Daichiro Shinjo
Daichiro Shinjo


Daichiro Shinjo


Identity guided by curiosity
Expressing the essence of an island through the tip of a brush

Being on an island, surrounded by sea, the act of "moving" becomes a connection to the outside world. The isolation of an island, however, also allows for a unique culture and tradition. Daichiro Shinjo is an artist from Miyako Island. He is well-traveled, visiting many places around the world, including visits to Kabutocho. He uses calligraphy as a medium for his art, but also as a tool to protect his sense of self. As an artist, he confronts the history of Okinawa, an island that although remains physically unchanged, remains ever-changing. What things has he discovered, colliding the present with its history whilst mixing in his ink and self-questioning nature? We sat down with Shinjo, who is currently creating an artist residency program and gallery called "PALI," scheduled to open this May on Miyako Island, to find out.

●Where are you from?
I was born on Miyako Island in Okinawa and lived there all my life until I was 18. My grandfather was a monk, so I would study at school, but also read Buddhist sutras! There are churches, temples, and shrines in Miyako, but I spent my childhood in a temple with an atmosphere that worshiped nature and animism.

●You said you grew up on the island of Miyako, but were you ever aware of the world beyond the island?
Since the head temple was located in Kyoto, I would often travel there when I was a child. Also, my parents wanted to show me the world, so they took me abroad and we were constantly moving.

●When did you start calligraphy?
I started when I was four or five years old. Writing was a big part of my life and still is.

●When did you start working as an artist?
I created and exhibited my first artwork in 2017, which was my starting point as an artist.

●What made you switch from the act of writing to the act of expression?
I studied architecture at university in Shizuoka, and after graduating I worked at a design firm in Kanagawa. But there were times when I had to create things that went against my own conviction. And so I was suddenly afraid that my own sense of taste would gradually change. I would go home at night, spread out a newspaper, and write on it to vent my frustration. It was around that time that I became conscious of expression.

●What made you think to write on top of the newspapers?
I think newspapers are sensitive to change. But now that I think about it, I think I was freely writing and expressing what I thought in response to the information that had been arranged by someone else, in this case, the media. It was kind of like an act of rebellion against my current work and it led me on a path to discover my own style of expression.

●Did the history of Okinawa overlap with that sense of change?
Okinawa has gone through many changes, from its history as one of the Ryukyu Islands and then its relationship to post-war United States and eventually returning back to the Okinawa we know today. And yet, the contours of the island have remained the same. Knowing this changing history, I think I was sensitive to the fact that the circumstances around me were negatively changing the content of my work.

●Is this a driver for your expression, something that makes you pick up a brush and paint?

Rather than change, I express my work by asking myself questions about the universal things that do not change. Many works are created because I felt it necessary to capture the emotions of the moment, and I want to write them down and leave them behind in order to hit those emotional aspects.

●In a way, you wish to cut yourself off from your own sense of the present?
Yes. I would like to reach a place that is pure in its honesty, but in the end there will always be some murkiness. It is like this age-old Zen question, “Is this water or ice?” I was exposed to Zen workings thanks to my grandfather’s influence and it helped me to be more confident in being able to express myself freely.

●Nowadays we can get information on just about anything from a computer, but I feel that things like texture and touch are inevitably missing. Do you have such a sense of physicality when it comes to tools?
My attitude towards tools changed when I started using indigo. In my case, ink is my tool. I used to blend commercially available ink, but recently I have started to make my own. Calligraphy ink is made from soot and glue, so it is a living material similar to animal skin. That is why I feel the power of the original material and its animalistic nature. If left unattended, it can rot, but when you use it to write, it shows such a lively expression. Even though the material itself is unstable and difficult to handle, each batch of ink has its own character. It’s like drinking natural wine, the pleasure of the experience cannot be understood until the bottle is opened and each bottle will be distinct in its own way. On the other hand, commercial ink mixed with chemicals may be stable, but it has no expression. It tends to demand stability. And so I realized that there are many forgotten sensations in instability. That is where freedom lies.

