miwa yanagi

Yanagi Studio, Kyoto, Japan, August 19, 2001

Mako Wakasa: You seem to study and understand Japanese women very well. In your Elevator Girls series you depict women in uniform who operate elevators in Japanese department stores. Your most current work, My Grandmothers, is a series of photographic and computer-generated images, in which young Japanese women in their twenties and thirties imagine their future 50 years later. They are literally transformed into grandmothers by special make-up.
First, let's talk about the Elevator Girls series. It seems that Elevator Girls is a takes on the phenomenon of young Japanese women dressing in the same style. Among young and even middle-aged women, following one fashion style is one of the most obvious characteristics of Japanese women today. It may only be a matter of appearance, but what do you think?

Miwa Yanagi: The Elevator Girls series was about myself as well as other Japanese women. When I started the series, I was working as a teacher after graduating from university. Back then, I strongly felt that I was just playing a role in a standardized society, having a particular occupation in a particular setting. I did not work as an elevator girl literally, but the idea resonated in me in a symbolic way.

Wakasa: Which way was that?

Yanagi: It represented myself and my circumstances. A young woman who operates an elevator works in a narrow, box-like space, which elevator girls call "the basket." They have to repeat the same gesture over and over all day. I felt that the Elevator Girls series was very cynical in the beginning when I started it as a performance, not as photography. I had a woman sit still in the same posture smiling in a narrow space wearing an elevator girl's uniform. I also had women keep sitting or smiling in a real-size elevator hall which I created.

Wakasa: The performance must have had an impact on people.

Yanagi: I did that twice. I also did a project in which I created a female museum tour guide. I hired a professional guide who gave presentations. I asked her to explain all art works of a museum according to the script and gestures I provided for her. I also had her give a tour to the real museum visitors regarding contemporary art in the museum's permanent exhibition.

Wakasa: Did the tour guide have to act as the person you asked her to be, not as who she was?

Yanagi: Right. A curator of the museum wrote a text on contemporary art to be used as a script and the tour guide gave a talk accordingly. But the original text was very difficult. So, she started skipping difficult lines such as quotations from other texts. Gradually, she started speaking effortlessly as if she were a tour-bus guide.

Wakasa: Gallery tours in New York are led by trained professionals but seem to be freer. Your emphasis was on the opposite.

Yanagi: Yes. I wanted all the tour guides to wear the same uniform and speak in the same manner.

Wakasa: You produced the performance because you felt restricted about such a circumstance?

Yanagi: Yes. But, my work was not meant to be all negative because creating something negative is not my interest. Through my work, I also wanted to express the feeling of intoxication. When the museum guides spoke the same words in the same uniform in the performance, the visitors ended up following them. The audience didn't look at the museum's art work. Some even left the museum when the performance was over. Like following the performance, becoming a part of a larger group by following others can bring a feeling of pleasure. I have experienced a pleasurable sensation in becoming a part of a group. I wanted others to see that.

Wakasa: I visit Japan very rarely. So, I only understand Japanese from their appearances. I see that all young Japanese die their hair today.

Yanagi: Well, appearance is important, isn't it? It shows something.

Wakasa: They seem not to have any problems with dressing up and looking the same as others. Or do they?

Yanagi: I think that they are becoming much less self-expressive. At the same time, even though they appear to look the same, their differences exist within the sameness. A difference among them is so minute that you may not notice it from outside. I feel the distinctions are getting more and more detailed. As a result, they look more similar because of the minute distinctions made within the sameness.

Wakasa: For the past couple of years, I have seen young girls putting make-up on and changing clothes in public on a train.

Yanagi: They don't do it alone. Well, maybe make-up, they do. But, they behave like that when they are in a group.

Wakasa: They do it as a fashion trend, perhaps. Not because they need to do so.

Yanagi: Right. It is a style. You have to belong to a particular group like Kogal (1) if you want to change socks on the train. Otherwise, you cannot do that.

Wakasa: Aren't you critical of that?

Yanagi: Yes and no. I am critical but if you identify yourself as Kogal, you might feel very good changing socks on the train, for instance.

