The Art of Sadao Watanabe: Printmaker Used Japanese Techniques to Portray Christian Themes

By Ryan, Antonia | National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Art of Sadao Watanabe: Printmaker Used Japanese Techniques to Portray Christian Themes


Ryan, Antonia, National Catholic Reporter


During the Christmas season, depictions of the Madonna and Child are everywhere: on postage stamps, greeting cards, even the Dec. 13 covers of Newsweek and TIME magazine. Most of these familiar images show a realistic, light-skinned Mary who seems to fit right into our Western culture. But we can be arrested by a new portrayal of the Holy Family, like the one on the NCR cover by Sadao Watanabe (1913-96), a Tokyo printmaker who portrayed Christian themes in a Japanese idiom. His prints have hung in the White House and the Vatican, but he was happiest when his work was displayed in the places where ordinary people lived and worked.

Anne Pyle, Mr. Watanabe's longtime private student, said Mr. Watanabe was a "pioneer of the Christian faith."

"[Like] all the famous artists who portrayed Christ--Michelangelo, Leonardo, all the Western European artists--he wanted to bring Christ to his people in a way that they would understand, that would speak to their hearts. And so he put his figures in kimonos. In the Last Supper ... there was sushi on the table, and sake. It was all in a sort of Japanese setting," Ms. Pyle said from her home near Seattle.

Mr. Watanabe was born in Tokyo. His father was a Christian; his mother was not. When his father died, he dropped out of school to care for his mother. A neighborhood Christian woman who taught in his primary school invited the boy to come to church with her, and he later began to read the Bible under guidance of Japanese pastors. A bout of tuberculosis left him bedridden for two years, and he prayed for healing. After a miraculous recovery, at age 17 he decided to be baptized, and his mother was baptized on Christmas day that same year.

He attended a Protestant church but also had connections to the Catholic church, especially to the Benedictines in Tokyo, who bought and commissioned many of his prints. "Mr. Watanabe was Christ-centered," said Ms. Pyle. "The various denominations really weren't that important to him. He accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior and simply that."

Mr. Watanabe told his Japanese biographer that he was not attracted to Christianity at first because it had "the smell of butter" (a Japanese expression for an unpleasantly foreign thing). In his time, as today, no more than 1 percent of the Japanese people are Christian.

"To be a Christian in Japan even today makes you stand out," said Ms. Pyle. "Especially in Mr. Watanabe's day, the nail that stands out is pounded down. It's still a homogenous society."

John Sagers, assistant professor of East Asian history and chair of the history department at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., explained that Christianity's lack of popularity in Japan is partly because it sets one apart in a very communal society.

"It is very difficult to be Japanese and Christian at the same time," he said. "You can be Shinto and Buddhist at the same time, but Christianity requires absolute obedience to the one true God to the exclusion of all others. That becomes a real break with the Japanese Christian and his or her family," who would be practicing traditions like ancestor worship--taboo for Christians.

Seen as a threat

Christianity was introduced to Japan in the mid-1fth century by Portuguese missionaries. Originally, it was successful in certain areas of the country, especially Kyushu, the third largest of the four islands that make up the country. The new Tokugawa rulers of Japan, however, began to fear it would threaten social stability and result in a Western invasion. Under the Tokugawa government, said Mr. Sagers, "there was a decree that everyone had to be registered at a local Buddhist temple.... People had to have a certificate from the local Buddhist priest saying that this person is not part of a proscribed religion."

In 1612, the Tokugawa government definitively prohibited Christianity. All missionaries were ordered to leave. …

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