Mako Wakasa: I would like to ask you about Poku (Pop + otaku) and Super Flat paintings as well as your view of the present and future Japan and the relationship between your art and Japanese culture. […] In fact, it is a new phenomenon that otaku has drawn public attention, while you started paying attention to otaku a long time ago.
Takashi Murakami: […] The primary reason that I want to represent otaku culture comes from the public ignorance of otaku; most people dislike otaku because they have no access to information on otaku. I am one of the losers who failed to become an otaku king. Only a person who has a superb memory in order to win at a debate can become a king of otaku. Since I didn’t have that ability, I became an artist. There is a difference between an artist whose creativity stems from otaku-like ideas and a genuine otaku who can win at a debate to be the king. Most people do not recognize the difference. In addition, I thought I could grasp an understanding of present Japan by analyzing otaku. So, in 1993 I started to incorporate otaku into my art.
Wakasa: What are otaku like?
Murakami: OK. I begin with my latest discovery about otaku. I think otaku are discriminated against in this society. I read Chusei no Hinin to Yujyo (Pariahs and Harlots in the Middle Ages) by Yoshihiko Amino. According to Amino, the idea of “art” came from the West during the Meiji era (1868–1912). Prior to that, all kinds of art, including dance, music and paintings, were considered entertainment. People in the lowest class called hinin and kawaramono engaged in entertainment. They also worked as guardsmen for the Emperor. Under the samurai rule, a hierarchical status system of samurais, peasants, artisans, and merchants was established. The emperor was at the top of the hierarchy and hinin were rendered bottom. But, these two classes were mysterious. They are still mystified and nobody is willing to talk about them. Japanese intellectuals often comment that Japan used to have a discriminatory system, but none now. But, in my view, otaku is discriminated against in the contemporary Japanese society. […] Most of the newly developed cults consist of people like the otaku because they are so severely discriminated and alienated that they either choose to join these cults or create new cults in their desperate search for salvation. Then, when I consider what Japanese culture is like, the answer is that it all is subculture. Therefore, art is unnecessary.
Murakami: Yes. I am sure that’s why nothing new is coming out of the Japanese art scene. Neither my art nor Mariko Mori’s art are new.
Wakasa: What do you mean by “not new”?
Murakami: There is no new philosophy.
Wakasa: What about Poku culture.
Murakami: It is sophistry in order to market my work by doing presentation regarding subculture.
Wakasa: Is it OK for you to say that?
Murakami: Yes. Everyone works in order to make a living. So do I. I expected that some people would be interested in my art if I offer an expression such as Poku culture, since it is funny.
Wakasa: Even though your art expresses the reality of the present time, do you still assert that your art is not new?
Murakami: I express hopelessness.
Wakasa: Your art looks positive to me.
Murakami: If my art looks positive and cheerful, I would doubt my art was accepted in the contemporary art scene. My art is not Pop art. It is a record of the struggle of the discriminated people.
Murakami: […] otaku dislike my work. They don’t want me to reveal their discriminated status. Otaku want to be left alone because they are happy by themselves, when enjoying events for otaku (underground comic fairs) like the Wonder Festival or comike (comic market), where 350,000 – 400,000 people come together. Comike attest to otaku’s struggle to maintain their fantasy even though they become alienated from society. I think it is strange that neither students riots nor popular demonstrations occurred when the nuclearplant at Tokaimura exploded. Usually, when people resent injustice and inequality in societies, demonstrations take place. But, in Japan all the people who have such resentment become otaku.
Wakasa: Do they have no interest in improving our society?
Murakami: No. They know that they can’t get away from the structure that maintains the discriminatory system against them.
Wakasa: They have already given up, haven’t they?
Wakasa: Why have they given up?
Murakami: Please think about yourself. Have you also given up?
Wakasa: Well, I don’t know. I went to New York. Perhaps because I also had given up.
Murakami: I guess so. Most Japanese have given up. Since I’ve also given up, I took a studio in New York. What I am trying to create is neither commercially acceptable nor sustainable in Japan.
Wakasa: Are there any collectors in Japan?
Murakami: The difference about art consumption between Japan and New York is that it is a hobby in Japan, while it is an ideology for creating culture in New York.
Wakasa: You never said anything like that during your interviews in the past.
Murakami: I did. But, the media didn’t print it because they were not interested in it. But I don’t care. It’s fine with me. That’s the way of consumption in Japan. On the other hand, I think I should continue to propagate against it so that the media feels guilty. Japanese media failed to inform people that the accident at Tokaimura was the fifth worst nuclear accident in the world. Farmers who lived within five hundred meters from the accident have already returned to the normal life.
Wakasa: Why was there no coverage?
Murakami: It was a kind of news blackout by telling that it was not serious. I think the Tokaimura nuclear accident is one of the worst disasters after the World War II. It was as harmful as Aum Cult’s gas attack in Japan. The Japanese government suppressed the truth. I’m afraid many people will be dying because of the nuclear accident. I learned about the accident from the news in New York, although no Japanese newspapers carried it. I also read through the Internet. Most Japanese don’t bother to get such information. Even if they do, they would not be galvanized into action because they don’t believe that their action would affect any changes.
