Aimee: Masako, you spent three months in residence in Kamiyama, Japan. What it was like to live and work there?
Masako: Kamiyama has a population of about 6,000 people. It’s about a three-hour drive from Osaka. It’s an agricultural town surrounded by mountains of cedar trees and the river Akui runs through town. The Shosan-ji Temple and the Ōawa shrine are both in Kamiyama.
The Shosan-ji Temple is one of the eighty-eight sites on the Shikoku pilgrimage route. The Ōawa shrine is associated with folklore around the time of Japan’s birth. The typical view in Kamiyama is extended rice fields, farms, rivers, and traditional Japanese houses. Life in Kamiyama was quiet, simple, and peaceful. My studio was in an old preschool, which was the most spacious studio space I have ever been given.
Aimee: My understanding is that the residency was created in 1999, but that Kamiyama itself has a history of hosting artists and artisans since the mid-1800s. Did you know of the history of the place before you went?
Masako: I came to know the history of Kamiyama when I was researching the residency program. Kamiyama has a long history of hosting artists who painted Fusuma-e (illustrated stage background panels) from the Edo to the Taisho Period.
Aimee: What made you interested to go and stay there for such an extended time?
Masako: I’ve always wanted to attend a residency program in Japan. My work examines the process of cultural synthesis, so on a personal level it just made sense. Now that I’ve lived in the U.S. for twenty-three years, I feel like I am looking at Japan from the outside.
I was curious how I would respond to living and working there and trying to see my own culture from within. I also thought this would be a good opportunity to take my work in a new direction as the residency focuses on interacting with the local people through your creative process.
I read that Kamiyama is known as a successful model to solve the serious depopulation problem in Japan’s aging society. The residency program has existed in Kamiyama for the past sixteen years during a turning point of change that has seen migrants from Tokyo and Osaka breathe new culture and business into the landscape. It was implemented to foster arts and culture into the region in hopes of addressing these issues. I wanted to be a part of this community that is trying to solve social issues by working with artists.
Aimee: Tell us about your installation “Kokoro no Tabi,” and the meaning or significance that has for you.
Masako: My best attempt of translation for now is, “a journey between places.” The literal translation of Kokoro is heart/mind. Tabi means journey. I meant to imply the realm where places have no boundaries.
I wanted my installation to evoke the experience of visiting a Shinto shrine. In Japan, there are numerous Shinto shrines in every town, there are about six in Kamiyama. Their main purpose is to enshrine gods rather than worship them. The entrance is called Torii, which means “the gate.” The gate is the entrance of the tangible world into the intangible world. Then one walks through the pathway before entering Honden, which is the main structure with an altar inside.
I wanted to suggest the experience of coming to a place that one has already known; a place that is familiar in mind but forgotten. The shrine visit is usually a realization of things that are around us. Visiting a shrine can be a mindless ritual in Japan’s daily life. It can become a part of a routine. Yet, I feel I am reaffirmed by the visit.
The drawing is occupied by the night sky and animals from Kamiyama’s past and present. These animals are performing a traditional Awa dance under the stars. Stars and space are in our everyday surroundings, which reminds me of the unknown.
Kamiyama seems to be experiencing a metamorphosis as it tries to synthesize old and new cultures. I wanted to express my wish for Kamiyama to become a place where different cultures coexist, similar to the traditional Awa dance where people from all walks of life dance together.
Aimee: How was this residency unique to the other residency experiences you’ve had? Can you describe what it was like to work with the locals, did they help realize your project?
Masako: The unique part of the residency is that the whole town is involved with the program. They want the residents to be involved in many different aspects of the artist’s process. For instance, I had to conduct interviews with local residents about the history of Kamiyama. I met a few older residents who opened their homes to share their stories. Keiko, who runs the residency program, connects artists with local people. Yu and Kazu helped with the preparation of the mural. I became friends with Shohei and Taro who assisted me throughout the entire process. For my show, around thirty residents and visitors showed up to help with the installation. Kuniko-san, the matriarch of Kamiyama, kindly provided meals for me on a regular basis. The former chair of the program, Mr. Mori-san, brought me fresh cut bamboo from the mountains, which we cut into bamboo strings for the hanging lantern installation. The list of people who supported me during the residency is long. The work was a true collaboration with the residents. I was moved by everyone’s generosity.
Aimee: You often talk about a state of transition or metamorphosis in your work, relating this in the natural world to being a resident of the U.S. for half your life and now feeling like you are in-between belonging or identifying with the two cultures that have shaped you, your Japanese heritage and your adult life in the U.S. Did this proximity to nature in Kamiyama influence or shift your thoughts or reveal new insights?
Masako: I saw this residency as returning to a place I belong to. But it was a bit different than how I imagined. I recognized how much I have changed but also how connected I felt to everything there. The environment was a part of it. Even though there was such a strong cultural shift in my life, nature is a constant. And the nature of Kamiyama reminded me of my home. I am in awe of nature’s ability to evolve and sustain the ecosystem. And, it is such an important part of evolution, both in a scientific manner as well as spiritual. In Kamiyama I was very connected to my surroundings—the cedar scent in the air, the changes of the seasons, typhoons, the most beautiful night sky. This place of transition or metamorphosis becomes more mysterious with this connection. Nature is such a beautiful enigma.
Aimee: Tell us about the lights, the shrines, and your relationship to the intangible in this body of work.
Masako: In my installation, the light suggests a guide to connect one with the intangible, as lighting is often used in Japanese rituals and traditions to reach the spirit. In August, we have an event called “Obon,” which is an annual Buddhist event for commemorating one’s ancestors. It is believed that the ancestors return to this world to see their relatives. The lights are used to guide their spirit. At the end of the Obon, we float lanterns into river and ocean to guide the spirits back into their world. The light and paper sculptures were inspired by things I saw and heard; everything from Kamiyama’s produce to stories of local legend. I abstracted the shapes so that they became more of the sprit of these entities and ideas. These sculptures are meant to act as a holographic entry point to connect the internal and external realm.
This body of work is a new chapter for me. I discovered new directions to my creative process. This is just the beginning of this series. I have a lot more to research.