Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800)

Celebrating the centennial of Japan's gift of cherry trees to the nation's capital, this exhibition features one of Japan's most renowned cultural treasures, the 30-scroll set of bird-and-flower paintings by Itō Jakuchū. Titled Colorful Realm of Living Beings(J. Dōshoku sai-e; c. 1757–1766), these extraordinary scrolls are being lent to the National Gallery of Art by the Imperial Household. Their exhibition here—for one month only—provides a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: not only is it the first time all 30 paintings will be on view in the United States, but it is also the first time any of the works will be seen here after their six-year-long restoration.

Colorful Realm stands as the most dynamic and comprehensive—yet meditative and distilled—expression of the natural world in all of Japanese art. Synthesizing numerous East Asian traditions of bird-and-flower painting, the set depicts each of its 30 subjects in wondrously meticulous detail, but in such a way as to transcend surface appearances and capture the otherwise ineffable, vital essence of the cosmos, the Buddha nature itself. To present the full significance of Colorful Realm, the exhibition and its catalogue reunite this masterpiece with Jakuchū's triptych of the Buddha Śākyamuni from the Zen monastery Shōkokuji in Kyoto. Jakuchū had donated both works to the monastery, which displayed them in a large temple room during Buddhist rituals.

Recent conservation of Colorful Realm has generated an entirely new awareness of the material profile of the set and the technical means by which Jakuchū created each scroll. Drawing upon these findings as well as the most recent research on Jakuchū's life and cultural environment, this exhibition offers a multifaceted understanding of the artist's virtuosity and experimentalism as a painter—one who not only applied sophisticated chromatic effects but also masterfully rendered the richly symbolic world in which he moved.

The earliest of the 30 scrolls, Peonies and Butterflies, combines two subjects that enjoyed great popularity in East Asian pictorial traditions. On the one hand, the peony flower was likened to both feminine beauty and prosperity. It became the preferred garden flower of the imperial and aristocratic elite during China's Tang dynasty (618–907) and at the court of Emperor Xuanzong in particular; in East Asian literary traditions Li Bai's verse likening the beauty of Xuanzong's favorite consort Yang Guifei (719–756) to a peony cemented the flower's association with feminine beauty. Meanwhile, its full and gorgeous appearance lent itself to uncomplicated associations with affluence and good fortune. The butterfly also served as an auspicious symbol, though its popularity was equally attributable to its appearance in one of the most famous parables in early Chinese thought: Zhuangzi's dream of a butterfly. According to this parable, the legendary sage Zhuangzi dreams that he is a carefree yellow butterfly. Upon awakening, however, "he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi." Paintings of butterflies inevitably invoked the oneiric setting and queried selfhood of the Zhuangzi anecdote in most East Asian contexts and particularly in Jakuchū's circle of erudite Sinophile monks, scholars, and merchants. While visually opulent, Peonies and Butterflies also suggests the uncertainty of a just-awoken dreamer who momentarily confuses reverie with reality.

Careful study of the painting's pigmentation points to Jakuchū's remarkable distillation and intensification of traditional East Asian coloration techniques. Different grades of opacity and transparency are achieved in the butterflies, flowers, stems, and leaves by varying the use of mineral and vegetal pigments, occasionally layering them one on top of another and adding a sublayer of color on the back of the silk. This complex stratigraphy of colors results in a convincing imbrication of the motifs in their surroundings. Indeed, when Jakuchū's cultural and spiritual mentor Daiten (1719–1801) encountered the painting in 1760, he titled it "Beautiful Mist and Fragrant Wind" (Enka kōfū), suggesting that the real subject here was not the peonies and butterflies, but the conceptual atmosphere that enveloped them, the invisible ether within which they swayed and glided. 

