Tadanori Yokoo

Mother Nature's Son

Graphis #315 May/June 1998

When I met with him in his huge, hangar-like Tokyo Studio last fall, I asked him how he not only confronted, but accepted all of the fantastic experiences and chances that he had been granted throughout his career, some of which might have stunned a lesser man into inactivity. His explanation was free of egoism: "I'm afraid of participating, but just as afraid of running away. In the end, I give in." 

In January of 1964, Tadanori Yokoo was invited to the Shelter Plan Conference, organized by the conceptual art group High Red Center. The invitation was personalized and formal, stating that Yokoo had been chosen specially, and that he was to wear gloves and a necktie, and enter through the main doors of the Old Imperial Hotel. He was allowed to bring a guest. Yokoo was intrigued, and apprehensive. He took a designer friend, Akira Uno, who had no compunctions about underground art. After loitering about the lobby, they were met by a nervous-looking man in a dark suit and sunglasses, and ushered discreetly to a room that had been occupied, it seemed, without the management's permission. At their knock, the door was opened a crack. They were assessed and received quickly.

Upon entering the room, Yokoo found himself face to buttocks with three rear-shot nude photos of the High Red Center members, Jiro Takamatsu, Gempei Akasegawa, and Natsuyuki Nakanishi. This view was new to Yokoo, and he felt a little sick. He was motioned to observe a rule of silence. He was measured; then he was photographed, fully clothed, from six angles; his mouth was filled with water to the bursting point, and the dispelled water measured; he was disrobed and put in a bath. The volume of displaced water was measured. For the construction of his own personal "shelter", or coffin, he was unburdened of what amounts today to about $300.00, in thousand yen notes. As he signed the guest list, he noticed some familiar names: Ushio Shinohara, Nam Jun Paik, Taro Okamoto, and Yoko Ono. The following morning, Gempei Akasegawa made the top story on the national news page; he was being charged with counterfeiting thousand yen notes. In his autobiography, Yokoo makes a commental theater group, Tenjo Sajiki.

Yokoo went on to work with these greats regularly, and through his collaborations with them, to begin considering the unification of life and art, and on the other hand, a separation between design and art. He reveled in his culture shock.

By giving in, Tadanori Yokoo finds the inspiration to give out. His gifts are visual representations of his voyage to an inner world, a successive crumbling of his own set ideas. Eventually, he says, through this inner trip, he hopes to gain an understanding of the cosmos. "I feel best when abandoning the things I was most particular about. In the process, I gain freedom."

In 1965, Yokoo became obsessed with death. "To confront the fear, I realized I had to become the fear itself," he writes in his autobiography. And so he designed a poster that shocked his friends, and brought him face to face with the terror. It reads, "Having reached a climax at the age of 29, I was dead." A young man in Western clothes, clutching a rose, hangs by a noose against the background of the rising sun's rays. An erupting Mount Fuji and a bullet train decorate the top corners.

Tadanori Yokoo grew up surrounded by pre-war design: labels on boldly colored matchboxes and other daily articles. Because his home town was in a major textile region, he was also surrounded by Western-lettered textile labels that at first glance were exotic and lovely, but in the end, made him feel queasy. As a young man, he fled the countryside and sought whatever urban thrills Tokyo could give him. Later, in the U.S. and Europe, movements like dada and social trends like psychadelic American hippie culture. Yet he couldn't seem to rid himself of the Japanese-ness he associated with that cloying pre-war image.

In a 1966 critique, Yokoo was accused of dragging down modern design to the level of the masses. Far from being affronted, Yokoo thus found his goal: to express, rather than try to escape, the passion, and the earthy and animistic culture, of his native Japan.

From that point on, Yokoo's work began to take on its distinctive tone and voice of friendly irony.


There is a face Tadanori Yokoo loves. It's the angelic face of a youth, maybe around ten years old. "It's the face of innocence," he says, "and purity, and reverence towards something great, like God." He met it first on the cover of Shonen, a magazine he used to read as a kid. The Japanese postal and police services still use it to inspire the Japanese to goodness of heart and purity of action. To my western eyes, it's like a hologram, alternately powerful, as it is meant, and totally kitsch. For Yokoo, it is still a compelling image, and is one of the many things that moves him to speak of ideals.

"That face is the ideal form of a human being," says Yokoo. "because one must have those elements, of innocence and purity, and reverence. Of course, only young children have that face, because, as we all know, every time ideals collide with reality, they crumble a little. Still, as a symbol, it's perfect." Yokoo's work, with its thesaurus of symbolic images that he's made his own, from every culture he's seriously considered, pictures this very clash of ideals and reality. In a book on collage technique done 20 years ago, he said, "as I lay down the images, I'm testing them against an ideal world I hold in my mind. Because I sense the imbalance in the world around me, I unconsciously tend towards balance and symmetry, two methods of expressing the ideal world. Sometimes I go too far, and wish later that I'd left some images jutting out over the borders."

From the first time he read Yukio Mishima, Yokoo felt a spiritual link with the novelist. In the other, each found an understanding of the concern that life and art be linked. Each was deeply interested in what happens when reality and ideals clash.

