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  • Writer's pictureLaura Pollacco

Fighting Ignorance with Art

To see this article published on the Tokyo Weekender website click here.

All images featured by Yuko Shimizu.

“I’m strong but people are not just born strong right, people become strong because circumstances make us that way."

Yuko Shimizu, has certainly faced more than her fair share of these circumstances and as she herself attests; she is strong. Now a multi-award-winning illustrator and college art instructor based in New York, Yuko uses her art to generate conversations and to educate. So admired is her work and progressive attitude that in 2009 she was named by Newsweek Japan as one of the ‘100 Japanese People the World Respects.’ She has also received over 15 medals from the Society of Illustrators and most recently was awarded the prestigious Caldecott Honor, one of the highest awards for picture books in the States, for her illustration of the book ‘The Cat Man of Aleppo’ based on a true story.

Talking with Yuko you can hear her passion, her humour and her determination to create art that is true to herself; though it hasn’t been the easiest ride to get to this point.

Born in Tokyo, Yuko spent her middle school years in the USA. “My father’s job moved me to New York and I lived in the suburbs between 11 and 15. A lot of Japanese kids went to Japanese school and I wasn't mature or anything but I was aware that since I'm here I'm going to lose out if I didn’t go to local school.” Because of this integration in the States, on returning to Japan Yuko found herself a kikoku-shijo, an “outsider,” with thoughts and opinions that didn’t fully line up with her peers. “I came back and I think I was opinionated from a very young age, it was my natural personality, but now it was enhanced 100x. But I also didn't feel I was very American. I always felt I didn't fit in in my American school, I was only there for 4 years and I thought differently, even in art class I used the colours differently, but what's good about New York is they think ‘yeah she is different but whatever.’ Back in Japan it was not like that and so for the 18 years I was back in Japan, I was thinking of how to go back to New York.”

During those years Yuko graduated from Waseda University studying advertising and spent over a decade working in the PR department for a trading firm in Tokyo. Facing sexism and alienation in each Yuko still found ways to fit her passion for drawing into her work. “Waseda was famous for its manga club, there were a lot of very famous manga artists coming out of there so I thought oh I can join that club and I can still draw.” Yuko is very outspoken about the work conditions she dealt with as a woman in the corporate world. “During my 11 years working in a big corporation I had some mentally abusive bosses and colleagues, male colleagues who think that women are tea making machines. So I knew from day 1 that I'm not going to get promoted. I'm here, I work, I'm not just a tea making machine!” It wasn’t till her early 30’s that Yuko formulated a plan to go back to the States to study art and work towards being a professional illustrator. She continued to work at her firm for 3 more years, despite the abuse and casual sexism, so she could finance this dream.

Moving back and studying in New York also came with its own challenges. As an artist Yuko struggled to find her own voice. “It took years for me to be honest with myself because when I came back to art school I really wanted to draw and paint like an American. It took a while to realise that I don't have to do that and I shouldn't be doing that because that’s not true to myself.” Yuko works using traditional Japanese brushes, ones used for Buddhist Sutras, and black ink, inspiration from her earlier years of reading Japanese comic books. These brushes are not easy to control but for someone who has mastered them, as Yuko has done, they allow the artist more flexibility than Western brushes. Regardless of the medium she uses, Yuko finds inspiration from all over the globe and yet, despite this, she still finds that people want to put her work in a box. When asked if she sees herself as a ‘Japanese illustrator’ or simply an illustrator who happens to come from Japan, Yuko's response is “I feel very selfish about this but I pick and choose depending on the situation. Americans look at my work and whatever I do they see Japan. Then Japanese people look at my work and to them it looks American. I don't really know because I can't see my work from the third person's view. It's part of me. I am just doing my work and I see me.”

It wasn’t just her artistic identity that Yuko had to deal with upon returning, coming back as a woman in her 30’s and no longer a child had other challenges. “After I moved back here as an adult I quickly realised how men perceived Asian women and I became disgusted, I didn't know this part of the culture because I was a kid when I was last here and now I came back as an adult, female, and this is kind of gross. Asian women, East Asian women, are considered meek and submissive and that's a Western stereotype and stereotypes do to an extent come from how we as Asian women behave or are taught to behave in our own culture.” Yuko uses her art to challenge these perceptions, depicting women, especially East Asian women as “kick-ass.” Yuko has created many portraits along this theme, one of which was widely used back in 2017’s Women's March. Yuko took her illustration titled ‘Women Kick Ass,’ previously done for a feminist magazine, and made it available to download so others could use them for signs. She states,

“I’m a feminist. If any woman isn’t a feminist I don't understand it, but that is a whole other story, how do women not want other women to thrive, it's half of the population!”

Talk turns to the rise in anti-Asian hate crime seen in the West, predominantly the States that has been fuelled by the pandemic and the former Presidents tactless and inflammatory coverage of Covid-19 as the “China Virus.” The recent horrific shootings that occurred in Georgia where Asian women were the target and main victims of a white male shooter claiming to have been motivated by “sexual addiction” caused shockwaves across the country. “It's terrible, right now I don't even feel like taking the subway because I don't feel safe, which is terrible. Otherwise I'm doing okay. I think if anything good came out of it, as horrible as it is, is that people are finally listening. Asians in the west, the US and other western countries have been in an odd situation; we are among the most educated, Asian women are some of the highest earning race and gender groups, but at the same time we are still a minority.” Many prominent Asian-Americans have come forward to talk the discrimination they face, particularly East Asian women and how they have been fetishized by the Western gaze. In the days and weeks after the attack Yuko took to social media to repost many of her strong female characters, sharing messages of solidarity, raising awareness and combating ignorance. Under one she wrote “the heroine is exactly the opposite of how East Asian women are perceived. She is strong, independent and she will kick your ass. Stop fetishizing Asian women. Stop fetishizing our cultures. Protect our sisters, and brothers.”

Yuko hopes that with more engagement with other cultures, both in the States and in Japan, these perceptions will eventually fall away with true understanding. To expats living in Japan she says, “we tend to go towards something that makes us comfortable which are the things and people from our own country which is okay to a certain extent but however long you are going to be in Japan please immerse yourself as much as possible. Japan is still in the process of accepting that it’s part of the international world and also that's a problem but having more people coming in from outside, jumping into this different culture, then they will see and understand more and become more part of the international community. So hopefully that is what people try to do, get to know Japan and get to know Japanese people so they can get to know you. So you can have kids growing up where it's more normal to have kids from everywhere and that's a step forward.”

Yuko has many projects that she is working on at any given time, many of which she cannot discuss; such is the nature of her work. What she can tell us is that she has been illustrating for a few books that are available for purchase this year, for those who love fiction the book ‘The Cat who Saved Books,’ written by best selling author Sosuke Natsukawa, will be on sale in English and with her illustration on the cover later this year. For those interested in experimenting with Japanese alcohol, Yuko collaborated with Julia Momosé to create illustrations for ‘The Way of the Cocktail’ showing cocktails throughout the “micro” seasons, 24 in total. To see her ongoing work and even short videos of her calligraphy technique (which are exceptionally soothing to watch) head over to her instagram @yukoart

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