Keiko Sato interviews
Hashimoto Akira

1919   Born in Yokkaichi, Japan.
1939 - 
1947   This period is documented in his short autobiography.
1947 - 
1979   Works as an artist and teacher.
1944 - Exhibits his artwork in various exhibitions.
1953 - 
2000   Organizes a wide range exhibitions with work of others.
1987   Stops teaching and devotes his work solely to art.
2003 - Personal exhibition in Fukushima prefecture museum
2003   Dies at the age of 84.

When I approached Hashimoto Akira to interview him about his experiences as an artist during the Second World War, he was being treated in a hospital and I realized this was not the right time to exchange thoughts with him. Two weeks later, he offered me to write down some of his wartime experiences. His recovery went surprisingly quick and within a week he wrote me a letter covering a great deal of his own history.
His positive energy might have helped getting through the hard times, not only during his illness, but during the war as well. He hardly talked about the difficulties he had to face and how he was able to return to his family in Japan after the war. I imagine being in exile must have been a difficult situation for him. I met him in 1983. It was fantastic to get to know him, he taught me a lot about art; his concentration and dedication towards his art has been incredible. He produced an incredibly large number of paintings, drawings and objects full of black humor. I always felt a great respect for Hashimoto as a person and as an artist.

Autobiography (1939-1947)
September, 2002

I started my army life in 1939, in the Mie prefecture in Japan. Two weeks after I enrolled into military service, I joined the occupation forces in Lisui, China, close to the city of Nanking. We fought against the Chinese Army and I was assigned to stand guard. After three months in the service, I became very sick and was sent to an Army hospital.
My condition improved in the hospital and I asked the nurse to get me some pencils, papers and watercolor paint. I started to make paintings of the landscape surrounding the hospital. Later, Kesao a friend was luckily able to get me some oil paint. The painting of landscape seen from the hospital roof still exists.
I was transferred to the Hiroshima Army Hospital and became quite active making drawings of my colleagues, sick soldiers, etc. (Part of these drawings still exist) When I was transferred once more to another army hospital, the free atmosphere to create things ceased to exist. I wasn't able to continue making drawings and when I completely recovered I joined the Tsu army unit. I returned to army life, which meant doing military exercise and physical training everyday, there was no time to paint. Every now and then I hid myself under the bed to avoid training.
One day, my officer selected some soldiers to go to the front in China, but I was not on the list. It seemed more interesting to go to the front than staying in Japan where I would be doing heavy physical exercise on a daily basis. I knew being there would be dramatic but it would also be adventurous and liberating; then I could at least paint more. So I applied and soon after I left. My officer probably thought I did it because of patriotism.

In December, we were given summer clothes and sailed from Nagoya Port into the Pacific Ocean. We were not told what our destination was.   In the ship I made drawings of soldiers lying and relaxing on the floor. One of the drawings is printed in my catalogue 'Shooting the times.' which Fukushima museum published in 2003.

In a transportation ship, 1941

On the ship we heard the big news of Japanese troops attacking Pearl Harbour. It turned out that our troops were ordered to attack the Philippines. We landed close to Davao at the Mindanao Islands, which is the southern part of the Philippines. The defending troops fled into the jungle as our troops held the newly conquered ground in the occupied area. I started to make drawings.

Mindnao Islands, 1942

We were winning and subsequently we had more time to rest. The drawing "At the front in Digos" which I made there still exists.
After a while Japanese troops made a sweeping attack and the enemy surrendered in the jungle. We were near Dabao after two months of the general attack when a Philippine boy his nickname was Saburou, asked me to paint a fighting scene. I drew the fighting soldiers with crayon on veneer board and gave it to Saburou as a present. That was the only drawing of a war scene I have ever made. I don't think it still exists but I do wonder if Saburou survived the war and what kind of life he has lived afterwards.

Our unit moved from Mindanao Island to Ruson Island near Manila and we
started to implement public peace and order, against the guerrilla fighting for example. I was given an administrative job and was able to continue making drawings. I started to work as a teacher in a Japanese primary school and got involved with a propaganda group. We organized dance parties for the Japanese soldiers and I continued making lots of new work.

