Christmas -- Images of the Word
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Issue Date:  December 24, 2004

The art of Sadao Watanabe

Printmaker used Japanese techniques to portray Christian themes


During the Christmas season, depictions of the Madonna and Child are everywhere: on postage stamps, greeting cards, even the Dec. 13 covers of Newsweek and TIME magazine. Most of these familiar images show a realistic, light-skinned Mary who seems to fit right into our Western culture. But we can be arrested by a new portrayal of the Holy Family, like the one on the NCR cover by Sadao Watanabe (1913-96), a Tokyo printmaker who portrayed Christian themes in a Japanese idiom. His prints have hung in the White House and the Vatican, but he was happiest when his work was displayed in the places where ordinary people lived and worked.

Anne Pyle, Mr. Watanabe’s longtime private student, said Mr. Watanabe was a “pioneer of the Christian faith.”

“[Like] all the famous artists who portrayed Christ -- Michelangelo, Leonardo, all the Western European artists -- he wanted to bring Christ to his people in a way that they would understand, that would speak to their hearts. And so he put his figures in kimonos. In the Last Supper … there was sushi on the table, and sake. It was all in a sort of Japanese setting,” Ms. Pyle said from her home near Seattle.

Mr. Watanabe was born in Tokyo. His father was a Christian; his mother was not. When his father died, he dropped out of school to care for his mother. A neighborhood Christian woman who taught in his primary school invited the boy to come to church with her, and he later began to read the Bible under guidance of Japanese pastors. A bout of tuberculosis left him bedridden for two years, and he prayed for healing. After a miraculous recovery, at age 17 he decided to be baptized, and his mother was baptized on Christmas day that same year.

He attended a Protestant church but also had connections to the Catholic church, especially to the Benedictines in Tokyo, who bought and commissioned many of his prints. “Mr. Watanabe was Christ-centered,” said Ms. Pyle. “The various denominations really weren’t that important to him. He accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior and simply that.”

Mr. Watanabe told his Japanese biographer that he was not attracted to Christianity at first because it had “the smell of butter” (a Japanese expression for an unpleasantly foreign thing). In his time, as today, no more than 1 percent of the Japanese people are Christian.

“To be a Christian in Japan even today makes you stand out,” said Ms. Pyle. “Especially in Mr. Watanabe’s day, the nail that stands out is pounded down. It’s still a homogenous society.”

John Sagers, assistant professor of East Asian history and chair of the history department at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., explained that Christianity’s lack of popularity in Japan is partly because it sets one apart in a very communal society.

“It is very difficult to be Japanese and Christian at the same time,” he said. “You can be Shinto and Buddhist at the same time, but Christianity requires absolute obedience to the one true God to the exclusion of all others. That becomes a real break with the Japanese Christian and his or her family,” who would be practicing traditions like ancestor worship -- taboo for Christians.

Seen as a threat

Christianity was introduced to Japan in the mid-16th century by Portuguese missionaries. Originally, it was successful in certain areas of the country, especially Kyushu, the third largest of the four islands that make up the country. The new Tokugawa rulers of Japan, however, began to fear it would threaten social stability and result in a Western invasion. Under the Tokugawa government, said Mr. Sagers, “there was a decree that everyone had to be registered at a local Buddhist temple. … People had to have a certificate from the local Buddhist priest saying that this person is not part of a proscribed religion.”

In 1612, the Tokugawa government definitively prohibited Christianity. All missionaries were ordered to leave. Many did not obey, but the government instituted a reign of terror, executing thousands of people or making them undergo terrible tortures to get them to abandon their faith -- a story told in the novel Silence (1966), by Japanese Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo. What many call the “last gasp” of Christianity’s power in Japan was the Shimabara Rebellion of 1638, during which about 40,000 Christian country people in western Kyushu holed up in Hara Castle for four months, led by a 16-year-old boy named Amakusa Shiro, whom they believed to be an incarnation of God, a messiah who would deliver them from their economic and religious oppression. When the lords finally stormed the castle, the people were beheaded and burned alive and the castle razed. According to Asian scholar Ivan Morris, there was only one known survivor of the massacre. After the rebellion, Japan was closed to any Western trade or influence for 200 years. During that time, Japanese artists flourished and perfected their famous techniques of ukiyo-e, woodblock printing.

“When Japan entered the modern industrial world in the mid-19th century, its leaders were preoccupied with catching up with the West,” Ms. Pyle wrote in an article for a catalogue accompanying an exhibition of her collection of Watanabe prints in 2000. “In its striving for modernity, Japan abandoned its traditional crafts as Western machine-made objects came into vogue. As a result, many craftsmen were put out of work, and their distinctive hand-crafted products began to disappear.”

The mingei, or folk art movement, was formally begun by artist Soetsu Yanagi in 1926 to celebrate the crafts and culture of ordinary Japanese people, especially the country people and their traditional techniques.

At age 24, Mr. Watanabe was working as a textile dyer, designing patterns and dyeing cloth for kimonos. He was drawing in his spare time and reading the writings of Yanagi about the mingei. In 1937, he came into contact with the textile dye artist Keisuke Serizawa, who taught more about the mingei ideals and instructed him in the art of katazome, Okinawan stencil dyeing, which Mr. Watanabe made his own. Mr. Watanabe sometimes made 200 prints from one stencil.

