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Artist perseveres to embrace life in Japan, keep tapped to Iran roots

by Mariko Kato

Award-winning Iranian artist Mansour Kordbacheh has lived in Japan for 21 years and feels the weight of it on his shoulders.

“I carry the expectations of 70 million Iranians and I need to give something back to 130 million Japanese,” the 46-year-old father of two said with a smile during a recent interview.

Born in 1964 in Tehran, Kordbacheh started studying art when he was 14. Since moving to Japan in 1988, he has won more than a dozen prizes for his paintings, and has been selected multiple times to display his work in the Nikaten art exhibition, one of Japan’s oldest and largest, and the Japan Fine Arts Exhibition.

Ranging from oils to sculptures, from landscapes to portraits, Kordbacheh’s works are personal interpretations of traditional techniques and modeled on scenery and people he has come across throughout his life.

Despite his success, Kordbacheh says he does not want to make vast money out of his paintings and instead is looking for ways to contribute to society.

“Since I’m in Japan where I can paint without any restrictions, I want to produce good art that I like, to leave for children of the future. In that sense, I want to display my works at voluntary or charity exhibitions rather than sell them at an expensive shop in Ginza or somewhere,” he said.

A resident of Tokyo’s downtown Itabashi Ward, Kordbacheh rents an art studio and runs an “izakaya” pub to support his wife and two daughters of junior high school age. He works at the izakaya during the day and evening and pursues his art until late at night.

“If my wife has any hardships being married to a foreigner, all her relatives will think badly of foreigners, and I don’t want that,” he said.

Kordbacheh initially came to Tokyo to study Japanese, intending to return to Iran so he could work for one of the many Japanese companies there. Now fluent in Japanese, Kordbacheh says he found kanji the hardest to learn.

“I fell behind the Chinese and Korean students, and I studied hard every day. But I think it is good to study while you’re young,” he said.

Kordbacheh’s plan to go back home changed when he met his Japanese wife, who was a customer at a restaurant where he worked part time. After graduating from the language school, he worked briefly at a trading house before taking over the izakaya, called Kamon, which serves Iranian, French, South Korean and Japanese dishes and attracts multinational customers.

According to Kordbacheh, it is important to come to Japan with some knowledge of the culture.

“Because it’s an island nation, it has only one color,” he said, citing the well-known saying “Ishi no uenimo sannen” (Three years on a rock), meaning perseverance prevails.

Being able to persevere, Kordbacheh said, is the key to living in Japan long-term.

“If you’re patient, Japan’s not a bad country. I’m not saying it’s particularly good, but the sky is blue in any country.”

Kordbacheh has made a decision to stay in Japan, at least for the foreseeable future. Well-known in artist circles in Iran, he says news of his success in Japan travels to his home country and gives inspiration to people there.

“Since I’ve come to Japan as a representative of Iranian culture, I want to leave good footprints here,” he said.

Kordbacheh goes back to Iran about once every two years, taking his wife on one occasion, although his daughters have never been there.

“But I have family there, so I have taught my daughters a little of the language. So that at least when (the family in Iran) calls, they can say hello,” he said.

As an Iranian, Kordbacheh often gets asked about his opinion on the turbulent political situation back home. He always declines comment.

“Iran is a wonderful country with a rich history, and I believe it will be able to get back on its feet again. But I am an artist who has nothing to do with whatever goes on politically.”

A regrettable part of living in Japan is that, however fluent in Japanese he may be, strangers always assume he does not know anything about Japan, Kordbacheh said.

“I’m well-known in my community, but as soon as I go as far as the next station, people ask me whether I can speak Japanese, know how to hold chopsticks, or like ‘natto’ (fermented beans).”

He shrugged wistfully, adding, “But I know that’s something I just have to get used to.”

Although his izakaya brings income, Kordbacheh’s real passion is art and the interaction with those who view his work.

“I don’t worry about what style I’m painting in, as I know that if 10 people saw one artwork, they will have 10 different reactions,” he said.

“For me, it’s a real joy if I see an exhibition visitor pause to look at a work of mine, and I welcome any criticisms,” he added.

As Kordbacheh begins his third decade in Japan, he wants to concentrate more than before on using his works for social good and is willing to lend his artwork for free anywhere in the country.

“Until now I’ve been painting for myself, but Japan has looked after me for 21 years, and I want to give something back.”

As part of this endeavor, Kordbacheh is exhibiting his work for four months in a village in Fukushima Prefecture to support the community’s attempt to revitalize and attract tourists.

Kordbacheh’s work will be displayed from April 1 through July 31 in the village of Kawauchi in Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, at a multipurpose complex called Hito no Eki Kawauchi (People’s Station Kawauchi) on the site of a closed school.

To concentrate on his art, however, Kordbacheh said he badly needs a sponsor.

“I need a sponsor so that I can work without worrying about the expensive paint or paying the rent for my studio,” he said.

“At the moment, when I’m tired working at the izakaya I think, ‘if that customer has one more drink it would pay for that paint.’ Without financial backing I have to compromise the quality of my work.”