Ota Memorial Museum

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Ota Memorial Museum, Michi Akagi, Curator

With its pop boutiques and streets packed with fashion-crazed teens, Harajuku may feel like an odd place to go to look at woodblock prints. But Michi Akagi, curator of the Ota Memorial Museum of Art, doesn’t entirely agree. “Young women 200 years ago looked at these pictures for fashion and make-up tips,” she explains. “So they were not that different from the Harajuku girls of today.” It’s true, ukiyo-e (the name means as ‘pictures of the floating world’) were the gossip magazines of their era, purveyors of fashion and scandal. Produced cheaply for mass consumption until the 19th century, they idolised kabuki stars, lionised sumo wrestlers and made pin-ups of fashionable courtesans. Some functioned like travel magazines, promoting scenic spots around the country, while others raised eyebrows with their graphic erotica. The late insurance magnate Seizo Ota, who died in 1977, recognised the value of the prints at a time when other establishment grandees dismissed them as lowbrow fodder. He used his personal fortune to fight the tide of foreign demand. Sold by the pound, the pretty pictures were often used as linings for the souvenir boxes of early international visitors. When they reached Europe, artists including Vincent van Gogh admired their exotic imagery and unusual lack of perspective. The museum Ota built to house his collection occupies a low-rise modernist building in one of Harajuku’s many hidden corners. Works in the main gallery are arranged around a rock garden complete with a bench for contemplation. The collection has grown to about 14,000 prints and scrolls, including works by Hokusai Katsushika, Hiroshige Utagawa and Utamaro Kitagawa, the discipline’s most famous artists. Ukiyo-e artists were the political satirists of their time, delighting the masses with their cheeky antics. Utamaro in particular was famous for his portraits of beautiful women, especially geisha from the infamous pleasure quarters. “These courtesans were banned from appearing in ukiyo-e prints at that time,” explains Akagi, referring to shogunate laws to stamp out decadence. “But Utamaro pictured them anyway, and in his prints he left small hints as to their famous names. The public loved these illicit riddles. His work was the people’s art.” The people’s art of modern Japan is the comic book, or manga – also dismissed my many in the elite as lowbrow fodder. The word manga was used by Hokusai to describe the ‘playful sketches’ he made for his students to copy. Even today, manga artists reference books of the artist’s sketches like church-goers consulting their bibles. “These pictures helped set trends that influence us even today,” says Akagi. “So what better place to show them than in one of the coolest neighbourhoods on the planet?”

Hara Museum

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Hara Museum, In the mid-1970s, around his 40th birthday, Toshio Hara left his business career and dove headlong into the world of art. It was a moment in which he suddenly ‘woke up’ – and he unhesitatingly calls this moment, which lead to him building a museum bearing his name, the most fortunate of his life.

