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Brushing with authority

Sidelined in Japan, but respected the world over, Taeko Tomiyama tells Nobuko Tanaka what has inspired her art for more than 60 years

by Nobuko Tanaka

I will never forget the day I went to a show titled “Embracing Asia: Taeko Tomiyama Retrospective 1950-2009,” which was one of 370 art exhibits by creators from 40 countries comprising the fourth Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial staged over 50 days last autumn at locations across a huge area of rural Niigata Prefecture.

Entering the exhibition’s venue, a disused but bright and airy elementary school in the village of Nakasato, beside the picturesque Kiyotsu Gorge, was in some ways like stepping into a modern-day but decidedly Asian Hieronymous Bosch festival. Among more than 200 of Tomiyama’s artworks on display were astonishing and stunning surprises at every turn — from woodcuts that brought to mind Fernand Leger or Pablo Picasso to surreal Asian histories in oils, silkscreens and graphically politically technicolor collages the like of which I’d never seen before. Never seen, especially in Japan, as the powerful, detailed and frequently comical, erotic or ironic content of many of the pieces spoke directly to issues so rarely if ever openly addressed in this country.

Surrounded by such a wealth of creative energy, my eyes were riveted to the displays. It was as if I’d stumbled into an artistic Aladdin’s Cave.

To my great surprise, I soon discovered that Tomiyama, the creator of these beautiful but clear and direct political and social messages — addressing festering sores such as Japan’s war guilt and countless global contradictions — was not a thrusting thirtysomething but a thrusting artistic agent provocateuse now in her 89th year. She was also someone I definitely wanted to meet.

Born in Kobe in 1921, Tomiyama was an only child who says she started to draw for want of having any playmates, but also because her mother loved doing beautiful embroidery. Her father drew cartoons as his hobby and sometimes invited friends who were professional suibokuga (Indian ink) artists to stay over.

When Tomiyama was 10, however, the family moved to Manchuria when her businessman father was transfered there by his company, the English-based Dunlop Tyre Corp. So it was that for the next six years, at an impressionable stage in her life, she lived in Dalian and Harbin — “witnessing both the conquering and conquered sides” in the puppet-state dependency that militarized Japan called Manchukuo.

But then, at age 16, Tomiyama moved alone to Tokyo to attend the Woman’s School of Fine Arts, later joining the Japanese branch of of the German-based Bauhaus School of art. Before long, Japan was at war, and by the time hostilities ended in 1945, Tomiyama was a “very poor,” divorced mother of two little girls.

Then, in the mid-1950s, when she returned to visit an area in Miyagi Prefecture in northern Japan where she’d been evacuated to during the war, Tomiyama was powerfully struck by the bare mountains swathed in black dust and smoke from the area’s coalmines. It was a sight that fired her artistic spirit and led not only to a series of writings and stark pictures on that brutal industry but to a turning point in her life that set her focus thereafter on social issues — something that even today many artists in Japan tend not to address head on.

Before long Tomiyama was off to South America on a shoestring budget to document the Japanese miners driven by poverty to emigrate there. Next she visited Cuba, then later, in search of her Asian roots, Central, West and South Asia. In the 1970s, deeply affected by the democracy movement in South Korea, she went to that country in turmoil and created a storied series of lithographs themed on the antigovernment poet Kim Chi Ha. That experience also fostered her continuing interest in and artistic focus on Japan’s annexation of Korea from 1910-45 — involving issues such as Japan’s many thousands of Korean “comfort women” (wartime sex slaves), her homeland’s largely ignored war guilt, and the present conditions of Asian women in general.

Yet though she is held in high regard and exhibited around the world, Tomiyama is virtually ignored in Japan — where the authorities ensure art and politics mix like oil and water — and her works are rarely shown even at small venues.

It was against this background that Fram Kitagawa, general art director of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial, booked Tomiya’s show last autumn in that disused school. As he wrote in a review of her autobiography, “Embracing Asia,” published last year, Kitagawa did so simply because he believes Tomiyama “will in the future be seen as one of the best artists in Japan in this period.”

