A Braille Letter (2015, Exhibition “Stardust Letters”, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art
Earlier, I left Manila in the Philippines and switched the aeroplane in the city in the Arab country called Abu Dhabi, and now I am writing this on the plane to Berlin. I assume those who read this letter or those who listen to the audio recording are either the ones that can read Braille, are blind, or perhaps even both.
Since I was asked, on this occasion, to make an art piece at this venue, which can be enjoyed by blind people, I have been thinking about writing a letter that can be read in Braille, but I’ve been unsure as to where to begin. To tell the truth, this is probably the first time that I have been given an opportunity to make an art piece for blind people, even though I’ve been making artwork for many years and exhibited at various museums. I’ve made this piece, thinking about how our paths can cross in this museum on this special occasion, the paths that led us to this curious chance meeting amongst visitors who can and cannot see and the artist.
You’ve just come through the room where you saw a forest of threads hung from above your head. The threads are hung down from a big net stretched across the room overhead, and at the points where threads are attached to the net, a Braille letter is formed, which can be read only when they are seen from above. For those who are blind, the braille letter rendered across the net cannot be seen, but even for those who can see but cannot read Braille, it looks merely like a constellation of stars.
The content of this letter is only known to me, the people that worked on this project, and those who can read Braille. Just as I cannot see the world that blind people usually perceive, there are things that only blind people can see and yet are imperceptible to those who are not blind. By creating this slightly unusual situation in the museum, I thought that I would be able to present a kind of a shared experience amongst us, creating the intersection of different paths that have led us to this exhibition. (Having said that, if there are many people who want to know about the content of the letter, I would consider providing a way in which they can find out about it but only outside the museum.)
Although I currently live in the capital city of Germany, Berlin, I often fly to various places for work-related reasons, particularly for setting up exhibitions. Two months ago, I went to the small town called Tilburg in a southern region of the Netherlands for making pieces of fabric, and last month I went to Munich and Norway. Soon after that, I travelled to Manila, the Philippines, and now I’m on the way back to Berlin. And after a week or so, I have to go to Norway once again, and next month I will fly to Japan for the opening of my exhibition in Hyogo. After Hyogo, I will go to Tokyo for another exhibition of mine, and in autumn I am scheduled to go to Seoul, South Korea.
I will be 39 years old this summer, but as I am leading such a hectic life, which is inevitable since I am an artist, I often ask myself: “Am I ever going to get married?” “Do I really have to have a child?” Since I am an artist, I do not have a salary as such every month, and if I don’t get paid regularly I cannot pay the rent. So often as I think about those things that even while I am travelling those thoughts appear in my dreams.
In the midst of the hectic time, I meet people of various ethnicities with different cultural backgrounds, and I speak to them in my non-native language, English. So, even though I do not perfectly understand what they say, I work with them for the common goal of setting up an exhibition at exhibition venues. At an opening party, I would wear a dress and heels that I rarely wear in my daily life, but after the event, I come back to my studio and bury myself in work. That is my life at the moment.
Of course, when I go to a foreign country, I come across unfamiliar customs and particularities of the region. Even amongst Europeans, whether Germans, the Dutch or Norwegians, there are differences. Singaporeans and Filipinos are also very different in terms of how they act and behave despite their geographic proximity.
In the same way that I identify people according to where they are from, whether German, Dutch or Filipino, for them I am probably the representative of Japan, even though no one has said so. They all try to know more about Japan through me. In such an instance, I am torn between opposing feelings. On one hand, I feel that I want to say nice things about my own culture as much as I can, yet, on the other hand, there are many things about my country that I want to criticise as well.
However, no matter what I say, because of its complexity, I cannot communicate to them what I really want to say. But perhaps, I merely want to remind myself, albeit in vain, the reason why I am where I am in my life and experience what I experience, which is more personal than solely related to my cultural background. In the same way, no matter how closely I observe and analyse people of different ethnicities, I would not be able to understand the depth and complexity of their feelings towards their motherlands.
By the way, today, I took a cab to the airport, and on the way, I saw slums in the inner city of Manila. Litter was scattered around and everywhere to be seen on the streets. The laundry that looked still dirty was hung at the windows covering the frames entirely. In dusty narrow alleys, a lot of children were playing almost naked but with full of joy and a beaming smile on their face. It was in the daytime on a weekday.
I asked the museum staff that drove me to the airport why children were not in school. He told me that their parents are so poor that they cannot afford textbooks nor to send them to school. Those children that do not go to school will eventually become street-sellers in slums, thus their future prospect is severely limited.
I told him that in Japan education till the age of 15 is compulsory and the privilege is provided to all children. In reply, he said to me sincerely that he wishes the Philippines to be soon like Japan.
