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Tetsuya Ishida, Surrealism of a Salaryman

Updated: May 10

Usually known as kaishain (会社員), informally shortened to shain, Japanese salaryman found an unexpected chronicler of his struggle in Tsutoya Ishida, an artist of the lost generation.


Usually, one should start with something like “Ishida was born on…” but unfortunately, it wouldn’t quite fit the meaning of his art.

Tsutoya Ishida died on May 23rd 2005. 41 years old, he died under a train on a level crossing in Machida, Tokyo. In Japan a death like that, either at a level crossing or at a subway platform, is euphemistically called “jinshin jiko” (人身事故) or “a human body accident”. The phrase originated in a standard, regulation message the staff onboard broadcasts to passengers: “Currently, due to the effects of a [human] body accident, this train has stopped. We apologize for any inconvenience and hope to resume service soon.” Coming straight from the customer care manual, the term found its way into common life and became a linguistic staple. The particular thing about this classification is how aptly it blurs the distinction between a suicide and an accident. There are, on average, about 20 000 suicides per year in Japan, officially about 6% of them are committed “by train”.


Lost Child (Maigo), 2004, acrylic and oil on canvas


In Japan, people born in the seventies are often referred to as “Shūshoku Hyōgaki” or “Employment Ice Age Generation”, also known as the lost generation. These are the people who had to navigate their way through the era of unstable and temporary employment beginning in the early 1990s. The phrase “employment ice age” first appeared in November 1992 in a job recruitment publication, describing the situation many of the young people found themselves after finishing studies. Ishida graduated from the Musashino Art University in 1996, just after the collapse of the bubble economy. Suddenly there were homeless people on streets, something almost unimaginable during the bubble economy years, economy was plummeting and, year by year, suicide rate was rising rapidly. Ishida was more lucky than many of his colleagues. Between 1997 and 2005 his painting won recognition in the art world, thanks to his unique style and the powerful impression his art left on the audience.


Untitled, 1998, acrylic on wood panel


In his works, somewhat superficially labeled as “surrealist”, Ishida mercilessly conducted a vivisection of the Great Japanese Salaryman’s Dream. Brutally reaching into society unconscious stirrings and into its collective imagery metaphors he reconstructs a hidden, alternate reality, more real than the idealistic, skillfully implanted image of a samurai and a geisha soul-reaching under the blossoming cherry tree. In a strange way, his pictures reflect the ukiyo-e prints of the Edo era much better than the nostalgic, belated souvenirs of the “New Print Movement” (Jap. “Shin Hanga Undo”). Ukiyo-e images were the windows showing the magical world populated by the hidden dreams of townspeople, where attractive (and easily available) girls from tea houses chatted with travelers, while the celebrities of the era - oiran (lit. “The First Flowers”) or high ranking prostitutes together with the most popular kabuki actors demonstrated that even if you were born poor, beauty and luck can take you to the top. In a similar fashion, Ishida's paintings open the windows to contemporary dreams of the city folk, only in the meantime, those dreams turn into nightmares. There is no alluring oiran, just ultra-expensive call girls the richest. The tradition of samurai was usurped by yakuza, the Japanese mafia, a glorified parasite, mercilessly feeding off the society. The Kabuki became a revered, obsolete tradition. The most popular celebrities fall victim to suicide just like the regular people, unable to stand the mounting pressure to pretend they live the ideal lives. When the outer world becomes a crooked mirror of Edo dreams, the salaryman dreams nightmares, metaphorical, distorted and exaggerated visions of his everyday life. To speak loud, to admit problems, would go against the strict requirements of proper social behavior, requiring the constant maintenance of the illusion of harmonious, successful life. Not allowed to complain, he puts on an his seahorse plated armor and listens to the plaintive beeps of a long-distance call home.


Distance (Kyori), 1999, acrylic on board


If we look at his paintings this way, it becomes difficult to say how much of a surrealist Ishida really is. Certainly, his works “look” and “feel” surreal, but are they really? The “traditional” surrealists, like Tanguy, Dali or even Chirico with his pintura metafisica concentrated on each one's own mind, memories, dreams and hallucinations. Their travels led them inside themselves. Instead, Ishida attempts to travel into the hidden parts of the collective, social narration. Like an artist-surgeon, he reaches into the inner workings of the society, revealing sickness invisible under the surface and giving voice to parts silenced in official communication, those that can only be noticed by revealing the omittance, a silent pause, where the sound should, be or blank space where a human is no more. For surrealists of the old, the artistic process that revealed the secrets of human unconsciousness hold keys to better understanding of humanity and, ultimately, to a better future. For Ishida, the troubling secrets of salaryman’s mind are tropes of approaching darkness, laid out for the viewer to see.


