Big Talk

Become a Master in Your Chosen Field

Commissioner for Cultural Affairs Ryohei Miyata (former Tokyo University of the Arts president) is the son of a traditional wax casting artist, yet he has earned high accolades for his mastery of the art of metalwork. Toshio Motoya spoke with Miyata, who is renowned for his artwork featuring dolphin forms, about topics including the source of Miyata’s enduring artistic passion.

A master of metalwork, a type of art made by beating metal into shapes

(Mo) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. In the past I’ve chatted with many people involved in politics and diplomacy, such as National Diet members and foreign ambassadors to Japan. I invited you here to talk about the fine arts, which is the field I know the least about.

(Mi) Thank you very much.

(Mo) You were born in Niigata Prefecture, so we are both from the Hokuriku region. I consider Hokuriku as having four prefectures – Niigata, Toyama, Ishikawa, and Fukui – and I am actively doing business in Niigata as well.

(Mi) As a Niigata native, I’m glad to hear that! Many people only include three prefectures in Hokuriku.

(Mo) Niigata is the fifth-largest prefecture in Japan with a population of roughly 2.3 million people. I think it’s odd to exclude it from the Hokuriku region.

(Mi) I agree.

(Mo) Hokuriku is on the Sea of Japan near the continent. Cargo ships sailed there, and all information, people, and goods passed through this area. Hokuriku has not been regarded as historically important, but it was actually an essential entryway into Japan.

(Mi) The cargo ships were certainly an important type of infrastructure.

(Mo) Just like today, ships could safely transport large amounts of goods and people to remote locations. I recently traveled to Vietnam, where I visited Hoi An, an ancient city near Da Nang. Red-seal ships (shogun trading vessels) traveled between Hoi An and Japan during the 16th century, and there was even a Japanese settlement and covered bridge in Hoi An built by Japanese people at that time. Having seen a model of a red-seal ship, I felt those Japanese people must have been extremely courageous to go on overseas trading expeditions in such small vessels before Japan was closed to the outside world. Also in the 16th century, the Tensho embassy of Japanese noblemen was sent to Rome and other parts of Europe by the Christian daimyo lords.

(Mi) Yes, I am often astounded by the great bravery of Japanese people back then.

(Mo) I think the Japanese are skilled at bringing in things from overseas that match well with our country and discarding the rest. Also, a great deal of Japanese culture was originally developed here rather than brought from abroad.

(Mi) Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun, was also the terminus of the Silk Road. I think Japanese people had great discernment, a part of our DNA that still exists today.

(Mo) What is your field of specialty as an artist?

(Mi) I was born into a family in Sado that has practiced traditional wax casting, a type of art unique to that area, for many generations. In this lost-wax technique, you first create an original model out of wax and cover it in a clay mold. Once the mold is dry, the wax is melted away, leaving a hollow cavity behind that copper alloy is poured into. In contrast, I studied metalwork using hammers at Tokyo University of the Arts (Tokyo Geidai). Today I use a wide range of metalworking techniques in my artwork.

(Mo) Are metalworking techniques found only in Japan?

(Mi) Metalwork began in the Stone Age, when people beat objects into shapes. These techniques arose around the world, and each has its own unique characteristics. Metalwork evolved in Japan because we have few resources; shaping metal with a hammer makes it possible to effectively use these metal resources. Different metals also have different qualities, allowing for the diverse range of expression that is a major appeal of metalwork.

(Mo) Metalwork began in the Stone Age, when people beat objects into shapes. These techniques arose around the world, and each has its own unique characteristics. Metalwork evolved in Japan because we have few resources; shaping metal with a hammer makes it possible to effectively use these metal resources. Different metals also have different qualities, allowing for the diverse range of expression that is a major appeal of metalwork.

(Mi) Yes, it is.

(Mo) I think the techniques used to make Japanese swords are the best in the world.

(Mi) Japanese swords, fabricated to be both powerful and flexible, are certainly unparalleled.

(Mo) I have a constant sense that businesspeople should be simultaneously hard and soft, rather like a Japanese sword.

(Mi) Interesting, that conforms in some ways with the philosophy you have developed.

Choose paths others haven’t traveled and develop methods for gaining victory

(Mi) I’ve heard your company will be celebrating its 50th anniversary soon.

