Tokushige Michiro

“Slipping through Landscapes”

Aichi Prefecture is a place where the machinery industry thrives, and many of the people who keep the machines running are foreign workers, including “technical intern trainees.” Tokushige Michiroʼs current project focuses on “landscapes,” which can sometimes be indicators of the identity of an individual or a collective. Tokushige and his researchers conducted a study of the lives of people from Myanmar who live in Aichi Prefecture. Through their activities, the researchers sought to understand how, as neighbors living in the same land, they might share the landscapes that the foreign workers and their families had discovered while living in Japan. Through trial and error, they came closer to reaching that goal.

In the course of helping a group that raises funds for the membersʼ native Myanmar, or paying visits to Mittadika Pagoda (Nagoyaʼs Myanmar-style temple), or to fields within the Seto city limits where popular Myanmar foods like bananas and roselle are grown, or while attending a festival organized by Myanmar people, the researchers met a variety of people, including those who belong to a young generation that came to Japan as technical intern trainees, another generation that came to Japan in the 1980s under the influence of Myanmarʼs democratization movement, and Japanese people who aid them.

The exhibition venue features tanzaku, strips of paper, on which are written the wishes and discoveries of the Myanmar people living in Japan that the researchers met. Also on display are garments called longyi and other ethnic items, along with videos and photographs that introduce the groupʼs research activities and some of the exchanges that took place. The exhibit records how the researchers tried to pay attention to phenomena that people would normally not notice, having many discussions to find ways to bond with a community whose culture differs from their own.

Selected Works & Awards
Recent major exhibitions include his solo exhibition Kobe’s Naked Army Marches On, Atelier 1, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art (2020; Japan); the group exhibition Para-Landscape Imagination to Face the Changing Reality, Mie Prefectural Art Museum (2019; Japan); Aichi Triennale Regional Development Project Windshield Time, Contemporary Art in Toyota; various facilities around Toyota railway station (2019; Aichi, Japan); Assembridge NAGOYA 2016 PANORAMA GARDEN – Discovering Signs in an Alternative Ecosystem, Pot Luck Building and Nagoya Port ‒ Tsukiji Exit area (2016, Aichi). He has also exhibited Diamonds Always Come in Small Packages at the Kunst Museum Luzern (2015; Switzerland).
  • Installation view at Aichi Triennale 2022
  • Slipping through Landscapes, 2022
  • Photo: ToLoLo studio

Reflection by the Artist:
“Can I (We) Talk About Myanmar?”

Talk by Tokushige Michiro

It was not my intention from the start to focus solely on people from Myanmar. The question on my mind was how to engage with people who might not be the intended audience for an international art festival, marginalized people – if the term is appropriate here – like the homeless, members of ethnic groups that are discriminated against, and foreign residents of Japan. There was an opportunity to gain access to Myanmar people, so I included them among recipients of an announcement that the project was recruiting participants, and then things were arranged after the members had assembled.

The process of trial and error that went into planning a learning program was also a valuable experience. Mr. Yamamoto, the curator, asked me to “share your practice as an artist with the members,” but since this was my first time carrying out a participatory project, I struggled to comply with this request. It was difficult to move forward with the project while taking into account the members’ unclear reasons for participation. For example, if someone’s goal was to engage with people from Myanmar, did something change in that person after meeting them? I wasn’t sure about this.

I did not have a preconceived notion of what kind of changes in the members I wanted to see, but I did hope that since we were meeting Myanmar people, it would inspire some ideas in the members. Did they learn something new by venturing outside the bounds of the familiar…? It’s hard to say.

One thing I regret is that I did not do enough to absorb their ideas during the course of the project. It’s possible that individuals didn’t have the means to express themselves, and it’s also possible that there was something wrong with my approach. This was my first project with other participants, so we were all fumbling along, and it was tough.

In the midst of these struggles, we started the project with no goal established, and the goal of the project became just that, for everyone to identify a goal together. In general, fumbling along is always the way we engage with the world. It’s not as if life is a package tour with a set itinerary. I, and I believe the members as well, were repeatedly confronted with the question “What is learning?” In my usual work I would start with a vague idea and gradually give it shape, but the difficult thing about this was asking what the meaning of the project was and keeping a clear idea in mind as it progressed.

I am still maintaining ties with Myanmar people. I thought all along that if I was going to associate with them only for the sake of the exhibition, it would be best not to do it in the first place. The project members needed to be prepared to have these long-term relationships. I don’t know if it will connect to the exhibit in any specific way, but these days I am attending community meetings and participating in fundraising events on the streets. I’m afraid that our involvement has not added anything positive from their standpoint, so I want to try to give something back to them in the future.

What I mean by that is – and this came as a shock to me – that the people from Myanmar were actually not all that interested in the exhibit. In a learning program, I think it is important to learn something by engaging with others who you normally have no connection with. So, one issue is how to respond to people who have no interest in art, when they see something and have a reaction is like, “What the heck is that?”

I am sometimes asked about similarities and differences between art and political action, but that aside, what Japanese people can do for these Myanmar people is very limited. There are some who collect signatures to petition the city council, and these are the sorts of activities we think of when we hear the word “activism,” but just as the boundaries of art are not clearly defined, activism is also wide-ranging by nature. To me, it seems that art and activism are different in some ways and quite similar in others.

One of the advantages of participating in social activism through art is that it is easily archived. Compiling a document, the way we’re doing here, could make it possible to look back on these things years from now. Journalism itself is on the leading edge, but online content in particular is quickly buried in the past as new things emerge. With art, though, there is always a possibility that it will be archived and unearthed. I believe this is where the value of art lies.

[Text composer’s postscript, February 22, 2023]
An artificial banana tree was installed at the venue, and it was hung with tanzaku, strips of paper, with messages from Myanmar people living in Japan wishing for peace and liberation from the military regime. Kyodo News reported on the tree, which Tokushige brought to a pagoda in Nagoya after the exhibition ended, in an online article dated February 1, 2023 (only available in Japanese). Exchange between Tokushige and the Myanmar community continues to this day.

(Interview conducted and text composed by Yasui Mihiro)

[Learning Team postscript]
This text, “Can I (We) Talk About Myanmar?” is based on an interview with Tokushige Michiro conducted on December 29, 2022, but before it could be reviewed by Mr. Tokushige and any necessary changes made, he passed away suddenly on February 26, 2023. After discussions within the Learning Archive production team, a decision was made to release this text in its original, unedited form, with the consent of the bereaved family. At this sad time, our thoughts and prayers are with Tokushige Michiro.