Wakasa: I read an article in The New York Times about Ganguro (2). The reporter was surprised to learn that despite their strange appearance, their goal is to get married one day and live in a big house. They are not so-called rebellious adolescence.

Yanagi: They are very conservative. You know Yankee, a word used in Kansai area. Yankee is also conservative and traditionalist. It may be oversimplifying but I think Japanese culture has two currents, Otaku (3) type and Yankee type. Kogal is closer to Yankee.

Wakasa: What is Yankee? Could you define that?

Yanagi: They are like young punks in the old days.

Wakasa: Those who skip classes and race motor-cycles in the streets?

Yanagi: Yes. They feel they are outsiders but they are not. They still exist as one of the groups within the framework of Japanese culture.

Wakasa: Ganguro too?

Yanagi: Yes. Like Yankee, Ganguro girls dress and behave in an outrageous manner but their minds are conservative. So they marry early and wish to become good mothers.

Wakasa: They only care about how they appear to others?

Yanagi: I don't know very much about them but I happened to have relatives who are Yankee. Normally I am not interested in blood relationships. In relationships in general, I choose those who are similar to me or who can share common interests. With relatives, you have no choice. It was very interesting to see my cousins growing up as Yankee when I saw them couple of years ago.

Wakasa: Are they conservative?

Yanagi: Of course. They are married in the teens and living in local cities. It may sound rude but, I felt sorry for them. Because in terms of culture, nothing exists in local cities. You can find a place to work, but there is nothing much to do besides school and home. That's all. If you live in Tokyo, or other big cities where culture comes from you find so-called culture. You can go to clubs, etc. In local cities, you find a fragment of the culture as a product.

Wakasa: You mean in stores?

Yanagi: Yes, culture is transformed and found as a product sold in the stores. You can find products, but not culture. So you cannot experience it spiritually. All they have is stuff. The same can be said for information. They receive only the end of it.

Wakasa: Cultural activity or behavior does not disseminate to the local areas.

Yanagi: Not at all. Those who are conservative don't try to go out of the local towns. Get married, have kids, and they are conceptually tied to the house. They are not liberated form the traditional idea of the Japanese house system.

Wakasa: I have also read a New York times article about Japanese women who chose to stay home with their parents while spending their all salary on fashion?

Yanagi: "Parasites"? There are many examples in the big cities. They are from relatively wealthy family. They're close to their mothers, but pretty much ignore their fathers. They think it is good for the parents to live with them. They say that they are doing good deeds because they are staying with parents. Children can be 30, 40 years old and parents can be 70, but parents feel that they have a reason to live by taking care of their children at home. They stay home and spend all the money buying what they want. Prada or Hermes, Japanese women consume all brand-name products. The industry does best in Japan thanks to these women.

Wakasa: What do you think about that?

Yanagi: The Parasite is a very strange child-parent relationship. But, you as an outsider cannot say much when the family thinks that is the best for both of them. That creates a place to escape for children. Like child abuse which is happening in Japan more often these days, keeping family business behind closed doors helps escalate these phenomena faster.

Wakasa: It is hard because the Parasites are at the other end of the spectrum from child abuse.

Yanagi: Right. If they say they are happy. That is true. But I cannot believe they are not able to kill off their parents.

Wakasa: Killing off parents?

Yanagi: I don't mean to kill them literally. I meant to cut off parents mentally. You need to become totally independent from parents psychologically.

Wakasa: Tell me about your experience growing up in Japan?

Yanagi: Up until high school, I was an average child going back and forth between a Japanese typical high school and home. That was all and it was boring. For children, the family is everything and it is the whole world they know. In my case, the world did not open up suddenly. I had gradually begun to see the world through social contacts. When I went to take a class to prepare for art university's entrance exams, I met a young artist, who I thought was an alien. He had a great impact on me. He taught at the school while creating his own work.

Wakasa: How did he influence you?

Yanagi: His name is Katsushige Nakahashi. In addition to drawing lessons, he kept talking to us about his work. At that time he was creating pine trees. He talked about if he should use bronze or copper wire, or how well or bad he did each day. I was astonished to see there was someone who was thinking about making pine needles all day, day and night.

Wakasa: You had already made up your mind to study art in university then?

