Black Diamonds (2014)

I was born 1921 in the city of Kobe. It was a port city. It had diversity; all kinds of people lived there. During my teenage years I moved to Manchuria. I spent my life in Dalian and Harbin from the time the Sino-Japanese War started in 1932. I spent my upper grades of primary school and my first grade of all-girls middle school in Dalian. It became a Japanese colony with the victory at the Russo-Japanese War. So, it was a landscape of neighbourhoods named after Imperial Japanese army Generals like
Nogi-cho, Kodama-cho and so on. It sounded oppressive. But, Dalian was a beautiful city. Deadly occurrences like the Manchurian Incidents and Shanghai Incidents followed. Kobe, where I was born, was a city of harmony and liberty. When my family moved to Dalian, Munchukou was being established as an occupied land. It was in the midst of the shadow of militarism. The liberty of Kobe that I grew up made it very difficult for me to adapt to this. Like in the US Iraq War, Japanese people in Dalian were afraid of terrorism. Manchurian bandits were called Hizoku. Their fear connected everything to terrorism. The colours of war became more and more vivid every passing year. I remember that as an adolescent girl. If you had grown up knowing only the violence of war, you wouldn’t question that, but I’m from Kobe… I could not adapt to the colours of war. In the 30’s, the American culture was gradually imported. Books like Popeye, Disney and many other publications... I fancied reading them so much. The books and films I enjoyed were American culture. I loved wearing a Popeye ring and brooch. So, as a kid I antithetically discriminated between what I dreamed of and what the military education taught me at school. No one was feeling happy in the immense darkness of war. It became darker with every passing day.

I often drew… everybody asked me, “Will you become a painter, sweetheart?” But, I had never known what painting nor contemporary art were at that time and my family had a sole Japanese painting on the wall of our living room. People had never even seen oil painting then; only a box of chocolate. It wasn’t common yet. At school only vapid water colour was taught, which never looked impressive to me. I’d never seen a real painting. My encounter with poetry and literature was distinctly far more impressive. I devoted myself to reading them all day. It was during first grade at the girls’ school in Dalian, when an art club was launched, where I chose to do Japanese painting. This was because, I didn’t know any other art styles and sample pictures of still objects in the textbook looked so dull. But, I was the only one! So, I ended up taking western water colour and oil painting instead. This eventually became my first encounter with Impressionists like Gauguin and Van Gogh through books at the teachers’ lounge and library. I remember how impressed I was when I found out what real art was; I felt stupid, thinking of what I had been taught at school.
Then, I moved to Harbin, which had been built with an enormous amount of Rubles by the Russian Empire which was aiming to build a second Moscow. The city indeed looked like Russia. I learnt Fordism, Cubism, and Surrealism through books. (laughs) But, that wasn’t easy. Books were very expensive then and the language was difficult for a girls’ school student. I eventually had to buy an art glossary for those books, which made my liberal parents sceptical… My dad told me that I should have done ‘proper’ paintings, not bizarre ones. So, we often fought. (laughs) I said to him, “You don’t understand the arts, Dad!”. But, the shadows of war were reaching out. The Marco Polo Bridge Incident was eventually the beginning of the full-scale invasion of China, followed by the Manchuria Incident, and that marked the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War. It was a time when the military strictly controlled education. I moved from Harbin to Tokyo to attend university. I enrolled into Joshibi University of Art and Design. I’d had a teacher, who’d graduated from it, and she had always told me how she had found it wonderful, but facing the reality, I was devastated. I was interested in avant-garde art like artworks of
Jiyu Bijutsu and Bijutsu Bunka Association artists but the uni gave us exhibition tickets to Ishu and Kofu Group exhibitions. Only this they allowed. There were many restrictions. Other students didn’t even know Surrealism, but I was a proactive student who wanted to. Often, the thought of whether I could stay on for 4 years in such an environment till my graduation went around nervously in my head. One of the alumni came and told me that they were proposing a reform. I was excited and listed the names of Ichiro Fukuzawa and other Surrealists and abstract painters as lecturers. But, soon after, we were totally ignored and dismissed. I saw an ad for a Bauhaus school; I was amazed with that wonderful new school, and often became more and more critical of my uni. So, I was expelled. During my first year at the new Bauhaus school, the deadly World War II finally started. A bloody period of war had begun. Many male student-soldiers were injured and killed. The war grew more and more violent. Again, I never felt like painting; instead I devoted myself to reading books, drawing birds or even farming for the many fearful days to follow. I brought a roll of canvas with me during the evacuation, but it ended up becoming cloth to dry rice on… (laughs) I could hardly imagine comparing our lives with the world of École de Paris. Never felt like painting…

