On a side street just off the main shopping arcade in Koenji, a residential neighborhood west of central Tokyo, a giant eagle spreads its wings over lush trees and a sparkling stream.

The larger-than-life eagle, in a soft shade of pink, is the centerpiece of a massive mural that covers the side wall of a privately-owned five story building. Painted by WHOLE9, a two-person artist unit based in Osaka, the mural, titled “SYNC,” depicts the people of Koenji in the form of an eagle surrounded by abstract forms representing the diversity of life. 

koenji mural

This mural by WHOLE9 covers the entire side of a 5-story building in Koenji. (photo by Clara Mathiesen)

“It’s a mural with many colors which evokes the variegated neighborhood that is Koenji,” says Simo, one of the WHOLE9 artists.

“SYNC,” which was commissioned as part of the Koenji Mural City Project, a collective of artists, residents and others managed by art producer Kenji Daikoku, is part of a growing trend in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan to embrace street art — and specifically murals — as a way to enliven local communities.

In the past several years, murals have appeared in Tokyo neighborhoods ranging from residential areas such as Koenji and Nakano to more commercial areas such as Nihonbashi in central Tokyo. The trend is not limited to the capital; murals have also appeared in other urban communities, including Yokohama, Kawasaki and Osaka.

Unlike commercial murals, which are commissioned by businesses to advertise their services or wares, these public murals gracing the exterior walls of train stations, shops and both privately-owned and public buildings are mostly the creation of civic-minded local residents who believe in the power of art to do good.

“We wanted to use the creativity of artists in a good way to improve society,” says Daikoku.

Daikoku hopes that Koenji’s murals will bring joy to the local community and boost local pride in the area as well as establishing Koenji as an art hub that can attract interest and visitor traffic from outside.

So far, 11 murals have been painted in Koenji — on the walls of a public bathhouse, the shutters of shops, and a public wall that runs along the Momozono River, among other locations. “This isn’t just a job, but I am doing this because it adds to the cultural richness of the place where I live,” says Daikoku.

To the east of Koenji, Nakano ward is also using murals as a way to add to the area’s cultural value and enhance its appeal to both residents and outsiders.

Nakano boasts many cultural events, including Japanese taiko drum performances and traditional Noh theater, and is a center for manga and anime. But local residents have long felt that the ward has not been very successful in marketing its attractiveness as a place to live, work and visit, according to the ward office.

In 2021, Nakano launched the Nakano Mural Project, which has so far commissioned five murals in a variety of sites, including a public school. “Murals play a part in our goal to spread local culture,” says Tomoya Takahashi at the ward office.

nakano mural

“Sokodoko-Nakano,”an eye-catching mural depicting life in Nakano by Michinori Maru.

This is an objective shared by many advocates of public murals, which often have a deep connection to the history and culture of the local neighborhood and are frequently conceived as a way to promote local culture and build community spirit.

In the Tennozu neighborhood, which is known mainly for its warehouses and its proximity to Haneda airport, 17 large-scale murals highlight the area’s redevelopment and its ambitions to become Tokyo’s new art hub.

In many cases, murals are designed to reflect characteristics of the neighborhood that local residents treasure and aspirations they hold for its future. For example, in Ningyocho, in the Nihonbashi neighborhood of central Tokyo, murals incorporate images that reflect the areas traditional roots as a center of commerce and traditional crafts since the Edo period (1603 -1867).

Ningyocho is still home to many companies dating from the Edo period and retains the atmosphere of old Tokyo. “Geisha still perform there from time to time,” says Koichiro Kato, who chairs the Mural Art Project @ Ningyocho, which is run by Kato and his business partner. One such mural, painted by Kensuke Takahashi, depicts a geisha on the wall of Hiding Bar Zoro, a bar in a renovated old Japanese house. Geisha culture is in long-term decline in Japan.

nihonbashi mural

A mural on the facade of a bar in Ningyocho depicting a geisha. (photo courtesy of adwisteria co.)

Another distinctive feature of murals is that they are often created through collaboration between artists and local residents. This joint effort helps generate interest in art and build community spirit.

Painting murals where everyone can see them is not only a way to attract visitors, provide artists with a means to express themselves and make art accessible to the community. It also generates a discussion among the local residents about what kind of community they want to build, says Daikoku.

The artists chosen for the Koenji projects all have some connection to Koenji. 

The two members of WHOLE9 spent a month living in the area, talking to the locals and thinking about what makes Koenji click. In Nakano, workshops are held with local residents, including children, who participate in choosing the design and then help to paint the mural.

The public nature and accessibility of murals also make them ideal vehicles for bringing art closer to the public. “Japan’s share of the 9 trillion yen global art market is only 1% to 3%” says Takanobu Kawazoe, chief executive of WALL SHARE, based in Osaka, which has produced more than 100 murals so far.

This lack of interest in buying artworks stems in part from a general lack of familiarity with art. “If there is art in the city, anyone can be in touch with art,” says Kawazoe. “The interesting thing about murals is that people can watch the art being made. For old people and children alike, the experience and excitement of watching a mural being painted make the mural something they can be proud of.” 

Still, there was some uncertainty about the local reaction to the murals. Unlike in the West, where street artist Banksy’s work has long been widely appreciated and can fetch millions of dollars, murals have not been a part of public life in Japan.

So far, however, the Japanese public reaction to the murals appears to be overwhelmingly positive. “At first we were worried because some people in the Ningyocho neighborhood association did not like the idea when we presented it to them. But when they saw the art, they actually liked it,” says Kato. Nakano ward has received many requests from residents who want to see more murals painted throughout the ward, according to Takahashi.

Nakano mural

This mural outside Nakano station has become a popular meeting spot.

Often, the biggest challenge for promoters is raising funds to cover the artists’ fees and equipment. The five murals commissioned through the Nakano Mural Project were funded by a 10 million yen donation provided by Shinkin Central Bank, while a mural painted on the gymnasium of the Saginomiya Elementary School was funded by the school and its parent teacher association. The Ningyocho murals were painted with funds from the Agency for Cultural Affairs, which is part of the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

While funding remains a challenge, the growing awareness that large paintings on public walls are an asset that can have a positive effect on local communities is expected to spur the recent enthusiasm for murals.

“I believe murals will spread further because they can contribute to promoting and developing communities, which is what we need today,” says Daikoku. “Once people’s biases against murals are removed and regulations are relaxed — the two things that stand in the way — I think they will spread rapidly,” he says.

A version of this article was first published in Nikkei Asia