Keiko Sato interviews
Yokoi Kaoru

1938   Born in Kyoto, Japan.
1945   Evacuated to Yamagata prefecture.
1960   Graduated from the Art department of Yamagata University.
1960 - 
1974   Worked as an artist and teacher.
1974   Devoted his work solely to art and showed his work in various art exhibitions.
1977 - 
1992   Established the art group Wind and organized activities and exhibitions.
2003   Lives and works in Fukushima prefecture.

When I worked as a midwife in the Fukushima University Hospital (1979-1989), I wasn't really satisfied with the work I was doing. I wanted to do something else, so I joined the art group Wind in 1981. The group rented a house and transformed it into a studio so every member could use the space to work. Painting was just a hobby at that time but I started to enjoy it increasingly as it became a more profound part of my life. Through my joining of the group I had the opportunity to meet interesting people. Yokoi Kaotu was the person in charge, even though he always denied the idea of being a leader. Yokoi, the late Watanabe Hiroko, and the late Murata Eiko organized a diverse number of activities that ranged from model drawing, art history- and philosophy classes. Aside form these activities and organizing different kinds of exhibitions, they were also politically and socially active outside of the group. At some point It became difficult for me to follow their ideas and actions despite our relationship and the influence they had on me. Thinking back, it was there that I started to contemplate the connections and reflections which political, social and philosophical matters could have on art. Seeing a documentary about the Nanking massacre was a very heavy and thoughtful experience for me. Yokoi is a person who has witnessed stressful social-, political- and cultural situations in Japan but he never gave up his painting. I have a great respect for his perseverance. I greatly appreciate Yokoi's willingness to share the possibility to learn, look and approach art from distinctive angles.

Recorded on September 25, 2002

Sato: What were the reasons for your participation in political movements? What was your life like during the 1960's?
Yokoi: I became involved in the student movement by the end of the 1950's and beginning of the 60's. The experience was quite influential in my life. At that time, the Japanese government was trying to revise the U.S.- Japanese Security Treaty. Many citizens, students and workers disagreed with the treaty; it was a democratic movement against the ever-growing capitalism in Japan. Michiko Kaba, a student of the University of Tokyo, committed suicide to protest against the treaty. The incident made great impact on all of us; how could a human's sense of injustice be so strong and pure? The reason why I became part of the student movement had to do a lot with my growing up as a child in the Second World War. Many major Japanese cities were bombarded towards the end of the war. Kyoto the city where we lived was one of them and it was a very dangerous place to be. My sister and I were evacuated to the province of Yamagata. Many children were parted from their parents to be relocated to the countryside; it was a tragic period. At the end of the war, there was a big shortage of food and many people suffered from malnutrition. When we returned to Kyoto by train my sister got sick, the train that was very crowded, hot and stuffy. The situation weakened her body; she became seriously ill and died soon after the journey.
When I joined the political movement as a student, my teacher warned me that it would be difficult to get a good job if I carried out my subversive activities. I had to behave as an activist secretly by wearing a mask to hide my face. Everyone who became politically involved did the same. I stayed politically active after the revision of the treaty relieved the US from defending Japan at times of internal disturbances Both countries were "to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies", clearly signaling that Japan was to tailor its policy to fit the US's. I carried on political activities against the arrangement of the US military base in Japan and the Vietnam War. I think I was blacklisted in this period by the Japanese government.

Sato: Do you think that there is a connection and a difference between your political activities and your artwork? And if so, how did your artwork reflect your political activities?
Yokoi: Political activities and making art are very different matters, but they do have a common base. By the 1970's and the beginning of the 1980's, I joined an activist movement which has shaped my thoughts considerably. We were protesting against the realization of Narita airport. The area of Narita was a cultivated and fertile land where many farmers had settled themselves. The decision to construct an airport evoked confusion and mixed reactions from the local farmers. The Japanese government never made it their priority to discuss their plans with the farmers. It was a one-sided affair. A group of farmers rose against the decision and formed a protest group. I decided to support their movement but I wasn't alone in my decision as several left wing politicians, students and political extremists joined in. The suspicion was that the Japanese Government had plans to use the airport as an army base in times of war.
The tension before taking part in a demonstration was mounting. The demonstrations were considered dangerous and the police would regularly pick out and check every other bus coming into Narita. Our action was clearly directed against the authorities. I was very anxious. It must have been an even more frightening experience for the people protesting in the front of the crowd. They fought a tough battle with sticks and stones against the riot police who used tear gas. Some students are said to have died in the battle. I believed in our protest against authority, it was something beautiful. In the late 70's, I did one painting where large groups of farmers were hung on poles. Another work depicted the floating feet of a person, suggesting he was executed by hanging.

To those who were hanged

Representation is a manifestation of one's body but it is also an act. What relates to one's body and what is represented by it? This was the subject that preoccupied my artwork at that time.

