Yoshio Shirakawa

A translation by One Cut One Bow of the interview of Yoshio Shirakawa by Ren Fukuzumi & Meruro Washida
This translation is based on the original Japanese text from:
The Oral History Archives of Japanese Art

Accessed on 26th Jan 2016

Notes from One Cut One Bow are in italics

Yoshio Shirakawa Oral History, 23 August 2010

At Yoshio Shirakawa’s studio.

Interviewers: Ren Fukuzumi and Meruro Washida

Published: 28 October 2012

Updated: 5 September 2013

Yoshio Shirakawa (1948 ~ )


Born in Kitakyushu city. Moved to France to study philosophy but abandoned it. Attended Kunstakademie Düsseldorf to study art. During his stay there, he did performances at various places and organised the exhibition “Japanese Dada, 1920-1970”. He returned to the country in 1983 and while teaching art in Gunma, he has been making 3-dimensional works, paintings and performances. With a focus on respecting the community, he established “Place Gunma” in 1993 as well as published “Art, Minorities, Practice”, “Museum, Zoo, Psychiatric Institution”, etc. During the interview, Shirakawa described his art experiences in small European cities that influenced his activities with the community.

Washida: You were born in Tobata, Kitakyushu in 1948. When did you leave Kitakyushu?

Shirakawa: I was in Tobata till 1970.

Washida: You were in Tobata while you were in Japan?

Shirakawa: Yes, while I was in Japan, I was always in Tobata and never lived in other cities.

Washida: Did you start becoming interested in art while you were a high school student?

Shirakawa: I was not interested in art at that time. I had never seen exhibitions in my neighbourhood. But my mother liked art. My father was born in Kotohira in Shikoku and began working in Kitakyushu since going there as an apprentice.

Washida: What kind of work was he doing?

Shirakawa: My father started as an apprentice and was allowed to start a small store using the name of his master. Both my father and mother only went to elementary school. My mother quite liked art and encouraged me to draw pictures. Since around the time I started going to primary school, I went to Kokura every Sunday to learn painting. The place was called Kajimachi where there was still something like a Samurai Residence back when I was an elementary school student, and we learnt painting on Sundays in a small temple (note: Shofukuji) there.

Washida: It was like learning in a painting class together with other children?

Shirakawa: Yes. It was a painting class run by a painter in Kokura. Coincidentally, I think Ogai Mori used to live next to the temple that we went to.

Fukuzumi: That’s super close to SOAP.

Shirakawa: Children from the neighbourhood as well as junior high and high school students gathered there to learn painting. It was not organised by the people from the temple and they were just lending the space. There was a local painting teacher who was teaching. Now that I’m thinking about it, there was a painter from Kitakyushu called Yasukazu Tabuchi from the Society of National Painting and was probably the son of the owner of an arts and craft shop. So, there was an art and craft shop nearby too, and that was the kind of area where I learnt painting.

Washida: Was it water colour painting then?

Shirakawa: Pencil, crayon, water colour, etc., but I stopped going and quit.

Washida: Was your mother working in a field related to art?

Shirakawa: My mother was helping out in the kimono shop.

Washida: So, she liked looking at art.

Shirakawa: Yes, so, I was the youngest among my siblings, and I have an older brother and two sisters, all three of whom like art. My older brother is good with his hands and very good at making things. Also, my two older siblings are good at painting and water colour paintings.

Washida: Are your brother and sisters doing something related to art now?

Shirakawa: My brother is running a small repair shop, and is kind of a carpenter, by himself. I mean, repairing houses. Renovation, by himself. My father changed the kimono shop to a western clothes shop to move with the times and when I was small, it was already a western clothes shop. My oldest sister she took over the shop which is in the shopping arcade. She went to Bunka (Fashion College), came back with fashion design techniques and is continuing the family business. My second sister went to a local college, but has been doing tea ceremony and flower arrangement since she was small, and got a license and all. Sometime ago, when there was an exhibition, perhaps, in New York or something like that, she went there for a demonstration of Urasenke or Omotesenke.

Washida: She was doing it like a professional then.