(Mo) Yes, the year after next marks 50 years since our founding, and I’ve gotten older in the blink of an eye. I still feel like I’m 38 years old, but I’m actually not so young.

(Mi) Is there any particular reason for that age?

(Mo) I launched my business when I was 27 and built the foundation for my current business in my 30s. That was an era of many dramatic events, and I believe I am where I am today because I successfully overcame countless difficulties.

(Mi) It sounds like a fascinating struggle in your life. What kinds of battles did you fight?

(Mo) My company started out with custom-built housing, then moved into ready-built housing, condominium rental, condominium sales, and hotels. In the real estate business, we inevitably needed to negotiate with powerful figures that had authority in a given location. They were territorial for ambiguous reasons having to do with tradition, religion, and the like. In this business, a real estate brokerage license must be obtained from a prefectural governor or the minister of land, infrastructure and transport. I received my first license from the governor of Ishikawa Prefecture – official authorization from the prefecture that the governor had jurisdiction over that area – to stand against the powerful figures there. We survived this conflict and expanded from our home city of Komatsu in Ishikawa to Kanazawa City and the entire Hokuriku Region, then farther to Tokyo and across Japan. You will be destroyed if you merely emulate others, so you have to develop unique methods for winning victories in different ways. I went to Komatsu Prefectural High School, one of the foremost high schools in Ishikawa. I then got a correspondence education from Keio University’s Faculty of Economics while working at the Komatsu Shinkin Bank. I felt it would be a waste of time just to attend university, so I decided to learn theories that way and try putting them into practice at the credit union.

(Mi) I’ve been involved in education for 50 years, and I can say that universities generally don’t focus enough on practical learning. A stronger grasp of theories can make them harder to implement. In contrast, at Tokyo Geidai I worked to offer education that balances theory and practice. While I was president, I hoped students could be independent after graduation, and for them to learn how their work was appraised by society. During that time we opened Geidai Art Plaza, an art exhibition and sales facility, for students and instructors to showcase their work.

(Mo) Entering the housing industry provided my biggest advantage. When I started the company, building their own home by the age of 42 – which is said to be a critical age for a man – was a success for men. Everyone wanted to own a home as soon as possible, but back then a cash down payment of 50% was required to get a mortgage from a bank. However, the same amount of principal had to be paid each month. This was illogical because people were forced to repay a great deal of money while they were young and their earning power was low. I thought we would have a hit if we offered mortgages that didn’t require a lot of cash up front and could be paid off with consistent monthly payments, which is why we came up with a long-term housing loan system with equal payments of principal and interest.

(Mi) I have a very unpleasant memory about interest rates. I got a home loan when I was young and worked hard to repay it. When I thought I had paid it off, I was astonished to learn I had only paid off the interest, not the principal.

(Mo) Interest rates were extremely high back then, unlike today.

(Mi) It’s great that you got into the mortgage field, and it sounds like you started a good system.

(Mo) I negotiated with the Ministry Of Finance (MOF) to start this type of loan. This was because the MOF was promoting mergers of local financial institutions to reduce their numbers, and had given a confidential order to integrate three credit unions in Komatsu, Mikawa, and Ishikawa. An employee of the MOF Hokuriku Financial Affairs Bureau became vice-chairman of the Komatsu Shinkin Bank. I was chairman of my bank’s Labor Union Executive Committee, as well as the youngest vice-chairman of the top organization in the labor union for all Hokuriku credit unions, so I had influence over whether the credit union merger would go forward. If I impeded the merger and the MOF bureaucrat went back empty-handed, his prospects would be dim for future promotions. Based on this, I set forth several conditions in exchange for the merger: being able to launch my long-term mortgage system and having others lend their names. I named my new company “Shinkin Development,” referencing the bank’s name. A MOF bureaucrat served as chairman of the board, and I was an executive director. I held 60% of the shares and the credit union held 40%. But these were dummy stock, meaning the company was in effect fully funded by myself. In this way, I leveraged the credit union’s reputation to start my housing business. Back then, many people entering this field were carpenter apprentices or contractor salespeople, and it was quite rare for a person like myself with a financial background to get into that business.