Sato: How has your work transformed from the 60's, till the 80's?
Yokoi: My work changed a lot during this period. It is very likely that the changes I went through corresponded to the changing of an era. From 1970 till 1980 it was easy for me to connect with those who were fighting against the authorities. Recently it has become more and more difficult to be actively involved in these movements. The Japanese government became more conservative over the years as it tried to hide its social and political problems; a price needed to be paid for the country's transformation towards a capitalist society. The government encouraged industrial growth and neglected its agriculture. The wars in Vietnam and Korea boosted our industry and led to an economical boom. People became immersed by mass communication, mass production and mass consumption. Farmers' children were cynically dubbed as "Golden eggs" after they finished junior high school and were sent to work at the big city's factories. During this period of increasing prosperity it became very important to own domestic appliances. Ultimately, personal profits and the country's wealth led us to neglect our sense of humanity.
By the end of the 60's government restrictions towards activists became more severe. At the same time extremist groups emerged in an effort to stop the direction our country was heading. They started to commit terrorist attacks, hijackings, to provoke political conflict. This wasn't a piece movement anymore; it became hard for me to carry on. Predictably I became so confused that this influenced my artwork as well. I did not know what to do anymore. I decided to stop making figurative paintings. This was around 1980. I started to paint abstract works. The memory of the war however kept haunting me, especially the graphic images of the bombardments. Till today I still tremble with fear when I see fire. Because of that some paintings were never completely abstract. I also tried to paint without thinking. I started to make a sort of automatic paintings and used different techniques, which were derived from art history. Later In the 90's I wanted to make more simple works and I started making monochrome paintings.

Drawing 88, waiting for spring

Sato: You established the group Wind in Fukushima city in 1978. What were your intentions?
Yokoi: At that time I simply believed that the more people painted, the happier they would become. So I rented a regular studio space with some people who liked to paint as well. They had different jobs and made art in their spare time. In 1982 I started to do more activities with other people in the group like showing films, organizing lectures and we opened a café gallery named Gara. It was a part of our idea to mix art with social activities. Photographers, architects and actors, also took part in these activities. It became a sort of movement located on the neglected countryside. Among other things the fighting at Narita came to define my stance. I remember we showed a documentary of the Nanking massacre.

Sato: At that period I was a member of Wind. I remember the film, not every part of it, but it opened my eyes. I was really shocked to see one scene where Chinese children were thrown into an open fire. Until then I had no visual reference of what Japanese soldiers did in the Second World War. The late Watanabe Hiroko, another member of Wind and the person who introduced us to the film, was shocked, cried and left the room after the screening. She was one of the most pure hearted and honest persons I have ever met. What other reactions did the film evoke?
  Narita airport protest

Yokoi: Showing the film was a chance to share and discuss the things that happened in the Second World War. We also presented a film about the 13th Unit of the Japanese Army stationed in Manchuria, China during the Second World War. The film was a re-enactment of the medical experiments that the Japanese Army conducted in Manchuria. Manchurian prisoners (they were called tree logs) were injected with bacterium and frozen to discover how this would affect the human body. The film was actually made in China. Based on the stories of several survivors, it made the film all the more explicit. I felt like throwing up and left the film before it ended.

Sato: The problem in Japan is that we never openly confronted ourselves with our shame and guilt. I live in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, which is very close to the German border. Dutch people still have a difficulty to deal with what has happened with the Nazi's; especially those who were directly affected by the war like the people in or around Nijmegen. There is the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam that is visited by many tourists each day. For a long time Germany was severely censured by other European countries. I am convinced that this has influenced their psyche. In Japan we did not have that type of confrontation to see and hear directly from victims what our soldiers did in the Asian countries. In that sense the film was a perfect chance to see and hear what our soldiers did in China.
Yokoi: Indeed, people started to gain knowledge through the efforts of underground activities and this was very important.

Sato: I would like to mention Hiroko Watanabe here; she was one of the people at Wind who had a great influence in my life both artistically and mentally.
Yokoi: We learnt a lot from each other and stimulated our consciousness in many ways. Hiroko's political and social awareness developed enormously and it was very important for her to act against injustice. It related to how you want to perceive your own body. A way of representing your body could be through dance, performance or theatre. In her case, she was challenging the idea of a social body. She cooked in Gara, the café gallery for customers. It became part of her artistic activity and proved to be of great significance. It became as important to her as her paintings. She organized many activities, and her attitude has influenced me a lot.

Sato: Shortly before her death she was to participate in a group exhibition, the show had already opened when she finally showed up with an unfinished painting. Later she wrote: "I failed to achieve what I had intended with my painting. The spirit can't be separated from the body, if the body weakens and is forced to sleep, the spirit will follow." She wanted to develop her concept of art's social possibilities through her activities and her paintings. She just started to develop that concept when she died. Do you think her work could have developed further into that direction?
Yokoi: Well, it is difficult to say, she never intended to turn her cooking into an art performance, however her activity did become a symbol of the space. It showed how her consciousness towards the potential of art started to change. After her death in 1987 some artists went on to find new ways of representing their ideas. I remember a series of performances in and around Fukushima where artists dug out a hole in the ground and others used 'industrial noise' recordings as a contradiction to the quiet countryside. I think she would have developed her work in a similar direction.

from a review by John Snadden

—  "These human guinea pigs are dubbed 'maruta' - a type of firewood - something to be used and discarded."