Yanagi: Yes, but I was just a high school student who liked paintings. I didn't fully comprehend. But, I felt that Mr. Nakahashi was living with joy thinking about how well he can create pine tree sculptures all day, day and night, compared to myself who lived in a very conservative household.

Wakasa: What does your father do?

Yanagi: He owns his own business. My parents are typical and wanted to have a stable marriage with the right person and have a promising job. So I was surprised to see, but attracted to the way Mr. Nakahashi was living.

Wakasa: He was pursuing what he wanted to do no matter what.

Yanagi: I was not thinking him as an "artist" back then. But, listening to him say, for instance, " I can die any time if the next work turned up successfully", I realized that people like him really do exist. So, when I went to university later on, I called him and asked for various advise.

Wakasa: I thought you were always like the person you are describing. Maybe you didn't realize that you also shared a similar characteristic.

Yanagi: No, I wasn't. I was a regular child. So I hope young people today have an opportunity to meet someone like him who will have an impact on their lives. I happened to have a chance to meet him but he was the only person. Recently, there is an attempt by schools to invite an artist to teach for one day. I think it is a good idea since Japanese education is quite boring.

Wakasa: I would like you to talk about your recent work, the My Grandmothers series. In this series, you deal with women who are free and have a unique personality unlike the elevator girls series.

Yanagi: Yes, but some models are from that series.

Wakasa: What is the process of shifting from restricted women to free women?

Yanagi: I used a lot of models for the elevator girls series. They were like dolls or mannequins because of my control. I switched to photography from performance art because I wanted to control their performance 100 percent. As a result, they became mannequins. In the process of making the series, I had opportunities to talk with models who were in their twenties. It was interesting. They want something for their future. But, they have hard time expressing what they want as if their desires were subdued or locked inside. It's hard to tell when locked. Japanese women today conceive themselves as someone who are lovable. They think they have to be lovable and liked by everyone around them. Especially young women think that they don't deserve to live if they are not like that. As a result, they don't talk openly about their wishes or strange desires even though they had some ideas about who they wanted to be when they were children. In order for them to recall their childhood dreams, they need to be liberated from their youthfulness.

Wakasa: Young women cannot express who they want to be at present because they are young?

Yanagi: Right. But, they can often express what they want to accomplish 50 years later from now. I think that occurs after they feel liberated from the age issue.

Wakasa: Does it mean that they don't care any more about what others think of them when they become senior?

Yanagi: Yes. So, the more restricted she is today, the more free and gorgeous she may become fifty years later in her imagination.

Wakasa: Is she only dreaming? Or is she willing to make it as a reality?

Yanagi: It is both. You cannot describe all Japanese girls in one way. There are many patterns. Some women imagine their future completely different from how they live today. Others are more closer to who they are at the moment.

Wakasa: You gathered models through the internet.

Yanagi: Yes. I have also used my friends or those who come to apply after my lectures. I interviewed women I never met before via email.

Wakasa: How many people responded to your internet homepage application ?

Yanagi: Not many. There are couple of people who apply through my homepage because the address is on the magazine Ryukou Tushin, which I introduce my work for regularly. But when I give lectures at universities, I receive a lot of e-mail.

Wakasa: Are Models in their twenties and thirties?

Yanagi: Some are in their teens. An 18-year-old high school student, for instance. The oldest is 34. I don't have a definite age in mind, so one can be much younger or in their forties. But I think if you are too young, like junior high school students, you don't have any realistic view of life. They haven't lived long enough yet. Many in their twenties are the same. So, when they apply via e-mail, I turn down their applications and advise them to take a first step in the real life before dreaming about being an extraordinary grandmother.

Wakasa: What counts in selecting models?

Yanagi: It is difficult. They all want to become accomplished grandmothers with expertise of some kind. But, in reality, they haven't stepped out from their small world yet.

Wakasa: What do you mean by an accomplished grandmother? Is it someone who became an expert by focusing on doing one thing throughout her life?

Yanagi: Yes, But, a lot of applicants wanted to become a grandmother who can create a loving family with her husband. One example is to live in a house with her child's family so that she can always listen to her grandchildren's voice.