When I visited her home in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward recently, Tomiyama put down her paintbrush, smiled warmly, and there in her sunny living room we started our conversation.

What’s this painting you are working on?

I am painting a landscape of Afghanistan, where I spent three months in the autumn of 1967. It is part of my latest series about the Eurasian continent.

When I went to Afghanistan there were no tourists at all, but there were those enormous ancient Buddha figures carved from the cliffs in the Bamiyan Valley. I remember I felt that there, somehow, was the indescribable origin of Japan, and also there I heard the local wedding music, and I thought it was very similar to the sanbaso music in Japan’s noh theater.

The Silk Road ran through Afghanistan, and that area was an ancient link between East and West. Alexander the Great went there from the West, and Buddhist culture also flourished there. So, with my Asian roots, I felt somehow nostalgic there though I’d never been before.

Everywhere, too, there was a kind of illusory surrealism, and the place was covered in liver-colored sands. I’m painting this from black-and-white photos I took then, and also from recent pictures, so I am creating an illusory image mixing ancient sights and ones from today. (Pausing as if struck by an urgent thought, Tomiyama then turned back to her canvas and painted some sheep on it without any hesitation at all.)

I notice that you can paint very speedily.

Now, in my 80s, I can paint much faster and more enthusiastically. I have much less hesitation to use my brush than before. When I was young, it took much longer to finish a work as I worried about many different things to do with my themes and their purpose. But now I am quite clear about many things, so I can work quickly. For example, if I took a year to finish a work in my 30s, now I could finish it in two months. There’s no point living for a long time unless at least some things improve, is there? (laughs) Normally people think negative things about getting old, but I enjoy my glorious 80s and, as I am an artist, I don’t have a retirement age and can just carry on working.

As for the subjects of my artworks, they have always come to me in a stream, such as the Gwangju Democratization Movement iFn Korea (1980) and 9/11 in New York (2001). So as long as I am ready to react to such matters instantly, I never need to worry about finding my themes and I feel free and relaxed to express my thoughts in my artworks.

When I went to the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial in the Niigata countryside last September, I thought I’d never seen such pictures as yours by a Japanese artist before, as they obviously had such strong political messages.

Hmm, it’s been taboo for ages in Japan. It’s a tacit unspoken understanding in the Japanese art world to steer clear of politics because artists fear being branded as antiauthoritarian by the powers that be. That’s because those authorities are quite capable of ostracizing their work due to their groundless fears and lack of imagination.

Furthermore, commercial art galleries are hesitant to show such political and social works, as it may cause problems for their business, while the younger people who might want to plan such shows at public art spaces can’t get their bosses’ authorization, as they are afraid of causing controversy.

So do you mean there are certain taboos in art in today’s Japan?

In Japan, artists can’t indicate their political concepts clearly in their works, so normally they only allude to things in ambiguous ways.

For example, there is an unfathomable fog between citizens and the Imperial family in Japan. The Imperial family has never said that people shouldn’t make mention of its war guilt, but there is a certain unspoken agreement about not talking about war guilt in our society.

It would be something sensational, for instance, if celebrities were to talk about their memories of their experience in Harbin, Manchuria or Korea during the wartime period. Talking about Japan’s colonies is such a sensitive taboo in this country. I think it’s so weird. Of course, there is no problem if they just talk about their nostalgic, fun recollections, and it’s OK to praise the Imperial family. But once artists put critical or sarcastic messages about such things as war responsibility into their works, then it becomes quite unacceptable.

Unfortunately, artists are generally not well supported financially in Japan, so they tend to impose self-restraint in the interests of making a living. The same thing happens in the media, including television and newspapers.

Consequently, most of my exhibitions have been held in European countries, the United States and South Korea, because in those places there were no problems at all in showing my social-issue paintings and prints.

In Japan, have you encountered any obstructions to doing your artwork?

We heard the news that the (left-leaning) Nikkyoso (Japan Teachers’ Union) annual meeting was canceled last year by a hotel due to a threat from rightwing groups. I’ve never heard of any other advanced country in which citizens can’t freely have such a meeting. As well, teachers are punished and can lose their jobs if they don’t stand up and sing “Kimigayo” (the national anthem) at school events.