Sponsor: The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, The Imperial Household Agency, and Nikkei Inc., in association with the Embassy of Japan.
It has been made possible through the generous support of Toyota, Nikkei Inc., Airbus, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, and The Exhibition Circle of the National Gallery of Art. Additional sponsorship from Japan has been provided by Daikin Industries, Ltd., Ito En, Ltd., Mitsubishi Corporation, and Panasonic Corporation.
The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
Schedule: National Gallery of Art, March 30–April 29, 2012

An Aging Japanese Town Bets on a Young Mayor for Its Revival

YUBARI, Japan — Most young people have already fled this city of empty streets and shuttered schools, whose bankrupt local government collapsed under the twin burdens of debt and demographics that are slowly afflicting the rest of Japan.
Now, Yubari, a former coal-mining town on Japan’s northernmost main island, Hokkaido, is hoping an unlikely savior can reverse its long decline: a 31-year-old rookie mayor who has come to symbolize the struggle confronting young Japanese in the world’s most graying and indebted nation.
“Japan  will tread the same path someday,” said Naomichi Suzuki, who a year ago this month became the youngest mayor of the country’s most rapidly aging city. “If we can’t save Yubari, what will it mean for the rest of Japan?”
Indeed, the city’s plight and attempt to fight back — which has become a story line in the national media — could offer a glimpse of Japan’s future.
Japan’s overall population fell by a record quarter-million to 127.8 million last year, hurt by falling birthrates and people departing for other countries. By 2060, the Japanese population is expected to fall by an additional one-third, to as few as 87 million — and 40 percent of those remaining will be over 65 years old.
Japan’s national debt has not preoccupied the world the way Europe’s has. But after years of government spending to shore up the economy, Japanese public I.O.U.’s have mushroomed to almost $12 trillion — more than twice the size of its economy and the heaviest government debt burden in the world. (Its treasury is able to keep financing that debt load by issuing government bonds because Japan, like the United States, is still a global investment haven.)
But in Yubari, the demographic and fiscal demise is on fast-forward. The city’s population has plunged by 90 percent since its heyday as a coal-mining hub in the 1950s and ’60s. Currently, fewer than 10,500 people live in a geographic area approximately the size of New York City. And of those remaining Yubari residents, nearly half are older than 65.
And unlike the national government, Yubari has already faced its day of reckoning with creditors. Crippled by the closure of its coal mines as Japan moved to petroleum-based fuels and nuclear power, and after a failed bid to revive its tourism economy with subsidies from the central government, Yubari went bankrupt in 2007, owing more than $400 million to holders of its municipal bonds.
Under Japanese law that debt must still be repaid under a bankruptcy reorganization the city will be laboring under for the next 15 years.
The city’s services have been cut to the bone, and the public work force of about 300 has been cut by half. Yubari’s winter festivals have been canceled, its public bath closed and its six elementary schools consolidated into one. The aftermath of the March 2011 tsunami further decimated local tourism.
Yubari cut back on its snow-clearing, and its treasured art museum collapsed under the weight of the accumulated snow. There was no money to rebuild.
Even the growers of the region’s famed cantaloupe melon, which can sell for almost $100 each, are struggling as a younger generation has left farms behind for better jobs elsewhere. Meanwhile, the handful of companies still here complain of a dearth of workers; all but 4 of the 20 employees at the Yubari Tsumura pharmaceutical plant commute from outside the city.
“Something needed to be done to stop the bleeding,” said Shizuo Shibata, 77, a retired school district worker who has spent his whole life in Yubari. “But anyone who had prospects is leaving.”
It was into these depths of despair that Mr. Suzuki, then a 26-year-old public servant in the city of Tokyo’s social welfare department, was dispatched to Yubari on a yearlong loan from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