Wakasa: Twelve of your works are viewable in your homepage. You wrote a text which explains each photograph and place it next to the photograph. In the texts, you deal with the settings which Japanese don't openly talk about. For instance, one grandmother who worked in the sex industry tells her grandchildren that sex services used to be illegal. You also show a lesbian couple. On the other hand, I didn't see any example of a grandmother with loving family or enjoying retirement with her husband.

Yanagi: Not everyone can be included in the My Grandmother series. My preference is definitely the key.

Wakasa: Independent women, for instance?

Yanagi: Yes. Even if she lives with someone else or a family, I prefer a woman who can stand on her own feet. I also prefer a woman who has opinions about current affaires no matter how old she gets. Those are my ideal women.

Wakasa: Simply speaking, getting older means that the time left for you becomes shorter. Your physical appearance also declines. It can bring a woman a sad feeling. What is the reason you created Grandmothers? Do you think you needed something positive in aging for yourself? Or is this to cheer up women in various social situations?

Yanagi: Both. When you have little time left, my ideal is to be able to say something about the future of the society you leave behind.

Wakasa: Any examples?

Yanagi: When I was in high school, I happened to meet an elderly woman. She was hospitalized and didn't have much time to live. When I went to see her in the hospital, she talked about a coming election. Of course, she passed away before the election. But, I was surprised to realize that she was seriously concerned about the future of the society after she was gone, even if she knew she wouldn't live long, and was physically restricted. I really respect elderly women or men in their 80's and 90's who care for others, and have opinions about the society and beyond until they die. There are only few people who can do that. They move me and I would like to be like them.

Wakasa: It will be very difficult to be like them if you are a regular housewife.

Yanagi: The role of housewife raises serious issues in Japan. Recently, there were debates about whether we should consider it positively or negatively. Feminists in Japan think that the role should be diminished. I think they have a point.

Wakasa: In what way?

Yanagi: One of the problems in the recent Japanese society is the problem of motherhood. The fact that mothers are housewives became very problematic.

Wakasa: Because they are disconnected from the rest of the society?

Yanagi: The future of the children depends on how housewives raise their children. You shouldn't jump into conclusion, but the issue has been discussed by Shinji Miyadai for a couple of years.

Wakasa: Housewives have their own code of rituals such as kouen debut (park debut) (4). It is strange.

Yanagi: Having little social contact can be scary. Those housewives scare me sometimes.

Wakasa: They have probably worked in a company for a short time before marriage. Do they forget the social connection? After marriage, their children, husbands, and housewife-neighbors become the entire focus of their attention. There was an incident that a housewife killed one of her neighbor's child because of the competition and tension caused in the small circle of the contact.

Yanagi: Their behavior without healthy social contacts are very problematic. I can see it in my own mother. She rarely goes out, and when she does, she is like a child. One becomes incapable of going somewhere alone or thinking independently. I think that is a problem. That is why I rejected applications from those who wished for a future consisting of family-based settings.

Wakasa: How about your version of My Grandmothers? How did you come up with the idea to adopt and raise children of various nationalities?

Yanagi: I have had the idea for a long time.

Wakasa: Adopt children?

Yanagi: They don't have to be my birth children, and it's more common in America. It is strange to me to emphasize the importance of the biological connection to your children, which can lead to cloning. The emphasis is on physically feeling the pain of giving a birth to a child who carries your DNA. The idea of surrogate mother also raises a question. Having someone else carry your ovum in order for you to have a biological child.

Wakasa: You wanted to become a global person by raising children with various nationalities?

Yanagi: Well, yes. Raising children will be very interesting, but I would like to start when I become much older. I am not interested in giving birth by myself in my 60's or 70's with the help of advanced medical technology. I would like adoption. There will be a lot of children in the world who have various talents but unable to develop them because of the circumstances they are in. I feel frustrated to see these children left behind while cloning is encouraged.

Wakasa: You deal with settings people don't normally care about in Japan such as adoption and a lesbian couple. Does the experience in the residence programs in Sete, France and Santa Monica influence you?

Yanagi: I had good times there. But, I was influenced by the experience living in Japan feeling different. I don't think I would choose to be an artist if I were comfortable in the environment I grew up in.

Wakasa: You appear to be always independent and go on your own way, but as you said earlier, your family was very conservative.