—  "General Ishi is depicted as a political opportunist and sadist. His depraved 'medical' experiments of people being exploded in decompression chambers and prisoners having frozen limbs hacked off are seen as possessing little scientific value. Ishi's kowtowing team of doctors is led by the demented Tamamura, whose prized collection is a laboratory stacked with beakers full of body parts."

from a review by Marc Slanger

—  "The film (...) is a relatively big-budget propaganda piece documenting Chinese suffering in a Japanese torture camp during World War II. It features actual animal mutilation, and incredibly intense gore effects that undoubtedly employed the use of actual dead bodies. With no likable characters, it is thoroughly depressing and not exactly 'entertaining', but perhaps it does serve an educational purpose. I mean, I didn't know that Japan had death camps that rivaled Germany's, did you?"

—  "As a collector I'm glad I bought it and that I own it, but I don't know if I could sit through it again."

Wind was a place for me where many things happened for the first time. It was a struggling period where I was coming to terms with what I really wanted to do in life. I was confronted with a great number of political, social and philosophical ideas, this became confusing and I started to question my purity, virtue and innocence. This became more apparent when I met Yokoi, Hiroko, and Murata. Especially Hiroko was a person who embodied purity. Their idea of Wind was to create a place without any specific purpose. They wanted to create a community, a social structure, which could involve anyone and provide a base where people could share their thoughts and communicate with each other. After being part of that for a couple of years, I started to think about the purpose of the group. I figured that if we didn't share a common goal or attitude, why stay together as a group?

Joseph Beuys argued that we need to perceive our body as a social construct and it became clear to me that I couldn't possibly consider my artwork without taking into account the social and political context in which it surfaces. The reason I joined Wind was because I liked to paint. I wanted to separate my artwork from my social and political activities. Eventually I realized that an artist is an integral part of society and therefore he or she cannot shy away from social and political issues. During this period of questioning, Hiroko suddenly passed away. There were also relational problems in the group. It became increasingly difficult and disappointing for me to witness the growing gap between every day reality and the so-called, idealistic view of the group.

This was a reason I have not contacted with Yokoi for a long time. It was still a painful period to face. Through the interview with Yokoi recalled that period in my mind, it was necessary to affirm my past as a stream of my personal history and what was Yokoi's concept of the group Wind. His activities and his personal history are very important in order to understand the history in Japan and a relation of personal, social, political matter, and artwork. After the interview we had a chat and he mentioned his uncle who used to be a military policeman (Kenpeitai). His uncle was caught by the Russians just after the Second World War and was sent to Siberia as a war prisoner. It was very hard to survive in Siberia. Yoko's uncle used to tell the story that he had only hope to go back to Japan and this longing helped him to survive. He was very lucky that he could return to Japan. Whatever the situation was in Japan at that time, he never felt guilty and believed that what he has done in the war was justified. The severe and strong will might have helped for him to survive as well. Yokoi seemed impressed by his uncle, although they have completely opposite political and social ideas. After returning to the Netherlands I thought of one more thing I wanted to ask Yokoi. The question was why he started to make monochrome paintings in the 90's.

This is a transcript of the letter that Yokoi sent me back.

2 November 2002

Facing the year 1990, I became interested in restraining the colors in my work. A series of 19 paintings and another work entitled "Drawing 88, waiting for spring", was the starting point. The works were exhibited in a solo exhibition, "Towards 1990, Yokoi Kaoru," at the Fukushima cultural centre. The paintings were created through an automatic way of painting using only black and white acryl on canvas. I was aware of my negative perception of the future and this haunted my mind. I think my deception started somewhere in the 80's. Japan's economy was very prosperous, yet its people were full of arrogance and deception. Mentally the people had become weak as they immersed in excessive pompous and luxurious lifestyles. From abroad, especially in Asia we received a lot of criticism for using cheap labor from neighboring countries. The amount of artists increased but the quality of paintings got less; paintings became decorative and lacked a deeper urge or interest. We forgot to question the suffering and dignity of human existence. I started to question my own functioning: Did I lose my initial intent? Was I producing paintings absent of meaning? I needed to rephrase my interest in the production of art. It became necessary to ruminate the content and methodology of my paintings. Painting and drawing meant to look intently at life and understand its fragile reality. By limiting my use of color I tried to discover what my contribution to art and art in general could be, especially since art, at that time, had been absorbed by the luxurious actuality of daily life in Japan. The simplification and reduction was a starting point to examine my own functioning. Now after ten years of working this way I finally feel confident and comfortable with the results.

  Drawing 88, waiting for spring