Art of Conversation with the In-Laws

In Mrs. Shima's house in Midorigaoka, circa 1990

My inlaws and I found the connection instantly, something to talk about that we were both passionate about. This was about the way we feel about art–a topic Aki couldn’t give a hoot about.

Could this be almost the formula for endearing oneself to future in-laws? To unlock their hearts through a genuine common interest that all could easily talk about for hours on end? Art proved to be the way into my in-laws hearts.  And even though their English was only marginally better than my Japanese it didn’t matter. We simply pointed to the walls of their home. The art spoke what our hearts wanted to communicate.

The journey from Aki’s 5th floor studio apartment to his parents residence on the 6th floor is one flight of stairs away, but a mind-blowing study in  contrasts.

As he turns the key in his parents’ door, Aki shouts Tada IMA, “I’m home!” I’m expecting an unadorned flat like Aki’s. I assume that his spartan values must have come from his family background. Well, in fact, the opposite is true.

I’m standing in the genkan, a foyer paved with black stones, lit by recessed pinhole lights that illuminate details on a fine blue and white porcelain vase . Across on the facing wall, a brightly painted oil of Mount Fuji, done with an impasto knife gives me the impression the artist may have been channeling Vincent van Gogh,  or at least under the Dutchman’s influence.

I hear slippers padding down the corridor before I see Aki’s parents appear in the genkan to greet us. Two compact parents, elegantly attired in crisp neutral colours— harmonising with their formal surroundings, bow respectfully. Nothing touchy-feely, just the lowering of heads and warm smiles upon the rebound. I get the instant impression that I’m welcome and I’m feeling such relief I want to hug them. But I don’t, because I don’t want to shock them, or worse, give them the impression that I have no couth. They invite me into the kyakuma, the formal guest room, a sunny room facing tall buildings and sky and cocooned  by sliding grids of paper doors. 

Aki translates for us. 

“We heard from Aki you like Japan, and especially Japanese art,” says Aki’s mother Hiroko.

“Yes,” I nod enthusiastically.

Toshihiko, points to two women in kimono above our heads  and asks me what I think of the painting. “I love the way they’re looking at each other as if they’re mirrors, admiring themselves in each others beauty.”

When my father-in-law tells me his art collection comes almost entirely from  Matsuzakaya department store, my mouth drops open as if this had to be one more sign.

“Oh my God! I wrote my master’s thesis on art exhibitions in Japanese department stores–but I’ve never actually met someone who buys art from a depaato,” I say. Until now the only other person who would talk to me on the subject was my thesis advisor.

To discover common ground with inlaws felt like a sign that we could talk, really talk, about the things we were passionate about. So even though Aki didn’t show much interest in art in general, or his parent’s collection in particular, it didn’t matter. Because the point was, the art smoothed the way for communication.  The museums were minutes away from the family home in Okachimachi so it didn’t take long for us to make it a routine to share outings to Ueno to oggle at major exhibitions. And eventually Aki too, warmed to joining me, though I never suspected that he would have such a huge influence on me becoming an artist.

It just goes to show like parents, like son. Early disinterest can be just a facade to distinguish one generation from the next. We sure do change over time. ..

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