There is collusion with the powerful, for example with the police, everywhere in this country, and citizens despair at that condition.

There were several threats from a rightwing group to the (left-leaning) Asahi Shimbun newspaper in the late 1980s, and since then the media has stayed away from troublesome matters as much as possible.

It’s all in line with that old proverb, “Don’t go asking for trouble,” and it applies equally to company workers, for instance, who normally worry about their long-term housing loans — so they don’t go asking for trouble.

In the 60 years since the war, such acquiencence to those with power has become so rooted in society without people really being aware of it.

Personally, I have always had pressures from rightwing groups against me holding exhibitions in this country. They don’t bother so much if I have a show at a university, as only a closed segment of people will see it, and they know it’s too immoral to rush onto a campus and start bellowing through loudspeakers at the students.

Funnily enough, though, those kinds of people don’t bother much about works of literature, because it takes time to read them carefully. But they can see paintings in a moment, so they can more easily target the fine arts.

I wonder how much such largely unseen power pressures have destroyed the development of modern Japanese culture. Certainly, everybody knows it’s there, but as an artist I can’t just accept it in silence. However, artists have to think how to present their message cleverly under such conditions. That’s why the title of my exhibition at the Echigo Tsumari Art Triennial last autumn was the deliberately vague “Ajia wo Idaite” (“Embracing Asia”). So rightwing groups didn’t get there at all.

How did you come to be invited to participate in the Triennial?

The event’s general director, Fram Kitagawa, had been asking me for ages to stage an exhibition, and we had been waiting for the right opportunity. Then fortunately that closed elementary school became available as a venue. Also, although Niigata is traditionally regarded as quite a conservative area, I felt that the times have changed a bit these days — as we saw with the change of government in August after more than half a century of virtual one-party rule.

However, I don’t think there is any extreme message or propaganda in my paintings; they are quite normal, I believe. (laughs) In fact the school’s former principal came to see my exhibition and he enjoyed it so much.

Why do artists appear to behave so passively in the face of authority in this country?

In the long run, the arts have been ruled by the Emperor. The major art prizes, such as the Bunka Kunsho (Order of Culture) and the Nihon Geijutsuin Sho (Japan Art Academy Award), are bestowed by the Emperor, so inevitably they don’t go to people critical of the Imperial Family. And as artists awarded the Bunka Kunsho, for instance, can receive a special pension of ¥3.5 million a year, it’s to their financial benefit to stay eligible. Japan may not be a militarist country anymore, so anti- establishment artists aren’t locked up, but they just get ignored instead.

In my case, I’ve never received any form of official support, and as I am an outsider in the Japanese art world, you won’t find my name in art magazines.

In 1995, when an exhibition of my works titled “Tomiyama Taeko; Tokyo and Seoul Exhibition” was shown at Tama Art University as part of an art project commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, a French staffer and a Japanese announcer from (national broadcaster) NHK interviewed me and made a program about my show. However, it was broadcast at 5 a.m. on a national holiday (Constitution Day), so nobody saw it or even knew it was on. Then I heard that those two people were transferred to regional offices soon afterward.

In the same year, that exhibition was also staged in Seoul with lots of local corporate support. In Korea, of course, the end of the war was their liberation from Japanese colonial rule, so most of the media covered the exhibition. A correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun also covered the show and sent a report to Tokyo, but it never appeared in the paper. In fact only Shukan Kinyobi (Weekly Friday), which is an independent magazine, ran a story about it here, but they didn’t mention it on the cover. . . .

Anyhow, after that business with NHK, I fully realized that only a few people would be ever able to see my works, so I now put together slide shows of them accompanied with beautiful music by Yuji Takahashi and it’s easy to take that anywhere and present a show, even in small community halls or wherever.

What were the reactions to your exhibition at the Triennial?

I personally was so shocked that there was such a huge response. There was a book at the reception desk where visitors were free to write their comments, and so many did — from small children to old people. Mostly they praised my works and many wrote long and earnest comments there.

