Mural painter can’t relax in bathhouses

by Ayako Nakano

Staff Writer

Name: Mizuki Tanaka
Age: 35
Nationality: Japanese
Occupation: Sento (public bathhouse) mural painter
Likes: Reading, art, movies
Dislikes: Headaches

1. When did you first go to a public bathhouse and how did you like it? I went in my second year of university when I started to consider writing a thesis on sento paintings. It was a fascinating space that made me feel nostalgic even though it was my first visit. The steam coming out of the tub and the drawing of clouds on the wall overlapped, making it feel as if I was walking into a painting.

2. Why did you choose to be a sento painter? As I researched, I realized the number of sento painters are dwindling. I was worried this culture would die out.

3. Of the eight years of your training to become a sento painter, what was the toughest experience? The gradual realization that I couldn’t draw well. I was constantly thinking about why I could never be happy with my work.

4. What challenges are specific to your line of work? While sentos are meant to be places to relax the mind and body, I end up looking at the murals and thinking, which means I don’t get to relax.

5. Which work are you most proud of? I always consult with the bathhouse owners before I start painting murals and through that process I learn that a lot of thought by owners and customers has gone into each painting. That makes it impossible for me to pick one work.

6. How do you feel about the dwindling number of bathhouses? It’s true the number is decreasing. If you look more closely, however, you see how bath owners are running their businesses in line with the changing demands of the times and some are doing well, so I don’t think they will disappear completely.

7. What are you particular about when you paint? I do have things I’m particular about, but I want people to appreciate the paintings through their own perspectives, so I’d rather not answer this question.

8. Whom in Japan do you most admire? If I were to name one, it would be the filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. I’ve been a fan of his anime since I was a child and I admire how he continues to produce work utilizing his vast knowledge of the past to interpret the present.

9. What’s your favorite Japanese word or phrase? “一期一会” (“ichigo ichie,” treasure every encounter), because I hate to waste any opportunity given to me.

10. I hear there are only three sento painters remaining and you are the youngest. Do you feel any pressure? I don’t always see myself as a woman or as the youngest painter, but these kinds of questions help me be more aware of how other people perceive me. It allows me to figure out what people expect from me and I can use that idea to brand myself. However, I’m more focused on whether I can paint the way I had planned or whether I can pass on my knowledge to later generations. I feel as if it’s more of a gamble than pressure.

11. If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be? The auctioneer and art dealer James Christie who founded the auction house Christie’s. I believe it’s crucial for bathhouse paintings to exist outside the open-sales principle, and to further this idea, I’d like to discuss with him what it means to put a price on a painting and how he envisioned Christie’s growth.

12. What song best describes your work ethic? Oasis’ “Some Might Say.” I listen to this song when I lose my direction with work. It helps me focus on what I want to do and not what others think.

13. What’s the strangest request you’ve ever been asked in your line of work? All requests are strange.

14. Can you recommend a public bath for tourists? Everyone has different tastes and what they’re looking for is different, so I suggest they pick and choose from my blog: mizu111.blog40.fc2.com.

15. What do you think about while standing on the train? I’m likely to be reading on the train, so mostly about the world in that book. When both my hands are occupied and I can’t read a book, I look out the window and imagine the people living in the area or look at what kind of ads are around.

16. What do you think you will be doing in 10 years time? I hope I can continue painting bathhouses.

17. Do you think Japan is cool? There are lots of positive things about Japan — its safety, art and culture — but I’m reluctant to say that it’s cool when I think of things like the long economic slump and the low status of women in society.

18. What do you most enjoy about your job? I love that moment when I complete a painting and see the reaction of visitors.

19. What else would you like to paint? I don’t have anything in particular that I want to paint because how I paint is more important for me than what I paint.

20. What would you have been if you were not a bathhouse painter? I tried a couple of jobs before choosing what I do now, so there are no other options.