Interview
2020.03.30

A Desire to Create Encounters That “Make Life Rich” in One of Japan’s Largest Concentrated Art Districts.
Tokyo Art & Antiques, Its Organizers, and What’s on Their Minds.

A Desire to Create Encounters That “Make Life Rich” in One of Japan’s Largest Concentrated Art Districts.
Tokyo Art & Antiques, Its Organizers, and What’s on Their Minds.

Our readers may be aware that the Kyobashi area of Nihonbashi in the Chuo City of Tokyo is one of Japan’s largest concentrated art districts, with around 150 businesses specialized in the arts clustered there. The once-annual “Tokyo Art & Antiques” event in Kyobashi and Nihonbashi draws participants in the form of businesses involved in a diverse range of genres, with traditional arts and crafts and Japanese paintings foremost. The event will be entering its 11th year this year after starting in 2010, out of desires to “make art more accessible.” This year, the event is in preparation and will take place from April 23rd (Thu) to 25th (Sat). In this interview, we spoke with Executive Committee members (from left as pictured) Mr. Akira Ueno of Gogatsudo art gallery, Mr. Takuma Saito of Saito Shikodo, Mr. Haruhiro Mitani of Sankeido, and Mr. Bungo Kamise of Nanaya Antique Art about the feelings that went into the event and the vision they aspire toward.

We All Share a Love of Art.

-First, everyone please introduce yourselves.

Mr. Akira Ueno of Gogatsudo Art Gallery (Ueno): I run a specialty shop that handled ceramics, calligraphy, sutras, paintings, and Buddhist art, among other things, from the Heian (794-1185) to the Kamakura (1185-1333) eras. I’m the second in my family line to run the business, and first worked at another Nihonbashi antique art business for around 13 years before taking over the Gogatsudo, so I’ve been in the business around 18 years. I wasn’t really driven to get into this world, initially… I just happened to get hired by the business my father ran, and learned on the job by sort of serving as an assistant to the owner. I started to finally find it fascinating after about three years, then my resolve to take over the business in time started to awaken, if I’m being honest. Nowadays, I’m busy most days with the Tokyo Art & Antiques Executive Committee.

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Mr. Akira Ueno of Gogatsudo Art Gallery (pictured right)

Mr. Haruhiro Mitani of Sankeido (Mitani): I’m in a family business too, but our roots are actually originally in money exchange, and I’d be the 13th in the line if we went back that far. We got into the money exchange business and founded our company during the reign of Tokugawa Ietsuna (1651-1680) in the Edo era. After that, we operated as a pawnbroker for a while, and now we handle artwork from the relatively-recent Meiji era (1868-1912) and onward, centrally, with works by artists who have won Order of Culture recognition. My parents had a major influence on me, so I’ve always gone to exhibitions and enjoyed them, but I also studied law in university, and didn’t study art in particular. But then hiring was practically frozen during the year I graduated, and I couldn’t find a business to work for. I also felt a vague sense that my parents wanted me to take over Sankeido, to contrast that, and after a lot of worrying about the right thing to do, I ended up taking over the family business.

Normally, we broker and serve as an agent for art sales and appraise artwork as well as buying and selling it, but lately we have an increased amount of work outside the shop for the annual Tokyo Art & Antiques.

Mr. Takuma Saito of Saito Shikodo (Saito): Saito Shikido was founded in Kyobashi in 1983, and we handle things like tea ceremony items and antique paintings and calligraphy that get labelled as antique art. We focus on older items from eras when even the artists are unknown, so our field tends to judge based on the quality of the work itself, alone. I had another job for a while after graduating college, but it’s been nine years since I joined the family business at age 27.

Mr. Bungo Kamise of Nanaya (Kamise): Our business handled antique artwork centering on antique ceramics from Japan and Korea. I think we cover a wider range of genres and periods than most, but I focus on collecting detailed, elegant works, that are powerful even when small.

-What type of person do you see working in your field most often?

