People | 20 QUESTIONS

For curator Yayoi Motohashi, no exhibit detail is too small

by Ayako Nakano

Staff Writer

Name: Yayoi Motohashi
Age: 40s
Nationality: Japanese
Occupation: Curator/ head of the Office of Communications and International Affairs at The National Art Center, Tokyo
Likes: Astonishing craftsmanship, warm, sunny climates, travel
Dislikes: Negative feelings, places where diversity is not allowed


1. What do the characters of your first name mean? Yayoi (弥生) means March, which is the month I was born, in old Japanese. As a child, I used to interpret my name to mean that I’m meant to create, since the character 弥 means “eons” or “vast” and 生 means “to live” or “be born.”

2. Do you have a favorite Japanese word or phrase? Chirimo tsumoreba yama to naru, or “many a little makes a mickle.” My third-grader son recently learned it at school. I realized that if I’d read 10 minutes a day and continued my research, I would have finished writing a proper academic paper by now.

3. What do you love about living in Japan? Its safety and how people basically abide by the rules.

4. What is the most important thing to consider when designing an exhibition space? To accurately convey information, the story behind the pieces and the curator’s sense of wonder. Ideally, I’d like to design an exhibition space that enabled full use of the five senses, not just sight.

5. What’s the most challenging part of your job? The work is vast and endless. You have to be capable in so many areas to realize an exhibition. We have to research, plan, negotiate, get funding, get lease permission, arrange for transport and more. You only study one of these at school, and the rest has to be learned on the job.

6. Of all your past projects, which has been the most memorable? With “The Year of Czech Culture 2017 — Alfons Mucha,” I had a mysterious sense I was interacting with the late artist. We showcased his later works, including all 20 of “The Slav Epic” series. After seeing the exhibit, many Czechs said they discovered the series’ greatness for the first time.

7. Do you have any advice for future curators? A curator needs to balance two conflicting ways of looking at things: To verify history through art and to consider where it stands in society as a whole. Ultimately, through personal experiences with nature, sports and music, you need to be able to establish and explain your own filters and perspectives.

8. Which museum in Japan is your favorite, apart from your own workplace? The museums on Naoshima and Teshima islands. It’s art at its best in the midst of nature. They are wonderful places to cleanse your soul.

9. If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be? The Russian art impresario and founder of Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev. Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent. And Japanese designers like Chiyo Tanaka and Yoshiko Sugino, who introduced Western clothing to Japan.

10. Do you have a favorite work of art? There are so many. Lately I’m often moved by the aesthetics of Japanese design, including the many tea rooms in Kansai: aesthetics at their best.

11. If you were sitting for a portrait, how would you want to be depicted? I’d like to wear beautiful clothes and be portrayed as an abstract living being, like in Irving Penn’s photographs. I’d like to see focus on every detail.

12. What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in life? Living my current life in Japan. As happy as I am, I might be happier living a different life elsewhere.

13. What has been a formative experience for you? My time spent in an American high school in London, and in Budapest and Helsinki during grad school. I met so many kind people.

14. Where do you go to escape? A southern island with a beautiful beach, especially Okinawa. I also feel suffocated if I don’t visit Europe at least once a year. I visit Finland, France and Hungary quite often.

15. What do you need in your life right now? Time, time, time. Physical and mental strength.

16. How do you relax? I eat, which is obviously why I gain weight. I also work out once a week and take yoga or aerobics lessons. And go trekking in the outskirts of Tokyo or in Okinawa.

17. Do you have any guilty pleasures? Clothes. Chocolate. Cheese. And my favorite baseball team, the Seibu Lions. I know I’m too busy to go, but I still check their game schedules.

18. What do you have too many of? Things in general, especially clothes and books. My room is like a middle-aged person’s flabby body.

19. If you could time travel, would you go to the past or the future? Future. I wonder if I could understand its social structure and adapt (to it).

20. What does the world need most? Tolerance. A big heart seeking peace. And a big vision to imagine a society where everyone is happy.