Recalled (Kaishū), 1998, acrylic on board


The 3D - dehumanization, docility and difference are the main lessons learnt at school, where the pupils slowly turn into learning aids. A literal robotization of the human body continues through each stage of a salaryman's life. His members turn into tools most suitable for the work he does. It is in school also that the recurring feeling of drawing starts, later accompanying every part of life, as in several Ishida’s paintings. Throughout the process, a salaryman gradually loses himself, becomes an object, a property of the company and, at the same time, a society ritual paraphernalia. He cannot even be sure the process will end with his death. Upon the end of his life he is packed for shipment and a well designed, utilitarian package hint’s into possible continuation, be it in the afterlife or in a reincarnation.


Untitled, date and media unknown


The early European surrealist represented their inner landscapes in a series of landscape paintings, usually based on environments they were deeply familiar with, a kind of environment they knew from childhood. For Salvadore Dali it was Catalan Empordà - maybe with a touch of the Bardenas Reales, the one region of Spain that is perfectly surreal on its own. Chirico’s figures stand against the backdrop of ancient Attica and Latzion, while for Tanguy, the right setting will be a dreamy version of his own Brittany. In Ishida’s painting the landscape is a rare and seemingly alien addition. A metaphor commenting on the longing of a human being. Usually he paints tired figures tooling in the confined, claustrophobic and oppressive spaces - an office, a factory or a school. Ishida himself grew up in Yaizu, Shizuoka. His home province is known as a particularly picturesque part of Japan, full of farms, orchards and cherry trees. Yet the landscape, if it finds a way onto his easel, is anything but idyllic. A viewer looking at his paintings will face an impossible task trying to find a welcoming, hospitable countryside. There are no tea shrubs, no tangerine nor persimmon trees; there are no hot springs and there is no trace of the famous winding coastline of Shizuoka where majestic Mount Fuji looks from the background offering benevolent (if somehow sentimental) blessings. Instead, the green patches of grass resemble an artificial turf, rolled down to further stress the strangeness of the surroundings. In a cityscape, a wall of tall, grey and foreboding office buildings crowds the lifeless streets below and looks with indifference toward few schoolboys drowning in concrete while desperately holding on to their pocket area guides. Sometimes what it seems like a landscape from a distance, after a closer look turns into a salaryman's mirage, realistically painted curtain pulled apart by a young man sitting in darkness.

Beer Garden Departure (Biagaaden hatsu), 1995, acrylic on paper


Green lands have no place in the everyday life of human-ants. There is no true beauty and a salary man can find no relief in his surroundings. Even after his shift is done, even after swapping his badge on the way out, the salaryman is not free. Now he has to join a series of after-work drinks shared with his team; an obligatory, unescapable ritual that leaves him even more exhausted and more than slightly drunk. Only then can he find a short, fleeting illusion of freedom, when, supported on the arms of his brothers in arms he let's his inner child wake up and takes off to the imaginary skies, where soft, cushy clouds offer a short moment of comfort, just before he plunges down.

Untitled, 2004, acrylic on canvas


Only books give mercy. Their covers open windows to better, greener worlds. But will that be enough? Will the salaryman even find time, strength and will to read a book? Or will he finds cheap satisfaction browsing through the pages of a semipornographic manga magazine?


Browsing (Busshoku), 1998, acrylic on board


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More about Tetsuya Ishida and his paintings see "Tetsuya Ishida. Self-portrait of Other" Museo Reina Sophia, Madrid 2019.


Tsukasa Obayashi wrote about the looming consequences of Japanese crisis of the 90's for the survivors of the lost generation in his paper "Nightmare 2040: Japan's lost generation".


The translation of the regulatory train engineer's message and more about the "human body accident": Michael Fisch, “Tokyo's Commuter Train Suicides and the Society of Emergence", Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 28, Issue 2, pp. 320–343.


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