Mitani: I think maybe what we all have in common is our love of art, as you might expect. A lot of people in the field have their eyes light up when they find a good piece. Also, in the sense of having roots close to the finance industry like our business does, you might also see a fair number of people who are rather into gambling (laughter).

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Mr. Haruhiro Mitani of Sankeido

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A scene from inside Sankeido (Image provided by: Tokyo Art & Antiques Executive Committee)

-What sort of roles do you all fill for Tokyo Art & Antiques?

Ueno: This event’s originals are as a successor to the “Nihonbashi-Kyobashi Arts and Antiques Festival” held since 1998. The name was changed to “Tokyo Art & Antiques” in 2010, for the 11th year under the name this year. We are core members of the Executive Committee for it, which actually has 10 central members for operations. Even as core members, though, we’re not executives or superiors, and the only one of us with a fixed role is Mr. Saito, who runs accounting. When we took over the event, we talked about going with a flat organization without people in charge, and it’s actually going very smoothly in action.

We Want to Share the Fun of Finding a New Favorite When Casually Visiting Galleries.

-Please give us an overview of Tokyo Art & Antiques, and share what makes it fun.

Ueno: A total of 97 art galleries and businesses from around Nihonbashi and Kyobashi participate in Tokyo Art & Antiques, and the event centers of visiting each establishment and experiencing the art up close. The number of establishments participating rises each year, giving us a new record this year, and a lot of establishments are running planned exhibits, talks, and workshops and so forth.

While the art industry has been hot in recent years, I feel there’s a high barrier to entry into the ranks of established businesses and galleries. People might be worried about going in because they’re afraid someone will try to sell them a precious work (laughter). We want to dispel that image. This is an early spring event, so establishments open their doors and everything is unrestricted, and we want to create a relaxed atmosphere. Rather than just passive appreciation like viewing works through glass at a museum, we want to convey the appeal of enjoying art over a conversation with the gallery owner, while holding the actual piece. That’s the appeal of a gallery. We want people to learn about that side of things through the event.

Mitani: Exactly. I want art businesses and galleries to be places people approach as casually as their favorite clothing stores. That sentiment has driven Tokyo Art & Antiques to create maps and guidebooks and make improvements time after time, in order to be more accessible and easily comprehensible. With almost 100 establishments participating, it’s quite hard to visit everywhere during the event, so we want the guidebooks to be useful for people to visit places that stand out even after the event ends.

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section of a map from a pamphlet. We can see the high concentration of art-related businesses (Image provided by: Tokyo Art & Antiques Executive Committee)

Kamise: In regard to what makes Tokyo Art & Antiques fun, I think there are two world firsts involved in the event. The first is that we have the world’s highest concentration of art-related businesses in such a compact area. And the second is that this is likely the world’s most trustworthy art exhibit. Normally, the antique industry starts from suspicions over whether the piece is real or not, but since all of our establishments are trustworthy and follow the appropriate protocols, it’s an amazing change to look over pieces without worrying about anything.

Also, we want people to learn that “you can buy art,” which seems obvious but is something people aren’t really aware of. You can buy art on the same level as pieces in museums from trustworthy establishments in Nihonbashi and Kyobashi. We’ve even had an instance where we had ceramic vessels another one of which was on display at a museum of art, and were selling them for 300,000 yen apiece.

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A scene from last year’s Tokyo Art & Antiques (Image provided by: Tokyo Art & Antiques Executive Committee)

-How should first-time visitors to Tokyo Art & Antiques enjoy the event?

Ueno: We’ve been doing this for 10 years, but we still get a lot of visitors who are there for their first times. Many of them normally wouldn’t go to these kinds of places, and don’t know much about antiques and art, so what we want is for them to first just relax and come see. Just to think, it’s nice out and I might try visiting a few spots, that sort of sentiment. Like Mr. Kamise just said, we’re actually much more relaxed than a museum of art, and are familiar places where you can buy art. But even so, antiques and art aren’t priced at a point where you can just casually decide to pick something up any day. So first just looking and just talking to the gallery owner is enough.

