Thinking about your job and the meaning of work through the “Hongo Employment Agency”

Event Reports

Artists participating in the exhibition, with the TOKAS Hongo building in the backdrop. From left: Daisuke Nakazawa, Haruka Saito, and Ebosi Yuasa

Tokyo Arts and Space Hongo (commonly known as TOKAS Hongo) is a place for the creation and dissemination of a wide variety of expressions that take place during the same era. It hosts exhibitions, performances, and various other projects. Since 2001, this building has served as an art space for many artists, although it was an employment agency when first built in 1928. The exhibition “ACT (Artists Contemporary TOKAS) Vol. 4: Approaching to Alternative Images,” running February 5 – March 21, 2022, offered a unique experience of work set against this historical backdrop. We present a report on Daisuke Nakazawa’s work, which focuses on the building’s history and relives the “employment agency.”

It may seem a little strange that the predecessor of this art space was an employment agency, but the social conditions of the time can be seen in its origins.

When construction was completed in 1928, the supply of personnel to companies had expanded, as workers, whose number had gradually been increasing since the Meiji Era (1868-1912), became more common. There was a rise in the number of young “educated people,” who received higher education and became salaried workers. However, Japanese society, which was in an economic crisis due to the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the Great Depression, was unable to respond to these young people. In fact, it was forced to lay off workers.

The city of Tokyo established this building around this time. The Women’s and Youth Employment Agency opened on the first and second floors. The Hongo Employment Agency, which catered to educated people, opened on the third floor. Both began finding work for jobseekers. Since its opening in 1929, the building continued to be used for employment-related purposes, with minor changes, such as an employment security office and vocational guidance center, until 1991.

The building when completed. (Collection of Institute of Social Science Library, the University of Tokyo)
The TOKAS Hongo website has materials that trace the building’s history. You can also view drawings and other information from the period on the VR.

The exhibition, “ACT (Artists Contemporary TOKAS) Vol. 4 ‘Approach to Alternative Images’ ,” by three artists (Daisuke Nakazawa, Ebosi Yuasa, and Haruka Saito) at TOKAS Hongo shows three different attempts to make things seem richer by adding the essence of imagination to past events as a starting point.

Ebosi Yuasa, whose paintings are exhibited in the first-floor exhibition room, is an artist who creates his works in the guise of Yebosi Yuasa (1924-1987), a fictional Taisho-born painter. His unique creative stance, in which he mixes his own experiences and historical facts in his works and establishes fictional characters from history, was born from his admiration of Franz Kafka and Tatsuhiko Shibusawa, and from his imagination of himself living in the same period as these writers. Incidentally, the TOKAS building was completed four years after the birth of the fictional painter Yebosi Yuasa. It can be said that he was an artist who lived in the same era as the building.

Haruka Saito, who exhibited her installation in the 3rd floor exhibition room, connects trivial events and realizations in her own surroundings and develops them into a space. In this exhibition, she focused on episodes related to changes in the building, such as the founding of TOKAS Hongo, its damage by air raids, and its reconstruction. The artist also links these episodes with her own interpretation of events that occurred in the exhibition space and in the artist’s own life, and expresses the relationship between these episodes through video images, historical documents, and fragments of words.

Daisuke Nakazawa, an artist who also works as a narrative activist and designer, presents his works in the second-floor exhibition room. Mr. Nakazawa was asked to create a work on the theme of this building. We are surprised to learn that his thoughts went back not only to the time of its construction but also to the Paleolithic period during the process of developing ideas for his work.
“It is my nature to want to explore the ‘origin.’ I think the trial and error of ‘human to work,’ which was the building’s original purpose, began long ago when people were making hunting tools out of stone and winter clothes out of fur. If they could protect themselves from the cold, they could move farther north to kill slower-moving mammoths, so they made cold-weather gear and tools. The thinking was very simple, whereas when this building was built and today in Japan, the situation surrounding the work is much more complex. I hoped to create a work here that would help people rethink the meaning of work, which is not just a means of earning money,” said Mr. Nakazawa.
The work, titled “Hongo Employment Agency” is an experiential (hands-on) work consisting of four rooms.

Mr. Nakazawa introducing the history of TOKAS Hongo building and his own works at the artist talk on the first day of the exhibition

Let us introduce the experience of the artwork with it as the “employment agency” and the viewer as a “consulter.” The consulter, who has made an advance reservation with the agency, goes there at a designated date and time. While in the waiting room (the first small room), the consulter is approached by a staff member from the agency. Prompted by the staff member, the consulter enters in the second viewing room, where they can watch and listen to videos of past consulters (actually, people whom Mr. Nakazawa has interviewed in the past) talking about their jobs. Farther on, in the third interview room and the fourth shooting room, the consulter talks one-on-one with the staff about the consulter’s job.

Meeting the staff in the first room, the waiting room, and writing a word that succinctly describes your work in a sketchbook
View video in the viewing room

I was a little bit nervous, expecting to be asked a lot of questions and introduced to the right job for me. However, in the interview room, I was not bombarded with questions, and the staff kindly listened to what I had to say, picked up key words from the conversation, and led me to the next dialogue. Perhaps it helped that I was alone with the staff in a small room of about six tatami mats with dark lighting, I felt relaxed and was able to talk about my work. There were many occasions to reconsider my work from perspectives I had never been aware of before, and even though I was supposed to be listening to them, I felt as if I were being “introduced” to my work and my relationship to it anew.

In the third interview room, I ( back in the above photo) talk to a staff member (back facing the camera) about my job. In the fourth room, equipment is added to this setup.

After passing through the interview room, interviews are conducted in the next room, which is set up in the same way. But as the name implies, there are cameras and recorders facing you. There are three questions that must be asked in this room.

“What kind of work do you do now?”

“What value does your work provide to people and society?”

“What does your work mean to your life?”

Although I must have talked about similar topics in the interview room, it was strangely difficult to be asked again in front of the camera, and some questions prompted me to think a little more. Even in a similar setting, the presence of the camera made me more aware of others, and it was as if a different me appeared, trying to play something. Mr. Nakazawa says that he is always conscious of elements such as theater and narrative when creating his works.

Three questions in the shooting room

Returning to the viewing room after the experience, you may notice that the past consulters had also answered the same three questions. It turned out that this room was an “agency to inform the way of working” by a variety of people.

As our work and working styles have become increasingly diverse post-COVID-19, it is not uncommon for us to suddenly want to reconsider our relationship with our jobs and the environment in which we live and work.
“Here, we do not really offer you a job or help find one. There is an experience that can only be gained with artworks in a place called an ‘exhibition’ that is not real. I and my staff members can never predict what kind of consulters will come and how they talk to us. I hope we can enjoy each other’s once-in-a-lifetime encounter,” said Mr. Nakazawa.

So, why not try a different kind of “job offering” at the revived “Hongo Employment Agency”?

Japanese original text: Nodoka Sakamoto
Photo: Aya Hatakenaka
Translation: Kae Shigeno

ACT (Artists Contemporary TOKAS) Vol. 4
“Approach to Alternative Images”

Date: 2022/2/5 (Sat.)-2022/3/21(Mon. Hol.)
Venue: Tokyo Arts and Space Hongo
Organizer: Tokyo Arts and Space, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture

*Interviews at the Employment Agency are available 13:30-18:00 on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and holidays during the exhibition period.

The exhibition has ended.