Calling on Masaaki Yashima

Mie Prefecture is located in the center of the Japanese Archipelago. It was established in 1876 to consolidate provinces which had divided four since Edo Period.

The southern part was a part of Kii Province which was ruled by the clan of Tokugawa shogunate family. It is the temperate region with a large amount of rainfall. Facing the Pacific Ocean in the east and Kii Mountains in the west, the area of flatlands are so small. The western part was called Iga Province. It was unfitted for farmland because of the small basin surrounded by mountains, but the steep topography helped hiding of the ninja communities in 16th century. The western peninsula was called Shima Province. At the foot of slightly elevated mountains, there are dotted fishing village along the deeply indented coastline. Many of them were bases of the samurais, who were engaged in marine transport and piracy, including Yoshitaka Kuki, the naval commander under Nobunaga Oda and Hideyoshi Toyotomi.

North Central was called Ise. Paddy fields have streched in the fertile and vast plains, and there are many good harbor in the eastern coast facing Ise Bay. Ise Grand Shrine venerating the ancestor of the Imperial Family has worshiped by Japanese from time immemorial, enough for 8 million people to visit every year even today. The body of the population is concentrated in the area, there are factories of Toshiba, Sharp and Honda, and Suzaka Circuit in the inland districts, the chemical complex along the coast of Yokkaichi City, and many residential districts for business people commuting to Nagoya City.

But Suzuka Mountains rises around the western prefectural boundary of Shiga, and Yoro Mountains stretches around the northern prefectural boundary of Gifu. Surrounded by these two mountains, in Fujiwara, the northernmost area of the Prefecture, they have much snow in winter, and Mt. Fujiwara makes daylight hours of the foot so short. I visited there in the middle of August to meet Masaaki Yashima.

Masaaki Yashima was born in Fujiwara in 1936. At the age of 3, he moved to Nagoya City for his father’s business, but several years later, he would come back to avoid the airstrike in World War II. At around the same time, his relations also evacuated to his home from various places in Japan. This community life of 26 people in a house caused extremely serious food scarcity. So Masaaki as a boy had days of rambling about the woods to look for something to eat. In those days, his very young sister suffered from smallpox owing to malnutrition and died. In her funeral day, his family got the official report of his uncle’s death in battle, and they hold two funeral a week. There was a stone in his uncle’s cinerary instead of his lost ashes , and they had no chance to take a picture of Masaaki’s sister.

Growing to a university student, Masaaki majored Japanese history and wrote the discourse on Atsutane Hirata, Shintoism scholar in Edo period, as his graduation thesis. It is natural for him to empathized with Atutane who thought that the world of the dead is unevenly distributed around this world, and the deceased remains near living people, because he was confronted by his near relatives’ death in his boyhood. His turning point to the art came during his graduation trip to the Chugoku region. He saw a silhouette printed on stone steps by heat rays of an atomic bomb in Hiroshima.

“In that morning, a man on stone steps came to nothing not only with the clothes but also the flesh and the bones by the flash, but the shadow remains as the evidence which proves that he was surely there. Seeing it, I suddenly remembered my little sister. I recalled my sense of loss for my sister who disappeared without leaving even a shadow, and I was inspired by the insecurity of the existence which is destined to disappear in an instant.”

After graduation, he started to work as a teacher in the primary school in Kuwana, a northern city of Mie Prefecture, and he experienced Typhoon Vera which left 5,000 Dead or Missing. Living near the collapsed bank, he saw a town under water where many drowned bodies was drifting. Hiroshima and Typhoon Vera, these two major historic disasters linked up with the memory of his relations’s death, and he started to do tableaux at 23 years of age. 10 years later, returning to Fujiwara, his home, he gradually became famous as an artist for his own painting technique inspired by his memory of Mother who had done private work of sewing till late at night; he first paints white oil colors on canvas, does bkack on white, and scrapes black off by scratching of sewing needle for cotton thread.