I feel Kabutocho is still room to just focus on the personalities of the people in front of me.

●Why didn’t you set up a base in Tokyo?
I think of Tokyo as a city that is constantly changing. There are so many choices with a fast metabolism that it makes it hard for me to love. Just today, I took the wrong train! I wish I could remember these things, but I don’t have the energy to remember them. So I always have one foot in Miyako, and from there I go to various places, and that’s just what makes sense to me.

●I wonder if being based in Miyako would change the rhythm and perspective of the city since the scope of activities is different from those who live in Tokyo.
Strangely enough, the sense of speed from arrival at Haneda to going out to the city is completely different from Miyako, and there is a sense of great difficulty in tuning in to Tokyo. It’s like I have to follow a set of rules.

●Kabutocho is also in Tokyo, how do you feel it compares?
There is still blank space in Kabutocho. In a dense place like the scramble crossing in Shibuya, there is a sense that you are not even given room to think, but here there is still room and you can look at the city from a bird’s eye view. I feel there is still room to just focus on the personalities of the people in front of me.

●Perhaps it’s because of this space left over that a unique atmosphere is created in which people who like natural wine somehow gather around it.
With all this extra space, I wonder what the impact of one park in such a financial district could potentially have. It would provide nice scenery for the city, and nature would make it a place where more people could gather. The park helps function as a blank space where the four seasons of Japan can be enjoyed.

●Do you go to the park often?
I used to go often when I lived in London. Both alone and with friends. I think zooming in and out is easier done when you have clearly defined margins. I think it is a very important element.

●You often traveled abroad – are there any places that have left a lasting impression on you?
Since quitting my job at the design firm, I’ve had more opportunities to travel abroad. Georgia was a place that I found particularly interesting. At first glance, Georgia looks run-down because of its history of war with Russia just a few decades ago, but once inside, the city has a lot of expression and there are many cool stores. The young people there have a mindset of “this is our country” and there is a certain energy in the music. The old townscape is still intact, with scattered bullet holes and such, but the buildings have been created without destroying the space, and the difference between the two is very nice. I was impressed by the way that they were creating their own culture.

I felt like it was honest urban development. I have the impression that there is a high possibility that I’ll bump into someone I know here.

●When was your first visit to Kabutocho?
Last year (2021). I first went to caveman in K5 for natural wine, and since then I have visited Human Nature many times.

●What was your impression of Kabutocho?
Like how Brooklyn was in the past; a place where artists settled in and where the rents were low. For Brooklyn, it attracted new artists, and galleries were gradually established in the neighborhood. I felt like it was honest urban development. I don’t live in Tokyo, so I sometimes come to Miyako to take a peek at the town, but I have the impression that there is a high possibility that I’ll bump into someone I know here.

●What other themes and subjects have you been thinking about lately?
I have been thinking a lot about the theme of digital and analog. As digitization progresses, we become more accustomed to touching screens. I’m concerned that the act of writing with our hands is fading away, even though the characters we use haven’t changed. As someone who uses characters as a motif in my work, I am always suspicious of ones that are typed, even if they are the same character, rather than ones written by someone else. At the same time, I am also subconsciously made to think about the sense of speed in urban and rural areas.

●In cities, I think that many people tend to spend a lot of time consuming light and fast information.
The sense of speed is completely different between urban and rural areas, and I want to avoid any confusion that this may cause. But if we can work with that difference in speed, we can create a flow of inputs from the city, express them on the island, and then bring them back to the city. I think this act of movement is a natural necessity.

●What do you mean by “work with the difference in speed”?
Making anything work is difficult, but when it comes to speed, it’s not enough to simply create a balance between the two speeds of urban and rural life. If you can understand the difference in speed and merge that with your own style, then you will be better able to express yourself. You have to be flexible and adapt to find your own way of living.

●Don’t do it too early or too late.
When I create a work of art, I start by creating a mood through meditation. As I gradually create a space, I assimilate myself into that space. If I were to quantify that kind of feeling, I think it would be rather dull.

