The life of Akasegawa Genpei is the history of Japan's post-war avante-garde art. His resume lists experience in all the major fields--anti-government protests, Dadaism, post-modernism, baseball, Leica cameras. Alright, so maybe some the bullet points wander off on a tangent now and again. But that's what makes Akasegawa worth talking about even today.
Akasegawa came to be on March 27th, 1937 as the second youngest of six children. Though born in Yokohama, his family moved frequently due to his father's job as a warehouse clerk. Perhaps this contributed to his chronic bed wetting--he remembers soaking the futon enough to ruin the tatami mat floor of his room--though he kicked the habit in junior high.
He socialized above his age group and showed interest in art at a young age. His older brothers and their conclave influenced him to take up oil painting in high school. One member, Isozaki Arata (1931-), would play a central role in Japan's anti-art movement before becoming an award-winning architect once the country was ready to put itself back together again.
In 1956 Akasegawa moved to Tokyo to live with his older sister. Here he had his first brush with political activism. The occupying U.S. forces wanted to expand the Tachikawa Air Force Base in western Tokyo to accommodate nuclear-capable bombers. When the military tried to force the farmers off their land, the farmers pushed back. Thousands of students, labor union members and politicians--along with Akasegawa and his sister--flocked to the adjacent Sunagawa village in support. Armed police responded by beating, arresting and eye gouging the human picket line.
Things came to a head on July 8, 1957 when protestors bum rushed the base. 23 were arrested with seven convicted of trespassing. The public firestorm forced the army to scrap the plan and later relocate the airfield to Yokota where it remains active to this day. The incident lit the fuse of the keg that would explode in 1960 with student riots over Anpo--the universally hated U.S.-Japan security treaty that allowed America to keep its boot on Japan's neck. The country had plenty else to be mad about in the meantime.
Consider this--Akasegawa and his peers were educated by an ultra-nationalistic military state that forced the country into a pointless, tragic war. When the dust settled they were told that everything they knew was wrong and this new way of life was right. Japan was expected to play the aggressor and the victim simultaneously. How were they to rationalize the contradiction? America fed Japan a new set of values as the people starved.
On January 30th, 1957 American serviceman William S. Girard shot and killed Japanese housewife Sakai Naka. Sakai had snuck onto an army firing range to scavenge spent rifle cartridges as scrap metal to trade for food. Girard probably thought he was doing her a favor when he blasted a metal casing at her with a grenade launcher. The judge certainly found no malicious intent and charged Girard with accidental manslaughter to the tune of a three-year suspended sentence--a slap on the wrist, really.
Poverty would underline Akasegawa's future works. In “My Father Vanished,” his 1981 Akutagawa Prize-winning auto-biographical novella, he ironically recalls how the younger brothers were bigger than their older siblings. Why? Because they experienced less of the post-war famine. Even as a starving child he had no idea how much trouble money would cause him down the road.
After his first taste of civil disobedience he craved more. In 1960 hometown friend Yoshimura Masanobu (1932-2011) roped him into joining his rag-tag band of anti-artists, the Neo Dada Organizers. The group operated out of Yoshimura's studio in Shinjuku, a white-paneled building he sardonically christened the White House.
The motley crew caused a stir at the Yomiuri Independent, an anarchic open space exhibit organized by the eponymous newspaper. Shinohara Ushio (1932-), the “rockabilly artist,” painted with boxing gloves. Arakawa Shuusaku (1936-2010) displayed cement drippings in plush coffins. Yoshimura shuffled the posh streets of Ginza as a mummy wrapped in promo flyers. Akasegawa contributed with a vagina made of rubber tubing.
What did they hope to prove? Did it matter? They were riding the wave of social unrest surrounding talks of renewing the Anpo, an agreement that would give Uncle Sam carte blanch to wage war in Asia. And the mass media ate it up, each news article and photo spread providing additional clout to what would otherwise be a gang of rebels without a cause.
The group disbanded later that year before their sense of creativity could be dulled by a sense of purpose. Many members went to the United States. Shinohara bummed around New York, splashing canvas with his gloves and building junk motorcycles out of found objects. Arakawa found writer Madeline Gins whose words became scaffolding for his conceptual architecture. Yoshimura would make surreal paintings and plaster sculptures in New York before being booted for visa issues.
Akasegawa stayed home to join fellow jolly anarchists Takamatsu Jirou (1936-1998) and Nakanishi Natsuyuki (1935-). They became the Hi Red Center, a name that suggests moderate Rastafarian Communists but in truth was a portmanteau pun on their last names. The group was politically agnostic and mostly harmless, if not entertaining.
Absurd performance art was the name of the game. They rode the train in white face paint while reading newspapers with holes cut in them, went to the top of a building to throw items out of a briefcase onto the city below, scrubbed the streets clean in white lab coats to prep for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. They held private stunts in public spaces and never bothered to advertise. All they had to do was show up and the media created all the hype for them. They were Internet trolls of an analog age and got their lulz all the same.
The fun came to an end in 1964 when Akasegawa found himself on trial for fraud. The previous year he had printed a hand-drawn copy of a 1000 yen bill--not a forgery, but a "model," as he described the one-sided monochrome imitation--as an invitation to a personal art exhibit mailed to associates as a gag.
He would have gotten away with it if not for a mook published by the aptly-named Criminal League, a student group at Waseda University studying Russian literature. "Red Balloon, or Night of the Wolf" printed the bill along with a series of uncensored bodyscape photos by Yoshioka Yasuhiro--cinematographer for art film greats Teshigahara Hiroshi (1927-2001) and Oshima Nagisa (1932-2013)--and when police got wise to the "criminally obscene" photos, Akasegawa became guilty by association.