A drawing in a war period, 1941

A drawing in a war period, 1941

Japan was loosing the war and in 1944. I was discharged from military service and went back to Japan. In the same year I returned with my wife to the South Manchurian Railway Company to earn money in the city of Dalian, China.

The Dalian City Centre Gallery organized an exhibition with drawings I made during the war. After the exhibition I was asked to join the Art & Advertising Department of the company. I started to make the company's ads and designed their public relation activities. The head of the company treated me as an artist and asked to make some trips to the ancient surroundings of Manchuria . I was assigned to make drawings of my trips.

During the war Japanese art exhibitions were limited and obliged to show work that encouraged the fighting spirit. There were three such exhibitions. One of them, 'the Decisive Battle Art Exhibition', was held in the Mitsukoshi Department Store in Dalian City.
This was just one year before the end of the war. The artists in the show were mainly war artists and some local artists. I was selected as a local artist. I could not get hold of any oil paint so I drew with crayon on a paper. The drawing depicted a group of tired looking soldiers with their equipment, impassively standing at the docks. I decided to name the drawing Tenshin. (The word refers to a shift in one's position, when one is transferred from one place to another but it can also be used in military terms) It turned out to be a risky decision: I wasn't aware of the fact that the government controlled newspaper referred to the actual retreat of the army since Japan was in fact loosing the war; they tried to hide the information and intended to keep the moral high among the civilians as long as possible. I did not know Japan was loosing the war, I wanted to portray the reality of the soldiers who were experiencing the situation.
As a matter of fact I never worked with predetermined compositions, I have always been more interested in being directed by the course of events and discover where each journey takes me.

As the exhibition went underway, two important incidents happened in my life. During the opening I was sitting on the lowest seat. There was a strong hierarchy, even between artists. The war artists' representative came to me and said, "Are you Mr. Hashimoto? Your painting is very real." Later I recognised him, the late Mr Mukai Junkichi, a very well known Japanese artist.
I was not satisfied by the exhibition. Most of the paintings depicted fighting soldiers looking as if they were playing sports. Very unreal. The paintings of the local artists were more or less self-explanatory because they tried to encourage a war sentiment and a sense of patriotism; generally the level was low. By comparison my painting seemed more realistic than the others. It was true what the representative said and the situation to just look at art and admire paintings was very difficult the standing soldiers echoed this. The exhibition was organized as propaganda to encourage a fighting spirit but his remark "your painting is a real painting", has supported my life as an artist. It made me realize that the purpose of painting is not to express something general, but to make something based on personal values and experiences, reflecting my own perspective on reality.

A few days later, I was ordered to report myself at the Kenpeitai (Military Police in Japanese), the highest authority in Japan at that time. When I appeared at the Police station, they shouted at me, "You are against the war, aren't you! There is nothing of a fighting spirit in your painting at all! " I thought I was going to be killed. They felt I suggested a new meaning to the word Tenshin, suggesting we would loose the war. I apologized and explained that I myself had recently fought at the front. I ran away and luckily they didn't follow me. It was such a relief! (Interestingly, the contemporary Japanese dictionary now refers to the word Tenshin as a euphemism, i.e. the retreat of an army.)

A few months later I was called up into the army and joined the unit stationed at Liaoyang in Manchuria.  two months later the War ended, our weapons were taken. It became a horrible situation and we heard many frightening stories. We heard Russian troops were coming to take us as war prisoners to transport us to Siberia. We organized an escape by train fortunately one of my colleagues from the railway company was able to drive the train. Many people joined the trip, even though it was very risky to go through the different Chinese areas. Normally it would take half a day, but we had to change rails after every section and after one day we arrived in Dairen. I managed to return to my house in Dalian. Obviously I was very pleased to see my wife and first son. We started to live a life under detention. The best way to survive was to sell the furniture but we had nothing to sell. We did everything to earn money; cleaning, selling ice on the street, etc. The best way to make a living for people like me was to draw portraits of the Chinese. I went to China town to work even though it was dangerous. My friends and I also designed café interiors. The Chinese asked us to paint dragons in black ink and the Russians only asked for portraits of Stalin.
It lasted a year and a half before we were able to return to Japan and when the moment finally came I had to make a big decision about my works. The people going back to Japan where restricted in what they were able to carry with them. I had to throw away many of my drawings and paintings. I hid a few drawings and landscape paintings of Manchuria between the Futon we carried with us.

