Hitomi Sakabe arrived in Korea in her early teens and now has spent much of her life outside her homeland Japan. During her time in Korea, the artist-cum-professor has crossed many boundaries, maximizing each change in the course.

“Aclose yet distant country” has long been a cliché for Korea and Japan to describe each other. Artist Hitomi Sakabe could hardly agree more. The two countries, as she sees them, are more different than most other neighbors in the world, and nowhere else is this more conspicuous than in their national characters.

This contrast is a key reason why Sakabe never returned to Japan even though Japan has a longer history of modern painting and greater public interest in the fine arts in general than Korea. “Compared with Korea, Japan is a much more stabilized and predictable society, which rarely changes. Korea is far more dynamic and brims with vitality,” she says. “While Japan is complete and unique on its own, Korea is more open to the rest of the world and Koreans go along with foreigners better than Japanese.”

“I feel Japan is too closed and narrow,” she says, adding that if she lived in Japan, she may not even be working. “Most Japanese women, including my friends, have internalized the status quo and are less motivated to work, compared with their Korean counterparts.” Considering Koreans’ mixed feelings toward Japan, including deep animosity, a Japanese expatriate living in Korea may feel uncomfortable. But having lived in Korea longer than in Japan, Sakabe feels at ease. She is so attuned to Korea that she now has a culture shock whenever she visits her homeland.

Born in Tokyo, Sakabe grew up in a small seaside town near Nagoya in central Japan. She came to Korea in 1996 with her parents when she was a seventh grader. She graduated from Sunhwa Arts Middle and High School in Seoul, studied modern painting and design, and received a doctorate in design at Seoul National University’s College of Fine Arts.

Deepening Roots
Sakabe married a Korean man, an IT worker whom she met while attending the university, and they have two children, born in 2010 and 2015. After her first child was born, Sakabe began to draw illustrations for children’s books. She has produced a number of picture books and held painting exhibitions in several countries. Preferring hand-drawn soft lines rather than straight lines produced by a computer, her artwork features lumpy and fuzzy figures and colorful landscapes evoking childhood memories.

Calling herself a “border rider” or “marginal person,” Sakabe says the current era requires multiple skills. “In this age that demands multitasking, I try to expand the scope of the work I can do. An uncertain future forces me to take on new challenges.

“If I were a full-time painter, designer or illustrator, things would have been simpler because I would only have to choose a theme and study it from diverse aspects. As I am not in a position to concentrate on one thing, I venture into different areas to develop myself.” Sakabe defines her primary theme and interests as “archiving,” or preserving the present. People and bits of everyday life, such as clothing patterns, are her favorite subjects. She is an assistant professor at the Department of Visual Communication Design of Keimyung University, in Daegu, which she calls the “Nagoya of Korea.” The two cities share a similar historical and industrial importance for their countries. “While I am at school, I try to teach my students as best as I can,” Sakabe says. “I always think about how I can use my strengths to help my students.”

Vacations, semester breaks and after-school hours are mostly devoted to her paintings and illustrations. She notes her favorite artist is Henri Matisse; she loves the joyful and vibrant ambience of the French painter’s work.

Sobering Reality
Currently, relations between Korea and Japan are at a low ebb due to their ongoing disagreement over Japan’s redress for its wartime behavior. It is the latest imbroglio of the two countries’ traditionally uneasy relationship, in which painful memories and seething anger never seem far below the surface. When Sakabe was studying Korean history alongside her Korean classmates at high school, both teachers and students used to call Japanese people “Japs.”

Korea and Japan can hardly be just another foreign country to each other because of their unfortunate past, Sakabe believes. “Many Japanese people, including myself, who have lived in Korea for long, can’t help having a kind of sense of original sin.”

Sakabe admits that she sometimes feels like a stranger in a country where she has lived for more than two decades. “It is hard to generalize, but many Japanese people think Koreans are crude, while Koreans think Japanese hide their true feelings. As I see them, however, both Koreans and Japanese are delicate people, though in different ways.” She cites the relationship between the older and younger generations in the two countries. “For instance, Koreans regard age as quite important. In Korea, older storeowners often do not treat younger customers properly, whereas in Japan, even college professors try to approach their students with good manners.”

All said, though, Sakabe feels it is fortunate that her children are Koreans, who she believes are more dashing, down to earth and positive in responding to changes than Japanese children. Sakabe has become so accustomed to the Korean way that she sometimes feels perplexed when she visits Japan. “Japanese society has its own norms and people tend to feel embarrassed when they stray from such standards. In this regard, Korea tends to be more cosmopolitan.”

“We are neighbors who have to live together.
Individuals can move to other places if they don’t like their neighbors.
Countries cannot.”

The picture book “Great Time at Mama’s Hometown,” published in summer 2019, depicts Sakabe’s children experiencing her parents’ place in Japan. Their memories are conveyed by her warm pictures.

Straddling Cultures
Asked about the current diplomatic rift between the two countries, Sakabe says the problems cannot be resolved through politics alone. Some of her Korean acquaintances ask her children which country they would cheer for in a Korea vs. Japan football match, but Sakabe emphatically says international relations cannot be like sports that yield only one winner. “We are neighbors who have to live together. Individuals can move to other places if they don’t like their neighbors. Countries cannot.” Whenever Sakabe’s family visits Japan, she has her children attend school near her parents’ home. She believes it is important for them to learn about cultural diversity because one-sided, narrow-minded views can lead to prejudices.

Sakabe says she has no grand future plans but only hopes she will be able to continue what she is doing now. “I have crossed various borders and will do so in the future, which can work as a disadvantage,” she says. “On the contrary, my position as a border rider has become my advantage. Sometimes, we see people who appeared to be underdogs emerge as successful players. I consider myself one such dark horse.”

“We all want to be linked to others and form communities, large or small. We want others to recognize us. We are different but the same, and the same but different,” Sakabe wrote on the cover of her collection of illustrated essays, titled “Brick by Brick, Life Thus Goes On.”

Choi Sung-jin Executive Editor, Korea Biomedical Review
Heo Dong-wuk Photographer
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