The current Japanese government is not so organised as it should be, and I feel ashamed when I come across news reports in Germany about poor decisions that the Japanese government is making on various issues. Despite that, when I look outside I quickly come to realise how precious what we have is in Japan, even though we always take them for granted. Having realised that, I grew frustrated with the government in the Philippines to the extent that I wanted to rebuke them, saying “what are you doing!”
Nonetheless, I have read somewhere that people often forget the journey that has taken to get to where they are now, and thus they cannot forgive others who cannot do what they can do at once. I hope the Philippines will soon find a way, and their own unique way, to get to the point where those children can go to school. Hoping for the coming of such a day and feeling somewhat ambivalent, I finally arrived at the airport.
This is yet another story. Last year, I stayed in Singapore for about a month, as I was offered to have an exhibition there. It felt much hotter in Singapore than Manila where I was staying earlier. I remember it was very sultry and I was constantly wiping off sweat trickling down my cheeks.
Singapore was colonised by the British, and the Philippines was under the Spanish rule for hundreds of years. During the Second World War, however, both countries were invaded by the Japanese military forces, and they suffered from atrocious destruction.
The other day, I saw an oil painting at the National Museum of Manila, depicting a horrific scene where a Japanese soldier is decapitating one of the local prisoners of war. Last year at History Museum in Singapore, I saw many photographs and thereby learned the fact that the Japanese invasion caused severe poverty and starvation in the country. When I travelled around Asia, I inevitably came to know more about what my country did in the past, and facing those facts put me in excruciating pain.
Yet at the same time, I empathise with Japanese soldiers who had to obey the command of chief military officers and the country and thus remained in muggy, boiling and humid jungle infested with snakes, poisonous insects and mosquitoes. Without adequately washing both themselves and their clothes and barely eating, they were also the victims of the horrific war. The jungles that I saw in Singapore seemed as if stained with their blood and suffering, therefore whenever I passed by jungles there I could not help but feeling intense grief and sorrow.
I‘m sure that the soldiers wanted to see their lovers and mothers waiting back home and definitely did not want to do such terrible things that the local people held a grudge against. At night, as I looked up at the moon, I imagined the forced patriots who were also looking at the same moon 70 years ago in this humid country. Much to my surprise, however, I never met any locals that had strong anti-Japanese feelings while I was staying there.
When I visited Hong Kong and was having a drink in a local bar on my own last year two boys with clean-shaven heads started speaking to me. They said, “we are from Mainland China and we’ve heard that Japan is such an amazing country and we really want to visit.” “But,” the boy stuttered, “…I heard that Japanese people don’t like Chinese people. Is that right?” As soon as I heard that, I thought that both sides are thinking the same. I started wondering who is behind all this, manipulating and stirring up the situation. I intuitively thought that we should never believe in what the governments and the media are saying on both sides.
On another occasion, I started chatting with a boy, the driver of a large van, who was working as a carrier that specialises artworks. On the way to the airport, we spoke about Japan. He said to me excitedly, “I’m driving a Toyota car too! I love Toyota vehicles! I think Toyota cars are the best in the world!” “Japan is incredible.” He continued. “Japanese companies have developed many advanced technologies. I think the country is really amazing.” I asked him how many days he works per week. He replied, “uh, how many days a week… well, my baby will be born soon, so lately, I’ve been working seven days a week.”
Hong Kong is developing rapidly and indeed an exciting city. People there know how to sell things and I was quite impressed by their ingenious and yet sometimes shrewd business acumen. Singapore also looked thriving, probably because its economy is booming, which reminded me of the 1980s in Japan when its economy was at its peak. Now, however, Japan will never and does not need to return to such a stage of economic growth. Everyone in Japan already has TVs, radios, personal computers, and air conditioners. Taking these into account, even to an amateur like myself who is neither an economist nor pundit, it seems obvious that it is not possible for Japan to further prosper by selling and buying more things. I think that Japan should at once leave the spectre of the economic legacy behind. Instead of trying to satisfy endless materialistic need, Japanese people should seek their spiritual fulfilment. Therefore, I don’t think it is right to see China as a competitor.
I think that the reason why I like living in Germany is because German people know how to live happily. To tell the truth, Berlin is not particularly a wealthy city. Without many growing industries, the job scarcity is actually quite acute. It may not be the hyperbole to say that in the city, there are not many things to see other than the remains of Berlin Wall, the parliament, and the European headquarters of Sony. I can say with certainty that it is not an affluent city.
However, for example, even when I go to a local library near the closing time and I want to borrow books in a hurry, no one rushes me because probably German people respect the act of learning. When I say that I am an artist people are usually complementary, saying to me that it is great and admirable. That is because they feel deep respect to art. When companies cooperate with art museums and galleries their reputation in the society rises, therefore many companies try to provide financial support and their own products as a form of sponsorship.