In the following excerpt from an exhibition catalogue, Mishima pinpoints the effect of the collision between Yokoo's inner world and the images of the outer one. "[Yokoo's] work has all the unbearability of the Japanese. His work angers people, and scares them, with its vulgar colors. It's scary how much his [common billboard] colors resemble the Coca Cola ones. Yet while average people don't want to look at them, it makes them look....

"In the darkness of these bright colors, there's something solemn and deep. Like in the circus tightrope walker's spangled panties, there is something pathetic, a solemnity. The womb of our national anthem bares her teeth and frightens people. What makes Yokoo's work not just the art of a madman is his interest in the world around him. For example, the parody he achieves through the brutal treatment of the common. In this ruinous working of his inner world, the vulgar is scorned. It is not just the inner world, however; in exploding outward, it becomes a parody and makes us laugh. It is this that makes it healthy.

"Even so, even if he becomes international, I hope he doesn't let go of the strange map of our Japan."


Yokoo's parents were merchants, and did not study beyond elementary school. Their daily activities educated the young Tadanori in what he now knows is called animism, but at the time, was just the way it is. "My parents prayed every day, and they had a certain respect for objects. If a newspaper was laying on the floor, for instance, you weren't to step over it. My parents taught me very early on that I wasn't going to accomplish much through egoism alone. They borrowed strength from the gods they sensed around them, and taught me to, too."

This animistic approach to life is based in the beliefs of Japan's only native religion, Shintoism, in which there is no single god, but a sense of the greatness of the natural universe and man's small but essential place in it. Yokoo was introduced to western rationality as a schoolboy, and became much more familiar with it as he experienced the western nations.

In a memorable competition for a MOMA poster, he beat out three of his role models, Peter Max , Tommy Angula, and Milton Glaser, by forcing himself to make a rational explanation, in English, of a design for a poster for an exhibition entitled, "Word and Image". His first try had been rejected, because he couldn't explain it. Tongue in cheek, he produced a second design with a group of mouths and eyes, streaming light: word and image symbolized. Whereas the judges hadn't trusted their sensibilities on his first try, Yokoo says, they trusted his words, and their intellects on the second. Yokoo was dismayed. But he does recognize the limits of animism in the modern world. "You have to have a mix of the old Japanese way of thinking and modern, rational thought, if you're going to live in the world as it is."

Like many great Japanese designers, Yokoo has been successful internationally because he has been able to make rational explanations of his work. And yet he would prefer that European modernism, with its insistence on the rational and the functional, give in a little to the Asian sense of intuition. "It would be better if designers clarified the themes and problems of their own lives..... It's fine for a designer to recognize that design and economy can't be separated, but then he should reject it. When the designer is working, there shouldn't be any consideration whatsoever of the commercial aspects.

"The designer should, within that small frame in which he or she works, explore his own themes, his own life, his own thoughts."

In Yokoo's view, the triumph of the rational and the functional over the intuitive, is aided, technologically, by the computer. A frigidity of expression, which is first provided by designers, and then desired by consumers, to him represents a crisis. "Something generous and essential in human beings could be lost. If one understands the crisis while using the computer, the danger is past. But there are those who mistake a new technology for a new consciousness. They have no doubts."ent that is short, fair, and typically incensorious: "the borderlines separating art, life, and crime were tenuous."


The Shelter Plan Conference was for Yokoo unfamiliar, disturbing, and frightening. When I met with him in his huge, hangar-like Tokyo studio last fall, I asked him how he not only confronted, but accepted all the fantastic experiences and chances he had been granted throughout his career, some of which would have stunned a lesser man into inactivity.

When we met, Yokoo had just entered his seventh decade. Being of my father's generation, he seemed to me a familiar and comforting presence. He wears a ponytail, but puts on no airs, and his explanation was free of egoism. "I'm afraid of participating, but just as afraid of running away. In the end, I give in."

Yokoo has been both lucky and open to lucky circumstances throughout his life. When he finds something that speaks to him, or someone, he strives to "make them [his] own", he says. For example, captivated by Yukio Mishima's novel, "The Temple of The Golden Pavillion", he wanted, he writes in his autobiography, "to brush up against the magnetic field of Mishima's genius." He heard that a photo book on Mishima was going to be produced, and while he wasn't able to realize his dream of designing it, through his determination to have something to do with the project or its participants, he ended up meeting not only Mishima, but also Shuji Terayama, the director of the wildly successful experiment.

Tadanori Yokoo once worked by taking a pair of scissors to a pile of books and magazines. A giant piece of white paper was his mirror as he started down the path to his inner self. In 1981 he made a formal exit from the world of design, and turned to the less rationally demanding world of pure art. Today he often works on a Power Mac 9500 with Adobe Photoshop 4.0, Illustrator 7.0, and Painter. He is able to change any part of the image he pleases, thus dissipating some of the thrill, and removing many of the chances that once challenged his thinking, and led him to discover new regions of his inner world. He also has a couple of technicians working with him, to whom he communicates his ideas through words, and to whom he thus commits part of the responsibility of choice. And yet, aware of the crisis, he has managed to overcome the obstacle of too much choice. His images still startle, and sing. He is still Mother Nature's son.