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East meets West

By Jerome Tarshis / February 11, 1981



The artist Masami Teraoka was born in Japan, where his parents had a kimono shop. When he was young he found kimonos unpleasantly reminiscent of the old Japan; in both life and art he wanted something more modern and Western.

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Since 1961 he has lived in Los Angeles, which he enjoys because Los Angeles is open and informal, unlike the Japanese society in which he grew up. At the same time, he is disturbed by the increasing pollution of the environment, and by the impact of Japan of an American commercial civilization largely unopposed by traditional restraints.

The underlying subject matter of his art is the interplay between past and present, and between East and West. He paints watercolors in the style of Japanese ukiyo-em prints of the late 18th and early 19the centuries.

In the watercolor reproduced on this page, we see Teraoka's characteristics mixture of East and West. The kimono, the setting, and the girl's pose come from Japanese tradition. The girl herself is a blonde, however, and the French-fried potatoes in their paper container symbolize the successful invasion of Japan by fast-food restaurants. At upper right a cartouche encloses a Japanese landscape dominated by the familiar M of McDonald's hamburgers.

At first sight many of Teraoka's watercolors look like scroll paintings or ukiyo-em prints. It is the details, sometimes quite inconspicuously inserted, that make the artist's point. A fisherman nets an empty glass jug. A samurai carries not only his swords, but also golf clubs or roller skates. A man on a sinking boat is the head of the company responsible for the pollution disaster at Minamata.

Teraoka often produces a series of watercolors on a single theme. A series still in progress, "Los Angeles Sushi Ghost Tales," was inspired by the recent proliferation in Los Angeles of restaurants serving slices of raw fish, which the Japanese call sushi,m his point being that the increasing pollution of the oceans may eventually make it dangerous for either Japanese or southern Californians to eat sushi.m

The artist concedes that most Japanese are not yet ready for his message. At present Japan is engaged in headlong modernization, and the Japanese are too excited by their economic miracle to worry about its unwelcome consequences.

We Americans began earlier to pursue modernization and material wealth at the cost of destroying traditional ways of life and polluting the environment. We have had more time to ask ourselves whether our material progress is worth the price, and so, oddly enough, this satirist of the new Japan has found his greatest acceptance in the United States.