Dedicating One's Life to Art and Culture

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Have you ever stopped to consider why anyone would dedicate their life to art? Why would anyone voluntarily suffer their entire lives for the sake of it? To always be poor? To rarely have enough food?

Have you ever given serious thought to how much someone has to give up and sacrifice in their lives to, perhaps, maybe someday become an acclaimed artist? I have. No thanks.

I’d guess that many of us, at one time or another, examined the prospects of becoming an artist only to realize that the gamble is not worth the suffering that is required. It’s a lot more fun to hang out with your friends than to endure for the sake of art. It’s got to be a lot more difficult to get a boyfriend or a girlfriend when you spend your time considering things like sandpaper, paint, and glue.

We all know that most artists never become rich or wealthy. Usually the ones who do become famous, do so long after their deaths.

Michelangelo and Andy Warhol are two exceptions; they knew how to capitalize on their talents and were also astute businessmen. They both died while being world-famous, quite wealthy, and renowned for their work.

There will probably never be any more artists like them again. Michelangelo, who died almost 500 years ago, is still a name that we recognize today. Andy Warhol, who died in 1987, was probably the last artist whose works will ever be widely recognizable by the average man on the street; quite an amazing achievement in this fast-paced day of sound bites and clip art.

Just to illustrate how amazing it is what Warhol accomplished; does anyone believe that The Beatles will still be famous 500 years from now? I don’t.

How about Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson? No way. Just one look at what I consider “the first super-star of the modern age,” Rudolph Valentino. Ask just about any young person if they’ve ever even heard of him and they’ll just about all say, “No.”

Rudolph Valentino was famous all over the world just 80 years ago. It seems few people know his name today.

While Warhol and Michelangelo both sought and found fame during their lifetimes; there are so very many artists who didn’t ‘make it’ but have left something behind for us all. Their works are a reflection of their lives and the societies they lived in.

In many countries, ceramics and pottery are considered as much of an art form as is oil painting by the west. Art collectors will know that many famous artisans, including Pablo Picasso, often dabbled in making pottery and sculpture…Of course Michelangelo did. Andy Warhol? I’m not familiar with it, but I do know that he kept slices of pizza in shoe-boxes.

On a recent rip to the western part of Japan, I had the opportunity to see something, that until recently I had never considered "art," that will soon disappear from Japan forever:

The human-powered, human-drawn cart, the “Jinrikisha.”

Now most people wouldn’t consider Jinrikisha ‘art.’ But let me explain; I was visiting a city named, “Hagi,” in western Japan. Hagi city is the home of one of the world’s most famous types of ceramic wares, “Hagi-yaki.”

Probably the most famous ceramics artisan in Japan is a man named Miwa Kyusetsu. Though seemingly not that well known in the United States, he is a man who has become world renown for his work. In Japan, he has won many cultural awards and his works have been on display at some of the world’s most famous art galleries in Europe and in New York.

Miwa Kyusetsu, as with all great artists, lived the life of an artist. The only exception here is that Miwa Kyusetsu is still alive. It must be wonderful to be an artist and, after suffering all those years refining your craft, one day you are recognized as a truly gifted person.

$44,000!? Sure, I wanted to buy two; but I forgot my wallet in the car.

While visiting Miwa Kyusetsu’s gallery I was awestruck by the works of this man. Not only was I impressed with his pottery and sculptures as "art for art’s sake" I was shocked to see that just one piece of work by him sells for between $20,000 to over $40,000 per item!

Besides checking out Miwa Kyusetsu’s works, I also had the chance to ride in this relic from the past, the Jinrikisha.

In many other countries in Asia, there are still Jinrikisha running around the neighborhoods. I rode one in Macao. They have their very own version of it in Thailand called the, “Tuk-tuk.”

But, in Japan, these vehicles only remain in tourist places anymore. Usually, today, Jinrikisha are used as a "Japanese version" of a horse drawn carriage at weddings. The bride and groom will ride around the town after their wedding ceremony for sightseeing or as a romantic close to an eventful day.

The man who pulled the Jinrikisha I rode on is named, Nakahara Shogo. He is a quite unusual man, as he has dedicated his life to the Jinrikisha.

He is not a very large man and the first thing I noticed about him was that he didn’t have a gram of fat on his body. He told me he was 44 years old and had been “doing Jinrikisha” all his life.

I thought he meant that he had been pulling Jinrikisha all his life, but that wasn’t what he meant; he had been living the life of Jinrikisha since he was young.

I couldn’t imagine how anyone could live off a mode of transportation that seemed like something from at least 150 years ago. I asked him what he did on his free time and the answer was:

“I make Jinrikisha by hand.”

I was surprised. But I guess that makes sense when you stop to really think about it. I don’t imagine that Toyota or Nissan produces Jinrikisha.

The cart I was riding in was completely hand made. Everything. The craftsmanship was excellent. It seemed like an old antique car, before the days of the Model T. It was exquisite in design and you could tell great care was taken in its construction. It looked like something from a century ago, but Nakahara-San told me that the cart was only 5 years old.

I asked him many questions about the Jinrikisha. He told me that he had inherited this work from his father, and probably his father did the same. I asked about the history of the Jinrikisha in Japan and it seems that they have been around for so long, their origin is unclear.

Nakahara-San did tell me one very interesting story that I’d like to share with you:

Long ago, before the days of streets crowded with automobiles, Jinrikisha operators were required by law to carry a license. According to Nakahara-san this license procedure was dutifully followed by the government and Jinrikisha drivers until the late 1930′s. Then, one day, the government of Japan just "dropped" the licensing procedure and the rules.

It seems that, due to the influx of cars in Japan at that time, it became unsafe to operate a Jinrikisha around neighborhoods at night.

The numbers of Jinrikisha dwindled and all but disappeared. And with the decrease in numbers, the government just "forgot" about the licensing procedure.

I was surprised that the government would drop a plan to collect money from people — especially the government of Imperial Japan. But that’s what they did.

Nakahara-San has dedicated his life to Jinrikisha. Perhaps as of now, few people will consider these vehicles to be "art." But after talking to Mr. Nakahara, I understand now how they cannot be considered anything but art.

Art is a reflection of society and culture. It is a snap-shot of a time gone by or an event that affects us all.

Mr. Nakahara lives Jinrikisha. It is his life. He knows the history and his hands have the skill to create these reminders of the past.

Nakahara-San is the last of a dying breed; a living cultural heritage.

The man lives Jinrikisha. And his Jinrikisha are his life… They are an “art”; a reflection of culture and a society long gone by.

And when Nakahara-San passes away, he takes a little bit of time, art, and history with him… Never to return: The Jinrikisha.

Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He has worked as an independent writer, producer, and personality in the mass media for nearly 30 years.

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