Artist Workbook #3 Sachiko Kazama

Artists’ Survival Methods

Sachiko Kazama at her house-cum-atelier.

As soon as you step into her atelier, you are overwhelmed by an enormous amount of information and energy condensed in the space. The owner of the studio is Sachiko Kazama, an artist who has made great progress in recent years, including the recent acquisition of her work “Dyslympics 2680” by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Kazama creates a scene from a story based on various things she uncovers from the past through careful research and turns it into a picture using woodblock printing techniques. We asked Kazama about her encounter with woodblock printmaking, the transition of her studio, and the establishment of her unique style.


Babel, 2019, oil-based ink, washi paper, panel
Photo: Kenji Morita
Photo courtesy of: gallery αM
Produced based on a collage created 20 years ago.

Encountering Taisho-Period Sosaku-Hanga and Returning to Jomon Primitive

──How did you become fascinated by woodblock prints?

My grandfather was a head clerk at an artists’ supplies shop of Japanese-style paintings, and we had books of Japanese-style paintings and ukiyo-e, which I often looked at. However, it was not the ukiyo-e woodblock prints that attracted me. When I was in high school, I fell in love with the illustrations of Taisho-period poetry books by poets like Sakutaro Hagiwara and Hakushu Kitahara. Although the illustrations for the poetry books and ukiyo-e are both woodblock prints, they are completely different. The Taisho-period works are called sosaku-hanga (creative prints), which engrave imagined landscapes on blocks. I was surprised and inspired to see such an expression and wanted to try it myself.

──Did you start producing works in high school?

No. At the part-time high school I attended, the art teacher specialized in woodcarving, I think, and the name of the course was “woodcarving,” not “art” (laughs). We used chisels, but we created wooden sculptures, not woodblock prints. It wasn’t until after graduating from high school and entering Musashino Bijutsu Gakuen (closed in 2018) that I learned printmaking in earnest. Back then, I could only think of art universities to study printmaking, but when I read akahon (a book containing past entrance exams for a university) my mother bought me, I had no idea what was written. I gave up on art universities and looked for other schools. In the end, I found Musashino Bijutsu Gakuen, which only required an interview to get in.

Kazama has been using the same kind of tools, although they have been renewed, since her student days.

──What kind of artwork did you create while at Musashino Bijutsu Gakuen?

At first, I was making prints in lyrical and chic Taisho Modernism style. After that, I got into Rokuro-Taniuchi-style images. Although I enjoyed making them, my prints were nothing more than imitations, and I soon hit the wall. My instructor saw it, too, and told me, “I don’t think they are what you want to create. You should be more honest with yourself.” He hit the nail on the head. I decided to face myself squarely without escaping into the world of lyricism. I was around 20 years old.

The school had many students like me, a little different and kind of misfits, so it was easier for me to fit in. But, up until then, I was somewhat socially withdrawn and wasn’t going to school, feeling oppressed by society and out of place. As I looked back to my past, I realized that my feeling of discomfort was toward the rationalized and packaged human-centered system and the consumer society.
For example, when I was in kindergarten, I felt doubts about meat and have not been able to eat it since. In today’s consumer society, we are able to eat meat because it is presented as a nicely packaged commodity. I thought if we could imagine an animal before it was processed, then there was no way anyone could consume it. But in the primitive worldview, people respected animals’ lives as they hunted for them and prayed for the lives they received. I empathized with the primitive, and my consciousness went all the way back from Taisho Modernism to the Jomon period. I wondered if I could center my work on the primitive values and worldview of the Jomon to criticize modern society. It was the beginning of the theme I continue to explore to date.

──You found the long-term theme while studying at the school.

But, the school had no role models for a contemporary artist. After graduation, I watched and copied what others did and managed to make my debut by showing my works at a rental gallery, but I didn’t know how to become an artist who could exhibit at a museum. I was groping my way through the process.

GOLDEN WEEKEND, 1996, woodblock print: sumi ink, washi paper, panel
Photo: Ken Kato
Photo courtesy of: Yokohama Civic Art Gallery Azamino
The work was produced as thesis project at Musashino Bijutsu Gakuen and shown at the artist’s first solo exhibition.

Unchanged Size and Production Style Since Small Apartment Days

──What was your work environment like after graduation? Your current atelier seems very minimalistic compared to the size of your works and the expansiveness of your imagination.

After I graduated from school, I rented and works at a shabby 6-tatami-mat-sized (about 11 square meters) apartment with the money I earned from my part-time job. This is where my lifestyle of working in a small space surrounded by my favorite things started. Even now, I work in two rooms, one with four and a half mats and one with six mats. I feel more at home in a small space.
I rented my first atelier for about five years, and when I got married, I moved out and moved my atelier to my home. I worked there for 13 years before getting divorced and moving here. I’ve been here for ten years already.

Kazama demonstrating how she works at her usual position in the four-and-a-half-tatami-mat atelier.

This room is ideal, as every single item belongs to me. I can no longer think of any other place to work in. I especially like this square, four-and-a-half-tatami-mat-sized space. It reminds me of Hojoki (An Account of My Hut) by Kamo no Chomei, surrounded only by my favorite things... Well, I can’t be as minimalistic as he (laughs), but this size and shape is comfortable for me. I’ve had opportunities to stay and work at other locations, but no matter how well-equipped and convenient they were, I always felt uneasy.

──Have you changed your tools or techniques as you continue to work?

No. I still use the same tools I was using at school, and I have always worked by myself. People have advised me to hire someone to reduce my workload, but working alone suits my personality.

