Arts and dementia in Japan: Report from a research visit

Offered the chance to speak at an arts and dementia symposium in Tokyo, ADS PhD student, Karen Gray, jumped at the chance to combine this with further research visits and conversations.

Japan: A super ageing society

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 (it provided the model for the UK’s Dementia Friends movement, for example), the arts and dementia field there is still very young.

Arts Memory and Aging symposium, Tokyo

The Arts, Memory and Aging symposium on 8 October 2018 was jointly organised by Arts Alive, an organisation offering MoMA-inspired art discussion sessions, and Aoyama-Gaukuin University in Tokyo.

In the keynote, leading neurologist Professor Peter Whitehouse talked about the necessity 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.

IMG_3654My presentation, based around 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, 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.

Saitama Gold Festival

Tokyo’s Saitama Arts Theater has a long-running programme involving older people as actors – Saitama Gold Theater. I visited during a festival related to the programme, seeing a wonderful musical version of Moliere’s Malade Imginaire, performed by a cast of 400 older people. Performers were orchestrated by the director from within the auditorium. Stage hands prompted and supported on stage throughout; a natural and integral part of the show. The enthusiasm and pleasure of participants was obvious.

Performers in ‘Imaginary Invalid’, Saitama Gold Festival.

Examples of the arts in practice

With Noriyo Washizu, an Alzheimer’s Association of Japan board member, I visited the SAIIN daycare 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 physical nature of a perfect apple, and then 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 in its ‘arts and care’ social enterprise model, connecting people with disabilities to business, enabling them to use their creative capacities, and be paid for their work as a group. This is made easier because Japanese companies are required by law to employ a percentage of disabled employees. 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 a daycare centre. Participants with dementia showed themselves sensitive to the nuances in a set of pictures, Western and Japanese, bringing their own knowledge and histories to the discussion.

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 ADS’ own Dawn Brooker and Isabelle Latham’s Person-Centred Dementia Care.

Some key points of difference

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. Cultural organisations rarely have outreach or education departments.

A comprehensive private insurance system pays for individuals’ health and social care. Although 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 greater 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 scope to increase 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, alongside recent growth of what has been termed ‘venture philanthropy’. My sense is that exciting and contextually appropriate relationships between arts, health and commercial partners will need to evolve if arts and dementia projects are to succeed in Japan, as well as attention to how ‘value’ should be conceived in relation to the involvement of people with dementia in the arts.

Karen Gray (

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