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Taro Okamoto in Tokyo

Kodomo no Ki ('Tree of Children')
‘Kodomo no Ki’ (Tree of Children)

TOKYO (TR) – Glimpses of Taro Okamoto on television or in photographs often showed the avant-garde artist with his hands moving in circles in front of his face, flashing the cheeky grin and bulging eyes that became as well-known as his proclamation: “Art is an explosion!”

Such expressions and imagery usually found their way into self-reflective paintings and sculptures — colors bursting forth, swirling patterns and distorted facial features—that made Okamoto one of Japan’s most revered contemporary artists.

Born in 1911 in Kawasaki, Okamoto studied philosophy and sociology at the University of Paris before serving in the Imperial Army in China during World War II. Following his return to Japan in 1946, he harbored antiwar sentiments. Soon after, he established a studio in Setagaya that would later move to Aoyama, which today is the location of the Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum.

Okamoto died of acute heart failure in 1996. The installation of one of his masterpieces, “Myth of Tomorrow,” inside Shibuya Station later this month will certainly renew interest in his output, which can be widely seen in Tokyo and the surrounding area.


Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum

For more than 50 years, Okamoto called Minami-Aoyama home, and this museum preserves his studio, residence, garden and roughly 600 of his creations. A café sits on the first floor, and a gallery space is upstairs. The descending red text reading “TARO” and the big-eyed facial image on the block wall outside make finding it a snap from the street.

Open Wed-Mon 10am-6pm, closed Tue. 6-1-19 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3406-0801. Nearest stn: Omotesando, exit A5.

Taro Okamoto Museum of Art

This sprawling museum in Kawasaki displays many of Okamoto’s works and those of his parents, Kanoko and Ippei. The current “Defying” exhibition, which includes the large oil paintings “Heavy Industry” (1949) and “Challenge” (1975), runs through January 12.

Open Tue-Sun 9:30am-5pm, closed Mon. 7-1-5 Masukata, Tama-ku, Kawasaki. Tel: 044-900-9898. Nearest station: Noborito (JR Nambu or Odakyu line).

Publicly Displayed Works

躍動の門 Yakudo no Mon (“Lively Gate”), 1993

An arching sculpture topped by twisted bodies that resemble the images in the two far-left panels of “Myth of Tomorrow.”

Location: At the entrance to Urayasu Athletic Park in Chiba. Nearest station: Maihama (JR Keiyo line).

'Taiyo' (Sun)
Taiyo (‘Sun’)

太陽 Taiyo (“Sun”), 1985

An ode to the Sun God, this sculpture features thorn-like beams ringing a golden face that is grinning just like most Okamoto pieces.

Location: On the roof of the Sogo department store in Yokohama. Nearest station: Yokohama, east exit.

こどもの樹 Kodomo no Ki (“Tree of Children”), 1985

Showing that maybe Okamoto was a child at heart, this collection of colorful and smiling branches fixed to a central trunk represents the playfulness of being a kid.

Location: In front of Kodomo no Shiro (National Children’s Castle) in Aoyama. Nearest station: Shibuya or Omotesando, exit B2.

若い時計台 Wakaitokeidai (“Young Clock Tower”), 1966

The elements (and the birds) have not been kind to this aging piece, which features striking colors and waving, spiky tendrils. A clock on top gives the time to Ginza shoppers.

Location: Inside Sukiyabashi Park, Ginza. Nearest station: Ginza, exit C2 or JR Yurakucho.

午後の日 Gogo no Hi (“Afternoon”), 1967

The smiling mask sculpture marks the location of Okamoto’s grave.

Location: Inside Tama Cemetery, Fuchu. Nearest station: Tamagawa (Seibu Tamagawa Line).