the sense of hopelessness and desperation of the fugitives.

"Blue Sky Aquarium" by Seizo Tashima begins with a lifesize mermaid doll in a blue setting made of scrap wood that came afloat on the island shores. The pieces of wood coop up the mermaid in a corner, from where she sheds large glass tears; marbles fall on the floor to express the sorrow for the patients.

The installation continues in the nearby rooms with other elements from the sea, which was the perimeter of the patients’ residence and prison.

The very same Seizo Tashima also created "Life of N: 70 years on Ōshima", the most didascalic and outspoken of the artworks. N was one of the sanatorium in-patients and had been diagnosed with Hansen’s disease at the tender age of 16. This installation reproduces, in different rooms, some moments of N’s life: it begins with the forcible, heartbreaking eradication from his family; it continues with his settlement in the sanatorium; it culminates in the full awareness of the horrors and atrocities of life in confinement. Even if the style of the artwork is quite colourful and almost childish, the message it delivers is as strong as a punch in the stomach.

While waiting for the last ferry to go back to Takamatsu, I took a walk on one of the island’s beautiful sandy beaches. The sea was warm and crystalline, and I could see fish and baby squids swimming undisturbed in the water. Such a heavenly place, one could think. I guess sometimes hell comes in a pretty wrapping.

(This article is based on my trip to the Setouchi Triennale in July 2019.)

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