Shirakawa: Yes, as for my younger sister. Kitakyushu is close to Yamaguchi where tea ceremony and flower arrangement have been thriving very well. There are temples too.

I used to draw in this way when I was young. I was the worst, drawing pictures became less and less interesting, and I gave it up. Painting didn’t feel like it was that interesting. In a way, like an allergy, there was no point drawing, and I was thinking along those lines when I was in Year 5, and around that time, I gave up.

Washida: So, did you do sports or something else?

Shirakawa: No, I’m not good at sports at all. I was rather inclined towards reading.

Washida: You were reading a lot since then.

Shirakawa: Yes, I had been reading from before. I didn’t do sports much. I didn’t hang out with friends much either.

Washida: Were you reading things like novels?

Shirakawa: I think I didn’t read Japanese novels much. Among the books at home was my oldest sister’s “Complete Chinese Classics” by Heibonsha (Limited, Publishers) etc. I used to take them out to read. I was reading things like Chinese classics, the medieval European Reynard fables, history of science and world history books for children.

Washida: Did you find art interesting after entering high school?

Shirakawa: No I didn’t. But, when I was a high school student, I was into Rene Huyghe’s “Dialogue avec le visible ” (note: Bijutsu Shuppan-Sha Co. Ltd., 1963) and read all three volumes. I still have them with me. I wasn’t interested in art exhibitions.

Washida: Not so much when you were in high school too?

Shirawaka: Not when I was in high school either. I may have been interested in the history of the establishment of art and of its process of formation, but not in drawing or going to see paintings. But, back then, folk songs started to become popular and there were folk song clubs here and there, and there were people playing the guitar. I was interested in that kind of stuff, and used to go and see performances.

Probably as an extension of it, when walking in the city of Tobata, Kyushu after school, there was a person walking in the city and dragging straw ropes. So, I guessed that that was a person who does art. It was something like that. I was there watching for a long time and the person went towards the direction of the cultural hall where there was a poster of something like Zero Jigen. I remember entering without much thought and seeing it. Inside, there were (Yoshihiro) Kato and so on, who were performing something like a ritual, I guess there were, like, less than 10 people watching (laugh). They were doing different kind of stuff, but at the end they started to, like, engage in sexual activity on the stage and the light went off, and a woman, was screaming something like, “What are you doing!” and so on.

Then the light turned back on, with someone saying something like, “That’s all” and “Please come with us if you are interested”, and I went with them to someone’s home, I guess, of people from Spider Group who were with people from Zero Jigen.

(note: Referring Yoshio Shirakawa, Art, memory, life, Suiseisha, 2007, p. 56-57; Makiko Matake, Me-rudo no koro in Field, for the Caravan Plan: Yoshio Shirakawa 2000-2007, Suiseisha, 2007, p. 84. Even though Matake writes, “then a high school student living in Tobata” in her text, the Expo Destroyer Kyushu Protest took place on 3 May 1969 when Shirakawa was 3rd year college student).

Fukuzumi: Did you not know about the existence of Zero Jigen or Spider Group?

Shirakawa: No. At that time, in a painting by someone from, I guess, the Spider Group. I saw something like nudes from pornographic illustrations on top of a copy of a Japanese woodblock print. The artist showed it to me saying that paintings were being made in that kind of style, and I was like, so what. And that was kind of what it was like.

Washida: Did you go to those performances by yourself. Or with your friends.

Shirakawa: No, always by myself, I was like that also when I was an elementary school student, I didn’t hang out much with children in my class. As the shop was busy, practically no one was minding me, and I was alone. Those with whom I hung out were friends who were living a bit far from my home, quite a few were North Koreans. That was a period when there were still North Korean hamlets around in Tobata after the war. I had quite a few friends there and often used to go there to play.

Washida: Of the same age.

Shirakawa: Children from the same class but those who were living a bit farther in the outer areas, and those from the class next door. I would go there and help my friends’ families’ side jobs. Like preparing mailings. My family was working from the morning through to the evening and our meal times were different. I usually went to that kind of place to have my meals (laugh).

Washida: When you went to see live events or performances by Zero Jigen, there weren’t people from your age but only older people?

