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”.