In his studio, he keeps a lot of his works which have been done for this half century. Because many of them were depicted by collecting materials from his home area, we cannot distinguish his images from the real world, and after leaving there, get to feel as if we are still enclosed in the monochrome. Fact and fiction, the present and the past, life and death, visible things and invisible beings; Masaaki incessantly agitates their border lines. And then our memories restrained to live our everyday life gently come to the surface of our consciousness. Certainly it is rare to clearly recall our formative experiences, but we are haunted by the sense of guilt as below.

“Do I forget the important thing? Do I forget anybody in the distance? Have I lost my irreplaceable memories of anybody valued because I have been possessed with a fixed idea that everything for me is what I can see? The important memories for me may be slip my mind. For example, about my mother, my father, my partner and my childhood best friends…”

Works into which he condensed not only his private history but also the past of Japan filled with poverty and death will percolate through viewer’s heart and cause her or him to feel mental agony. And being Ariadne’s thread to discover each truth, at last they will bring the great joy and the fuller life just like OEDIPUS REX or KING LEAR.

As many literary masterpieces, Masaaki never asserts his opinions and raises some matter, but spins a yarn in the sense of sight from his memories on the bottom of the consciousness, with simplicity, perspicuity and mighty tune. Therefore his works resonate with our spirit and urge us to reminisce about our individual past lives. Certainly a human being is the creature who cannot live without oblivion. But it is true that we sometimes make an error that we seal our memories not to be forgotten under the pretext of living today. If Masaaki’s works leave you some pent-up feelings or strange sense of guilty, that’s the sign that your irreplaceable memory appeal you “REMEMBER”.

The TEWAZA Exhibition—Ikuyo Yasuda’s a Mother and Child without God

In 1603, it was a road improvement throughout Japan that Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first Shogun of Edo shogunate, undertook first. Nihonbashi was built as the first step of the undertaking. Since then, its environs prospered apace with development of Edo. The prosperity was depicted in many ukiyo-es such as The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido, created by Hiroshige. Having been in great bustle ever since the Meiji Restoration, the area is the capital of Japanese finance where the Bank of Japan, the head offices of megabanks and Tokyo Stock Exchange are clustered.


Besides, nearby Nihonbashi, there are the oldest and most popular department stores in Japan; Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya. Especially, the former has flourished with the neighborhood since 1673 when it was established as a draper named Echigoya.  It was reborn as the first department store in Japanin the beginning of 20 century, and they started to deal in art works at the suggestion of Taikan Yokoyama. They have held many exhibition noted in art history of modern age for this 100 years, such as the Exhibition of the Japan Fine Arts Academy and Tsuguharu Fujita Exhibition. Art business section became indispensable even for other department stores, and Japanese people became esteem artists holding solo exhibition in Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi or Takashimaya as authoritative masters. We cannot talk about Japanese art history of 20th century without department stores.


August 1, I went to Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi through Nihonbashi and its neighborhood with old townscape. To appreciate the TEWAZA Exhibition in which Ikuyo Yasuda showed her work.


TEWAZA means the technique of manual labour. It is aggressive as a title of art exhibition because of implication to criticize art works created only by concepts and easy ideas but technics. Though we can see various kinds of art works; oil painting, Japanese painting, pencil drawing, and sculpture, artists have technics on high level in common. Moreover, oil painters,Yasuhiro Ogawa, Osamu Obi, Nobuyuki Shimamura, and Japanese painters, Shinji Nakabori and Ikuyo Yasuda are experts of figure painting. It was a very interesting exhibition to understand each individuality and common point and to grasp trends of figure representation in today’s Japanese art.

I perceived the intensive concern and obsession with living bodies in the tableaux of Takahiro Hara, a promising artist, who studied under Antonio López García. In contrast, Shimamura tried to give his work symbols and formative beauty like hieroglyphs or  pictographs though he depicted a model realistic. We can find two different directions in their art works created by employment of same technics; realism to extract the physical beauty as a substance from a model, and a kind of symbolism to represent metaphysical ideas by utilization of a model. I think that the latter is the majority, including Yasuda, in this exhibition.

