AT a factory complex near Yokohama, sandwiched between mountains and sea, the face of modern Japan looks cold and stern. Many of the workers look the same way. But Itaru Akiyama, president of Sanyo Printing Corporation, is trying to give a human face to this dreary place. Last fall he opened a display area for modern artworks inside his company. He also gives artists free printing services.
``Japan does not treat its modern artists well,'' says Mr. Akiyama, who is also an art collector, as he sits near a huge aluminum sculpture. ``Many artists are poor, and I wanted to help them a little.''
A number of Japanese firms are starting to support the arts, often with a mixture of motives and results. Last February, the Association for Corporate Support of the Arts was founded by 13 company leaders and a few intellectuals. Though Sanyo is not a member, already more than 140 firms have joined up. A few firms have set up in-house units to promote the arts.
Also started in 1990 was a special government fund to back a number of art groups. Government arts spending amounts to 0.07 percent of the total national budget, about three-quarters of which is used to preserve old cultural assets, not to develop new art.
What drives this interest in art by corporations, say its advocates, is a growing concern that an economically rich Japan must now turn its attention to neglected aspects of Japanese life.
``If there is a word `cultural power' in contrast with `industrial power,' then Japan has a big imbalance between the two,'' says Chobei Nemoto, professor and executive director of the new association.
A big problem lies in the performing arts. In Japan, some orchestra musicians need to work 200 concerts a year just to earn a living. A professional dancer may perform only 10 days a year. The expense of staging Kabuki theater, along with its declining popularity, have resulted in only a few hundred Kabuki actors left in Japan.
``For performers, Japan is not necessarily a good place,'' says Shigeru Yamato, an official with the Japan Council of Performers' Organizations. In a council survey, maintaining a stable income was cited by most performers as their biggest problem.
Neglect of the arts has been a problem since the late 19th century, when the nation's leaders decided Japan must industrialize to catch up with the West. Before culture took a back seat to economic pursuits, Japanese merchants and shoguns had cherished art in everyday life.
``The country has been running for the last 100 years without paying attention to how it presents itself,'' said Masakazu Yamazaki, playwright and professor at Osaka University, at an international seminar held by the corporate association for art last March.
Japan, unlike Europe or the United States, did not have a wealthy class until recently and lacked a tradition of Medici-like patronage of the arts. In addition, a government tax incentive for donating to the arts has been considered too small for companies to take advantage of it.
Until recently, support of Japanese arts was the last thing that companies thought of. Rather, they have sponsored a Madonna concert or bought a Renoir - bringing more advertising value, prestige, and criticism for jacking up prices as well.
``What Japan has done is to pay big money to introduce foreign culture,'' argues Nemoto. ``But even a Japanese worker who designs computers needs to express culture. The key is what kind of culture today's Japanese will produce. Without such expression, the feelings of Japanese people will never be known.''
In a recent construction boom of museums and concert halls also, many organizers were at a loss to find works to match the superb containers, according to Hayato Matsui, president of PIA Institute for the Arts.
Now, cash-rich companies are slowly finding ways to support cultural activities. Nomura Securities Co. and three other major firms jointly gave a chance for young musicians, both Japanese and foreign, to perform with the late Leonard Bernstein last July by sponsoring a music festival. Dai-ichi Mutual Life Insurance Co. and Ajinomoto Co. have funded a tour in Japan of a new Japanese musical group.
Corporations are responding to a rising demand among Japanese for more leisure and art in their lives, especially as the five-day workweek catches on. They also want to use art to project a corporate image and to recruit young people as employees. And a move to patronize local arts is also becoming necessary for Japan's overseas investors as they seek a better image in the US and Europe.
In theory, these companies acknowledge a need to help contemporary artists, which would eventually enrich the lives of people. But, choosing artists can be difficult.
``I did not know what to do,'' reveals Tsuneo Itsubo, when he became the general manager of Asahi Breweries' culture and philanthropy department set up last April. ``It's hard to have an eye that can evaluate art.''
Indeed, not many companies sponsor young artists, yet. Art coordinator with Artists Network, Yasuko Ogiwara, who produced Sanyo Printing's case, points out a lack of personnel who can bridge between artists and companies. While no Japanese school has taught art management, ``Companies are at a loss in this sudden movement [to sponsor art].''
But, it may be harsh to criticize only the corporate side. ``It was the Japanese people,'' argues Negishi, who have avidly pursued economic growth.
While people in Europe and the US did not forget about culture, most Japanese have come to think of culture as something from the outside to learn, not to produce themselves. Such famous Japanese as conductor Seiji Ozawa and director Akira Kurosawa only gained top recognition in Japan after receiving acclaim abroad.
``In this sense,'' says Negishi. ``We will face a big question of changing the people's view on culture.''