In total, about 7,000 people visited the remote school to see my exhibition of about 200 artworks, so the festival organizers, too, were so surprised and delighted.

I am not entirely surprised, because that was quite a rare chance to see your works in Japan.

Certainly, I’ve rarely held any exhibitions in Japan in the last 10 years, and though it’s hard to present oil canvases overseas, friends in foreign countries have made tours with my screenprints, collages and slide shows.

Also, in 2004, an exhibition of mine, titled “Kioku to Wakai” (“Remembrance and Reconciliation”) was held in Philadelphia. It then moved to the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, in 2005, and went from there to Northwestern University near Chicago in 2006, where it was especially well received. Consequently, a team at Northwestern led by Laura Hein, a professor in the Asian History Department, is now making a Web site to show my works. (www.history.northwestern.edu/people/hein.html )

Do you think you will ever gain such prominence in Japan?

Well, even though Japan is changing slowly these days, it will probably take another 20 years before there is real change. (laughs)

Another reason I am overlooked in the Japanese art world is definitely because I am a woman. If I were a man, they couldn’t ignore me as they do — but it’s hardly surprising because I’ve heard its said many times by male artists that they don’t think women should discuss the society, and it shows an impertinent attitude if they do. They believe women should paint flowers, or Marie Laurencin- type graceful pictures. Feminist art only started in the ’80s in Japan.

How do you see the postwar development of Japanese art? After the war, the dominant trends were abstract and fine art, as well as early homegrown Surrealism. And as artists were not inspired by Soviet-led Socialist Realism, they didn’t go that way. The upshot was that the majority of artists skipped over taking political and social subjects as their themes.

When Japanese artists — usually men — take up the theme of the war, their works are always from the point of view of Japan’s victimhood and its sorrow and pain, not from an offender’s position. Most of the works show atomic bombs, Siberia or air strikes around Japan, but in terms of social responsibility I think we have to examine the offender’s side. And before they became nostalgic, I would like to ask them to think again why all those men needed to join the war. However, it’s taboo to represent our offender’s view, so when I painted pictures themed on Korean “comfort women,” I was attacked by many different groups.

Though we killed 20 million Asian people during the war, we never examine that history. There’s something wrong. It comes from people’s ignorance, but that’s hardly surprising because in the government’s school curriculum the modern history of Japan is just skated over, so young people don’t have that basic knowledge.

It’s all different in the world of theater, which can’t exist without social awareness. So there has been a social movement in postwar Japanese theater, and also in literature, but artists could escape into abstract expression.

What has motivated you to continue making your artworks even though you have been overlooked for so long?

My connection and friendship with foreign supporters has given me a great sense of purpose to continue. Also, there is no Emperor factor to deal with outside of Japan, so everything goes so smoothly.

When I wanted to hold an exhibition in a small Tokyo gallery in the ’70s related to Korean social issues (a lithograph series inspired by the Korean poet and thinker, Kim Chi Ha, who was jailed in 1975 for 5 1/2 years as a subversive by the then military government), the owner told me his gallery would lose dignity if he had that Korean-themed exhibition. He also said, in all seriousness, that he didn’t want to have Korean customers at his high-grade gallery. Maybe many people now can’t can’t believe that, as there is a big Korean boom these days, but it was taboo to mention Korea or any of Japan’s other former colonies in the ’70s.

What do you think now drives today’s painters in Japan?

Well, if you asked them, most would probably say, “I like to paint pictures.” (laughs) But of course nobody asks artists here why they are doing what they do. Teachers never think about it, so they don’t ask their students.

In many ways, the quality of arts has gone down drastically since the end of the Edo Period (1603-1867). The works of many ukiyo-e artists stand comparison worldwide, and many artists early in the Meiji Era that followed were jailed for what they did or believed. They were real artists and artisans.

Then, once Western arts came to Japan after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, artists here just followed their lead. Now they generally accept the authorities’ evaluation without question. What caused such a decline after the brilliance of artworks in the Edo Period? When we lost the war, we had a great chance to revise our wrong direction, but we missed that chance and just closed our eyes. Nobody cared about the former colonies, and Japanese just made money from the Korean War procurement boom in the early ’50s. Then they got carried away by the ’80s bubble economy, when Japanese traveled around the world and spent money. What ridiculous nonsense.