I married and gave birth. After my messy divorce, I raised two kids by myself. It was my aftermath of the war. I was a young painter with no skills and no money. I did anything I could to make ends meet. A friend of mine gave me an illustration job for an English textbook. I was happy to do even that job. Now, I’ve got many skills and can do anything. (laughs) I was 24 when Japan was defeated in 1945. Although I was young, I used to say thing that sounded competent enough as I’d learnt Bauhaus. Five years of caring for children after the war, my life was that of a war refugee. I had no more than an empty box. I worried about food everyday. This great torment allowed me to wonder about what art truly meant. I devoted myself to reading books. The lives of the Chinese people of Dalian and Harbin I saw in the colony emanated in my mind during this hellish period of my life. I’d begun thinking about the people during the days back in Manchuria. I was critical of colonization. I had an intense hatred of Japanese people. I was angry because they were so snobbish. I read Pearl S. Buck, whose books became so inspirational to me. I read many books that were banned by censorship during wartime. I thought for the first time of the reason I painted. My experience of wars and colonization was very defining in my sprit. I’d been a girl who had been keen to study solely European modernism, but had known nothing about the world before it all (WW II) started. My Dad owns only a knapsack after the misery of war. He had been detained in the USSR and released because of his age. His hair had turned completely white and his eyes were dead, reflecting no light even when he was released and repatriated… He had only a knapsack. A refugee. He was a refugee… I was an evacuee of the endless fire, too. In the countryside, evacuees from the city were often bullied. We exchanged our clothes for food. In the end, we had nothing. Surviving the abject poverty as a struggling mother of two was my new beginning. My husband, who too was an artist, had no ability to make money at all. I could no longer rely on my parents either. I used to think if I wrote a telegram they would send me money immediately. I was their only daughter.

Japanese society after the war and the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster look similar to me. First of all the priority was the economy. There have always been tendencies toward money making. Black markets were omnipresent in the aftermath of the war. People had no homes, so in a way, making money was essential to survive to a certain degree. The Korean War left them with a booming economy. They went on a spree, which was similar to the current post-March 11 situation.
What the Japanese government should have done in the aftermath was to repatriate all the Japanese around the world. There were 1,900,000 estimated in Manchuria alone. They should have paid reparations and repatriated the trafficked Chinese and Koreans in Japan, and repatriated Japanese orphans in China. Japanese families left suckling babies behind, alone. But, the Japanese government abandoned all those responsibilities. That is an unforgivable thing to me! It does not matter that Zhou Enlai refused to receive the reparations. The Japanese Imperial Army killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese people. They killed them with an indiscriminate sword, as if they were testing its stark sharpness. The Japanese government should make reparations. They should make a proper apology to the families of victims, including the Koreans. If fire broke out due to your carelessness, you would apologize and indemnify your neighbors. That’s the moral. But, they evaded doing that and ultimately made billions of yen with the Korean War catastrophe. I don’t like this country of mine! (It is similar to exporting nuclear power technology.) Yes, they should indemnify the people of Fukushima for their land. If recovery is not possible, they should give them new land. As it is, recovering is in absolute gratitude for what they scarified. The US didn’t do that either, but Germany did. So, once I decided to act, I did like they did.

5 years after World War II, the Korean War broke out. I started painting coalmines and became a member of the
Jiyu Bijutsu Assossiation. I went to mines. It was a time of recession in Japan due to the end of the Korean War. Coal was in high demand during the war, and people coveted and mined coal although the Second World War had ruined them. It was in the 50’s that I started to paint mines. The Japanese appreciated the Korean War like a blissful rain that brought a booming economy. It was a time when anything black made money. Miners worked overnight, high on drugs to produce more coal and money. Those days were gone and the demand for mining dropped gradually.

I started questioning if it was wrong to make money from someone’s war sufferings. It’d been 10 years since I started painting mines. Labor disputes arose with Miike Mine, which was the biggest mine in Japan. The dispute ended unsuccessfully and some of those who lost their jobs migrated to Latin America. Copper mines were being electrified then. Some people went for such projects in Chile. So, I followed those miners to Latin America.

This interview was conducted in Tokyo in 2013.