The Legacy of Cultural Exchange

All of the artwork on display here was created by school children in Okayama, Japan around 1960. It is a small sample from a collection of nearly three hundred works that span a variety of mediums from drawing and painting to etching and traditional woodblock prints. Carefully packed away in cardboard boxes for decades, the collection eventually passed into the hands of Hanchett Park resident Robert Guillot, after the death of a friend. The artwork came to light when Guillot showed it to a local historian.

Although much of the history of the collection has been lost over the years, it is thought to have been created as part of a cultural exchange organized by one or more local schools in both San José and Okayama, perhaps in celebration of an early anniversary of San José’s sister city friendship with Okayama.

Many of the pieces are labeled on the back, some in English, some in Japanese, some in a little of both. Detailing the students name, age and school, a number of the labels also give the teacher’s name as well as the subject matter that was either assigned or was chosen by the student. The red labels affixed to the sides of a few pieces indicate that it was awarded a prize. Notes found attached to a smaller subset of pieces would suggest that at some point, parts of the collection were filmed or used in a video, perhaps as part of a later cultural exchange. Additionally, a handful of old snapshots, showing a few of the students holding their creations, were tucked in the boxes with the artwork.

While the history, and mystery, of the origins of the collection are compelling, it is the artwork itself that is utterly beguiling. Like a time capsule, these young artists have captured a moment in history, given us a glimpse of life in Japan in the early 1960s. Ranging inage from five to fifteen, they have left us with a deeply personal and richly expressive view of the world from a child’s perspective — what they find fascinating, frightening, perplexing, and familiar.

Lessons in various artistic techniques, such as shading, perspective, color, and the rendering of detail, are obvious in some of the paintings and drawings. Achieving a flat graphic presentation was clearly the object of other lessons. Yet it is the subject matter that is often unforgettable. The pieces on the far left of the wall depict Okayama Castle, a samurai-era landmark. Various views from the rooftop of one school are the subject of several paintings, while others portray busy shopping districts, churches and temples, traffic problems, complicated pedestrian overpasses, and Okayama Station, which is still a major transportation hub. More fanciful subjects reveal the things that loom large from a child’s vantage point: an invasion of UFOs, a family of neon red crabs and a turnip so big it requires a flatbed truck. Curiously, the chickens, fearlessly rendered behind the wire mesh of the coop, are drawn with nearly as much detail as some of the portraits.

While this collection is historically significant and invested with an abundance of charm and goodwill, the most enduring lesson is the value of cultural exchange. Formed in 1957, the sister city relationship between Okayama and San José is one of the oldest in the nation. As the 60th anniversary of this friendship approaches, the students who created these works of art will have passed through adulthood to become senior citizens. Yet their youthful gaze on the world lives on in this priceless collection.

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