In a room where Emperor Hirohito and General Douglas MacArthur once posed for an iconic photo, an Okinawan "bingata" kimono with a military theme is now displayed.
Titled "You-I, You-I," it is one of the most famous works of modern artist Yuken Teruya.
Swallows, pine trees and "shidarezakura" (weeping cherry trees) adorn its white cloth. Its vivid colors catch the eyes of visitors to the room, and its pattern takes their breath away when viewed up close. U.S. aircraft fly over pine trees, and soldiers parachute down from cherry blossoms. Coral reefs spread out on its hem, with Henoko Bay dugong swimming in between.
This room in the U.S. Ambassador's residence in Tokyo's Akasaka is where the famed photo of Hirohito and MacArthur standing side by side was taken in September 1945, one month after the end of the war.
This bingata was presented at an exhibition titled "Ties Over Time" held by Ambassador John V. Roos and his wife at the residence in 2010. It featured paintings, handcrafts and other works by 10 Japanese artists with links to the United States, and Teruya's piece was subsequently loaned to the residence for ongoing display.
New York-based Teruya, 39, has been praised by The New York Times as a popular artist who pays close attention to the beauty of even the most intricate details. His works are featured in the collections of famous galleries in Japan, the United States and Europe, and are also bought and sold at major auctions.
One of Teruya's creations uses clippings of newspaper photographs displaying debris from the Great East Japan Earthquake, with numerous shoots sprouting from the newsprint. In another, a toilet paper tube has been transformed into a tree trunk, with part of it cut away to evoke the growth of new branches. The use of everyday items in these artworks suggests meditations on nature within delicate beauty.
Teruya is originally from the town of Haebaru, in the south of the island of Okinawa. His conservationist mother, Hisako, 60, would take him to the forests in the north, where he spent all day drawing pictures of insects. Her influence on her son's frequent focus on environmental issues in his art is considerable.
Meanwhile, his electrician father, Isamu, 62, took him along to construction sites from an early age, and told him of the importance of learning a trade. "Being good at drawing won't put food on the table. A thing is worthless until it's sold."
After graduating from high school, Teruya left Okinawa to study oil painting at Tama Art University. When he addressed the devastation of Okinawa's nature in his work, the reaction from his teachers was a chilly one. "Don't bring Okinawan problems to Tokyo. That won't solve anything."
It was frustrating for him, being unable to properly express issues such as U.S. military bases in Okinawa and environmental destruction. "There were times when I felt as if Okinawa was a burden."
Teruya wanted to leave Japan and contemplate Okinawa from a distance. This desire continued to grow inside him.
One day while visiting home, he got down on his hands and knees and bowed his head in front of his father. "I want you to let me attend an American university." After mulling over his son's request for a while, Isamu responded. "If you want to do this properly, don't work part time. We'll send you money, so you'd better produce a result by the time you graduate."
Teruya moved away from oil painting in the United States and began dealing with themes that were close to him. One of the artworks he created during that time was the bingata "You-I, You-I" that now hangs in the U.S. Ambassador's residence.
He was inspired to make it by women he saw at an event held at Shuri Castle in Okinawa before he crossed the Pacific. The bingata that they wore bore a pattern of "deigo" (coral tree) flowers and butterflies.
"I wondered where scenery like that could be seen in today's Okinawa."
The archipelago's beautiful coastal areas and lush forests are diminishing, and fighter jets pierce the sky incessantly. Teruya created his design out of a desire to express the reality of present-day Okinawa. The aircraft flying above the pine trees are based on the Osprey MV-22 military transport aircraft that are set to be deployed to U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. The artisans he asked to make the kimono all balked and became enraged. "Those people for who the bingata represents a revival from the scorched earth (of World War II), do you understand how they would feel?"
Isamu also felt troubled. His own father, who did not have full use of his legs, worked as a guard at a U.S. military base after the war.
"I'm here today thanks to the U.S. military that employed my disabled father." While he remains grateful, he also rose up in protest against them during the movement seeking the reversion of Okinawa to Japan. "Okinawa and the U.S. have a complicated relationship. What will the Okinawan people think when they see such a pattern?"
One of Teruya's former high school teachers persuaded Isamu to change his mind, and a craftsman who had been searching for new concepts for the bingata, Hiroji Kinjo, 43, agreed to make his design.
"You-I, You-I" won awards when it was presented to the public in 2002, and was also featured in newspapers and magazines in Japan and the United States. Requests to produce and present artworks began to flood in.
One day at a small-scale group exhibition in New York, a man gazed at Teruya's creation: a tree inside a McDonald's paper bag, made from strips elaborately cut from it. It was a comment on the damage done to the environment by massive quantities of discarded paper bags, and Teruya would go on to create many works like it.
"How much?" the man asked, and when Teruya told him "$500" off the top of his head, he wrote him a check. It was the first day that he succeeded in fulfilling his promise to his father to learn a trade. The same artwork is currently valued at $9,000 (approximately 713,000 yen).
CONVERSATIONS SPRING FORTH FROM ART
Seiyu Uehara, 65, owner of Gallery Okinawa in Haebaru town, was one of the first to take an interest in Teruya's artworks. "With regard to problems that generate conflicting opinions, Yuken puts himself in the gray zone and wavers from side to side. His art has the power to startle people at both ends of the spectrum."
His "You-I, You-I", hanging at the U.S. Ambassador's residence, is a perfect example.
"There are many different ways of looking at the fact that a bingata is on display in that place," says Teruya. "One thing that can be said is, 'Okinawa is sending a message, and the United States is listening to it.' "
"The first time I saw the bingata from a distance, I thought it was beautiful," says Susan Roos, the wife of the ambassador and the exhibition's architect. However, upon close inspection she noticed its military-themed pattern and wondered if it was appropriate for display in the ambassador's residence.
"I consulted with embassy staff and others, and decided that there was no problem with putting it on display. It is a work of art."
Teruya's creations do not have the power to solve Okinawa's problems. Nevertheless, he has faith.
"People express their opinions and conversations spring forth over this artwork. There is definitely leeway for the ambiguous world of art in places where political conflict reaches a stalemate."
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Born in 1973 in Haebaru, Okinawa Prefecture. Graduated from Tama Art University with a major in oil painting before completing a master's degree at The School of Visual Arts in New York. Gained recognition for his work in The New York Times and other publications. Frequently addresses environmental issues and Okinawa in his art, including pieces in which trees grow from paper bags and toilet paper tubes. His creations are featured in galleries in Japan, the United States, Germany, Britain, Australia and elsewhere.
Family: Teruya has a sister seven years younger than him, as well as an older brother and sister. His parents divorced when he was a third-year junior high student, and he grew up in both of their homes. Stepmother Kiyomi, 47, continues to send him money, and his exhibitions in Okinawa are attended by his entire family.
Solace: There is a place Teruya always visits when he returns to Okinawa--Hyakunan Beach in Nanjo. He goes there to gaze at the sea and pray that his creative activities will go smoothly. "Despite that, the sea tells me not to rely on it and to fix things myself, turning its back on me. I always thank it, then go home with my tail between my legs."
Hobbies: Listening to music is a favorite pastime, especially jazz and classical. His fixation with sound led to him falling in love with vacuum tube amplifiers made by a friend, and he has sold more than 20 of them to his acquaintances. He has also incorporated music into some of his own artworks.
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