On crumpled, handmade paper

Mr. Watanabe’s prints use the colors of the Okinawan bingata, stencil-dyed cloths that traditionally appeared in yellow, blue, green and always red. For his prints, he always used crumpled paper (momigami) handmade from the paper mulberry tree by farmers who had specialized in the craft for centuries.

“When Mr. Watanabe started his work, he would read the biblical passage over and over again, and then he’d pray. I love the words from Ephesians, I think it is: ‘With the eyes of his heart enlightened, he began his work.’ He often talked about the whole process as an act of worship,” said Ms. Pyle.

In 1943, at 31, he married Harue Yoshimizu, 25. She came from a papermaking family, and made paper herself. She cared for her husband and their three children and her mother-in-law, managed the finances, washed the prints and prepared the soy milk for the pigments in her husband’s prints. She also came to share his faith. As his reputation grew, they always showed hospitality to visitors at their modest Tokyo home. (Mrs. Watanabe, now in her 80s, still lives in Tokyo.)

In 1947 Mr. Watanabe received the first Japan Folk Art Museum Prize for “The Story of Ruth.” The next year he received a prize from the Japanese Print Association. After that, other than a 1956 award from the Japan Print Academy, his prints received little recognition in his own country.

“For the very small Japanese Christian community in Japan, Watanabe is a claim to fame,” said Mr. Sagers. “I think his influence on the rest of Japanese society is pretty minimal.”

Mr. Watanabe’s work has always been more popular abroad, and his prints are well-known in many American Christian circles. He was first introduced to the West by way of a Japanese contemporary print exhibition at St. James’ Church in New York in 1958. Later, novelist James Michener, who had a personal fascination with Japanese prints, included Mr. Watanabe’s “Listening” (“Kiku”) in his 1962 The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation.

Michener’s 1954 book The Floating World had detailed the story of the ukiyo-e masters and the Japanese prints of the Edo era. While living in Japan, Michener began reflecting on how impossible it was for modern printmakers to make a living from their art. “Once I myself had labored at writing for eight years without being able to earn a nickel, and I had been as good a writer then as I am now,” Michener wrote in his introduction to The Modern Japanese Print. “Those who try to be artists exist in a world of everything or nothing, and I wish it were not so.” The Modern Japanese Print contained 10 prints selected from 275 submitted, along with Michener’s commentary on them. It originally came out as a deluxe collectors edition limited to 475 copies; in 1968, a popularly priced edition came out.

Heeding the voice of heaven

Michener called “Listening,” which is considered by some to be Mr. Watanabe’s masterpiece, a “full-fledged exponent of the international style,” saying that it looked almost like it could have come from any country at almost any time, except for its bold colors. Of the figure in “Listening,” he said, “I cannot recall any Westerner who has studied this print with me who has not volunteered the information that it depicted Christ.”

Mr. Watanabe’s accompanying remarks were short and simple. “In this disturbed world, I would like to be able to heed the voice of Heaven,” he wrote. “The person shown in this print is no one in particular but was created in this spirit.”

One of Mr. Watanabe’s prints hung in the White House during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Ten of his prints hang in the Vatican Museum for Modern Religious Art. Mr. Watanabe’s works have been exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the British Museum and many other museums. He taught in Oregon and Minnesota, and in 1981 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Linfield College, where he taught during the 1969-70 academic year. In October 2004 the college held a 35th anniversary retrospective exhibition, at which Ms. Pyle and Mr. Sagers gave lectures about Mr. Watanabe and his importance for Japanese Christianity.

In spite of the prestigious locations where Mr. Watanabe’s work is displayed, Ms. Pyle reported that Mr. Watanabe once said of his prints, “I would most like to see them hanging where people ordinarily gather, because Jesus brought the Gospel for the people.”

A 1977 article in The Christian Century reflected on his appeal to Westerners and his ability to communicate the Word, the message, in the symbols of his own place and time.

“Like his medieval counterparts, Watanabe communicates through symbols,” the author, Helen H. Merritt, wrote. “In some cases his symbols are the old ones familiar to all Christians -- the cross or the lamb. But to these he adds such uniquely Japanese symbols as the tai -- a much-prized fish in Japan, regarded as especially appropriate for ceremonial occasions. To uninitiated Westerners, the large-eyed fish may be simply charming, but to the Japanese the tai on the table of the Last Supper print brings the biblical stories home as surely as the blond, blue-eyed Madonnas in northern Renaissance paintings took the far-off events of the Holy Land to the doorsteps of northern Europe.”

“The resulting images touch fundamental chords that are universal. … East and West are drawing closer together, and Watanabe’s seemingly naive images penetrate to a core that is common to both.”

After the 2000 exhibition in New York of Anne Pyle’s Watanabe collection, an article came out in The Washington Post religion section, March 4, 2001. “The way the writer ended up the article was just wonderful,” Ms. Pyle said. “The writer said that Mr. Watanabe ‘was drawing from his passion for life, which was inseparable from his faith. And his faith was inseparable from who he was. God was his patron.’ And I thought that was so beautifully put, and that is true: God was his patron.”

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 2004

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