Miho Natori can recite nursery rhymes in Thai, speak German fluently, converse over coffee in English and is native in Japanese. For this 40-year-old graphic designer, life kaleidoscopes world to world, from Japan, to the orphanage she helped start with her mother in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and to Germany, with which she has a life-long connection.
Germany gave birth to the artistic heritage in the Natori family. Her grandfather, Younosuke, traveled there as a young man in 1931, armed with a Leica camera and the ability to tell stories with one shot. Many credit Younosuke Natori with bringing photojournalism to Japan, starting Nippon Magazine (1934-44) with a group of avant-garde friends and his German partner, journalist Elena Mecklenburg.
Natori was unaware of her grandfather’s legacy while growing up; she only knew her own yearnings: “From junior high school, I became interested in graphic art, and I dreamed of creating posters and graphics.”
Varied experiences engendered many images within the mind of the young Natori: “My mother divorced when I was 2 months old, and she always made quick decisions. We moved over 30 times when I was growing up.”
Natori’s mother, Miwa, worked in the magazine field as an editor and in advertising, traveling to Europe to work as a designer, then as a coordinator for a film production company. Wanderlust was a family inheritance: Her mother was born in Shanghai as Younosuke Natori traveled widely through Europe and Asia and America, working for Life Magazine or Ullstein or covering the Berlin Olympics. Natori herself was born in Germany.
When Natori was 10, her mother semi-settled in Tokyo to run an antiques store and gallery specializing in Western wares. Her mother thus discovered a way to keep traveling — as a buyer, searching for antiques — while making a secure home for her daughter.
Natori did not realize it as a child, but her mother was also searching for a place to contribute and shine outside the shadow of her vibrant, creative father, who died at just 52, soon after he sent his 16-year-old daughter to Germany for schooling.
Natori still feels the pull of Germany. Her mother lived in Germany a few years after studying there, meeting her Japanese husband and giving birth to Miho. Upon returning to Japan, she enrolled Miho at the German School in Yokohama from kindergarten. “I grew up speaking a different language, knowing a different culture, although my family was, of course, Japanese, and I could converse, yet I did not know keigo (formal Japanese).”
Natori graduated from the German School in Yokohama in 1988, but her limited choices in Japan took her back to Germany. Entering Fachhochschule Wiesbaden University, in Wiesbaden along the Rhine River, Natori studied communication design, still only aware that her grandfather was “some photographer.”
When Natori was 20 years old, the doorbell chimed in her modest student flat in Wiesbaden; her mother had once again taken flight, impulsively selling her antique store to a friend, borrowing Natori’s car and couch to work exclusively as a buyer throughout Europe.
Parallel to the work buying antiques, her mother also embarked on a side career that would one day greatly impact both their lives: She began designing and creating embroidered cushions and decorative house ware. Natori introduced her mother to a friend in Chiang Mai, and she included Thailand in her travels to pick out material and hire women to complete the embroidering.
Natori, meanwhile, graduated and decided to return to Japan. “My curriculum was very free. We studied everything from marketing to sculpture, so I could go into advertising or art, but I thought, I am Japanese. I don’t know very much about Japanese society, so I want to go back to Japan, but find something creative.”
Natori worked three years at a Swiss interior fabric company in Tokyo, in charge of marketing, PR and design. Although she appreciated the chance to interact with Japanese society, the long train commute and the pull of the sea eventually pushed her to quit the job and try freelancing in graphic design in 1997 — at the age of 27. “I could live anywhere in Japan. I had no one here, since my mother was traveling in Europe. I loved the sea, and we had an old run-down weekend house in Hayama (Kanagawa Prefecture) when I was younger, so no matter how many times we moved, I always felt at home in that area.”
Natori’s attempts to fashion her own world in Hayama was interrupted when her mother suddenly returned and moved in with her after she was paralyzed from a slipped disk, barely able to move. Although doctors gave her only a 50 percent chance of full recovery, her mother recovered after several months of Natori’s care and sessions with a kiko doctor.
Her mother slowly resumed her work making accessories in Thailand and it was then a sea change occurred in both their lives. One of her mother’s regular handicraft workers, a young woman named Ampai, died of AIDS, leaving behind a small child. Her mother impulsively decided to open an orphanage for HIV-infected children in Chiang Mai.
“The Hill Tribe people in Thailand are so talented with handicraft, and my mother had been going there for years, she saw how they live, what happens to their villages; it happened very gradually,” Natori said. “My mother is not the type of person who really wants to help others, who feels passionate about charity. It is so personal, what touches you, what comes to you coincidentally, that moves your heart. When you see something like that happen, a young woman growing thinner each time you visit, worrying about what will happen to her child — you want to do something.”
Natori, who had also visited Chiang Mai with her mother, became an active member from the project’s inception, using her skill as a graphic designer: “We needed to have a logo and leaflets, a concept, so from the beginning, we always discussed everything, including, for example, how we did not want to be too dependent on donations; we could not depend on charity for this work. If it was something ecological, planting trees, it could wait, but we have children — it’s their lives — we have to continue to take care of them.”
At the beginning, however, they had to rely on donations, and luckily gained the support of Giorgio Armani, Japan. In 1999, Natori’s mother and Armani established Kids Earth Home with 30 children. By 2001, the orphanage had gained enough financial independence and recognition from the Thai Government, and was re-established and renamed Ban Rom Sai, or “home under the Bodhi tree.”
“We have three main pillars of the business side in order to financially support the orphanage,” Natori explained. “First, our own original handicrafts; second, guesthouses near the orphanage, where visitors to Chiang Mai can stay; third, a Japanese restaurant in the city of Chiang Mai, Saitong.”
Natori is quick to credit donations for the orphanage to have reached this point of self-support: “Our first guesthouse was donated by the Japanese actress Masako Motai; our lovely swimming pool was a personal donation from a former head of Giorgio Armani; the Japanese restaurant developed with the help of Thai businessmen.”
Natori takes charge of a Thai clothing and handicraft store — which also goes by the name Ban Rom Sai, in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. By selling the products at the store, which also runs an online shop and seasonal shows at a gallery in Roppongi, Tokyo, Natori hopes to do more than financially support the children.
“Among the Thai average, our kids are lucky, they have a lot of opportunities. We try to raise money if a child wants to go to school. Some children want to study traditional Thai dance,” she said. The children at the orphanage help design the clothes and handicrafts, and Natori hopes that will help give the children a livelihood.
Her own livelihood straddles Asia and steps into Europe, traveling to Thailand three or four times a year to visit the children, managing the Kamakura and online shops, plus various events. A few years ago, she even touched her own past, gaining the opportunity to design the advertisements for a commemorative event honoring her grandfather, Younosuke, and one of his contemporaries and friends, Taro Okamoto. “In researching my grandfather for the work, I finally realized his contribution to photojournalism, and how hard it would have been to be in his creative shadow.”
Natori refuses to let any shadow fall on her own world, it seems, facing her work with the orphanage with a practical honesty that balances her artistic perception:
“We are a consumer society. We won’t stop consuming. But if someone buys one of our handicrafts, or stationery drawn by the children, they don’t have to know where it comes from. They just like it and buy it. The same with the guesthouse or the restaurant. You don’t have to think so hard about helping others, you just naturally do.”