Watanabe, Sadao - by Ann Brannen
Beauty and Faith: The Art of Sadao Watanabe
by Ann P. Brannen
"I feel it is my mission to create Christian art for the Japanese people."
Those are the words of a gifted Japanese artist, Sadao Watanabe, whose prints are finding their way not only into the Christian homes and churches of his own country but into top galleries in the United States like New York's Museum of Modern Art. His entry in an exhibition of contemporary Japanese prints held in New York a few years ago won first prize. When James Michener was preparing a book of 10 original Japanese prints, Watanabe's head of Christ was one of those chosen from hundreds of entries. Such achievement is even more impressive when one realizes the keen competition that exists among Japan's art-oriented people. Tokyo alone boasts 25,000 professional artists.
Success and recognition seem to lie lightly on Watanabe's shoulders, however. His first concern, his motivation, is to create Christian art for his people. Not only Christian art, but Christianity itself has had an uphill climb in Japan. Today, four centuries after Christianity was introduced by Jesuit missionary Frances Xavier, and 100 years after the first Protestant missionaries arrived, only two in every 300 Japanese is a Christian. From the early days come heroic tales of martyrdom and faith in the face of bitter persecution, but by 1638 Christianity had virtually disappeared from the islands, and the chapter seemed closed. Japan sundered her tenuous ties with the West and all it represented. It was not until the mid1800s, two and one-half centuries later, that the doors reopened and the old edicts prohibiting Christianity were erased from the books.
When Christianity returned, it was still an alien cult and Christ was still a foreign god, a fair-skinned Aryan, an import, an outsider. That is true to a certain degree in all “missionary lands.” To become Christian in those countries one had to forsake one's own traditional religion (Buddhism or Shinto in Japan) and all that was tied to it in art, architecture, music, and dance. Often converts to Christianity became, culturally speaking, people without a country. They had to "find a home" in western cultural forms. Sadly, an African priest once remarked that, for a Bantu to be a Christian was to behave like a white man.
Until recent years Christianity has been mediated by men and women who for the most part were not deeply interested in local culture. They had one purpose: to sow and nurture the faith. Almost never did they come to a real appreciation of the culture of the lands where they ministered.
Watanabe speaks gently of those missionaries: "They were fine people, but their emphasis was theology. There seems to have been even a certain suspicion of too strong an interest in beauty, and we now feel our artistic poverty very acutely." Poverty it has been. A religion divorced from culture, without expression in a people's art, is almost unknown. But in Japan there has been practically no Christian art except the western form - or westernized art - until the last 20 years. “There must be something which more nearly fits the sentiments of the Japanese,”' Watanabe says. "My task is to stand within the artistic tradition of Japan ... Theology will not take deep root in the Japanese soil if it is merely an import.”
Thus in his homeland the artist works to reverse the old direction. One of his favourite subjects for printmaking is that of Pentecost, when all heard the message of the great things God had done, each person in their own language. Art also is language, Watanabe says. He wants people to hear about Christianity in their own idiom and accent.
Watanabe was not born into Christianity, but he was born into art. In a country where artistic talent is looked on as a great gift, his parents encouraged him. Looking back on his childhood he says, "I always had something in my hand with which to express what I felt and saw.” When he was 9, his father died and the son went to work, drifting from job to job. Along the way, at the age of 19, he embraced Christianity. At 22 he moved into the home of a dyer and became his apprentice. Today, he is married, has two children, lives in a modest four-room house in the heart of Tokyo, and is a church member. His wife and his mother are of the old Japan. They wear kimonos and bow to guests. Mrs. Watanabe helps her husband in the mechanics of his craft.
Watanabe expresses his personal and artistic creed this way. "I love beauty and when I became a Christian my life changed. What has led me on is my faith ... I work in a spirit of reverence.” "Genuine faith should naturally be deeply rooted in the world of beauty, and profound faith will inevitably assume the form of profound beauty.” "We should be receptive, not assertive. My artistic work can be accomplished only if I am willing to accept the grace of nature." It was at the dyer's home that Watanabe found his calling. He was overwhelmed by the beauty of the masterpieces in dyed fabric. He vowed that he would devote himself to perpetuating that ancient art, at that time in decline in Japan. He had already made another vow at the same time he became a Christian: that he would devote all his talent to the cause of Christ.
Now, with the dyer, he had found his medium, the old art of katazome. Katazome means “dyeing through a pattern.” It is an art that is hundreds of years old, with its roots in an Okinawan craft. Essentially a textile art, it had been adapted to rice paper. Its great charm and challenge is that results can never be foreseen. There is always the element of surprise - not chance but surprise. Watanabe says, "A picture has worth only to the extent that something more emerges than what one had been able to imagine."
Katazome is based on a stencil. For paints, Watanabe uses natural mineral and vegetable pigments - for paper, special sheets made from the bark of a mulberry tree. Often he crumples the paper gently, then smoothes it out, because the surface texture is important to the print. From those materials, which are cut, pasted, dyed, and dried, emerges a folio of pictures that is deceptively simple, winsome, yet vigorous. In their strong decorative pattern, they suggest folk art, like the Bengali painting of eastern India. They also bring to mind medieval woodcuts and cathedral sculpture. Their aim is basically the same as that of the middle ages: to teach, inspire, persuade. Their method is also the same: to couch the divine in warm, earthy terms that make the gospel credible-and possible for common people to live out.
There could be a zoo for all the engaging animals Watanabe has captured with scissors, brush, and paint. From the Ark he creates a sad-eyed cow contemplating the billows, an inquisitive squirrel poking its head out from under the roof, a dove on swift wings bringing back an olive twig.
From Christ and the disciples Watanabe depicts humility, a small grey donkey overpowered by giant flowers and birds. From the parable of the vineyard, two birds conniving to carry off a bunch of grapes. And from Christ and the demoniac, a quintet of disgruntled pigs hurtling down the hillside and somersaulting into the sea. The Japanese must look at Watanabe's prints with appreciation for the touches that belong particularly to them: the robes of the Wise Men, like the familiar ones of their priests, the crane flying along the sky, the abundant chrysanthemums, the branch of a plum tree in full bloom. But they, and westerners too, find themselves touched by qualities that reach deeper: the integrity of feeling; the delineation of joy, tenderness, and exultation caught in a few eloquent lines; the artist's own luminous faith.
In the end, Watanabe speaks not only the language of Japan but the language of all. He makes a common appeal for one church, one Christian people, one undivided Christ. He reaches beyond the mission he has set for himself, ministry to the Japanese people, to a ministry of the world. Genuine faith should naturally be deeply rooted in the world of beauty, and profound faith will inevitably assume the form of beauty. From Sadao Watanabe we receive both beauty and faith.
ANN BRANNEN recently returned to the U.S. after living and working in Japan for the last 30 years. She was a missionary there and served as an advisor and counsellor to International Christian University in Tokyo. She has been chairperson twice of the annual College Women's Association Print Show in Tokyo.