You grew up in a family of artisans. What role did creativity play in your early life? How important was tradition?
I was born to a family who made porcelain in a small town called Arita in Saga, Japan. The town is very small, but well known to people for its over 400 years of production of many types of ceramics. My father’s house was filled with many artistic porcelains and art and craft books. However, I didn’t care so much about these books until I graduated from an art college in Tokyo.
When it comes to tradition, what is important is not to keep the tradition, but to observe it well and alter it or create something new from it — to always keep thinking about how to make it better.
How did you ultimately decide to pursue Nihonga painting out of all the paths available to you?
I was nearly persuaded to take over my father’s kiln, since my elder brother was always good at playing baseball. He played all the way to the college league. But unfortunately, he got something he couldn’t overcome, and needed to give up his dream. Instead, he started to learn the way of ceramics to take over my father’s kiln.
When my brother started to learn ceramics, I thought, now I want to be an artist. An unfortunate thing for my brother opened my path. In addition, while attending art college, I encountered a painting which is one of the national treasures of Japan at the Tokyo National Museum that is a few steps away from the college. The painting is black and white, with rough brush strokes, yet creates a very serene atmosphere. This screen painting is titled “Shōrin-zu byōbu” meaning the pine trees screen, and it shows several pine trees standing in fog/mist and you can barely see a mountain from afar. This is my favorite painting and when I saw this for the first time in person, I decided to pursue Nihonga.
After your formal fine arts education in Japan, when and why did you move to the U.S.? Tell us about the events that precipitated that decision.
After completing some doctorate programs at the graduate school, I got on offer to stay at the Nihonga department office, but I wanted to see the world outside of Japan. I had been wondering: Why weren’t Japanese artworks more popular in western world? At that point, Takashi Murakami was still there and Yoshitomo Nara was not known yet. Kusama was already big, as well as some other contemporary artists from Japan were known, but not Nihonga artists. I wanted to see if there was any reason for that.
Also, while attending the doctorate programs, one of my colleagues died. I felt that at any point, we could die maybe even the next day. So I thought I did not want to stay in Japan without seeing the world outside. I decided to leave Japan.
In the late 80s, contemporary art in Germany looked very attractive for many Japanese artists like me, so I went there first. Next, seeing some possibility in France, I moved to Paris via TGV. But still, I couldn’t find any suitable taste for me there. I decided to move to an English-speaking country, and aimed at New York City as the final destination.
There were a few locations that followed where I learned to speak English, starting in Hawai’i first, the closest state of the U.S. from Japan. I got a contract with a gallery there, then moved to the mainland, San Diego, California, where I have made contracts with few local galleries. But the gallery artists of the last gallery I had a contract with were mostly from the East Coast, so in 2007 I moved to NYC, the most competitive art city.
For people who are unfamiliar, how do you describe Nihonga painting? What traditional aspects of Nihonga do you practice? In what ways do you break the rules?
Nihonga, which uses animal skin glue as the medium and binder, is considered the traditional painting style and technique in Japan. There have been many different ideas of what Nihonga is even amongst artists who actually practice these methods. I would choose four key elements to consider what Nihonga is. First, materials and equipment. Second, technique, which is connected to the use of those materials. Third, artistic convention of traditional Japanese style and last but not least, Japanese sensibility or philosophy.
These techniques were introduced to Japan from China nearly 1,400 years ago. The technique of making the color itself, a mixture of natural pigments and animal collagen, has quite a long history, possibly as long as human history. Some might know that archaeologists found some lines and strokes on a rock at Blombos Cave, near the Southern cape in South Africa, where there was also found a sea shell that contains finely grounded ochre, charcoal and protein/fat, which is considered a painting kit dating back to about 100,000 years ago. In a way, we can consider that Nihonga technique started here, and we are still using pretty much the same technique today. I think this is incredible.
Nowadays, many artists who call themselves Nihonga artists also use acrylic paint. The makers of Japanese traditional-style materials are getting scarce in Japan. Many of the makers of Washi paper, Nikawa glue, and Japanese-style brushes are having serious supply problems. It’s actually a huge problem in Japan. Most fine materials are only from Japan, so when I need it, it takes time to obtain. After the Covid-19 pandemic, the cost got higher. I have been using linen and cotton canvases as my foundation for more than 20 years, and finely grounded mineral pigments, hide glue, and dry pigments from a shop in New York.
When it comes to my style, most of my paintings are vague, which is intentional. Historical paintings in Japan usually have outlines to express the mass, shape, and distance. I do outline when I start, but erase it by overlayering pigments many times. This way it is closer to Mourou-tai, which literally means “vague style” that was developed after the Meiji period (1868–1912) in Japan after Western paintings were heavily introduced. I combined this style with more graphical composition more commonly seen in the Rimpa style, which started roughly over 400 years ago.
The reason I make my artwork vague is actually quite simple: I believe that it makes it easier to connect the visual effect of my paintings with the viewer’s memories. I believe that the human mind would be healed by just being in the nature and I would like to recreate those experience by evoking those feelings in my paintings. Even if you could feel one tree in one of my artworks, it is not one particular tree that you could see in front of you in real life, but the tree was certainly in front of you in your past and in your mind, and in our memory. I would like to connect them. There are no distinguished differences between all of us. We can hold shared memories together, or one by one.
What is your process like? Do you have a routine or do you try different things? How do you know when a painting is finished?
II always watch trees, clouds, and flowers when I walk around. I capture those images in my head and also on my camera, or cell phone these days. I usually have decided 90% of the compositions, colors, etc. at the first point of my creation process, which happens mostly on site when I saw the scene. I have already started to think about how to make layers of colors to create the image in my head. Something like this first, then this color in this way, then this line, then that color, etc. So most of the time I just follow the process I have already decided. I have developed this by my experience. I do sometimes experiment to test other ways, always remembering the results. I know when it is finished when the image appears in front of me.
Nihonga process takes time. It doesn’t happen with your emotional instincts. You need to think ahead of the process, so it naturally makes you slow down your life. Imagine preparing the glue the day before, making the black ink for a couple hours by hand, then mixing the white pigment at least an hour before starting to throw the first line of brush stroke. It is like a meditation. Then you need to wait a few hours or overnight to make another layer of color and you want 30 to 50 layers on one painting. You really need to have patience.
Similar to your technique, how can people “slow down” when encountering or experiencing works of art such as yours? What effect does this have?
This current society works mostly at a fast pace. We need to slow down our pace. If we can do it, we have more time to contemplate what is primarily necessary to make this life rich and healthy. Ironically, COVID-19 gave us time. Many people found their time to be important. In NYC, we felt connected to our neighbors. But at the same time, we felt our wounds more clearly, too.
I dream that the world is like this: One can have my painting in the bedroom, see it every night before sleep, remembering their childhood playing under the tree. That time would heal all the stress from the day. They would have a good sleep, and wake up with a clear mind, so then that person will stop when they see their neighbor and give a smile the next day. People will smile back at each other, and to the other neighbors, and the neighbor gives their smile to the others. No matter what you believe, it doesn’t matter where you belong, we all have smiles and help each other.
Editorial director and writer Allison Stice covers art, design and culture. Her work has been published in The Bitter Southerner, Garden & Gun, Savannah Magazine and more.