These are some of the influences and the thinking behind my work.
OIL PAINTING AND COLOUR
Japanese artists traditionally painted with sumi ink and gouache, which are both matt. I grew up with many traditional paintings on scrolls, sliding paper doors and screens. The first time I saw an oil painting was when I was eight and my uncle gave my elder brother a painting of Mount Fuji as a wedding present. I remember touching it and being very impressed by the rich colours and the invitingly tactile texture of it.
I was born in Akita, north Japan. I went to Tokyo at age sixteen and fell in love with the paintings of Picasso and Van Gogh that I saw in the Matsukata Collection. Later I discovered Bonnard, Matisse, Chagall and later still, Howard Hodgkin and Ken Kiff, all of whom have had a profound impact on my work because of the way they harness the power of colour in paint.
FIGURATIVE VS ABSTRACT
I am a figurative painter but not at all interested in realism. My work is about exploring memories and dreams, with references to Japanese culture, as well as oriental topography, poetry and philosophy. A lot of my paintings are set in the early morning or evening, and two of my main themes are travel (the moment of departure or arrival) and sleep.
Therefore the shapes and colours in my painting are neither purely figurative nor abstract, but a sort of symbolism.
One of the main reasons that I entered the Royal College of Art was in order to learn about colour from Ken Kiff, a painter I truly admire. I learned a lot about colour from him, especially about the infinite shades of yellow. Ken Kiff himself was interested in Bonnard, another great colourist, and both of them were interested in ukiyoe (Japanese woodblock prints) and oriental scroll paintings, for their technical concepts (eg lack of shadows, unusual angles and composition) and the treatment of man and nature.
Tatami is made of igusa, a kind of fine straw which grows in paddy fields. A tatami mat is always 6 ft x 3 ft. Japanese rooms are measured in number of tatami. We never walk on tatami with our shoes on. As a boy, I lived in a very old farmhouse. We had no chairs, so we sat directly on tatami. When visitors came, we bowed with our hands on the tatami. England is far from Japan in many different ways. When I paint on tatami, instead of canvas, I feel more in touch with the texture of my past. It's a difficult surface to work on, but it helps me to express my feelings about my past and my present life in England.
Last year, two apple trees in the garden died from a long-wasting honey fungus. I wanted to use the wood in my work and remembered an exhibition by the African-American sculptor, Martin Puryear at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2007.
Puryear works largely in wood. The New York Times wrote: “While rejecting Minimalism’s ideal of being completely non-referential, he (Puryear) said yes to its wholeness, stasis and hollowness, to sculpture as an optical, imagistic presence that nonetheless can’t be known completely without walking around it. Above all he applied the Minimalist embrace of new materials in a retroactive manner: using wood in so many different ways that it feels like a new material, both physically and poetically.”
One of the most remarkable pieces in this exhibition was a foreshortened ladder (Ladder for Booker T Washington) that stretched up several stories high and seemed to disappear into infinity. I found this work very inspiring, in its superb craftsmanship, beauty and suggestiveness.
I have always been fascinated by ladders. They are such simple, practical everyday structures. We had fire-ladders and fruit-ladders hanging from the rafters of our house in Japan when I was a boy. But I think they have a dream life too: they twist and crack, they are about adventure and struggle, living symbols of our upward instincts, our curiosity and imagination.
And I think that looking at ladders is a sort of meditation.