By all accounts here, he quickly established rapport with the locals, volunteering his free time to help resuscitate the city’s annual film festival and checking in regularly with his elderly neighbors. (Mr. Suzuki concedes he had little else to do during the long winter evenings.) At the same time, the city’s younger people came to consider him a generational leader. Mr. Suzuki began to advocate a new way of thinking in Yubari: what if the city could do more to safeguard the most essential public services, while negotiating better terms on its debt repayments with the central government?
He began a door-to-door survey to get a better grasp of how the city’s cuts were affecting living standards. He also pushed for the city to set up regular three-way meetings with the central government and the prefecture of Hokkaido, to discuss Yubari’s debt repayments.
In late 2010, eight months after Mr. Suzuki had returned to his old job with the Tokyo government, a group of Yubari locals called on him with a bold request: come back to the city, and run for mayor.
“We needed a break from the past, and he represented a fresh start.” said Naoya Sawada, 44, an entrepreneur and early supporter of Mr. Suzuki who now runs Yubari’s revived film festival. “He’s young and he’s an outsider, but in Yubari, that might be a good thing.”
Still, Mr. Suzuki was politically untested and a relative unknown. He seemed to have little hope against the incumbent, Hajime Fujikura, a 70-year-old former auto industry executive, or Yukari Iijima, 46, a former national parliamentarian.
Then something remarkable happened in this country usually dominated by the elderly ranks. Mr. Fujikura, hearing of young Mr. Suzuki’s intended candidacy, declared he would step aside and settle for a city council seat instead.
“Look, our children and grandchildren have all left Yubari, but Mr. Suzuki came all the way from Tokyo to try to save us,” said Mr. Fujikura. “If we seniors don’t support him, who will?”
Emboldened, Mr. Suzuki’s camp unleashed a campaign blitz. Trudging through the heavy snow and flashing his winning smile, Mr. Suzuki visited more than 5,000 of the city’s 6,000-odd households, laying down his message: Yubari can be saved. The Tokyo governor, Shintaro Ishihara, flew to Yubari to cheer on his former employee.
A record voter turnout produced a landslide victory for Mr. Suzuki over Ms. Iijima, who stared dumbfounded into local news cameras. Pensioners turned out in droves to the young mayor’s first policy speech to the city council, some in Suzuki fan T-shirts.
In his first year, Mr. Suzuki has moved swiftly, abolishing the post of vice mayor and putting the resultant savings on salary toward medical care for the city’s infants. He is moving to sell off some of the city’s bad investments, like Melon Castle, a liquor brewery that sits abandoned in the Yubari foothills.
“He’s just like a son or grandson to many of us,” said Machiko Yoshikawa, 64, a local retiree. “He is working so hard for Yubari.”
Mr. Suzuki has also pushed the central government to shorten Yubari’s debt repayment schedule, a move that would free the city sooner from the budgetary constraints of operating under bankruptcy protection. But with tax revenues also falling in the tough economy, debt revamping would be a tall order.
Chronic lack of funds has also slowed Mr. Suzuki’s progress. Postponed, for example, are much-needed fixes to the city’s only public clinic, a crumbling gray building that lost all but 19 of its 170 beds when the city’s finances collapsed.
Municipal workers, meantime, complain in private that Mr. Suzuki has so shaken up city hall personnel that its affairs are in disarray. Supporters of the defeated Ms. Iijima dominate the city council, blocking proposals and hurling criticism at the young mayor.
Critics cannot deny, though, that Mr. Suzuki is making his share of sacrifices for Yubari. He is not only Japan’s youngest mayor, but also thought to be its lowest-paid one. His annual salary of 3.74 million yen (about $46,000) is a third less than what he was making in Tokyo and lower than some first-year salaries there.
He was initially refused a loan to buy his home in a 60-year-old Yubari housing project because his four-year term mayoral term fell short of the five-year stable employment outlook required for new mortgages. And Mr. Suzuki and Manami, his wife of 11 months, have registered their marriage at city hall, but are unsure when they can afford a wedding. “Both Yubari and I have a mountain of debt,” Mr. Suzuki jokes.
“In many ways, it’s not my generation’s fault that Japan has so much debt,” he said. “But blaming others won’t get us anywhere. We just need to find a way forward. It’s the responsibility of all of us born into this age.”