●Do you ever feel lonely when creating?
Yes, there are times when it’s hard to be honest. But there is something that makes me go for it. When I write on a canvas, I start by creating the canvas, and unlike oil painting or watercolor, calligraphy is a one-shot process, so I feel especially lonely during the preparation time and whilst I’m getting the space ready. Sometimes I drink alcohol to force myself to feel uplifted and assimilate into the space, but I’m wary that I don’t want that to impact the honesty of the work or expression. I want to be pure in my expression, so I cherish that feeling even if it takes a long time.

The act of consuming slowly and with one's own senses is important. I believe that our interests can only broaden through our own experiences.

●How do you keep yourself in control?
I try to ask myself questions. It’s like creating a rhythm. I reaffirm my own awareness through my work and make sure that I am not controlled by my surroundings and that I don’t lose sight of the essence of what I do. Recently, I have been creating works in the hope that they will trigger someone else’s awareness.

●You don’t caption or title your work very often, is that done intentionally?
Initially, I want people to feel the work freely and with a sense of innocence and without explanation. A friend of mine in London displayed my work with the word “love” written on it facing sideways. I think it is because he sees it as a graphic rather than as text, and I really like the freedom of that idea.

●I feel that with the increased popularity of social media, there is a tendency to immediately look for answers. And this means our radar is only attuned to things that we know the answer for.
The act of consuming slowly and with one’s own senses is important. I believe that our interests can only broaden through our own experiences. Sometimes you can reach your goal quickly by running towards it, but you can also train your sense of smell to sniff things out. Even when you are sitting still in the Seiza pose, you can get a sense of things around you and seek them out.

●What have you been doing during the pandemic?
We were unable to go outside due to the pandemic and because of this lack of movement, I was able to focus more on my roots. I was not going anywhere, but I was wondering what colors were being generated in Miyako. And by looking inward and keeping my antennae up, I was able to find new ways to express myself.

●What new ways did you discover?
Putting my focus on the island, I became interested in indigo, which is used to dye Miyako ‘jofu’, a traditional textile of Miyako. And after meeting an old lady who makes indigo, I came up with the idea of using indigo in my calligraphy artwork.

● I think that exploring such traditional crafts also means confronting the past and history.
They make indigo to dye fabrics, but they treat it like a living organism. When the indigo is not up to par, they pour Awamori (a strong alcoholic spirit traditional in Okinawa) over it to encourage fermentation. I wanted to use indigo in my writing and artwork, and when I told them this it was as if I had touched on a taboo subject. Of course, when there is tradition and history involved, there is fear and anxiety. But I believe that a new expression and culture can be born if we transcend this taboo.

I think it’s important that when things around you are changing, to look inward to learn and discover more about your own identity.

●Japan is also an island nation. How do you perceive Japan from Miyako?
Miyako is an island, Okinawa is an island, Kyushu is an island, and Japan is an island. More specifically, the world is a collection of islands. But when you think about it that way, Miyako is a microcosm of an island, and from that perspective, the essence of the island is where you begin to see the lives of its people. In other words, not only the physical size of the island but also the people’s sense of being may change over time. I feel that the original culture that is familiar to a place becomes diluted as the population and the area of focus grows. Therefore, life on a small island is more in tune with the original Japanese way of thinking.

●What do you mean by the notion of being Japanese?
Okinawa was once separate from Japan, and the writer, Taro Okamoto, argued in his book, “A theory of Okinawa Culture” that rather than Okinawa returning to Japan, Japan would return to Okinawa. He was convinced of this idea. The human elements of the original island life that were once forgotten, such as community and rituals, have their origins in Okinawa. I think it was these things that he was talking about, the things that have been forgotten amid economic rationalism. It used to be that each island recognized the other’s unique characteristics. As the population grew and as the borders expanded, the distinction of each island was gradually lost, becoming a smaller part of the whole and eventually forgotten. One can perhaps say that the outlines of the islands gradually blurred over time.

