michael naimark




Gifu Update


Michael Naimark

(See "Interaction '95, Gifu" TRIP REPORT for original dispatch.)

(See also http://www.softopia.pref.gifu.jp/)


Next week is a big one for the Gifu Prefecture, an hour north of Kyoto. Its governor is hoping Gifu will become the first and largest "information brewery" in Japan. They say "jo-jo," a contraction of "no-jo" (farm) and "ko-jo" (manufactury).

Rising in the middle of rice fields is a new 100 meter high building called SOFTOPIA, whose charter is to promote high-tech information industries. The idea is that corporations rent space and facilities in this building, and, if the concept catches, build their own buildings nearby and create a high-tech research park.

SOFTOPIA did not come cheap: the total budget was $350 million, totally funded by the prefecture government. It will make some of it back through rentals, and some of it back through property sales of the surrounding area. But it is "an investment for the future," so says our tour guide as Mr. Sakane and I wander through this wonderland as dozens of workers put finishing touches on the interior.

For example, there are seven rental rooms for multimedia production. Each room has at least an SGI Onyx and a few Indigo 2s, several Sony Digital Betacam decks, an HDTV disc recorder, and cameras, audio gear, copystands, and lots of plush furnishings. There are also two floors with electronic security-locking suites for rent by corporations. Public spaces to attract locals and school groups include a "Media Plaza," various atriums, and two large multi-purpose halls for special events.

Everything is already booked solid. Many top Japanese corporations have rented space, as well as local and national government agencies, and several Japanese universities. It appears that many renters are getting breaks or incentives. One such renter is the USC Animation Department. Why are THEY here, I ask? "HOLLYWOOD. We want Hollywood" answers the guide.

As wacky and speculative such an enterprise may be, SOFTOPIA has spawned no less than 23 similar ventures throughout Japan, supported either by prefectural or municipal governments. But, so far, SOFTOPIA is the first and the largest.


My host, 66 year old Itsuo Sakane, got his own academy out of the deal. As one of Japan's most respected experts on art and new media, he was originally asked to run SOFTOPIA but said he would only be involved if they built an adjunct art institution.

They gave him his own building, in which he created the "International Academy of Media Arts and Sciences" (IAMAS) which opened last month.

IAMAS is in a long 4 story shoebox-shaped building 2 kilometers from SOFTOPIA in a residential neighborhood. Up until recently it was a training school for women in textile production; it is both airy and industrial. Long hallways run down the length of each floor.

Sakane gave me a tour, and he is clearly proud. IAMAS is so new that equipment is still coming in. So far they have numerous SGI machines and Digital Beta decks, as well as an Avid non-linear editing system and a VR "BOOM" from Fake Space Labs. Not bad for 50 students.

The students are a mix of undergrad and graduate - IAMAS can grant special 2-year degrees, something midway between a trade-school and a graduate degree (a structure still tentative). The students, mostly Japanese, come from all over Japan. Sakane eventually expects an equal split between local, nationwide, and international students.

IAMAS has many spacious studios, fully-loaded computer classrooms (every student must learn C or UNIX and HTML), wood and metal shops, a special artist-in-residence quarters (Toshio Iwai is their first AIR), 24 hour sleeping areas (gender-segregated, of course), and a restaurant. Only three of the four stories have been refurbished so far, and when I asked Sakane what's up on the fourth floor, he said "I don't know, let's look." He'd been too busy to go up there since IAMAS opened. The fourth floor is slated to be converted to student living quarters. Not surprisingly, several of the open rooms have been seized and converted into ad-hoc experimental art studios by the students. Good sign.

The number of schools committed to the media arts is frustratingly small, all over the world: The RCA in London, the new multimedia program at Beaux-Arts in Paris, the Cologne Academy and the ZKM in Germany, Keio University near Tokyo, NYU's ITP program, SFSU's multimedia studies program, and the MIT Media Lab. Arguably. There are others but not many. (The Banff Centre, in terms of the media arts, is effectively dead, sigh.) IAMAS is small, new, but significant. Especially when the current demand far exceeds the supply.