Did Flanagan’s show at the New Museum help you to deal with ideas of censorship in your work?
That show was a break in the censorship in my head. That’s why I started doing pieces which involved things like masturbation and the milk jump rope. The people in my head said, “Yes, you can do it!”
How did Japanese people respond to your work in the beginning?
Did they react negatively or did they celebrate it? They never celebrated it, until now. The Japanese mentality towards creativity is very complex, and after losing the war there was always the issue of both pride and jealousy. That’s why, when I was a success in New York, there was a backlash. People accused me of stealing Japanese culture. But when I look at Warhol, it’s the same thing. That’s why, whe n War hol was alive, American people hated him. For them it was packaging. In the art world, people have to package what’s going on. When I was getting a negative reaction in Japan, it made me very depressed. I had 25 years of this pressure.
Did you ever think about leaving Japan and rejecting your own culture?
Yes, that’s why I have a green card now. But at the same time, I can’t live without Japanese food! So this is a very real problem.
How much of the year do you spend in Tokyo?
My studio is outside of Tokyo. Recently I’ve been spending two weeks a month in Tokyo, and two weeks travelling elsewhere. It’s too much, I’m getting old! If I were 36, or 40, it would be fine, but I’m not anymore.
How many people work for you today?
A lot of people if you include the New York studio. Something like 300, as I have nearly 150 working on my movie work – live-action and animation stuff. The painting studio is about 50 people.
Your idea of “packaging culture” is interesting. In that sense, how do you approach the scaling and value of your work for different audiences, from large-scale museum pieces to souvenirs?
Basically, in Japan, there are no super-rich people. After the bubble economy in the late 80s, a few people made a lot of money, but when it crashed they lost everything. There were many suicides. The repercussions of World War II meant that the country was never able to build up significant wealth for the next generation until more recently. Rich people escaped to New Zealand, Singapore and Canada. So for me, in that cultural climate, postcards and souvenirs are art. That’s why, in my head, they’re on the same level. When I came to the U.S. and Europe, I was surprised at how super-rich people escape paying their taxes. This was difficult for me to understand. A turning point for me was the Sotheby’s auction in New York, where my one of my sculptures sold for $16 million. I couldn’t understand the price. When I sold the sculpture myself, I got $20,000. And the resale was $16 million! Of course I didn’t actually get that money, but in Japan it was headline news as a record sale. This was before Internet gossip, but people were bashing me. He got the money! He is cheating Western people! He is using strange Japanese sexual and anime culture! This is why for me posters and souvenir T-shirts and things like this become a completely normal way to communicate my creativity.
“People accused me of stealing Japanese culture. But when I look at Warhol, it’s the same thing. That’s why, when Warhol was alive, American people hated him. For them it was packaging. In the art world, people have to package what’s going on. When I was getting a negative reaction in Japan, it made me very depressed. I had 25 years of this pressure.”