A Journal of International Children’s Literature,
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019
Army Jeeps and Funeral Processions:
An Interview with Seizo Tashima
by Mayumi Hirano
Mayumi Hirano (MH): I learned about your association with Negros through the annual reports (Black Mail) published by the Black Artists in Asia (BAA), specifically the one published in September 1986. I later found out from a snapshot that your painting, which was featured in the September 1986 BAA report, was also used in a poster for a fundraising campaign on behalf of Negros. Did you make the painting before you visited Negros? Was there any difference between what you imagined Negros Island was like before your visit and the Negros Island that you encountered?
Seizo Tashima (ST): I heard about the continuing tragedy in Negros Island which was being covered up by Ferdinand Marcos, and I was also requested to contribute a painting for a poster. Thus, I drew this image based on the materials I was provided.
I had been to the Philippines twice but I had not yet been to Negros.
If I remember correctly, the first visit was to participate in an international art exhibition organized in protest against Marcos. I was chased and threatened by the military during the visit. I also went to the Philippines for a second time to facilitate a workshop organized by the Asia/Pacific Cultural Center for UNESCO (ACCU).
I made paintings for posters for the Negros Campaign and sold the paintings to raise charity funds in Japan. Some elderly Japanese men approached me and told me that they went to Negros Island as a soldier during the war. They gave donations. This made me imagine that many folks on Negros Island fell victim to the Japanese military.
I traveled to Negros with my best friend and singer, Kumiko Yokoi, who died in 2021. She was a doctor, actress, and a staff member of the Negros Campaign. We were a group of five, and the male staff led the tour.
The situation at the hospital and slums in Bacolod were as miserable as I had imagined them to be. We also visited a village deep in the mountains, and on the way to the village, we were frequently confronted by the harsh conditions faced by the sugarcane workers. We also encountered sorrowful funeral processions of sugarcane workers who were slain by vigilantes hired by their repressive landowners.
There was no assurance of human rights, no health protection, and even no right to live. I felt strongly indignant that children were dying and suffering from severe illnesses caused by malnutrition.
MH: It has been 35 years since your trip to Negros. Is there anything you remember from your visit? I believe that you started cultivating your own fields and farming in the mid ‘70s. How did you see the sugarcane fields and farmers in Negros?
ST: When I was growing up in Tosa (Kochi Prefecture of Shikoku Island in Japan), every household grew sugarcane and, at the end of the year, the different families would work together to squeeze and boil the juice so that the sugar would crystallize.
As my mother worked as a teacher during the day, we, the kids, had to guard the fire throughout the night. It was hard work for us.
As children, we looked forward to stealing and sucking the sweet and delicious parts.
I learned that the farmers in Negros were not allowed to own anything, even a hoe or a sickle. The farmers themselves were the properties of the landlord. When they were dismissed and forced to leave the farm, they lived in squalor without houses, food, or even clothes. They had no means to live. I felt indignant beyond sadness when I thought of the children who were directly hit by poverty and lost their lives.
While feeling strong anger, the vast sugarcane fields brought back many memories of my childhood and made me feel nostalgic.
MH: Looking at your sketchbook from Negros today, what impressions do you have? I was personally struck by the fact that many of the pages were used to depict mothers and children. Is there anything you remember about the local people and your interactions with them during your visit?
ST: At the hospital in Bacolod, I saw a young girl with a severe illness being nursed by her older brother, perhaps around the age of a third or fourth grade student, who had a milder illness. There was also an older girl taking care of her little brother, and both of them were severely malnourished. There were many different combinations of brothers and sisters, fathers or mothers and children. Before my visit to Negros, I had painted numerous images of a mother and child based on my imagination for the charity exhibition in Japan, and then I realized my imaginations were close to reality. I could not stop sketching them.
MH: Did you meet the artists or cultural activists of the BAA during your visit in Negros?
ST: I don't think I met them. I have no memory of it at all, so perhaps I did not meet them. I have no memory aside from the Japanese man from the non-profit organization (NPO).
After or before my visit to Negros, I visited the Philippines alone as a representative of the Japan Asian African Latin American Artist Association (JAALA) for the anti-Marcos international exhibition, even though I was not a member of the association. I still vividly remember the painter and sculptor who took good care of me during my stay.
MH: Did you have any anxiety about going back to the Philippines, this time to Negros, right after the fall of the Marcos regime in 1986? Did you also travel to other countries in Asia at that time?
ST: During my visit to the Philippines for the anti-Marcos exhibition, I was alone and, from the beginning, I was being chased around by an army jeep, so I was anxious. However, for the Negros Campaign tour, there were four of us plus NPO staff, so I didn't feel unsafe. We also often encountered funeral processions for slain workers, but we Japanese did not feel threatened.
