From Japanese Agnostic to Believer
There are unlikelier converts, but not many. REGINA interviewed Osamu Tanimoto, the son of a Japanese electrical engineer who discovered the Faith while studying classical Renaissance painting in Florence – and became part of a global movement of artists now discovering Catholicism anew.
REGINA: Osamu, tell us about your life in Japan.
OSAMU: I was raised in Tokyo, the youngest of three brothers. My father was a professor in electric engineering. My mother is a housewife. My oldest brother works as a consultant and my other brother works in a bank.
REGINA: Is your family artistic?
OSAMU: My family had nothing to do with art. My father especially did not understand why I wasted time with art…that’s the impression he had, till he realized art is something worthwhile. I cannot blame him at all because all the contemporary art confuses us and make us question if artists are just people who do things outside the box without any skill or virtue. They seem not to be ones who seek the truth which is beauty.
REGINA: So, did your father oppose your training as an artist?
OSAMU: Although I had been always enthusiastic about art since I was young, I studied education in Waseda University in Tokyo in order to follow my father’s wish to not seek the career as an artist. I immersed myself in theater and film where I acted, wrote, designed the stage set and assembled it. Then I switched to Temple University there to eventually study abroad and seriously seek the profession of artist. There I met my first long-term painting teacher Walderedo who painted the Amazon forests and the Native Americans. I studied Native American philosophy because I always loved Nature.
“I CHOSE FLORENCE FOR MY STUDY IN PAINTING and restoration because I was always attracted to the harmony of the Renaissance paintings and sculptures. I arrived in 2008 and received my BA from Marist College in art restoration in 2010.”
REGINA: How does one learn art restoration?
OSAMU: I copied the masterworks with the same mediums they used, like fresco, egg tempera, silver point etc. The same year, I joined the new Russian Academy of Art in Florence to study drawing, painting and composition. I was trained in the Russian Academic tradition and graduated in 2014 with my diploma work “The Return of the Prodigal Son”. I studied drawing under Sergey Chubirko and painting under Svetlana Trekhina. I have been teaching in the Sacred Art School since 2013.
“I WAS COMPLETELY FOREIGN TO CHRISTIANITY. Christianity is not a big thing in Japan. Above all, the society is very secularized. People simply do not hear about Jesus at all in Tokyo. It helped me in some way though because I did not have anything against the Church when I chose to be (or was chosen to be) baptized.”
“I CHOSE FLORENCE BECAUSE I WAS ATTRACTED TO THE HARMONY which the Renaissance paintings have. After copying paintings of Raphael, Fra Angelico, I came to realize it was not really the technique that made those paintings beautiful but the spirituality behind those works.”
“I GOT TO KNOW THE IRISH SCULPTOR DONY MC MANUS, who would become my ‘Godfather,’ and he introduced me to the whole story of the man Jesus Christ who was God — not as a preacher but as a friend.”
REGINA: What did you think, at first?
OSAMU: Many things Jesus said were mind-blowing, controversial, and what the Church said seemed to me often counter current to what contemporary educated people would say. But deep in my heart, I saw they are right.
REGINA: What do you mean?
OSAMU: How the Church sees the relationship between men and women in context of marriage, how reason and the Faith take each other’s hand and walk together.
REGINA: Okay, anything else?
OSAMU: What was extraordinary and kept me on fire was the mystery of the Resurrection. Any suffering is worth carrying and should not remove hope if I have faith in Him. To me, it turned the whole world upside down.
REGINA: Wow, so how did your family react?
OSAMU: My family respected my choice of conversion. They are not religious, probably influenced from Buddhism and Shintoism culturally. The fact that my aunt was also a convert might have helped them to understand my decision. Now I’m happy that they see my painting and rejoice, especially “the Return of the Prodigal Son” although they are not Christians.