Anyhow, I feel I’m not 100 percent Japanese — probably I’m half-Japanese. (laughs) I grew up in Dalian and Harbin, in the middle of the Asian continent, so I have always been watching Japan from the outside.

I suppose you met lots of young people at the Triennial. What did you think about them?

Two groups of young people planned tours to Niigata and went to see my exhibition. One was a feminist study group and the other one was a group studying the issue of wartime “comfort women.” The members of the former group didn’t know much about history; those in the latter group hadn’t much of a clue about art.

In contrast, in Germany the arts exist everywhere at citizens’ sides, so naturally ordinary people comprehend such concepts without any special effort. It’s the same in New York. So art in these places inevitably coexists with people’s awareness of social issues. Japan is in a period of transition in this respect: Artistic people normally know little of politics and social issues, and ideological people know little about the arts. At present, these two fields have not blended together.

Would you even tar the baby boomers in Japan who fought against the authorities as student activists in the ’70s with the same brush?

Those people are now close to retirement, and I know some of them are ready to do something good for the society in their extra free time. I think we may soon see grassroots activities involving such people rather than any large-scale movements. That’s probably the only hope for the future of Japan, because the official politics are hopeless.

What have you learned most from your experience in other countries?

I was in Latin America for a year in the early ’60s and I felt so comfortable to be in multiracial societies. I feel rather out of place in monoracial Japan. When I went to New York in 1976 for my exhibition titled “Dedicated to Pablo Neruda and Kim Chi Ha” (a Chilean poet/politician and the Korean poet/thinker, respectively), I met and saw many student activists, people into women’s liberation and the “black is beautiful” movements. Previously, I had been so sympathetic with the student activism that happened in many places in the world in the late ’60s, and that had been one of the biggest influences in my life.

When I became an artist, I was one of the few woman members of the Jiyu Bijutsuka Kyokai (Free Artists Association) in Japan (one of the more liberal-leaning groups that at this point still dominated the country’s artistic landscape), but I came to think it was absurd to stay in such a closed arty society, feeling like a frog in a well, after I experienced those social movements in foreign countries. So I left that association and then found I had a lot more chances to meet like-minded people from different fields of the arts and other parts of society. One of those is the musician Yuji Takahashi, who has written accompaniments for my slide works. We have been working together for more than 30 years so far.

What turned me away from that association, too, was the way the male artists never accepted me as an artistic equal. They became very angry if I, as a woman, criticized their paintings. I was also so shocked when I saw how they treated their wives and the junior artists. I think Japanese men still want to hang on to the kuruwa bunka (red-light district culture) of the Edo Period.

I had such bitter experiences in that male-dominated society where, for example, the men would openly say such things as, “What do women and children know about anything?”

Who are the artists who have influenced you most?

That’s always changed depending on my age. First, when I was young, I liked Vincent van Gogh. Then I loved pictures by Marc Chagall, as they reminded me of things I saw in Harbin. Afterward, I went to an art college which followed the Bauhaus School in in Germany, so then I especially liked Paul Klee and Fernand Leger. I have also felt strong empathy with early 19th-century Surrealism, and from the postwar period I liked the German artist Anselm Kiefer and was hugely influenced by Russian avant-garde arts.

Just now I am keen on Inuit art from Canada. They observe nature and birds and other animals so carefully and put that into their art. They are fantastic.

Have you set any life target for yourself?

Nothing. (laughs)

I would like there to be as many memories of the war in my works as possible.

I can’t be so active as before, to be honest . . . so now I am painting this series on the Eurasia continent at home.

I’d also like to be a bridge between artistic people, who only know about the arts, and ideological people, who don’t care about the arts. So I occasionally go out to talk about such things from my experience and show my works in small seminars.

Taeko Tomiyama’s autobiography, “Asia wo Idaku” (“Embracing Asia”), was published by Iwanami Bookshop in 2009. To learn more about her and her work, visit www.ne.jp/asahi/tomiyama/hidane-kobo