Wakasa: In the beginning, making art was a personal matter for you?
Murakami: I wanted to be commercially successful. I just wanted to make a living in the “entertainment” world, but since then my motivation has changed.
Murakami: What I have done so far was to make a living. And I was highly strategic about what kind of paintings I should make for that purpose. Even this interview could be considered good for business.
Wakasa: Now, aren’t you contradicting yourself? You said you expressed yourself in your art.
Murakami: Only those artists who have an ability in marketing can survive in the art world. Damien Hirst is a good example. Through his art, you can see the process of how an artist can survive in the art world. First of all, distinctively situate his/her position in art history. Second, articulate what the beauty of his/her art is. Next, sexuality. Then, death. Present what he/she finds in death. If an artist aptly rotates this cycle, he/she can survive. Damien Hirst has been repeating the cycle of birth, death, love, sex and beauty.
Wakasa: Doesn’t every artist try to repeat that cycle?
Murakami: Yes. That’s why Picasso has been continuously consumed as well as Warhol. This attests that artists that have a sense of the market make the best of the rotation. The reason why Matthew Barney is not doing well is that the style of his works remains similar. In addition, he couldn’t make an effective presentation in the theme of death. On the other hand, Damien Hirst expressed death so successfully by slicing cows that viewers understood him. He also succeeded in expressing beauty with his dot paintings.
Wakasa: But even though artists know marketing well, they don’t necessarily become successful.
Murakami: Of course, not. It depends on talent of an artist.
Wakasa: All your projects were very successful.
Murakami: Because I conducted research about the art market. There are examples of what an artist should do at a certain age. If someone wants to survive in any field, he or she should conduct research about the field he or she belongs to. But, most people don’t bother.
Wakasa: But taste should also be reflected in art.
Murakami: Yes, otherwise there is no reality in it.
Wakasa: In your case, your taste happens to fit your strategy.
Murakami: The reason why my art is not popular …
Wakasa: It is popular.
Murakami: No. In my prospect, I should have been as popular as Damien Hirst and should have been put on a cover of an art magazine like Rirkrit Tiravanija. In fact, I wasn’t. It was the limitation of my talent. I know how to present my work, but in order to be very successful, an artist has to break through a thin membrane. It takes another talent.
Wakasa: You said earlier that there are people who feel saved by your work. Who are they? I like your work but I don’t feel saved by it.
Murakami: Yes. Recently more girls are becoming otaku. I think it is because there is hopelessness in Japan. It’s a closed world with no way out. So, they have to live in a fantasy. I also escape from reality. I feel as if I were a former-samurai sculptor of Buddhist statues in Osamu Tezuka’s manga Hi no Tori (Fire Bird). In the manga, the samurai kills so many people without knowing what he is or why wants to live. But when he happens to curve a wooden statue, people around him are so impressed with it. A priest finds a talent in him and encourages him to pursue the career. Then, his talent blossoms and he becomes a great artist. I think an artist is a person like him. It’s a minimum resistance by a person who dares resist against his or her nihilistic perception: I cannot change anything. Therefore, people who have given up resistance find security when they look at art made by a person who is still resisting. They can have a fantasy that they might be able to resist, too. This is the role of the artist . That’s why I am making art.
Murakami: For them it’s truly a salvation. It’s the same as the Shingon sect gave in old times. People get together at comike because they think a truth exists there. Because I have been studying otaku for a long time, I have a solid understanding by now. However, you cannot understand otaku by merely looking at the surface. Even people who come to comike themselves don’t want to accept the reality that they are suffering from atopic dermatitis.
Wakasa: Although you are trying to make a positive contribution to the society through art, you seem to have given up improving the situation in Japan.
Murakami: Yes. I think there will be a revolution in Japan within fifty years.
Wakasa: Because there will be a limit of endurance?
Murakami: There will be a peak. The Japanese definitely will make a revolution. It’s not a war against foreign countries but a civil war such as Meiji Restoration. Unfortunately I don’t know so much about economy and politics. However, when I look at Japan from top to bottom as an “outcast,” I guess the revolution will be unavoidable. This is because I am very happy now. In fact, it is quite abnormal that an outcast like me is happier than others.
Wakasa: I didn’t perceive from the published materials about you that you are such a political person.
Murakami: I think there should be a strong dark emotion within an artist in order to continuously create powerful works. I am making a catalog of the exhibition entitled “Super Flat” at Parco Gallery. It will be bilingual. The exhibition will travel the world. I curated it, including sculptures and comics. In addition, for promotion, I am conducting a series of dialogues on the magazine, Kokoku Hihyo. The first series includes me, Mr. Toshimichi Otsuki, a producer of Evangelion, and Hiroki Azuma, the philosopher who is familiar with otaku. I would like you to read the journal because I am stating discrimination in Japan from the viewpoint as an otaku. Being as an otaku, I can be a catalyst.
* Otaku is an obsessive fan or collector of anime, the Japanese animations based on manga. For more information on otaku and Takashi Murakami, visit the artist’s website.
Murakami Studio, Brooklyn, N.Y., February 24, 2000
Mako Wakasa and Naomi Ginoza for Journal of Contemporary Art