In the mid-1970s, around his 40th birthday, Toshio Hara left his business career and dove headlong into the world of art. It was a moment in which he suddenly ‘woke up’ – and he unhesitatingly calls this moment, which lead to him building a museum bearing his name, the most fortunate of his life. “My sensibility – my sense of aesthetics – had started to move, to grow,” he says. “Everyone, I believe, has this ability. But we don’t use it. It’s sleeping.” Indeed, Hara’s aesthetic sensibility awoke with a bell – the doorbell of his former family home, a beautiful modernist building in Tokyo’s Shinagawa district that Hara turned into one of Japan’s first private museums for contemporary art. For the first six years, visitors had to ring it to be let in. “That bell…it never stopped,” Hara recalls. “We only had about five staff at the start, and everyone would take turns serving visitors tea and coffee at the café – I think I even served a few cups myself.” Coming from a wealthy family, Hara had opportunities to study and travel overseas, and his museum was inspired by the private art collections he visited in Europe, which felt so personal compared with the corporate-sponsored museums of Tokyo. Hara’s great-grandfather, Rokuro Hara, was a powerful industrialist in the late 19th century. He was a builder of banks and railways, and a collector of poetry and calligraphy. Rokuro’s son, Kunizo, built the family – and museum’s – intriguing Le Corbusier-inspired home in 1938. The building survived spells as a U.S. occupation facility, an embassy, and a government residence. Then, for 23 years, it sat uninhabited. With the opening of the Hara Museum, the house was occupied once more – this time by names including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein, all of which were among the patron’s early finds. Hara travelled with Andy Warhol for several months and owns one of the artist’s three ‘Campbell’s Tomato Soup Can’ sculptures. Over nearly 40 years, Hara’s collection has grown so large the founder says he’s stopped counting how many pieces there are. He’s even built an ‘annex’ museum in the mountains northwest of Tokyo to store and display more pieces, including the collection of his great-grandfather. Private museums in Japan often hire well-known critics or scholars to build their collections because owners don’t feel confident about selecting the works themselves. Even though Hara is quick to credit all the people who supported him, the success of his museum is the story of just one man – a man whose eyes were opened. “I didn’t know much at the start – I certainly wasn’t an expert,” Hara recalls. “But I was lucky to have people who believed in me. They encouraged me to make the final decision on which artworks and artists I liked. And I’m grateful to them. Because otherwise this would’ve been someone else’s museum.”

Nezu Museum

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Nezu Museum

Koichi Nezu looks out over the beautiful garden at the heart of the museum bearing his family name. “Japanese culture can be difficult to understand,” he muses. “But everyone appreciates the beauty of a garden.” The Nezu Museum is home to a priceless collection of art from Japan and its neighbouring Asian countries. It occupies a leafy corner of valuable real estate in Aoyama and houses a collection amassed by family patriarch and railway baron Kaichiro Nezu Snr., who passed away in 1940. In accordance with his father’s will, his son Kaichiro Jnr. established a museum on the site of the family home the following year and a generation later, his grandson Koichi has put his own stamp on the family legacy by overseeing its bold reconstruction under Kengo Kuma, one of Japan’s foremost modern architects. “Rebuilding the museum was the biggest challenge of my life,” says Nezu, who first hired Kuma to design his summer residence in Karuizawa. “But I had a smart architect. A deep thinker. He really understood my ideas.” The impressive approach to the new museum is a long walk bordered by a dry river of black stones and a wall of rustling bamboo. It transports visitors into a world set apart from the boutiques and mansions of the neighbourhood. “Kuma-san told me he’d never worked with such a persistent client,” says Nezu, with a just a hint of pride. The project took almost three years, during which time architect and patron met more than 100 times. The museum’s collection contains over 7,400 objects, including Japanese pottery, lacquer furnishings, ink paintings, and calligraphy. There are also hanging scrolls, textiles, and Buddhist sculptures and sutras, as well as important Chinese bronzes and Korean ceramics. One of the best-known pieces is a painted folding screen called Irises by the 17th century Rimpa artist Ogata Korin. The screen is one of seven works in the collection that has been designated a National Treasure, along with 87 Important Cultural Properties and 94 Important Art Objects. Nezu says his grandfather’s passion for art came from a life-changing three-month trip to the United States in 1909. He was one of 100 businessmen selected to glean knowledge from successful American enterprises, which could then be used to revamp Japan’s economy, flailing as it was during the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War. “Everywhere he went he met philanthropists who proudly supported museums, schools and other institutions,” says Koichi. “He was incredibly impressed by their generous thinking. He even met David Rockefeller and was invited to his home.” Upon returning home, Kaichiro Snr. accelerated his collection, intent on slowing the wave of Japanese works being exported abroad. “He wanted to keep pieces of importance in Japan,” says Koichi. “That’s why the collection is so large and varied. For a private collection it’s very unusual.” Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Koichi is on the international advisory board of the Portland Japanese Garden in Oregon, USA, and is actively involved in plans to create an institute there … Read More