When I bid farewell to Mr Muda Takaji, the chief of the Art Section at the Manchurian Railway Company, he said to me "You will make fantastic paintings in future." "When you leave this fully packed train, you will jump with joy." Implying I won' t loose my cheerfulness and sense of humour regardless of the situation I'm in. That I would carry on working and creating... It seems I have been searching to find the real nature of human beings, but it has been hard to understand what this consists of. According to the critics Sakazaki Otsuro and Hariu Ichirou, my work seems to be evolving around humour. That is to say I see the human being as a humorous creature, culture as a humorous product, and the towns we live in as part of a humorous landscape. This corresponded with what Muda Takaji said. But of course I only started to recognize it recently.

The Manchu were originally nomads from Manchuria, northeast of China. They conquered China in 1644, but kept themselves largely separated from the Chinese.
In 1931 the Japanese army invaded Manchuria. The Japanese set up a new country in Manchuria called Manchukoku. They made P'u Yi the chief executive, who wanted to be emperor. The Chinese government called Manchukoku a fake country and P'u Yi a traitor to China. The only major countries to recognize Manchukoku's existence were Japan, Italy and Germany.
During World War II Japan developed Manchukoku as a military-industrial base. At the end of the war Soviet forces invaded Manchuria. Manchuria was eventually returned to Chinese control.
Recorded on September 27, October 2 & 7 October, 2002

Sato: Recently, through my work I started reading about the Nanking Massacre. I would like to talk with you about that.
Hashimoto: I arrived in Nan king in 1939, two years after the Massacre. We came in from the Yangtze River; we could not even see the city. I was treated in the Hospital in Nanking, too sick to go out on the street and see what had happened there.

Sato: So you weren't aware of what had happened or hear anything about it during your stay there?
Hashimoto: I heard nothing at all, the word Massacre was never mentioned. At that time everyone thought that this was part of what being in a war was like. In my battalion there were some older soldiers who might have witnessed the occurrences in Nanking, but they never spoke about it, at least not to my knowledge.

Sato: Have you ever experienced anything similar to the Nanking Massacre in the War?
Hashimoto: No never, I have been very lucky.

Sato: Have you ever shot at the enemy?
Hashimoto: Of course I have, a soldier got shot and dropped dead right next to me. I also remember a truck being parked in the middle of the square, inside I saw dead Japanese soldiers covered in blood. I didn't know whether they were shot in the truck or killed before and brought there for everyone else to see. It was shocking but this is what war is, people dying in the battlefield. I have never been wounded, but I have seen people being killed. The Nanking tragedy might be a problem today but it is not something I'm interested in. It might not be nice to say this, but in a war these things can happen.

Sato: Do you think there are any connections between your work and your experiences during the war?
Hashimoto: I usually don't think about my war experiences, when I'm making art.

Sato: Why did you use the title, 'Armed City' in one of your paintings?

Armed City, 1979

Hashimoto: That was intended to be Ironic; a city cannot arm itself, only its citizens can.

Sato: Do you think that your adolescent experiences appear unconsciously in your paintings?
Hashimoto: That is possible, but what I went through during the war has nothing to do with my work. If someone asks me what it was like being a soldier, I reply; 'It was fun.' The war is horrible in any way you look at it; I take that as a matter of fact. It is about killing and fighting and as a result people die. The question is whether you can endure it. Without thinking too much about it I have been a credited two star soldier for 4 years. I was able to do this by making lots of drawings and by not letting the thought of killing people get to me.