Review of Kanji Flashcards for learning Japanese

Back in 2009 I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test Level 3 (which has since been reclassified to Level N4).  At this time I was taking courses at a language center that met once a week, the language classes were great practice for speaking, listening and, with the help of my Sensei, learning the nuances of Japanese grammar.  The most difficult part, in particular for those whose native language uses the Latin alphabet, is Kanji.

The most efficient way I found was to keep a set of flashcards with you at all times.  You can try and create some of your own, but there are some flashcard sets out there that are really superb

I bought these ones:

They were great! I bought several boxes in the series and I have to say they were the most helpful method of preparing for the exam I came across.  I kept these with me every day for the month leading up to the exam and spent every free minute flipping through them. In the end, it all paid off, I PASSED!!!!

If you want some online Kanji practice, check out this site:

Good luck with your preparation! Let me know how you do

Japanese art still struggles in China

Special to The Japan Times
BEIJING — Japanese photographer inri was just 27 when she saw RongRong's photographs for the first time. As she wandered between the stalls of a 1999 Tokyo art fair, a series on traditional Chinese wedding dresses caught her eye. One image, with a man and a woman completely hidden in the folds of yellow silk robes, reminded her of something. She didn't speak Chinese, and instead grabbed a pen and paper to scrawl the two Japanese kanji 黄河 (yellow river) — in reference to a river crossed after death according to Buddhist mythology.

The two art photographers were soon married, a relationship that not only nurtured a family with three children, but also brought about the establishment of Beijing's Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, as well as the genesis of Caochangdi PhotoSpring, China's only grassroots art photography festival, which kicks off its fourth year on April 21.
Uniquely suited to building ties between the Japanese and Chinese art-photography communities, RongRong and inri have done considerable work in furthering that goal. Each PhotoSpring, held in conjunction with Les Rencontres d'Arles in France, brings in a key exhibition by a Japanese photographer — this year it's the black-and-white photos of Hisaji Hara — and throughout the year the Three Shadows works in part to promote cross-cultural ties between the Chinese and Japanese art-photography worlds. Though they are achieving some degree of success, overall interest in Japanese art from domestic Chinese buyers is still slim to none.
At the heart of the problem is the lack of Chinese market interest in international art. Mainland Chinese art buyers are snapping up ancient works, from calligraphy scrolls to jade sculptures. The handful that are interested in contemporary art are mostly interested in Chinese artists. "If they're going to buy art, they are going to buy Chinese art first," says Eric Chang, International Director of Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art at Christie's Hong Kong. This, coupled with a hefty tax levied on international art works is a formidable obstacle for any foreign artist looking to tap into the Chinese market.

When Sueno Mizuma opened up Mizuma & One Gallery — sister gallery to Mizuma Gallery in Nakameguro, Tokyo — in Caochangdi, Beijing, in 2008, he was excited about the prospects of having a gallery in China's capital. Contemporary art sales were humming along at a fine pace, and the Beijing art scene was becoming increasingly international. Mizuma was aware that the contemporary art market was fueled by foreign buyers, but he explained that he was excited to bring Japanese artists to China.
After the market crash at the end of that year, however, foreign funds dried up, and so did the market for Japanese art in Beijing — prompting Mizuma to change his focus to young Chinese artists. "It's very difficult to sell to Chinese collectors. They only want Chinese art," says Mizuma, who is slated to open another gallery in Singapore's Gillman Barracks later this year.
While inri notes that young Chinese photographers admire the works of master Japanese photographers of the 1960s and '70s; overall, the influence of Japanese art on the Chinese art scene is small.
"Aside from surface-level borrowings from the anime-as-art aesthetic pioneered by (Takashi) Murakami, there is actually not much Japanese influence," says Phil Tinari, curator of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, one of Beijing's most influential art spaces. Though, he says, the global resurgence of Japan's Gutai (tangible/concrete art) and Mono-ha ("School of Things") movements of the 1950s and '60s is also happening in China. "A young sculptor like Yang Xinguang, for example, is in implicit dialogue with Mono-ha masters like Lee Ufan," he says.
But while the influence of contemporary Japanese art in China is minimal, across Asia and globally there is still a large demand for it, says Chang. Hong Kong is the largest market for Japanese contemporary art in Asia, and interest is also strong in Seoul and Singapore, he says. In the 2002-2003 art season, the first auction record set for Asian art was a piece by Takashi Murakami. At that time, top Chinese contemporary artists, such as Feng Xiaogang, were pulling in $100,000 to $200,000 tops says Chang. Ten years later, Murakami still holds the record at $15 million, while prices for Chinese artists have topped out at $10 million.
Murakami has set the bar for Asian contemporary art, says Chang. "Not just in Japan but also among all pan-Asian artists," he says. "We are trying to find out whether they can have the same influence as Murakami."
Caochangdi PhotoSpring takes place at various venues in Caochangdi Village, Beijing, from April 21-24.

