Vietnamese scenes rekindle Japanese creativity

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Makeshift houses along the Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh City in Mika Toba's katazome (stencil dyeing) painting / PHOTOS COURTESY OF CONSULATE GENERAL OF JAPAN in HCMC

When Mika Toba visited Vietnam nearly 20 years ago, she came with the feeling that she reached a creative impasse.

One of the Japanese artists who's introduced Japan's stencil dyeing technique katazome into paintings, Toba had by then created several works following the technique's traditional patterns, like flowers, grass, trees, birds and fish.

But, she always felt something was missing.

"I wondered if it was still suitable to use the patterns these days. So I wanted to find something new.

"At that time I felt as if I had a mission to introduce a new style into katazome to inspire the next generations."

The artist finally found that missing piece in Vietnam, when visiting Ho Chi Minh City in 1994.

"I was attracted by the colorful Vietnamese scenes, so I sketched them and felt they were suitable for katazome."

Since then the artist, now 52, has regularly visited Vietnam and captured daily scenes across the country in her works: from an electrical post where numerous wires thickly tangle with each other, a railway track that goes by old houses, a part of canal with make-shift houses along its sides, to a corner of Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, and the boats on the Saigon River where people live and work.

"Every scene in Vietnam, from trees, villages, beaches, to street to corners, is lively and distinctive," Toba said.

They reminded her of Japanese landscapes during the 1950s-1960s.

"I always feel homesick whenever I see rivers and fields in Vietnam."

Toba said during her trips, she felt that Vietnam would change drastically in the future, so she wanted her works to be a sort of archive of the country's landscapes.

Over more than 50 trips, she created several dozen works that have been featured at five Vietnam-themed exhibitions organized in both Vietnam and Japan since 2001.

Art critic Phan Cam Thuong once wrote in the Saigon Tiep Thi newspaper that many Vietnamese artists who have created works on their home country have expressed their admiration for the Japanese artist's deep cultural affinity for Vietnam.

She could "read" a story behind each scene and see its "unknown" future, Thuong wrote.


 Japanese artist Mika Toba

However, Toba's works never feature people, because she believes that if she does so, the longevity of her works would be limited by the short life of human beings. 

But this belief does not stop her from finding inspiration in Vietnamese people she meets.

"Whenever I visit Vietnam, I can see that sceneries always change but people's living energy is always strong and encourages me."

She said when she visited villages in the countryside, residents would offer her a stool to sit or a cup of tea upon seeing her sketching. People who live on boats along the Saigon River would invite her into their houses for a break.

"It is impossible to love a country other than your home country without loving that country's people. And, I felt Vietnamese are very close. Their acts of kindness inspired me to create more," she said.

Toba's latest exhibition "Sceneries remain forever in one's soul" is now open at the Fine Arts Museum of HCMC with 31 of her works on display, including three latest ones of the My Son Sanctuary in the central province of Quang Nam that she created early this year.

Toba, who was born in Aichi Prefecture, related her feelings about the Vietnamese historic site, which is home to Cham temple ruins, to the earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people in Japan more than two years ago.

She said after the tragedy, she and many other Japanese artists wondered if it was right for them to create works while their people and country were suffering, but then they felt that their works could provide some spiritual support for the victims.

"For me, My Son is a holy place where people can offer prayers that are not restricted by time or space," she said.

"I have been to many countries, but only in Vietnam I can find sceneries that move me."

Now a professor at Japan's Kyoto Seika University of Arts, Toba said she is not sure that she will continue creating works on Vietnam in the next 20 years, because artists cannot plan in advance what they are going to create.

But, there is one thing she is certain about: "Had I not discovered Vietnamese sceneries, I would have not been able to continue being creative."


Katazome was initially used to create patterns on clothes like kimono and samurai's uniforms.

To create a painting which can be as long as more than 500 centimeters, using katazome, takes Toba Mika two-three months.

The process goes through several steps:

  • Drawing
  • Tracing the drawing on waterproof paper and cutting out black spaces with a knife to create stencil
  • Applying the stencil onto a silk cloth and pushing "resist paste" made of sticky rice flour through the stencil. The paste is to help prevent color from staining the spots it is applied to. 
  • Soaking the cloth in soy bean juice to prevent any irregular spread of color
  • Dyeing by applying different colors with brushes
  • Steaming the cloth for about 90 minutes at 100 Celsius degrees
  • Washing the cloth to remove the "resist paste"
  • Embellishing

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