Sato:   Do you think that your spirit and sense of humor have helped you overcome difficult situations?
Hashimoto: I think so. I am a painter, not a soldier. I made a painting depicting a group of soldiers for an exhibition about the Second World War. It was difficult to come up with any other subject since I just came back from the front. I named the painting ‘Tenshin' (Literally meaning: revolving body or: to return and dedicate oneself to another purpose). The fact that I was summoned by the military police might have had to do with the title I had chosen since it could be interpreted as a prediction that Japan was loosing the war. But I didn't know this then. Also the title had nothing to do with my anti-war ideas. (See Autobiographical text for a more detailed explanation of the incident)

Sato: Did you have any anti-war sentiments at the time?
Hashimoto: At the time I wasn't thinking about it. There were other left-wingers, who were more organized, forming an anti-war movement and so on. They became soldiers but were eventually put in prison and/or killed secretly. One can find historical evidence of this. I wasn't as brave as them, also, I had no idea of the power humor could have in situations like this. I discovered and developed this later.

Sato: I think humor does not only mean fun. Jon Thompson, one of my teachers, once said that humor is a very effective way to overcome extreme situations.
Hashimoto: Being older and wiser now it makes sense, but at that time it wasn't clear at all what my feelings were.

Sato: Do you think about anything when you are making your work?
Hashimoto: I don't no. My only preoccupation is to make a strong piece of work.

Sato: Me neither. Of course when I'm working on an art project, I have a general concept of what I want to achieve. But the process of making work brings me towards a certain direction. I only think, 'This is not enough, this is not enough' and I continue till I‘m satisfied. I normally make installation work, this forces me to stop working when the show opens. Sometimes this annoys me. When I stop working on a piece, it is an emotional moment.
Hashimoto: I understand completely. In that sense we have something in common. I always start to scribble on the canvas without thinking about theme, composition or what kind of work it should be.

Sato: What and who you are, culturally, socially and politically, your life experiences etc., appear unconsciously in your paintings.
Hashimoto: I would like to mention something related to the notion of cultural anthropology. I have not studied the subject thoroughly, but the basic idea is that human beings have been living, constructing towns, infrastructures, cars etc., basically by destroying nature. Animals and birds on the other hand, have been co-existing with nature in harmony. As Human beings, we have been surviving all this time by destroying nature; we became thinking beings that have to be continuously active and productive in order to survive. You see, 'Culture' is our means of survival. Making painting is part of 'Culture.' Obviously not every painter thinks along the same lines but when I became familiar with cultural anthropology, I thought, 'this is the way to perceive my own activity'
So I do understand what you're trying to say. Without expressing or saying something specific, the act of painting becomes your tool of expression. Without doubt, painting is a free exercise based on ones own rules, but I did not want to follow any movement of abstract painting like what Pollock was doing. I did want to find meaning outside of the painted frame. But meaning is not something as simple as being against the war or if I may exaggerate, about the human condition. All I can say is that war is a fight between men. Women and children do not belong there.

Sato: But women and children often become victims of war.
Hashimoto: That is not the war itself. It is the consequence of war, it occurs when a bigger and stronger party conquers a weaker and smaller one.

Sato: Whenever there is war this happens.
Hashimoto: Yes, but it is not the war itself. Do you think it is possible to fight a war without innocent people being killed or hurt? Wars have occurred in the past and in the present and are likely to occur in the future. Actually, I do not like to think about the war. It is something that cannot be helped, and my perspective on it is from the viewpoint of a painter.

Sato: I saw a photo of a children's tricycle, found in Hiroshima right after the nuclear explosion. I was really surprised that the tricycle object you exhibited in 1980 was very similar.

  Nanking Massacre also called  Rape Of Nanking (December 1937–January 1938), mass killing and ravaging of Chinese citizens and capitulated soldiers by soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army after its seizure of Nanking, China, on Dec. 13, 1937, during the Sino-Japanese War that preceded World War II. The number of Chinese killed in the massacre has been subject to much debate, with most estimates ranging from 100,000 to more than 300,000.