Art review: Japanese art revival restores the peace

By Kirk Silsbee
The flurry of traditional Japanese arts and crafts in Southern California this month is not in Los Angeles proper. L.A. County Art Museum's majestic Pavilion for Japanese Art remains the West Coast's greatest showcase, but three unrelated Pasadena events form a fascinating cultural convergence. They signify a quietly strong century of Japanese-American history in the area.

After a $6.8-million upgrade, the Huntington Library in San Marino has just reopened its historic Japanese Garden. Previous visitors will recall the familiar crescent bridge, rock garden, teahouse and waterfall. The picturesque grounds have been something of a touchstone to Japanese Americans. New to the site is an actual Kyoto teahouse — Seifu-An (“Arbor of Pure Breeze”) — that had been removed and faithfully reassembled at the Pasadena Buddhist Temple in 1964.

Architect Kelly Sutherland McLeod has supervised the rehabilitation of an earlier transplant, the Japanese House. It's been the Garden's longtime centerpiece, reconstructed by master carpenter Toichiro Kawai for Henry Huntington. A Japanese national, his granddaughter Leslie Kim Kawai, was the 1981 Rose Queen. A dull coat of brown paint has been stripped off the building, revealing a warm wood grain.

The tranquil garden was a favorite stop for tough-guy poet Charles Bukowski after a day at Santa Anita. The ability to soothe that savage beast is proof positive of the site's calming and restorative powers.

The Pacific Asia Museum has a small but captivating display of 20th Century kimonos. A gift from collector June Tsukamoto-Lyon enhances the Museum's permanent collection. Mostly from the 1950s, they utilize and transform some Western decorative motifs in elegant ways that typify Japanese design. Kimono (translated as “thing to wear”) designs and craft signify class, aesthetics and dignity. The offerings on display reveal techniques as varied as loom work, hand-stitching, resist dyeing, hand-painting and plain-weave silk.

A fine tomesode-type silk garment depicts birds perched in branches. The black background mists into a gradation so fine it looks airbrushed onto the fabric. An exquisite amber obi dome pin under glass reflects art nouveau's influence.

A silk crepe haori (jacket) has a rich orange-gold ground with a spray of umber peacock feathers, splashing asymmetrically across the body. Art deco asserts itself discreetly into two robes: white birds hover around slender white branches on the indigo background of a full-length kimono. On another, celestial swirls of raspberry and gold randomly pattern.

The arms-akimbo displays reveal the full designs on these pieces. The patterns become all the more complex when they're wrapped and tied onto the body. Japanese painters of old depicted those visually clashing folds of design in intriguing ways.

Marking the centennial of Japan's friendship gift of cherry blossom trees to Washington D.C., the Norton Simon Museum will unveil a show of Japanese woodblock prints.

Assistant curator Melody Rod-ari spoke about it recently: “These prints are from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 18th century. The Japanese economy was good and a burgeoning middle class had more time to enjoy the pleasures of life. Publishers thought that landscape scenes would sell, so they commissioned artists to depict them.”

“Prints required four people,” she continues. “A publisher, an artist, a woodblock cutter and a printer. For every color on a print, a separate block had to be cut. Some required as many as 20 blocks.”

The perfect registration of colors on Japanese prints is a marvel of craft, making the April 20 opening something to watch for.

KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.

“Kimono in the 20th Century,” Pacific Asia Museum, 46 North Los Robles Avenue, Pasadena; through March 10, 2013. Open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Info: (626) 449-2742,,0,7727086.story 

'Colorful Realm,' 18th Century Japanese Silk Paintings Make Rare U.S. Appearance


In a rare U.S. visit, a collection of 30 Japanese bird-and-flower silk scroll paintings by Ito Jakuchu are on display at the National Gallery of Art, just in time for the National Cherry Blossom Festival in the nation's capital. Judy Woodruff reports on the display of the 18th century Japanese national treasures.