• SHARE

A household name, not only in Japan, amongst print artists, painters and art collectors, Norman Tolman appreciates art in realms beyond his own strict specialties. Japanese architecture, pots and fabrics naturally fall within his orbit. He can rearrange the interiors of other people’s homes to delight them more than their own settings ever did. He could not be more appreciative of the English-language theatrical art that Tokyo International Players has been bringing to audiences since its origin 104 years ago.

“I am sure I enjoy TIP more than anybody,” Norman said. “Whatever the players do, they do it well. Everyone in the English-speaking community should know TIP’s level, and see its productions.”

Norman Tolman, multilingual world traveler

He has never aspired to being an actor. But then, he has never been an artist, either. “I developed an eye, because I realized my hand was never going to develop.” he said. “I am one of those forgiven for typing letters. But I have looked, and looked, and looked.” He looked to such effect that he made his Tokyo-based Tolman Gallery a highly reputed institution, regularly visited by knowledgeable international buyers of Japanese art. He made himself one of the most influential writers, speakers and judges of Japanese contemporary prints.

A New Englander, Norman took his first step toward the Far East when he decided to learn Mandarin Chinese. Perhaps he made that decision because he is “basically inquisitive.” He calls himself a doer. After service in the air force, he entered the University of California, Berkeley. Married by then to Mary, he worked as a translator and editor of Chinese whilst gaining his B.A. in Oriental languages. On a scholarship to Yale, he secured his M.A. degree in East Asian studies. In 1964 he came on a Fulbright scholarship to Tokyo University. Here, with Japanese the medium of instruction, he studied late Tibetan and early Chinese linguistics.

Norman enrolled again at Berkeley, this time to work for his Ph.D. He left, to accept employment as a language officer in the U.S. Foreign Service. He came to Tokyo, then to Sapporo, then to Kyoto. Already a steadfast collector of prints, he wanted, he said, “to use the special kind of knowledge I had built up.” He left the service, moved to an old, traditional, Japanese-style house in Suginami Ward, and opened his first gallery, “with six prints by six artists.” The family held tight to their corner of a fast-vanishing Japan, and were “absolutely devastated” when they had to leave the house and garden.

Norman, characteristically buoyant and exuberant, fastened on the advantage of having the gallery more prominently in central Tokyo. He found another beautiful slice of endangered Japan to save. “We established ourselves in a former geisha house in Shiba Daimon,” Norman said. “We found our two secret weapons, Eiji Nagao and Taka Yamamoto, who are like our sons. Our business doubled every year for 10 years, and it is all credit to them.” As the Tolmans’ multilingual daughters grew and blossomed, they went off to manage galleries in New York and Paris. Norman has another business in Beijing, emphasizing Chinese art. Now he has a second Tokyo gallery, on Omote-sando, where original paintings receive pride of place, and where space and light accord them “the justice they deserve.”

Norman says that in business he has always proceeded cautiously. He is friends with his customers and with his artists, most of whom sell exclusively through him. His clients stay with him because “we’ve been doing the same thing for so long now, and our artists continue to do things people just can’t believe. We’ve ridden out bubbles and crises. I’ve never been one to give up.”

Norman praises the College Women’s Association of Japan for its annual print show, which he says is “one of the biggest events that gets people turned on to prints.”

A longtime patron of TIP, he regularly places an advertisement in the program for each production. He fits the wording of his advertisement to the theme of the particular show, and so underlines his personal linking of different arts.

Norman thinks he inherited his pronounced gift for languages from his mother, “a fabulous, fun-loving mother.” He said, ” ‘Fun’ is the word for foreigners to hang on to here, where there really isn’t a translatable word. Fun is the word for TIP. People don’t know how good TIP is, and how much fun. There’s magic in it.”