Mitani: People who start out wanting to buy something were already familiar with art and antiques. Rather than that, this event is about visiting just 10 places and finding a favorite piece at just one. Even if there isn’t anything you like at the place you visit, we’d still love it if you stopped in a few times and grew more familiar. And we’d love it if some number of the people who did that eventually went on to want to buy something. We have a signboard up in my store saying “feel free to look over anything” for exactly that reason, too. First, we want to start by getting patrons - who may have felt that the barrier to entry is too high - into our shops.

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he sign outside Sankeido

Ueno: We currently live in an era when people casually compare prices online as they shop, while the art and antiques world is the exact opposite. Works of art are passed on over the flow of interactions and relationships between people. It’s such a tradition that we’re taught that “you’re not just selling a product, you’re selling a ‘person’,” and we value our interactions with customers. I want people to learn that there are rewards in the form of finding new things and hearing about new ideas when you communicate like that over time.

-I see, so the field prioritizes building relationships up over time. Have you seen any change in your patrons with Tokyo Art & Antiques running for so long?

Saito: We have a two-story building for our business, so I often look out at people walking by, and lately I’ve seen more people holding the event pamphlets as they walk. I can feel that we’re starting to see results from our slow but steady efforts.

Also, sometimes younger attendees from Tokyo Art & Antiques will suddenly show up on later dates, and I can feel that it’s a good opportunity for meeting new customers. My friends tell me I have an interesting job, and I feel like awareness of the role is steadily spreading among the younger generation.

From Edo Era Gentlefolk to Modern Tourists – Nihonbashi Has Always Been a Beloved City of Art.

-Nihonbashi and Kyobashi form one of the world’s largest concentrated art districts. What was the background that led the city to develop in that way?

Mitani: Since ancient times, Nihonbashi and Kyobashi have been known as a city of commerce, but broadly, there seem to have been two periods when art-related merchants set down roots here. The first was with a large influx of merchants who plied the Ise Pilgrimage to the south during the Edo period, when the city first thrived. Even now, a lot of the department and grocery stores in the area originated as businesses drawing from the flow of Ise merchants, and the art field is the same. Then the second period was when the Emperor relocated the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo during the first year of the Meiji period. A lot of art businesses relocated to Tokyo with that change.

Ueno: In the old days, there was a fishing wharf near Nihonbashi, the city itself was a city of medicine, and Bakurocho was a clothing wholesale city, and so on, and the city was full of “gentlefolk” involved in business. The sort of gentlefolk who left their businesses to the help in the evenings, and had a culture of appreciating the arts in casual gatherings. Those gentlefolk were our primary patrons particularly before the war, and the city was vibrant with countless art galleries. That led to the formation of the current concentrated art district.

-Are there any distinguishing traits to the art establishments and galleries in the area now?

Mitani: I think it’s quite distinct in how strong lateral connections are between establishments. They’re mutual rivals and also customers. It has an image of people maintaining connections even as they open businesses near places they used to work, and hand those businesses down generationally.

Ueno: While the area has a lot of art establishments and galleries, it doesn’t have very strong pressure in its character, so its image as a city of art is still just starting to form. It might form a sort of contrast with Ginza’s image as a city of ostentatious art. But there are a lot of good establishments that genuinely offer refined works, so we consider it our role to spread knowledge of them through Tokyo Art & Antiques.

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Tokyo Art & Antiques also features workshops for a wide range of generational ages (Image provided by: Tokyo Art & Antiques Executive Committee)

-Please share any changes the galleries in the area have experienced, with the event expanding in scope each year.

Ueno: We’re currently seeing an expansion to the range of galleries, such as antique afficionados going so far as to found establishments, and an increase in establishments operated by women. Since we’re also thankfully seeing an increase in businesses that want to participate in Tokyo Art & Antiques, the event has actually begun to expand to establishments even in Ginza’s 2-chome area, even though we still call it a Nihonbashi-Kyobashi area event (laughter). Honestly, it’s getting hard to even organize the area for pamphlet maps, but that’s another good issue to have.