Shirakawa: No. No one. Only older people.

Washida: So, among them you were the youngest.

Shirakawa: That’s right.

Washida: So, you have been there many times since then.

Shirakawa: No. I don’t think I have been there since.

Washida: It was almost like coincidentally entering such a place.

Shirakawa: Yes. That was how it was like when I was a high school student, and since it was a regular prefectural high school, there were separate classes for those who wanted to take entrance examinations and for those who did not. Classes were divided based on the grades of students all the way down, and I was in the last class. But, in my mind, there was always some kind of feeling that I kind of wanted to do philosophy. But, there aren’t philosophy classes in high schools, right. The classes in school weren’t interesting at all, so I always slipped out as if in a daydream. When I was a high school student, there were, like, things in the newspapers that said something like, there is a Kierkegaard study group, for those who want to study philosophy by yourself, please come, and I went to listen to it. And it turned out that gathered there were about 10 people who were mainly older. Talking about something like, ‘There is a person called Kierkegaard”, and read books. I think people who were doing it were Christians or something. I guess I went there for about 3 times. Since I wasn’t that interested in it much, I quit. And then, bookshops. My hobby was to go around secondhand bookshops. I always went around secondhand bookshops in Kokura or somewhere close.

Washida: Were you reading philosophy books then.

Shirakawa: Yes. It wasn’t quite easy to understand, but I was reading philosophy books. I had some kind of idea of doing phenomenology in that field. As the idea did not fade away, I wasn’t serious in my studies in school at all. So, I was always at the bottom. The entrance examination got closer in my third year, so it was, like, what do you do. “I’d like to take the entrance examination for university,” I said. “Which would you like to take?” asked a teacher. I said, “I want to go to a school where there is a philosophy department,” or something, and the guidance teacher said, “You, what are you saying. All you siblings are weird.” That was what it was like (laugh).

Fukuzumi: Talking about phenomenology, back then, it just came to Japan.

Shirakawa: When I was a high school student, I was doing a lot of reading variedly, from Buddhist to western philosophy, whatever I could get my hands on, getting lost in my own fantasies. The reason I went to Strasbourg was because it was written that a paperback of Husserl’s phenomenology was in Strasbourg. Back then, from Serica Shobo, Inc or somewhere, the complete works of phenomenology were published. Because of these, I wished to go to Strasbourg, or something. I also read Martin Buber and others. In my third year, I was thinking of going to Israel, seriously, as I wanted to study philosophy with Buber. I was in this kind of fantasy. I was, like, it can’t be done in Japan.

Washida: So, did you go to Strasbourg soon after.

Shirakawa: No, I took the university entrance examinations, but I failed. I retook them a year later

Washida: Did you take them where there was a philosophy department.

Shirakawa: I wasn’t accepted by them all. My family told me, that’s enough, and I was told something like, anywhere is fine, just go to a university nearby. It was probably in 1970 that the faculty of art in Kyushu Sangyo University was established (Note: The faculty of art in Kyushu Sangyo University was established in April 1966. In 1967, Shirakawa entered the Faculty of art in Kyushu Sangyo University). So, my family was, like, you were drawing when you were young, maybe you might be accepted at a place like that. I was like, ehhhhh (expression of surprise, protest, or reluctance), you don’t have a choice, please just go wherever you can, otherwise we will be in trouble. I was told something like that and so I entered the university. There were almost no examination-like exams back then. Practically everyone was accepted.

Fukuzumi: Wasn’t there even a drawing exam?

Shirakawa: There was.

Fukuzumi: Did you study drawing?

Shirakawa: Not at all. I didn’t do anything that was for the entrance exam. I had never done plaster figure drawings or things like that. That was after I got in. Unexpectedly, since I entered the university wanting to do philosophy instead of art, I felt that I somewhat didn’t fit in well. Looking around, there were quite a few who didn’t fit in well like me. When I heard the stories of other freshmen, everyone was rejected from Tokyo Art University, Musashino Art University, Tama Art University, etc., or were re-takers. Because it didn’t work out, I’m here now, but wish to retake the exam next year. There were quite a bit of such hidden retakers.