“CHRISTIAN ART WAS MY ENTRANCE TO THE MYSTERIES. It touched my heart and elevated my soul with its harmony. For example, the “Annunciation” by Pontormo. How the angel flies in and the sweetness of Mary in expression, in postures, in colors etc… It shows the supernatural aspect within the language of naturalistic artworks. Those paintings and sculptures are not too scientific but more spiritual.”
“I CAN SAY THAT I WAS LIKE THE ILLITERATE IN THE MIDDLE AGES — often I saw the images from Gospel first and then I understood the story. And then I read the passage. Probably, because I understand things visually, Christian art played a major role in helping me to get to know the Gospels.”
REGINA: So the art was a pathway to understanding Christian teaching?
OSAMU: Yes, it helped me to understand the concept of the “Incarnation” seeing all those bodies in the art of the Church. “The bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirits” (1 Corinthian 6,19) and the most beautiful and noble design God made.
“MICHELANGELO’S SISTINE CHAPEL MAKES SO MUCH SENSE BECAUSE IT CELEBRATES THE BEAUTY OF THE HUMAN BODY in this spiritual context. Importantly, after my official conversion five years ago, my conversion still continues. Now I create art works imitating God pretty much, and it makes me mature in the Faith because when I paint a religious subject, I pray more. For me, the virtuosity in art and in life grows side by side. And so it goes on like this.”
REGINA: What is your life like as a Catholic ex-patriate living in Florence today?
OSAMU: I have been in Florence six and a half years. The best part is that there are so many churches in the city and most of them are beautiful. I can choose which Mass to go to and what time.
“ALTHOUGH THERE ARE SOME FLORENTINES WHO PRACTICE THE FAITH and others who don’t, culturally many are familiar with the values of the Church’s teachings on a daily level, for example, charity, hospitality etc. People are used to sharing and these are beautiful.”
“AT THE SAME TIME, FLORENTINE SOCIETY is built on a strong hierarchical order and there is a legalistic mentality highly present. Somehow I feel at home here, however, because of my conversion to the Faith.”
“EVERY TIME I SEE VASARI’S FRESCO ON THE CUPOLA OF THE DUOMO, I remember my baptism. But practically, it is not my home at all. I’m a foreigner and I will be always. I wonder though, where was the home of Jesus? Nazareth or the house of His Father? Probably, my home is also there.”
REGINA: You say “I see my vocation as an artist is to translate the Gospel into the art today.” What Bible scenes would you be interested in painting?
OSAMU: I would like to paint as many as I can, one by one. ‘The raising of the Jairus’ daughter’ is very interesting for me because it is also a story of a conversion.
OSAMU: Jesus raised her from death. He did the miracle. This is exactly the experience I had when I converted and this beauty I want to communicate. Also there are other realities involved in this scene. The surprise of the disciples and joy of her parents.
REGINA: You seem to have given this a great deal of thought.
OSAMU: For me it’s also important to communicate the extraordinariness of the event. Of course, the disciples had trust in what Jesus had been saying and doing but their reaction must have been extremely human, simple and spontaneous. The joy of her parents must have been over the top. Visualizing those emotional aspects which surround Jesus is worthwhile especially I hope that it speaks to those who live today and want to see the event in order to believe like the Apostle Thomas wanted to see Jesus and touch him before he believed Jesus’ resurrection was true.
REGINA: Tell us more about your upcoming exhibition when Pope Francis is in Florence.
OSAMU: This will be held in the Cloister of the Santissima Annunziata in Florence on the 7th in November for 2 weeks. It will be the solo exhibition on my sacred art. My composition “Raising the daughter of Jairus” will be presented as well as “The Procession of Palm Sunday 2015” and “the Return of the Prodigal Son”. Pope Francis will visit Florence and have a meeting with the sick in the Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata on the 10th in November, 2015.
“I hope that Pope Francis will see the Faith and the charity in the beauty of my paintings, if there is any, as Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel showed a great deal of charity to me with the Faith he displayed. I also hope that he will see the potential in the painting medium to be utilized to spread the Good News today, exactly like it happened in the past.”