Mingeikan

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Kyoko Mimura, Adviser at Mingeikan, Mingei craft

To explain the Japanese folk art movement known as mingei to the uninitiated visitor, Kyoko Mimura borrows a phrase from Abraham Lincoln. “Mingei is craft for the people, by the people,” explains Mimura, a mingei expert and the former Director of International Programmes at the Japan Folk Crafts Museum – known locally as the ‘Mingeikan’. Completed in 1936, the structure was designed by Soetsu Yanagi, the pioneer of the folk art movement, in the style of a large farmhouse. It still stands in its original location, wonderfully incongruous among the modern mansions of one of Tokyo’s most exclusive neighbourhoods. Yanagi, a philosopher and scholar who had a way with words, coined the term mingei to refer to his vision of elevating everyday utilitarian objects into artworks worthy of study and appreciation. Today the museum’s collection includes the 17,000 or so pieces he personally amassed during his lifetime, including woodwork, textiles, folk paintings, and a vast selection of simple yet strikingly beautiful pottery. Sliding open the museum’s heavy door reveals an inviting entrance hall with a Y-shaped wooden staircase of divided flights. The white stucco walls and ceiling are embedded with planks and beams, and the floor is formed of valuable oya stone – produced with lava and ash from one of Japan’s many volcanoes. “The first time I visited the museum during my childhood I was astounded,” says Mimura, who is now an advisor to the museum. She remembers being surprised that there were few labels to explain the work. “Mr. Yanagi’s idea was to ‘see first, think later.’ Rather than reading a description, he felt that an intuitive response to beauty was very important.” In the creation of his museum, Yanagi received support from a clique of celebrated artists, including textile designer Keisuke Serizawa and potters Shoji Hamada, Kawai Kanjiro, Shiko Munakata, and Bernard Leach. The vast majority of the 30,000 pieces in the Mingeikan’s collection, however, are by unknown artists. Anonymity was one of several controversial founding principles of the mingei movement, and assertions that pieces should be neither sophisticated nor unique led many at the start to consider Yanagi little more than a quirky collector of mundane housewares. “It’s difficult to evaluate him in history,” says Mimura. “The museum is still working to define itself even now.” Mimura inherited her interest in mingei from her mother, Teiko Utsumi, who was the museum’s long-time Administrative Director and Initiator of International Programmes before her. Together they facilitated a travelling exhibition to the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany in the early 1990s – the first introduction of Japanese folk art to foreign audiences abroad – with the younger woman acting as interpreter. “The museum’s history is also one of friends and family working for one cause: to expand the idea of mingei,” says Mimura. “I think it says something quite special that the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the mingei movement’s founders have an inherited feeling of responsibility to preserve and revive the arts and crafts of Japan.”

SCAI the Bathhouse

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SCAI the Bathhouse, Ambitious art space with humble neighbourhood origins.