On to the trial: the judge simply could not understand what this "avant-garde" silliness was all about so the defense called in expert witnesses--members and associates of the Hi Red Center! They expounded on the difference between art and Art. They brought actual art objects as evidence to transform the courtroom into an installation.
The prosecution argued Akasegawa manufactured an item that may be "confused" for currency. Akasegawa shot back with another art object, a series of photographs of the bill taken at various exposure levels, from pitch black to pure white. "At what point does the item become 'confusing?'" he retorted. The prosecution did not respond.
Still, the judge was not convinced. The Tokyo District Court found Akasegawa guilty and sentenced him to three months incarceration with one year probation--arguably more severe than what Girard got for murder. Akasegawa appealed to the Supreme Court but they dismissed his case in 1970.
He quietly did his time but not before crafting his masterpiece, the 0 yen bill. This was no counterfeit--it made no pretense of imitating legal tender. It was absolutely useless--so of course he printed a stack to sell for 100 yen. Or rather, he would exchange one for three 100 yen bills. His dastardly scheme was to replace every paper bill in the country with his worthless 0 yen currency. Far more dangerous than a single-sided monochrome printout, wouldn't you say?
His post-trial output remained playful but took on a critical edge. From 1970 to 1971 he wrote a satirical manga, Sakura Illustrated, for leftist weekly the Asahi Journal. Its college readership marched on the Diet Building and barricaded their classrooms in protest of the Vietnam War. While Japan did not send troops to the conflict, the Anpo turned the archipelago into America's de facto aircraft carrier, something revolutionary youth could not forgive.
Sakura Illustrated exemplified the cheeky wordplay that would later propel Akasegawa to fame. As the manga's masthead details, "sakura" can be taken at face value to be the cherry blossom, the unofficial national flower. It is also an idiom for a shill, or a hired actor in on the take. A more nuanced meaning refers to horse meat, which found its way onto plates in the post-war years for lack of anything else to eat. From "uma," the Japanese word for horse, we get "yajiuma"--lookie-loo, rubbernecker--a sly bite at the self-proclaimed revolutionaries who flocked to rallies to be seen rather than heard.
Akasegawa ribbed the government, readers and publication in one potent zinger. He went so far as to call the Asahi Journal a wrapper for his magazine. He wasn't serious, of course, but what a great idea! Hijacking people, places and things to use as art, that is. It worked on the street with Hi Red Center happenings, the courtroom during his trial and now the Asahi Journal.
Akasegawa's next move was inspired by two men. First, Miyatake Gaikotsu (1867-1955), a Taisho-era satirist, journalist, cultural researcher and all-around rabble rouser. His most infamous stunt, a parody of the Meiji Constitution, earned him three years in jail but couldn't dull his biting puns and wordplay. The second, Kon Wajiro (1888-1973), is the father of Modernology, a branch of anthropology interested in the daily life of the average Joe or Jane. He created a field guide of suburbanites that noted defining traits the way you would wild birds, from variance in skirt length and hairstyle in females to mustache style and collar shape in males.
All these elements--word play, hijacking, urban observation--were cast in the concrete of the Pure Stairs he discovered in Yotsuya in 1972. The result, the Thomasson, best illustrates what sets him apart from his peers. Where anti-artists strive to challenge conceptions and destroy reasoning, Akasegawa looks to offer new perceptions and find meaning. Life was a game and in 1986 he established his very own team, the Street Observation Society, to explore, contemplate and shift its goalposts as needed. Marcel Duchamp, (1887-1968), the original anti-artist, showed how found objects, or “readymades” as he called them, could be art. Akasegawa taught us how to find readymades around every corner.
The world first learned of Thomassons through Akasegawa's articles in Shashin Jidai, a photography magazine that aimed for the sweet spot between hoity-toity photo journals such as Camera Mainichi and degenerate vending machine porn rags. His quirky musings were sandwiched between the brutal street photos of Moriyama Daido (1938-), tastefully trashy nudes of Araki Nobuyoshi (1940-) and infrared voyeur snaps of Yoshiyuki Kohei. (1946-) So when he compared a severed telephone pole to the severed penis of Abe Sada's lover, nobody batted an eye. The same guy would go on to win the the Japanese Academy Award for scriptwriting for Rikyu (1989), a period piece about a master of the tea ceremony in the Daimyo's court. Insightful, though never overbearing, his prose struck a chord with the public.
The average person knows Akasegawa for Rojinryoku (1998), or Senior Power, a series of essays where he argues that getting gray 'ain't so bad--after all, we spend our whole life trying to forget, and old people are masters of forgetting, so maybe they know something we don't. The breezy bestseller made him a household name and opened the door for further projects, including the Japanese Art Cheerleaders series where he riffs on art theory with historian Yamashita Yuuji (1958-). If Thomassons gave the abstract concept of art a physical form anyone could hold, then the Cheerleaders series took art from behind museum glass and into the hands of the public. Akasegawa was all about getting you involved.
As for Akasegawa's own senior power? In 1992 he formed the Leica Alliance with famous photogs Akiyama Yutokutaishi (1935-) and Takanashi Yutaka (1935-) to photograph their wry observations and show the public "the fun of serious play." For example, one shot shows a vending machine with an orange tree hanging overhead. The caption--"100% fruit juice."
Akasegawa was the first to admit his photos aren't very good. He didn't take them for fame, but for fun--and because if he didn't, who would? A photograph lasts forever but that moment on film exists only in the split second of the shutter snap. A Thomasson you spot on the way to work may be gone the next day. What will Tokyo look like after the 2020 Olympics? Only our "before" pictures can tell the whole story.
Akasegawa passed away on October 26th last year from blood poisoning. He was 77. Looking back at the road he traveled gives us a better idea of where Japan stands today. This gift of insight may be his greatest work.