Under The Radar

Under The Radar

Tokyo’s unsung creative women fuel ventures across the arts


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on January 2013

It’s a pattern seen in many cities across the world—while a large percentage (over 70% on average) of students enrolled in the arts in Tokyo universities are women, it seems once they’re out in the real world, the ones who make a name in their scenes are mostly men. Whether it is art, music, film, or other fields, men’s names dominate.

So where do all the women go? Metropolis went out in search of as many young, creative women as possible, at art fairs, galleries, zine festivals, protests, live venues and parks. Here’s a few we encountered.

Maki Okojima is an avid young painter who spends time drawing every day. Her paintings are wildly imaginative with allusions to folktales and origin myths. At last year’s Emerging Directors’ Art Fair at Spiral Garden, Okojima wasn’t happy just to hang a painting; she spent the weekend expanding her picture beyond the frame and onto the wall behind it. The painting became a large and detailed mural, titled The Big Monkey That Ate the Sun, and Mermaid, Then Collision.

We’d never heard of that monkey. “It’s a made-up story. I invented it,” she explained with a laugh. “When the end of the sun was approaching, before extinguishing itself in a massive explosion, a big monkey swallowed it. Since that day, the world has existed inside the stomach.”

The mural added many more details of the story—while the main painting showed the monkey about to eat the sun, the expanded drawing added the impending asteroid and some of her mythical world where humans live in the ocean. The overall effect is somewhere between street art and an album cover for a prog-rock group.

Okojima is part of Island, a gallery space in Kanda (http://islandjapan.com), and is represented by Volcanoise gallery in Ochanomizu (www.volcanoise.com). She recently held a solo exhibition at the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo, and February sees her take part in Wall Art Festival, an international art project in the small town of Warli, India, where she’ll no doubt make another highly original mural for the project.

Sakiyo Tobita has two passions: music and fashion. First, she leads Tokyo experimental rock group, The Medium Necks, who toured the US last year alongside fellow Japanese experimentalist Asuna. Tobita has also been designing her own clothes for a few years under the label Iron If Desired.

“I like the long “i” sounds in those words, when I see them written on the care instructions for clothes,” she explained to me. The name also expresses a carefree attitude towards how people wear and care for the clothes—a freedom also seen in the unfinished edges, uneven pleats, and random attachments of beads and other items.

Tobita’s autumn 2012 clothes were on exhibit at Rojitohito in Jimbocho last year in a part-art exhibit, part-craft workshop. Visitors were encouraged to stay and make a beaded necklace or bracelet with the pieces she provided on the table. Tobita’s professed sources of inspiration were a little surprising. “Getting a vintage knit from Rad Summer, meeting the ponies at Yoyogi Park in the early morning, talking about Dame Dacy zine, searching for Japanese folktales on YouTube, shallow sleep, leftover pieces of a waffle… these all make very personal feelings in me.”

The Medium Necks perform around Tokyo every now and then, at venues such as Ftarri (Suidobashi), Club Que (Shimokitazawa), and Bullets (Roppongi). Her band’s whole discography has been released on mini CDs, as seen on her blog www.themediumnecks.com. Tobita holds an annual exhibition of her fashion label at Rojitohito in Jimbocho. Her handmade clothing can be purchased online at https://themediumnecks.stores.jp.

Madoka Kouno performs soft and strange soundscapes using analog tape players. Before taking up the tape players, metronomes, metal plates and other machines, she started off as a bass player in a small covers band. She then studied at Bigakko, an independent art school in Jimbocho (www.bigakko.jp), and was encouraged to try something entirely new.

Kouno describes her sound work as “catching variations in interference and distance through the machines. It comes out as feedback. I also intervene in what is happening during my performance, manipulating the sounds.” We caught her performance at Ftarri in November last year. Feedback and interference might imply something harsh and grating, but she creates a surprisingly soft sound, carefully balancing little scratches and clicks over a background of what sounds sometimes like white noise, sometimes like waves at a beach.
Kouno often performs in Tokyo in venues such as Ftarri (Suidobashi), Bar Isshee (Shibuya), and Lady Jane (Shimokitazawa). Find her schedule at www.i-ma-wav.com.