One of Tokyo’s foremost galleries for contemporary Japanese artists, SCAI The Bathhouse has, as its name suggests, remarkable premises. “It turns out a disused bathhouse makes an ideal art gallery,” says director Masami Shiraishi. “It has natural light, high ceilings, and plenty of the ‘air’ that showing contemporary art requires.” Until the nation’s economic modernisation following World War II, every district shared a bathhouse where neighbours would wash, in the Japanese manner, first scrubbing themselves clean before jumping into a communal tub to soak and share news and gossip. But though in recent decades, Tokyo’s bathhouses have become largely demolished, and in 1993 the charming one found in Yanaka, a quiet corner of old Tokyo, was saved and repurposed as a gallery. “Since the younger generation of Japanese contemporary artists such as Takashi Murakami came to the fore, Japan is on the world art map,” says Shiraishi, a former deputy director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, and founder of what’s now known as Art Fair Tokyo. “It has been a big change.” Murakami is one of a number of big names on Shiraishi’s roster, alongside Anish Kapoor and Julian Opie. But one of the biggest challenges for contemporary art gallerists like Shiraishi is how small the domestic art market has become. “People now are very interested in Japan and are looking for good Japanese art. But so many of our most talented artists leave our shores. They become accepted by the international art world, and don’t come back.” Fortunate, then, that the gallery is located near the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, and is a short walk from the museums of Ueno Park. With it the founder hoped to create more than just an exhibition space – he envisioned the sort of place that is common overseas but rare in Japan: a platform for supporting the top contemporary artists. And so today SCAI The Bathhouse represents internationally recognised talent, including the Japan-based Korean painter and sculptor Lee Ufan, glass bead installation artist Kohei Nawa, and the young multimedia artist Daisuke Ohba. Shiraishi says Nawa is one of his most successful discoveries. “He’s very contemporary because his work reflects social and technological trends of our time,” he explains. “For a long time, Japanese artists wanted to express or explain Japan through their work – to ask questions about our identity. Nawa’s thinking is very international, but is still unique.” While the gallerist chides the Japanese government for not providing adequate support to Japanese contemporary artists, he hopes SCAI The Bathhouse can help in its own way. “This neighbourhood bathhouse was a place where people in the community could not only take a bath but also gather, talk and find out what was happening around them,” says Shiraishi. “Its history is appropriate to its new identity. I think SCAI has the same purpose today.”

Gallery Koyanagi

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Atsuko Koyanagi, Owner, Gallery Koyanagi

Ask Atsuko Koyanagi what she likes most about being an art dealer and gallery owner and she doesn’t bat an eyelid: “The artists,” she says. “I don’t want to work for the market. I want to work for the artists and establish a close, lasting relationship with them. That has always been my passion and motivation.” Indeed it has. She now counts over 20 years of friendship and representation with the likes of Marlene Dumas and Olafur Eliasson – not to mention the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who is also her partner in life. “I learned so much about the depth and spirit of art from them,” says Koyanagi, before recalling how she met Dumas at Art Basel in 1992. “Marlene had a daughter and had drawn many girls’ faces, but she became very interested in the faces of beautiful Japanese boys – girlish boys,” recalls Koyanagi. “She sent me 52 drawings of Asian faces in the late 1990s, and that was our first show together.” Koyanagi’s gallery occupies the eighth floor of an office building in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district, once the heart of Tokyo’s art scene. Skyrocketing rents pushed many of her cohorts out, but she stayed because this was her family’s land. Her father was the fifth-generation owner of a ceramics shop, and she grew up in a house that stood here until it was razed during the property boom of the mid-1980s. Koyanagi’s first gallery, too, was a space for ceramics located on the ninth floor of the same office building. She moved down a floor when she switched to contemporary art in 1995 – an exhibition of photography by Sugimoto, at the time better known in the United States than in his native Japan, was her inaugural show. “The timing seemed right to find him an art gallery in Tokyo, but no one was interested,” she says with a laugh. “Japan is often behind the times. So I decided to do it myself.” Minimalist in design, with exposed concrete columns and beams, the gallery is deliberately functional. But the unassuming walls have hosted an astonishing roster of artists, not least among them Eliasson, whose work once filled the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern. Scrolls made by Christian Marclay have hung here; the sound installations of Ryoji Ikeda have filled the air. Unsurprisingly, considering who her partner is, Koyanagi is especially interested in photographers: Hellen van Meene, Thomas Ruff, and her close friend Sophie Calle, to name just a few. Koyanagi and Calle travelled together around Japan while the latter was getting over the end of a relationship and the photographs Calle took on that journey contributed to one of her most celebrated works, Exquisite Pain. With 70 per cent of sales coming from abroad, Koyanagi has faced pressure to look for new markets overseas. But her heart says otherwise. “I’m happy to remain this size, with my existing team – loving the artists and loving their art,” she says. “Anything else would be a distraction.”