(Mi) As someone who suffered keenly under the old loan system, I applaud your bargaining power.

(Mo) As someone who suffered keenly under the old loan system, I applaud your bargaining power.

Money should not be wasted, but should be spent on items of great import

(Mi) It sounds like you’ve led a dramatic life. Maybe you should write a script to direct and star in your own movie (laughs).

(Mo) A long time ago, I said “racer” or “film director” when people asked me what I wanted to be in the future. I loved foreign movies, partially because I like to travel abroad. My favorites were French and Italian films rather than Hollywood. I wanted to be like Alain Delon and watched Purple Noon, which he stars in, multiple times. I was also interested in design, so I often referred to fashion and automobile ads. My business started with custom-made housing, but then we switched to order-built homes, which are more profitable. Most companies just build many houses in one spot with the same design, but even the most attractive design looks unpleasant in a group. Instead, I sold ready-built homes with different designs to create attractive neighborhoods.

(Mi) So you designed these neighborhoods. You said art isn’t your forte, but you seem to have a lot of knowledge about it. In fact, you are a great artist yourself.

(Mo) Fighting against opponents you can defeat is another important point in business. This may sound like I’m recommending bullying those who are weaker, but I really mean you should fight with confidence that you can win.

(Mi) You need an enormous amount of information to do that.

(Mo) I’ve enjoyed reading the newspaper since I was in elementary school. I immediately looked up any unfamiliar terms in The Year Book of the Contemporary Society, which I ended up reading cover to cover. That custom formed the basis of my knowledge today. I started reading the newspaper to emulate my father, who passed away when I was in junior high school. He used to read national and local papers during meals. Come to think of it, perhaps losing my father so young was the biggest reason for my success.

(Mi) What do you mean?

(Mo) If my father had lived, I would have had to obey his authority. I might not have been able to do what I wanted, such as getting a job right out of high school or launching a company. Men had patriarchal authority back then, and after my father’s death I regarded myself as head of the family. Even as a child, I earned money on my own to support my family. My most successful venture was bicycle parking. My home was near Suehiro Field, a venue for events like sumo matches, track meets, and fireworks displays. It lacked sufficient parking for bicycles, the main mode of transportation at the time. Having noticed this, I let people leave their bicycles with me for 15 yen each. More people started using my service, and I took care of up to 200 bicycles in one day. My daily proceeds totaled 3,000 yen, which was quite close to a worker’s average monthly salary. A local gangster demanded that I pay him protection money, but I thought backing down would mean defeat. I refused, saying, “I am merely earning money for my family as head of the Motoya household.” He ended up going away. In this way, I think I got a strong impression at a young age that you have to be creative to earn money, which was beneficial in my business afterwards.

(Mi) That’s interesting.

(Mo) We started earning money by selling ready-built houses, and during the 10 years after our founding I expanded the business by using our profit to earn trust and borrow more money. After 10 years, I decided to do business based on the assets we had acquired, so we switched from renting to selling condominiums. Condominiums bring major earnings at once when they are sold, and we needed a business with aggregation of profits and losses by amortizing our profit as a way to reduce our taxes. That’s how we got into hotels, but the question was how to earn money in that business. But who to target? Weekdays make up the bulk of the week, and the guests saying on those days tend to be businesspeople on work-related trips, which is why we narrowed down our target to guests of that type. An employee can choose his own hotel, even if he bills his company for expenses. That’s why we immediately introduced a membership system to award these travelers by giving them 5,000 yen cash back when they pay for accommodation expenses of 50,000 yen. This scheme was a complete success.

(Mi) I like APA Hotel’s large baths, and I was surprised to hear you say that large baths have lower water and other costs for hotels with many rooms.

(Mo) Yes, they help keep utility and water costs down in hotels with 300 or more rooms. They are also very popular.

(Mi) As an artist, I find the APA logo very striking and easy to recall.

(Mo) Our company name and logo were designed by Landor in San Francisco, a global leader in branding. We chose a short, easy-to-remember name that starts with the first letter of the alphabet – and also the first character in the Japanese syllabary – and is easy to remember in this Internet era.

(Mi) “APA” is also the middle three letters in the word “JAPAN.” That’s marvelous.

