The Dignity of Life — Tarō Okamoto’s Jōmon

Exhibition Period: March 2 - July 3 , 2016

A fateful meeting in November 1951 resulted in Tarō Okamoto finding a ‘lifelong friend’. Five years after he had resumed his artistic activities in Japan following the war, he happened to visit Tokyo National Museum in Ueno where he encountered a pot dating from the Jōmon period (14,000–300 BC).

‘I was astounded. I had no idea this kind of Japan existed. No, this was the real Japan. I felt my blood grow hotter, my enthusiasm caught fire!’

Unrestraint, vigor, dissonance, dynamism, asymmetry…its boisterous, discordant form represented a veneration of nature, an awe of nature; it bore the stamp of the spirit of the Jōmon people who lived in perfect harmony with nature.
The primitive power and prodigality of spirit of a people who chased game and fought other hunters; their burning life force. Tarō realized instinctively that their aesthetics, which stand in direct opposition of the subdued refinement of traditional art, represented ‘the original Japan’, ‘the lost Japan’.
For Tarō, this encounter with the Jōmon was a rediscovery of Japan, a discovery of himself. He had finally found a comrade in arms. That is how he must have felt. Not only did Tarō take the Jōmon, which had previously been confined to archeology, and release it into the art world, but he also employed it as the basis for his view of own life and art.
Okamoto’s art is an expression of the spirit of the Jōmon. I think that this is a statement that nobody could object to.
I wanted people to be able to experience Okamoto’s works together with Jōmon pots within the same space and it was with this in mind that I planned the current exhibition. It was curated by Takumi Ishii of the Kokugakuin University Museum, who is simultaneously carrying out research into the Jōmon and Tarō’s art. He was also involved in the restoration project for the ‘Myth of Tomorrow’ mural.
This is the first Jōmon exhibition to be held in the Memorial Museum and we hope that you enjoy it.

Akiomi Hirano, Director, Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum


Memories of a lost past—the Jōmon period (14,000–300 BC). The Jōmon period pottery that so delighted Tarō consisted of ceramic pots people used in their everyday lives. In order for them to make a stew, it required a pot, water and fire, fish they had caught, foods they had found in the mountains, fields, rivers and seas, stones to create a fireplace and wood.
For the Jōmon people, animals and plants, natural and manmade objects were more than merely food, resources, or tools. All of them represented an irreplaceable form of life. Basically, food is life that risks itself to take life, then by eating life, combines with it; eating food is a solemn religious ceremony.
‘Sharing the joy of life’ — For Tarō ‘Jōmon’ meant a literal fusion with another life, a living together. As he said ‘Life is art’. The act of life and death, of sharing the joy of life. That is Tarō Okamoto’s art.
16,000 years after the appearance of pottery in Japan, Tarō was able to share the joy of life with Jōmon pottery. Having discovered an ally in the ‘brutal asymmetry’ that adorns the Jōmon pottery, he began to fight to destroy the ‘formalism of symmetry’ that was introduced during the Yayoi period (300 BC to 300 AD) together with rice agriculture.
Rice farming led to a system of control of nature. The beginning of this can undoubtedly be described as the ‘first industrial revolution’. It was this that gave rise to the restrained mood of Japan that continues to this day. Mankind and nature parted ways; in a society centered around humanity that strives for the efficient control of nature, the joy of life ceases and vitality is emasculated. This makes the Jōmon ever more necessary. That is what Tarō believed.
Tarō set off to travel the world in search of the Jōmon that he believed writhed in its depths. This was when he made his fated discovery of the Utaki holy sites of Okinawa. These consist of only stones and trees, but these spaces, in which god and mankind share the joy of life, are filled with ‘an indescribable cleanliness’. In his heart he felt a ‘rapport with life’ that was the same as he experienced through Jōmon pottery.
Japan had been forced into a morass of conflict, but Tarō Okamoto had a mission whereby he exchanged his own life in order to recapture the forgotten Japan from the morass and let the people today retrieve the ‘dignity of life’.
The alchemical formula of Okamoto’s art magic can be summed up as being ‘self x Jōmon = creation of life.
’ What will ‘you x Jōmon’ create? The answer lies within yourself.

Takumi Ishii, Curator: Kokugakuin University Museum/Visiting Researcher: Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum