A R T I C L E S  &  M E D I A

Reference article: "weekly magazine Shukan Gendai" March 17th, 2007.

Why is a huge portrait of Daisaku Ikeda shown at the Graduation Works Exhibition of Tokyo University of the Arts? 

An interview article of Lives of Great Men of the World (3)

"Weekly magazine Shukan Gendai" March 17th, 2007.

The text of English translation below.

Satire, Worship, Or…? Controversy at the University


Apparently the act of looking up is also part of the stylistic concept. The frame colors are the same as Gakkai's tricolor flag - blue, yellow, and red. Gakkai: Stands for Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist sect religion movement that was once designated as a cult, and headed by Daisaku Ikeda.


Why is a huge portrait of Daisaku Ikeda shown at the Graduation Works Exhibition of Tokyo University of the Arts?

On the last Sunday of February, I visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno to find an exhibition of graduation projects from the Tokyo University of the Arts (open through February 25th). Appreciating the aspiring artists' masterpieces lining the walls, I noticed a crowd of people around a work at the end of the hall. Wondering what was going on, I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw what it was. There, high on the wall, hung a huge portrait of 79-year-old Ikeda Daisaku, the president of Soka Gakkai.

With a size of 227cm by 182 cm, the oil painting conspicuously dominated the exhibition venue. Entitled, Lives of Great Men of the World (3): Deification of the Power Holders, the portrait, with its countless skin blemishes and luminescent lip, engendered a strange sense of reality. Next to the painting was a long list of references, including a number of books and magazine articles related to Soka Gakkai––even some articles from our own magazine.

I stood there for a while, observing the viewers' reactions. "What the hell is this?" "It's Daisaku Sensei!" “Is the artist a Gakkai member or something?" The reactions varied, but not a single person failed to stop and take a look. Because the painting is hung so high on the wall, it is as if Mr. Ikeda's huge face is looking down on the upward gaze of visitors from below. It creates a tremendous sense of intimidation. There's a comment book in the hall for visitors to write their impressions after viewing the work. "They're gonna smash you!" "Good job challenging Japanese taboos. Artists must take risks." "You're an idiot. And the University looks bad for placing this work at the end of the show." "Watch your back."

Why did the artist choose such an unusual motif? His name is Mr. Atsushi Watanabe, a 28-year old artist born in Yokohama, who belongs to the Painting Department of Tokyo University of the Arts. His appearance is unique; sturdy-bodied, he wears a small mustache and speaks in a high-pitched innocent voice. I interviewed Mr. Watanabe about the piece. "My father has been a member of Soka Gakkai since before he got married, but he didn't tell my mother. My mother is not a member of Soka Gakkai, and instead believes in a separate sect of Buddhism. So that's the family environment I grew up in, seeing my mother struggling. It's a story you hear all the time; around election season we'd get all sorts of phone calls asking for votes for the Komeito (the political party formed by Gakkai members), or to buy the Seikyo Shimbun (Gakkai’s newspaper), or inviting my mother to join Soka Gakkai. What made it even worse was that they all came from my father's friends. But my father never cared about my mother's suffering, and so our family was divided ever since I was a child; I still never talk to my father. I became suspicious of Soka Gakkai because they try to convert people so forcefully. That experience led me to paint Mr. Daisaku Ikeda's portrait." Mr. Watanabe also had a hard time exhibiting this work at the graduation works exhibition.

“The university was afraid of showing my work. Only a few people supported me. Some teachers opposed to it because of the possible societal reaction, saying, 'I'm not sure it’s a good idea to put up a portrait of someone who is like an emperor to Soka Gakkai'. But others told me, 'It's perfect,' so I was finally able to convince everybody to include it in the exhibition." Masao Otsukotsu, a Soka Gakkai observer and journalist, was also shocked when he saw the portrait.

"The portrait was very impactful. Viewers were giggling, and saying, 'Ikeda is really like this, isn't he!' so I took away the impression that this portrait is projecting a true image of Mr. Ikeda and Soka Gakkai. I have heard that a lot of the portraits of Mr. Ikeda in the Seikyo Shimbun have been altered. So in that matter, this portrait painted by Mr. Watanabe is closer to reality, and captures the true essence of Daisaku Ikeda. A lot of children who grow up in homes where one parent is a Gakkai member and the other is not become suspicious of Gakkai's activities. Within the organization, Mr. Ikeda is seen as the absolute authority, but society doesn't see him that way. I think the humor and problems of that situation are reflected in the painting." What did Mr. Watanabe's family think about this work? "My father has never seen it, but my mother came to see it. I don't know if she was too shocked, or what, but she didn't say a word." Just to be sure, I asked Soka Gakkai about the portrait. "We have no knowledge of the work of which you speak. Therefore, we have no intention of issuing any comment." If some people take it as satire, others see it as nothing more than worshipping. It is a work that has caused quite a controversy, but as Mr. Watanabe says, "I am not a believer. I am neither affirming nor denying Soka Gakkai. I just hope people who view the portrait will see it as raising awareness of the issue. I intend to continue portraying Mr. Ikeda as a motif." We look forward to Mr. Watanabe's future works.

A picture of Soka Gakkai President Mr. Ikeda in 2004.

(It is posted in the middle of the article)