Washida: Was it quite a big class.

Shirakawa: Yes, there were around 40 people in the class. There weren’t any among us who were enthusiastic, like, I’m gonna do art here at this university! (laughs). Essentially, back then, everyone got together as we had failed somewhere else. It was like this as it was the university’s first art faculty being formed. Everyone was complaining and whining, and I even hardly went to classes. I would take the train to go from Tobata to Kashii where the university was, which is located before Hakata. I would skip classes at the university and go to eat oranges by myself at an orange farm on the mountain behind the university.

Fukuzumi: Wasn’t there a teacher who taught philosophy at Kyushu Sangyo University.

Shirakawa: There was. A teacher came for ethics-philosophy as part of general education, but it wasn’t that interesting. This sort of subject wasn’t something that I would have been interested in knowing about. Eventually, maybe around when I was a third year student, something like campus strife started to take place. Around my third year.

Washida: Around 1969.

Shirakawa: Yes, yes. People involved in organising activities in nine universities came to Sandai (Sangyo University), and went something like, “This university’s got to do it too.” People got excited and there were those who were sympathetic and wanted to form an organisation in our university too. A senior I knew who was a year ahead, the sculpture department, as well as people around, were saying that we should do activities, holding a microphone or something, and sometimes classes were cancelled and such. It was also around the university festival, and during the university festival there were calls for proposals for essays on whether the university should be like how it was. I was stimulated and wrote a text which I submitted. The theme was Marx’s dialectic from Kant’s philosophical point of view. It wasn’t Marxism (laughs). Naturally, it wasn’t accepted. But you’ve got to do philosophy from that kind of thing, that’s what I thought, in my own way.

Washida: Was it a little before then, that there was strife in Tokyo University and Kyoto University, etc,

Shirakawa: I think so. I think there was a time lag before it spread to the provincial areas. In the case of our university, it was private, and I guess as we think about it now, it was a university established in affiliation with what is now called Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. It was a regional development. It was a university established with that kind of huge amount of capital, and I guess students who were doing activities knew those sorts of things but regular students were unaware of it, I think. The way money circulates in the university, improper accounting and those kinds of issues were there too. The protest got pretty big, like, the police came, and those sorts of thing. Among them, there were a few from the fine art faculty, both girls and boys, who were engaged with fervour. I wonder if they graduated from university without dropping out. Later, when I became a fourth year student, I wanted to drop out of university and go overseas as soon as possible, and I looked into a university in Strasbourg.

Washida: In your fourth year, you thought of studying overseas after graduating from university.

Shirakawa: No. I wasn’t thinking much of something like that. I wasn’t thinking about graduation or something. Like, there is no meaning in graduating by itself. For me, just philosophy, that’s how it was like (laughs).

Washida: It’s as if you wanted to go as soon as possible.

Shirakawa: Yes, yes. I think it was almost like a wild fantasy.

Fukuzumi: Did you distance yourself from the student activities?

Shirakawa: I did. My friends were doing it, but at the end, they were saying this and that based on Marxism, but taken from someone somewhere else. I didn’t refute that, but I didn’t agree with what they were saying. It was something like that.

Washida: On another topic, how about the 1970 Expo. Do you remember something about it.

Shirakawa: I think the people from Zero Jigen came just at that time, probably as part of the protest activities for it. Probably. Ever since I had been living in Tobata from young, there have been quite a lot of things like worker demonstrations in the city of Tobata and Kitakyushu as well. Given that I came from that kind of movement, I personally wasn’t excited at all about the Osaka Expo itself, and was like, why. I couldn’t feel that way. From among my memories, for example, I was going to Kokura to learn painting, you know, since kindergarten or elementary school. The train from Tobata goes down into Kokura through Hiagari where there is a small hill. The place in Kokura where the train comes down to was just near Kokura castle, and around Kokura castle were all American army bases. The Far East Command Headquarters for the Korean War. The places of the former Japanese army base, as they were, became the American army operations, and like in Okinawa, there was barbed wire there. It was another world.

Translation is ongoing