As I’m writing the following line, “all stores are closed in Berlin except Turkish shops on Sundays,” the plane has arrived in Abu Dhabi, and suddenly I found myself in the Arab world. Here, I’m switching to a plane back to Berlin.
Needless to say, the plane to Berlin is filled with many German passengers. I see a young German girl nibbling at a carrot and an apple. Many people in Europe often snack raw vegetables and fruits or even have them for lunch. I frequently witness people taking bites off them on the streets in the city. It may perhaps be better than eating sweets with lots of chemicals and additives.
I’ve been thinking about food a lot for several years, and I used to think that Japanese food was very safe, and in comparison with the standard in Europe, it is much safer in terms of additives, pesticides and fertilisers. Now, however, I think completely the opposite.
It is said that much food produced in Japan may have been exposed to radiation that has spread across the country since the accident that took place at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. More importantly, though, even before then, chemical substances added to food were absurd.
In addition to that, many companies seem careless about poor students and children that consume their inexpensive products, which contain lots of chemicals and additives. Furthermore, when it comes to the importance of having a healthy diet, children seem uninterested.
Here is another reason why I like Germany. Of course, there are lots of cheap and unhealthy products in Germany too, however, when we are well informed of the issues around food production we can make better decisions. In Germany, there isn’t so much difference in terms of prices as in Japan where you have to be rich so that you can afford to buy organic food, which is usually expensive. I think that German people are better informed in terms of what to eat and what not to eat.
After I wrote the above, I returned to Berlin safely, and shortly after then I flew to Norway to set up another exhibition and I came back to Berlin yesterday.
Norway is a Scandinavian country and it is so cold during the night that people have to wear a down jacket, even in the summer. While installing the exhibition at the venue an old man called Shell helped me. He works there for its maintenance and fixes things at various premises in the region. He had all the tools necessary to do that and he did everything that I asked for.
But he looked very sad, and I assumed that he lives by himself. When I looked him in his eyes I wondered what Shell has experienced in the past. Although Shell is not someone working in the field of art, he loves art. While I was setting up my work, he was gazing at me intently at all times. Every time a new piece was installed, he was full of praises for me and said that my work was amazing and beautiful. When we had to say our good-byes, he said to me kindly that it was a pleasure working with me.
While I was staying in Norway, I learned a bit about Norway’s history. The reason why we as Japanese don’t know much about Norway and the country’s current affairs is that we often pigeonhole all Scandinavian countries as “Northern Europe” and apparently Northern European history has been omitted from the comprehensive secondary education in Japan.
Within Northern Europe, there are intricately woven histories that are not easy to unravel particularly amongst their neighbouring countries, and they are usually not quite known to outsiders. I think it is similar to the situation that we often face in Asia. From Europe’s perspective, more often than not, Asian countries are simply referred to as Asia as a collective entity without knowing, for example, the complex relationships latent between Japan and South Korea, and Japan and China.
My next trip is to my own country, Japan. I will travel to Hyogo to set up my exhibition, which is based on this letter that is going to be translated into Braille. It has been over 5 years since I left Japan to live abroad, so I feel a bit nervous every time I go back to Japan for a short visit.
Particularly because Japanese people are very good at making up new words by shortening them, which do not usually make sense. For example, “morning-first” as in “in the early morning,” “fami-res” as in a “family-friendly restaurant,” or “perso-con” as in a “personal computer.” Even within the past five years, I’ve come across new words that I did not quite understand.
Also, since Japanese people are very polite and gentle to others, sometimes I am concerned if my behaviour and the way I speak are considered to be impolite or too direct, as my time in Europe has toughened me up to the point where I may sometimes come across too strong.
In Europe, oftentimes people do not understand unless I explicitly say my opinions and what I want. On the contrary, Japanese culture favours subtlety and sensitivity to read the other person’s intention without explicitly articulating. Therefore, when I am in Japan I have to be extra careful as to what I do and say, paying attention to those hidden messages.
And since 2011, everything seems to have changed in Japan because of the earthquake, the devastating tsunami and the ensuing nuclear incident. Yet, at such a drastic turn of the history, I was given opportunities to travel to many countries. Reflecting back on the curious itinerary that I have taken, I started pondering over what I am supposed to do right now.
Every country has its own history and problems, and yet love and warm feelings of people towards their own country are universal across the globe. My job is to make art, and through my work, I have seen many places and thought about things. If they will remain as the signs of the world that we live in, even to a modest extent, I believe that my unique experiences are meaningful.
I’ve written this long letter without having a clear direction. I wrote this as if I’m sending a letter to my mother or lover, and it was my intention to write without having a particular theme or clear structure. I don’t know if this exhibition at Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art will succeed, but it seems to me that trying things without thinking too much has always been helpful to me and saved me many times, even though it may appear disorganised to others. Well, I do not have any conclusion as such, so I will end this letter here as it is.
30 June 2015 in Berlin