Two Japanese sublieutenants, Mukai Toshiaki and Noda Takeshi said to be competing with each other to see who could kill one hundred Chinese first. The bold headline said, "Contest to Kill First 100 Chinese with Sword Extended When Both Fighters Exceed Mark--Mukai Scores 106 and Noda 105"

Hiroshima-Tricycle, 1,500m from the hypocenter /
(denoted by Tetsutani Nobuo)

Tricycle, 1980
Object, 55x42x65cm

At that period you made a lot of similar sort of objects. Just to clarify, did you know about the picture of the tricycle in Hiroshima?
Hashimoto: No, I didn't.

  Tetsutani Shinichi (then 3 years and 11 months) was exposed while riding his tricycle in front of his house and died the same day.
Because Shinichi's father felt that laying a 3-years-old alone in a distant grave was too pitiful, he buried this tricycle in the back yard along with his son. In the summer of 1985, 40 years later, his bones were dug up and placed in a formal grave.
The tricycle was denoted to the Hiroshima Piece Memorial Museum.

Even though he was still in the hospital, I was given permission to see Hashimoto's studio, his work and the enormous amount of documentation he collected over the last half of the 20th century. It was impressive. The quality of his work was too much to encompass and it was a great pleasure and privilege to re-discover his work.
After leaving Japan in 1989, I haven't been able to see any of his recent work. It is an honor to be able to contribute to the knowledge of his work and life in Europe by publishing this interview and the letters he wrote me.
There were some questions I asked him later in a letter which he was able to answer after he left the Hospital.

Question 1
Sato: In 1994 you were discharged from military service and went back to Japan. Could you explain more about the system of military service in Japan and why you decided to return to Japan?
Hashimoto: At that time the military service was mandatory for Japanese citizens. A 21-year-old healthy male had to enroll into military service. This normally lasted a year or two, but during the war the time of service was extended. If you completed your period, you would be discharged from active service and sent home. I was discharged together with the colleague's I started the active military service with. I returned to the Tsu Unit in Japan from the Philippines and was released from active duty. There was another military service for those who were discharged from the active service or exempted because of physical reasons. They were kept 'On Call.' I was also called upon just before the end of the war.

Question 2
Sato: Why did you and your wife go back to work at Manchuria, China after you left the military? Was there no danger in going back?
Hashimoto: I returned to my job. During my years in the army, the Manchurian Railway Company paid a percentage of my salary so I felt a loyalty towards them.
Of course I thought it was dangerous, the war was still going on at that time, but there was no other way; we had to earn money to survive.

Question 3
Sato: You previously mentioned that your paintings did not concern the war in particular and that you never thought of the war while making them. But titles of paintings such as, 'Soldiers,' 'Fighting Man' and the Object, 'A soldier' all made at 1979-1980, seem to suggest a relation with at least some aspects of the war. I think title and subject are closely connected in your work. What were your considerations when making the paintings and the object?

Soldiers, 1979

A soldier - object, 1980

Hashimoto: My work seems to question the true nature of the human being and how I perceive it. I start without any tangible subject matter and/or composition. According to the progression of occurrences I device my working methods. The title, which sounds nice and smart, is like naming a baby; The titles 'Soldiers,' 'Fighting man' and 'A soldier' were give for that reason and it would have been no problem to name them otherwise. However, it is true that when I finished the works I chose titles that referred to the war. I have a strong recollection of it and even though I am neither an anti- or pro-war activist, it is obvious that I have been influenced by my experiences during my service in the military. The fact that we are fighting wars is part of us being human. This subject cannot be avoided; I have been searching for an answer to what a human being is. Through my experiences it has become a source for my work so naturally this also shows through my work.

Walking, 1988
pen on paper,

Mr. Homeless, 2001
object, 163.0x68.0x85.0

Laughing-an escaped prisoner, 1998
oil on canvas, 259.0x194.0