Yanagi: I think quite a few artists feel uncomfortable wherever they live. I've felt that way for a long time.

Wakasa: You weren't going your own way despite the uncomfortable feeling?

Yanagi: It's maybe easy to go your own way in America, but in Japan self-centered individualism is not acceptable without you being totally on top of others. Otherwise, you cannot keep on living. If you brake off from your family and decide to never see them again, you can be individualistic. But, if you like to keep a certain distance from your family yet maintain the balance, there are a lot of concerns.

Wakasa: Do your parents still tell you what to do even though you are successful?

Yanagi: Yes, of course.

Wakasa: They have been doing it for a long time.

Yanagi: You cannot change their opinions. I try to keep a distance and educate them instead.

Wakasa: Is it effective?

Yanagi: Yes. I think I succeeded a little bit.

Wakasa: You are very clear about where you are going.

Yanagi: Yes. But only recently. I had no idea how I can make a living as an artist in Japan. Think about current Japanese situations. Most galleries are rental galleries(5) and all artists have teaching jobs. Little information is available in Japan compared to America and Europe. For instance, art university students identify all galleries as rental galleries and don't know what commercial galleries are. I understand the situation because there is no contemporary art market in Japan. I made a decision on how to live as an artist after exhibiting my work overseas.

Wakasa: What made you decide to go overseas?

Yanagi: I was luckily nominated to be a part of a major exhibition in Germany. That was my first time. I think Yasumasa Morimura introduced my work to a curator of the exhibition. It was early 1996 at the Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany. Yasumasa Morimura, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Miyako Ishiuchi were also invited from Japan. In the museum space, my work was exhibited along with the works of Jeff Wall, Sam Taylor-Wood, and Cindy Sherman. But I didn't even know about Jeff Wall or Sam Taylor-Wood at the time.

Wakasa: Although you were totally unknown, the curator chose your work to be among the established artists.

Yanagi: I learned various things for the first time then. It was quite surprising to see that there was a great deal of media attention to art exhibitions. People were waiting in line for the opening, the curator was interviewed by TV and magazines. I also learned my work can be sold. There were people who asked me how to purchase my work and which gallery represented my work. I didn't understand English or what they were talking about. But, an agent of Morimura helped me negotiate with them and I sold my work for the first time, even though I didn't know how much it was sold for. Later, one of the exhibit's sponsors, an elderly widow and art collector, invited artists to a party at her house. She had contemporary art work in each room of her huge house. I had never been invited to such a party. Like me, a lot of Japanese artists were in a big group show when they were singled out. Morimura's first time was in Venice, for instance.

Wakasa: A lot of Japanese artists work overseas today. For example, we can see that Koyama Tomio Gallery is encouraging the trend.

Yanagi: He has good partnerships with his artists. Takashi Murakami, for example, helps collect art works for the gallery. The artists are very unique. They negotiate with overseas galleries on their own.

Wakasa: There are still not enough Japanese contemporary artists who are internationally successful even though some have become well known in recent years.

Yanagi: There is a wider gap today between those who make it abroad and those who cannot.

Wakasa: Do you recommend Japanese artists to go overseas?

Yanagi: Well, it is up to the artist. Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, for instance, possess talent to be successful overseas. But, including myself, it is very difficult for an artist to sell works and make a living. So, I can't highly recommend to do so.

Wakasa: Thank you very much for your time.

Yanagi: You are welcome.


(1) Kogal: Japanese young girls who are often seen with school uniforms, mini skirts, and loose socks. They also wear expensive brand-name clothes, accessories and make-up.

(2) Ganguro: It literally translates as "black face" and describes Japanese teens who wear excessive make-up including dark-brown foundation, a white lipstick and a white eye-liner. They are also extremely tanned and wear 8 inch platform boots.

(3) Otaku: An obsessive fan or collector of animation and manga, Japanese cartoon.

(4) Kouen debut (park debut): When a housewife takes her children to a playground for the first time, she has to introduce herself to all the other housewives who are already there in order for her and her children to be accepted as a member of the community.

(5) Rental galleries: galleries that rent spaces to artists for a cash payment.

Translated from the Japanese by Sachiko Kariya

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.