Saito: The city scenery has also changed a lot, with more tall buildings and hotels. I do feel a bit worried seeing individual buildings and small businesses close down and get renovated one after another, though…

Mitani: But actually, it’s inversely true that we’ve gotten more customers now from that city restructuring, when we didn’t have many before. In addition to tourists from Asia and demand from buyers for stock, we’ve also seen more tourists staying at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo and other hotels. I want to work to convey the beauty of Japanese art to that sort of patron, as well.

Making the Beauty of Japanese Art More Accessible, and More Open to the World.

-Please tell us about your visions and goals for the future, and challenges you want to take on.

Mitani: As you might expect, I’m setting my sights overseas, and want to work on the project while considering the best way to spread Japanese art worldwide. There are famous Japanese entrants like Ukiyo-e in the art world that are known worldwide, but recent and modern Japanese art isn’t known or valued very highly. While we have some leading figures like Ms. Yayoi Kusama, most cases actually became famous after being reverse-imported from overseas, rather than originally in Japan. Instead of that pattern, I want to broadcast valuable art that originates in Japan for Asia and the west. I think that’s how we have to work. So Sankeido holds planned exhibits for young artists, participates in overseas art fairs, and generally works to promote Japanese artists as much as we can.

I want to fill this role with a sense of self-awareness and stop people who say “ancient Japanese art was wonderful, but the modern stuff isn’t so great…,” as someone who witnessed the change in eras for Nihonbashi, holding both a sense of history and modernity.

Saito: Within Japan, I’m focused on the younger generation in particular, and want to pin down the idea of “art that is rooted in life” and share its wonders. Lots of foreign homes just casually decorate with paintings and etchings, don’t they? But with changing lifestyles in Japan, we’ve gotten much more distant from our art, here. We’ve always had a national culture of hanging scrolls and tea implements, and these really should be familiar presences. So I want to see them recognized for their beauty as Japanese art, once again.

Kamise: What I think overall for Japanese culture and musical culture and so on, not just Japanese art, is that “it’s much more interesting to know this than not know it.” That’s what I most want to get across through what we do, since art can greatly enrich our lives.

Ueno: That’s really true. For someone who doesn’t care about them, works of art may seem totally irrelevant as a presence. But antique arts are things that people have handed down for 500 or 1,000 years in some cases. We can actually hold and own things right now, that have been part of people’s lives for centuries. The question is how much that romantic idea helps with our lives. I’m repeating myself here, but it will continue to be important to create opportunities for people to learn about that wonderful concept, in the future, and that effort is our objective in holding Tokyo Art & Antiques.

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The city is festive with the event flag outside participating venues during the event period (Image provided by: Tokyo Art & Antiques Executive Committee)

-I’ve actually had a lot of fun when I worked up the courage to go into an antiques shop, before. The owner told me about all sorts of things I didn’t know, and I left feeling richer.

Ueno: They’re actually fun when you go in, right? You have to actually experience some places to really understand them.

Kamise: To tell the truth, they can be hard to enter, even as someone in the industry. Part of why I took this interview was out of a desire to see Mr. Mitani’s shop (laughter).

Mitani: Well, you know, we do have the sign out saying “feel free to look over anything”… (Laughter from all) But seriously, this industry and Japanese art as a field will die out if everyone just stays unable to enter our shops without a set purpose. I want people to think about Japanese art casually around events like Tokyo Art & Antiques.

Ueno: Antique art shops may have an image as places run by eccentric old men, but there are a surprising number of women in the industry, and our art selections are modernizing with the changeover in generations. I think there are ever more ways to enjoy these businesses. I just hope as many people as possible have an experience at the event that enriches their lives, and that helps them find an establishment and proprietor that suit them when they’re out strolling through the town.

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Interview and text: Minako Ushida (Konel) Photography: Daisuke Okamura

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