●What are your thoughts on mobility? You mentioned earlier that we need to move around, but personally, I think that the pursuit of convenience has resulted in a structure that has become a skeleton that only serves to move us around from point A to point B.
Sometimes the time and scenery you experience are more important than the purpose. When you go abroad, there is a time difference, and people there speak different languages and look different. While I appreciate the kindness of my own people, such as the citizens of Okinawa and Miyako island, or more specifically, my family, I think it is also important to experience a completely different culture. It is precisely because there is friction between different cultures that we can get closer to our own identity. I spoke earlier about the blurring of boundaries between islands, and I think it’s important that when things around you are changing, to look inward to learn and discover more about your own identity.

●How do you view tradition and culture?
I used to think that inheritance was original and absolutely necessary, but recently those ideas have gradually changed after seeing the expressions of the Ainu people.

●What was it like?
To be more specific, I visited the Utasa Festival, a traditional event of the Ainu people, where outsiders and Japanese artists would gather to exchange and pass on culture, in particular the traditional Ainu culture. I began to think that it is actually impossible that only traditional conservative ideas can carry on the culture. Lifestyles naturally change over time, and so we need to adapt how we transfer and pass on culture and tradition. This realization is what led to the founding principles of PALI.

●So what you are saying is that it is important to be open to new expressions and that protecting them is not everything?
Change is history, and of course, change is necessary, but I feel a sense of crisis that the pace of change is too fast. The same is true of Miyako, which is beginning to change rapidly due to development projects, and that is how I came to the idea of creating PALI.

I want to have a positive impact on the community and those around me, so communication and adaptability will also be key.

●Can you tell us a bit about PALI?
We are currently building a café, wine bar, and event space with a gallery also attached. PALI means “field” in the Miyako dialect. I am very happy to be able to do this. We cultivate culture while tending the fields. We hope to become a place that nurtures the entire island as a center of Miyako culture.

●Where is PALI located within Miyako?
Miyako is divided into two parts: a kind of urban city and then rural areas on the outskirts of that city. PALI is located in the middle of the two, where various people intersect, making it an easy place to express oneself, or in other words, to be exposed to expression. I hope that it will trigger people to think about development and the state of this island.

●I want traditions to be carried on, and I think everyone thinks that. However, people need to believe that you are committed to the tradition for it to have substance and I think the people who gather at PALI can show that in some form as an output. I think in that way you can make a real impact on younger people.
I would like to see PALI become a place where artists can gather and create something, like the salons where Basquiat and others gathered in New York. I think this sense of atmosphere and enthusiasm lends itself well to natural wine, where people can gather around it to create something new.

●What are your future goals?
Maybe it’s not a goal, but I want to work on myself and not lose sight of the individual. If I am not myself, I cannot see anything, so I want to keep that as my axis in life, and I want to be conscious of that now, especially as I begin to gain more traction in the media. I want to be conscious of living within an urban area whilst still maintaining my sense of self. To do so I need to take notice of speed and how it relates to myself and those around me. But I also want to have a positive impact on the community and those around me, so communication and adaptability will also be key. I think once we establish PALI, things will change and we will again need to reflect and adapt.

●I look forward to PALI becoming a hub for such communication!
When different artists come to Miyako, people will cross paths with each other and from this, a community is created. This will eventually lead to my own expression. Even if I don’t move my body, I will begin to move through the people who move me. I am looking forward to a different kind of change from the usual movement, and I hope that PALI will make people aware of the way the island should be.

Daichiro Shinjo

Daichiro Shinjo

Born in 1992 and grew up on Miyako Island. His grandfather was a Zen monk, exposing him to Zen painting at creating the foundations of his interest in calligraphy. After graduating from Shizuoka University of Art and Culture, he found employment, but the sense of discomfort he felt in society drove him to express himself through letters, and he began his artistic career with his first solo exhibition “Surprise” in 2017. In May 2022, he plans to open the artist residence and gallery “PALI” on Miyako island.

Text : Jun Kuramoto

Photo : Naoto Date

Interview : Jun Kuramoto, Daisuke Horie