Around that time, I often traveled to Thailand and I also visited the Ladakh region in India. I also went to Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia for workshops at the request of the ACCU, which I mentioned earlier. I have visited South Korea, North Korea, China, and East Asia several times for peace operations. I have been to South Korea most often. In recent years, I have entered Laos several times to work on picture books about forest protection.
MH: Did your experience in Negros affect your creative work?
ST: Actually, I was hospitalized for almost a year due to acute hepatitis A caused by raw food that I ate in a mountain village in Negros. I was an idiot; it was entirely my fault. I was in my mid-forties at that time. I had been working relentlessly through my 30s until then, so it was just the right time for me to pause. It gave me a good opportunity to make midlife reflections and also to look back on myself.
Shortly after that, I started to spend most of my time at the Shigaraki Youth Dormitory, a residential care and work facility for the mentally challenged.
I was significantly influenced by their art brut. I started to collaborate with the residents. I also started to paint on the amazing Japanese washi paper that they made. I spent about ten years joyfully making artworks with them.
MH: I believe that many people in Japan have read your picture books while growing up, and I am certain that your books have left a lasting impression on them in some way. Please tell us about your thoughts on painting, picture books, and art? Will you also tell us about your "spatial picture books" that explore architectural spaces and convey personal histories and memories?
ST: I always strive to make a work that surprises me. That is the best moment for me. The idea for a "spatial picture book” came to me when I came across an abandoned elementary school in a tiny village in Niigata. Buried in snow during the winter, the village is marginalized and seems to be abandoned by the central government. I decided to turn the entire school building into an artwork.
Up until that point, my works were paintings made on a flat surface, or at best, reliefs with some elements sticking out in front or to the side.
Suddenly, I decided to use the entire space of a former elementary school building. It was a small school, but still it accommodated 400 children. I was also surprised by my own work.
I also created Life of N: 70 years on Oshima - A room with a wooden pot (2019)on Oshima Island, off the coast of Takamatsu City, Kagawa Prefecture, for the Setouchi Triennale. This island has been home to a leprosy camp for almost 100 years, and the residents still live there today. N is from Tosa, where I also come from, and we have spent intimate time together over drinks. I created the work based on his life and my experience of interacting with him.
For this work, I cut out five compartments into the walls of the rowhouse where the residents used to live, which was now abandoned, and created a spatial picture book with five scenes expressing the painful life of N and the resentment that still remains. And just outside the rowhouse, there is "N's field" which is filled with bright red tomatoes. I wanted to remind visitors that I did not create this work as a document of the past, but as a depiction of the present. I was 79 years old when I created this work.
MH: Could you tell us about what you are currently working on?
ST: I am 81 years old now, and for the first time in my life, I am challenging myself to create a series of gigantic iron sculptures. This is the beginning of my second life. Ta-da-da-da!
MH: As mentioned in Norberto “Peewee” Roldan's letter, human rights violations, massacres, and unjust detentions of farmers continue to this day in Negros Occidental, and sadly, all over the Philippines. Many existing problems are exacerbated under the current pandemic. It is a very suffocating situation. I believe that this situation is not limited to the Philippines, as evidenced by the painful events that are happening around the world. Do you have a message for adults like us, who have the responsibility to make a just society, and for the children who will be our future?
ST: People are being massacred in Myanmar and Ethiopia. The Uyghurs in Xinjiang are ceaselessly being persecuted. I had no idea that such cruelty continued to be inflicted on Filipino farmers and human rights activists. I experience a deep sorrow about the fact that tragic events are continuing on this earth where I live.
Even if I am unable to stop these tragic events, as a human being and an artist living in the same era, I believe my mission is to make and leave behind a work of art that would speak deeply to the people who will live in the future.
How can I create works of art that touch and resonate with people's empathy rather than simply convey a political message as propaganda? I see this as my mission.
If I can make such work, I believe it will resonate well with children.
This interview was conducted via Messenger in April 2021. This interview was translated from Japanese and edited for length and clarity.
Seizo Tashima was born in 1940 in Osaka Prefecture. He spent his childhood in Kochi Prefecture. In 1965, Tashima published his first picture book, Fuyuyanomori, and held his first solo exhibition at Nantenshi Gallery in Kyobashi, Tokyo. Since then, he has continued to publish paintings, picture books, illustrations, essays, and sculptures widely presented to the public. In 2009, he created a "spatial picture book" by using an abandoned elementary school in Tokamachi City, Niigata Prefecture. In the same year, he opened Ehon to Kinomi no Bijutsukan. From 2011 to 2018, he deeply committed himself to a picture book project for peace among China, South Korea, and Japan. From 2013 to 2019, he created the works Blue Sky Aquarium and Life of N: 70 years on Oshima - A room with a wooden pot at a former sanatorium for Hansen’s disease patients on Oshima Island, Kagawa Prefecture.