Yuji Abe

by Vivienne Kenrick

“This is a 50-year-old story,” Yuji Abe said.

In fact, this story is older. It goes back to his grandfather’s lifetime during the Meiji Era. Abe, however, refers to the years soon after the end of World War II, when he was still a young man and casting around for his way ahead. That was when he opened the Yoseido Gallery. He is 80 now, and happy to have his wife and daughter with him in the gallery. He is happy with his sons, one an entrepreneur, the other an actor. Family is his keynote.

Born in Tokyo, he went to Kyoto before the war to study kakemono making. He said: “Everyone knows me now as an art dealer, but I had the family business of kakemono binding, mounting, restoring. My grandfather was a great person, the best Meiji period kakemono maker. He followed his craft in this same Ginza location. He had contact with the Imperial family. Our family was very conservative. Everyone was a craftsman. I have craftsman’s blood. I am no good in business.”

From Kyoto, when he was 19, Abe was drafted into the army and sent to Manchuria. He has tales to tell about his escapades there. “I was taken prisoner by the Russians, and was being sent to Siberia by train. I cut a hole in the floor of the carriage, and when the train stopped somewhere in the night I went through the hole.” He ran, and hid, and ran again until he was lucky enough to fall in with Japanese people who sheltered him. He said: “We were 10 people living on four mats. We used to cover our feet and legs with rice bags that we tied on with rope. We all banded together to make a living, and I did some amateur spying. It was fun, like a movie.”

When Abe returned to Japan, he returned also to making kakemono. He recalled: “I began with making ‘fusuma’ and ‘shoji,’ and worked very hard. I had to study. A kakemono maker does not draw, but must have taste in order to make a picture. How could he make a kakemono without knowledge of painting or poetry? I began to open my eyes and see Ginza as a cultural city. I wanted to open this gallery and make enough necessary money, and to study art at the same time. My father was always against my proposals, and I wondered how to put my ideas together with his.”

Abe rented out some rooms in his Ginza property, then opened his gallery. “Now Ginza has hundreds of galleries,” he said. “Then I was a new face, in the kindergarten of art dealing. I found a frontier in the print business that no one was touching.”

He know some of the artists who were in the vanguard of the new creative print movement that was just receiving attention. “Koshiro Onchi visited me and said, ‘Why don’t you specialize in contemporary prints?’ I had no idea, I didn’t know. But I wanted to know more about the art field, so I said: ‘OK. I’ll try.’ Onchi chose the most important artists. I met James Michener and Oliver Statler.”

To these two Americans, famed authors and staunch supporters of Japanese artists, goes credit for the early recognition of Japan’s contemporary creative prints. To the College Women’s Association of Japan goes credit for taking up the artists, and for its continuing annual exhibition and sale of the “art reborn.” To Abe goes credit for his “wanting to know more about art,” and his willingness to go along with something modern and different. On the other hand, Abe says he was lucky, knowing Onchi and getting together with Michener and Statler. “I never forget kindness,” he said. “I received so much kindness from foreigners that ever since I have to return it to all foreigners.”

An American invited him to give a show on modern kakemono in America. “I had only a few words of English then. I went, and traveled around on the Greyhound bus.” After that beginning, Abe traveled frequently to demonstrate and lecture in the U.S. and Europe. Museums called for his skill in restoring the works of the old masters: a Korin screen, a Koetsu scroll, a Sesshu landscape. He said: “There is one line from the ancient to the modern in the art field, but I am not blind to follow tradition always. My technique is traditional, but my thinking modern.”

Having still his training and skill in traditional kakemono, and having hit on the right thing at the right time with the creative print movement, Abe went ahead. Yoseido became a gallery specializing in modern creative prints, with space to accommodate one-man shows. Abe still studies and attends the gallery, and plans to carry on in the same way. “There’s no reason to change,” he said.