(Mo) I don’t like to waste money, but I believe we should spend on things of great import. I felt there was sufficient value in paying Landor a great deal to create our corporate identity.

(Mi) That way of thinking is similar to how we artists make decisions.

Young people should act confidently without fear of failure

(Mo) Even among your many wonderful artworks, I think you are most well-known for your Silver Bell at Tokyo Station.

(Mi) I think so. Many people use these bells as a meeting place. The first bell was installed in 1964, when the Tokai Shinkansen started service and the Olympics were held in Tokyo. This brought many more people to Tokyo Station, and the bell was made by a station employee so people would have an easy place to arrange to meet. My bell, which I made in 2007, is number four.

(Mo) The dolphins on the bell give a unique touch that is characteristic of your work.

(Mi) In the winter of my 18th year, I left my parents’ home in Sado and took a ferry to Niigata for the university entrance exam. I was grimly resolved, thinking, “I can’t return home if I fail.” That’s when I noticed dozens of dolphins rapidly jumping alongside the boat, as if they were trying to encourage me. Afterwards, I was sent to Germany for one year in my mid-40s. The year after I returned to Japan, I went back to Sado and vividly recalled those dolphins. Wanting to express their dynamic motion, I started working on the Springen series featuring dolphin motifs (“springen” means “flight” in German).

(Mo) I see. Your dolphins have a powerful vitality.

(Mi) I made the emblem for the new Nihombashi Mitsukoshi Main Store Annex in 2004. It’s a large work, measuring seven by four meters. The Mitsukoshi animal is a lion, but I ended up doing a design with dolphins swimming around the “koshi” character from the store’s name (laughs).

(Mo) I can’t imagine anything more joyful than being able to do the type of work you want.

(Mi) Isn’t that what you do?

(Mo) Maybe so. When I take off from Haneda Airport, I feel so happy to see the hotels and condominiums I have built. We are currently constructing 53 hotels with 19,000 rooms, including four hotels with 30 or more stories and six hotels with 20 to 29 stories. Our business is solid, and I feel like I am able to do work that I enjoy.

(Mi) That’s wonderful.

(Mo) I’m confident that I do what I want, say what I want, and hold fast to my beliefs no matter what anyone says. The Chinese government told me to remove my books denying the Nanjing Massacre from our hotel rooms, but I refused.

(Mi) I think it’s important to be thoroughly committed, in both fine arts and business.

(Mo) Doing so will eventually make people regard you as extraordinary. Picasso didn’t just suddenly start producing his Impressionist paintings one day; I’ve heard he learned how to paint realistically at a young age. You must gain mastery before doing something new. Rather than overall conformity, I think top-grade accomplishment comes from mastering your field and then doing unique things.

(Mi) It’s true that Picasso was an amazing sketcher in his youth.

(Mo) I bet that’s why he became famous around the world.

(Mi) I guess it’s time for me to try something different (laughs).

(Mo) I look forward to seeing your wonderful work in the future! At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”

(Mi) I think self-confidence is the most essential thing. Everyone makes mistakes, but you will never succeed or fail if you don’t take action. I want young people to always be aware of acting, and to follow through with what they decide in any job they do.

(Mo) Accomplishing your goals is the greatest happiness in human life.

(Mi) Talking to you, I once again feel glad that I have followed my own path. Thank you for this extremely meaningful experience.

(Mo) No, thank you for sharing such an interesting conversation with me.

Date of dialogue: July 5, 2019


Ryohei Miyata

Born in 1945 in Sado City, Niigata Prefecture as the third son of wax casting artist Rando Miyata. Ryohei Miyata graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Tokyo University of the Arts (Tokyo Geidai) in 1970, and earned his M.F.A. in Craft, Metal-Smithing from the Graduate School of Fine Arts, Tokyo Geidai in 1972. He became president of Tokyo Geidai in 2005 and worked in university management for 10 years (two terms), and then became commissioner for cultural affairs in 2016. Known for work including his Springen series featuring dolphins, Miyata has received multiple accolades including the Prize of Prime Minister at Nitten (Japan Fine Arts Exhibition), Prize of Prime Minister at Nihon Gendai Kogei Bijutsuten (Japan Contemporary Arts and Crafts Exhibition), and 68th Japan Art Academy Prize.