When I told such an impression, Yasuda answered.

“I don’t want to paint portraits. But models often make my works portraits. Because the living body has very strong power to pull tableaux into the real.”
“But pictures and memories will often make your works empty symbols like a traffic sign. To utilize the intensity of human body, will you get the inherent actuality in your works?”
“That’s right. We depict just like walking on a thin tightrope between the real and symbols. To rise the higher place than both side.”

Yasuda always mentions a Madonna and Child by Simone Martini or Fra Filipo Lippi as her favorite art works, which she appreciated in her journey to Italy of her student days. While she wasn’t able to accept human bodies created by Sandro Botticelli, Tiziano Vecellio, and Michelangelo, repleted with enough erotism and vividness to choke her, though  they impressed and overpowered her. Probably, many Japanese artists will empathize with her impression of Uffizi and Louvre. In the basis of Japanese art, there are memories of Buddhist art since 6th century and history of stylization to elevate art works to metaphysical dimension, which had been refined through thorough observation and confrontation to the real. This direction percolates through today’s Japanese artists. That’s the reason that many artists refuse realism and matter-of-fact representation, and that they take Western Christian art before 15th century for a standard , filled with beauty of refined style and sublimity.

In this exhibition, it was tableau of a Mother and Child which Yasuda showed. It was typical of her work; the form created by the union of two human bodies, guidance of eyes by accessories and ornament of cloth, peaceful looks, strong will concentrated on mother’s hand, and gracility of lines which compose the frame works of tableau. Yasuda perfectly represents women’s life force, motherhood, and eternal working of lives which will go on beyond the limits of individual.


It is today’s Japanese art that we concern. From here on also, we’ll continuously introduce art works and artists which you can see in our website. We consider the most important that art works are products of her or his nature. In other words, like body odor and postural strain for the human body, they are the inevitable results of  artists’ individual histories and lives. It’s no matter for us what media they choose and how extreme motives are or not.

These art works will naturally reflect Japanese history, culture, aesthetic senses, traditions and today. What there appear isn’t Japan as sign. What signs hide behind will become obvious; people’s naked and vivid relations and actuality of people, desires and hopes which belong beyond Good and Evil. For instance, the same may be said of films of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, and Anime in recent years. They are filled with townscapes, school life, culture of creature comforts and practice of communication which are ordinary for us. Those who share the same language and culture will be as interested in bases of world of story as a narrative and a theme. And there, they will find out life-sized shapes of contemporaries who are alive in a vigorous and lively fashion. No matter which they accept or deny, it is important that the communication begins without meditation of fixed ideas.

Then can we say that Japanese art works recently introduced plentifully had such potential? Have they introduced the artists who would break stereotypes and interest foreign national in Japanese as a individual human being?  Have they introduced art works which enable recipients that they could create their own images of Japan, understand difference from the societies where they live, and know himself? We are afraid that the majority has only reinforced fixed ideas accumulated for long time though not all. It may be a vlid way of communication for us that we give what others want. But repeating such thing, we will be seriously misunderstood, and impair our dignity. This anxiety is one of reasons that we hope to introduce Japanese art works which are produced from natural living not lated to someone’s thoughts and commercial considerations.

Of course, it will be so difficult challenge to introduce works out of other’s expectations. But I entertain hopes of MONO Project’s future. Once I listened to the music of Patti Smith with enthusiasm, sympathized poems of Baudelaire, and was impressed to find out infinite extent in a winter sky which Rembrandt represented. Serious representations have potential to reach faraway someone beyond all distance. As their works have fed my life, I hope that works of Kozo Izawa, Toshihiko Maemoto, Masaaki Yashima, Ikuyo Yasuda, and Hiroki Yasutomi will be loved by someone in somewhere of this world, and they will make her or his life fertile.

written and translated by Kaoru Ogihama