Kazama is playful and humorous. She intimated Shiko Munakata, saying, “Don’t I look like him?” (Shiko Munakata, the great woodblock print artist, chiseled while looking at the woodblocks very closely).
Blocks (left) and prints (right) for an ongoing monthly series started in April 2023 in “Rondan Jihyo” in Asahi Shimbun’s morning edition. Kazama’s world is condensed on small B5-size vinyl blocks.

Grasping Topics from Endless Streams of News to Unearth Current Atmosphere

──I would like to ask you about what you do before you start creating a work. How do you find the sources of inspiration?

It’s very simple. I rely on TV and internet news. I’m the type of person who likes to intake information 24/7, so I leave the TV on almost all the time. I am an information addict.
Whenever I come across a topic that catches my attention, such as historical issues, current events, and wars, I start digging to find out why it has become an issue now. As I dig further, various factors, such as past events, gradually become intertwined and surface one after another.

──I heard you often buy used books for reference.

That’s right. I primarily use Yahoo! Auctions. What is interesting about books from the past is that even if they deal with the same issues, the way information is presented is different from today. For example, nowadays, everyone would write about the war, saying, “War is wrong, and peace is important,” but books written during the war are entirely different. Magazines contain more fresh information than books, and the weekly bulletins published by the ministries and agencies are very explicit, conveying the atmosphere of the time. When I study such materials, dystopian sceneries naturally come to my mind.

Text materials cover the entire wall in Kazama’s atelier.

──Aside from reading books, do you also visit places?

Yes, I do. Just as I look for the atmosphere of the past in old books, I want to experience the atmosphere of the places. I made a piece related to nuclear power plants one year after the Great East Japan Earthquake. I had been interested in nuclear power plants for a while and visited one. Do you remember the criticality accident at a fuel preparation plant in Tokaimura in 1999? After that, I took a tour of the facility and visited the PR center. It was rather creepy to see all the positive aspects being highlighted, but I liked it that I was able to feel it firsthand. When the 2011 earthquake happened, I realized my eerie feeling was correct.

Another work desk in the six-tatami-mat room. Next to it is a storage space made by removing the closet’s sliding doors. Kazama’s works and massive amounts of materials are organized and stored.
A small portion of the materials Kazama has used in her works, including those related to the Olympics. They were stored in piles in large candy boxes.
Kazama’s favorite items crowd the atelier and the entire house.
Cute Tori-chan sitting in a chair made by Kazama.

Joy of Seeing Images Transform Through Carving Wood and Printing on Paper

──Your works often contain a critical viewpoint, yet on the other hand, you are attracted to forms and designs of, say, tanks. Are you aware of such a feeling?

You’re right. I am inspired by my awareness of various problems, but as a creator of pictures, I value forms very much. I like the process of creating forms with my own hands, and tanks and buildings are motifs that match my taste. I am not so conscious of whether they are symbols of good or evil, and I try not to restrain myself in terms of my taste in forms. I don’t want my works to be self-righteous, and I hope to create them with an all-encompassing, bird’s eye view of everything, including critical and formal qualities, while keeping a balance.

Dyslympics 2680, 2018, woodblock print: oil-based ink, washi paper
Photo: Kei Miyajima
Photo courtesy of: MUJIN-TO Production

──What do you like about woodblock printing?

I have no confidence in my sketching or drawing skills because I did not even take an art university entrance exam. But, the process of carving wood and printing on paper in woodblock printing drastically changes the way I create images. Every time I produce a work, I experience my pictures transform during the production process. I enjoy it and never get tired of it.

──What re the research topics for your upcoming works?

I’m currently researching “utopia.” I would like to take my time and slowly create a large piece that will be a counterpart to Dyslympics 2680, which depicts a dystopia. For the utopian piece, I am planning to collect allegories about the irony that, in the process of realizing an ideal social system, humankind eventually ends up in war due to ideological conflicts, and human selfishness of giving up on the earth and finding paradise through space exploration. The other one will depict a scene of a calm, which will be the third work in the giant ship series, following The Whirlwind of the 13th District and Alas! Heisoku-kan (Raging Battle-ship the Dead-end). The earlier two show rough seas, but in the new piece, I would like to express an alarming feeling through the quiet sea. I consider these two large works on utopia and a calm to be the culmination of my career that I want to finish while still alive.

The woodblock in the front is the center section of Dyslympics 2680. On the floor is the original drawing. Based on her experience, the first print is always the best, no matter how many prints she makes, as the intensity is greatest in the first. She basically produces only one print from one woodblock and tries not to make trial prints as much as possible. Because of that, her woodblocks are all very clean.
Alas! Heisoku-kan (Raging Battle-ship the Dead-end), 2012, woodblock print: sumi ink, washi paper, panel
Photo: Kei Miyajima
Photo courtesy of: MUJIN-TO Production

Text: Nodoka Sakamoto
Photo: Osamu Kurihara
Translation: Erica Sawaguchi

Sachiko Kazama

Born in Tokyo in 1972. Kazama completed a printmaking course at Musashino Bijutsu Gakuen in 1996. She explores the roots of current phenomena in the past and creates blackish woodblock prints that foreshadow the dark clouds hanging over the future. She has been highly acclaimed in Japan and abroad. Dyslympics 2680 from 2018 was added to the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 2021, she was selected for the Tokyo Contemporary Art Award 2019–2021. An exhibition celebrating the awardees was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. Her work is currently shown at “Mori Art Museum 20th Anniversary Exhibition—WORLD CLASSROOM: Contemporary Art through School Subjects” (Mori Art Museum, –September 24).

Past Exhibitions

MOMAT Collection
Dates: September 20–December 3
Venue: The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
Entrance fee: Adults 500 yen, university students 250 yen

Solo Exhibition “New Matsushima”
Dates: October 28–December 2
Venue: MUJIN-TO Production (Sumida-ku)