Koutaku Yoshinaga Solo Exhibition

Koutaku Yoshinaga Solo Exhibition "Sanzunokawa no Shiganmichi"

2022.08.19(Fri) – 2022.08.24(Wed)

YUGEN Gallery hosted a solo exhibition by illustrator Koutaku Yoshinaga called Sanzunokawa no Shiganmichi from Friday, August 19 through Wednesday, August 24.

Hidden facets of a popular picture-book artist


Yoshinaga, born in Fukuoka Prefecture in 1979, is the artist behind several long-selling picture book series for children, like Kyushoku Bancho (The School Lunch Punk). His powerful artistic touch uses paints alone to depict free-spirited characters through compositions that resemble theatrical cinematography, and he has used the style he deveopled in his Hakata-Dialect Bilingual Picture Book—which features Hakata-ben dialect alongside standard Japanese—for live readings all over Japan. He also does live-painting events with children, and has led over 300 of these popular events.

This wildly popular picture book artist is now showing off a totally new facet in his exhibition, Sanzunokawa no Shiganmichi. In the Buddhist tradition, Higan signifies the other world, free of greed and worry. Shigan, though, is the human world with all its suffering. In this piece, the viewer stands on the banks of the Sanzu River, where the waves lap at the land of Shigan, without ever crossing over. Yoshinaga approached his canvas with the idea of evoking that view, of wandering along the shores of this mortal world.

Imagining an unseen world


Yoshinaga was inspired to this topic when he visited areas hit by torrential flooding in northern Kyushu. The river enchanted with almost divine beauty despite the scars it had left in the land, telling of the vast scope of the disaster. What appeared to be driftwood floating on the current turned out to be the antlers of a deer sunk beneath the surface. When his eyes fell on that deer's corpse, he felt a sudden inversion of life and death. Staring at the corpse, he realized that what he had taken to be a washed out rock was in fact the deer's head, and what he'd taken as a puddle of water at his feet was in fact a puddle of blood. In that moment, a place that had been full of brilliant life was twisted into the land of the dead, and the theme of standing at the banks of the Sanzu River (River of Three Crossings) emerged. This feeling of a living being gazing on the world of the dead, and the dead staring back into the land of the living, ebbed and flowed.

Yoshinaga attributes his sense of otherworldliness to having lived in a 100-year-old house until the age of eight. "If you looked away while you were fixing dinner, when you turned back there could be a weasel eating your food, and we would put down pest control pads and find rows of mice trapped there. It was nothing special. My grandparents had a room at the end of a dimly lit hallway in that old, roomy, ramshackle house, along with a Buddhist family altar. They would chant sutras every morning."

These things shaped him; the teachings of his grandmother, who had been born to a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple, and living in a house where boundaries were routinely broken by wildlife. The presence of things that are adjacent to the space where we live, like the invisible world of death, seeped into Yoshinaga every bit as much as the humidity of the seaside town of Kokura in Fukuoka, Japan.

Yoshinaga also says that his father, who did immigration research in South America, took him all over South America from the time he was in elementary school. His father raised funds to build an elementary school in the Andes Mountains, and he said he still remembers the feeling of shaking hands with a little girl on a trip there. They were the rough hands of someone who had been helping with farm and house work. He saw that behind the world he knew were ways of life beyond his imagination, with people in villages lined with rundown shacks.

"When I was in high school, I met these children who had learned to paint from a shaman, and they were better than anyone in the design department at the school I was going to. Those kids would say things like, 'Someday I want to visit Japan!' with a sparkle in their eye, but I felt like it was a dream that could never come true."

After he returned to Japan and told his friends about those experiences, no one ever understood. He went back to his daily life with the vague realization that all kinds of people live through the same time in all kinds of places, but they simply do not intersect.

Sanctifying every day


As "each day just ran by" without meeting another soul during the pandemic, he says he felt the value of those irreplaceable days looming over him, and so was born the Mainichi Goshintai Series, which is a picture diary he drew to preserve each day—yesterday, today, and tomorrow—as if it were a goshintai, the sacred object housing a kami or deity at a Shinto shrine.

Part of the inspiration for this came from his experience of traveling around Asia in 2017, when he had taken a leave from his picture-book work. He saw how religion was rooted in daily life there, with a sacred offering set out at the edge of every food stall. So, he decided to enshrine 365 days as 365 sacred objects. In much the way picture books tell a story through art, he captured the story of each day in an image, a figurative representation depicted as a goshintai.

In 2017, he tackled canvas works for the first time after a long absence with a two-person exhibition called Inochi no Arika (Where does life exist) at Art Space Baku, a long-established gallery in Fukuoka. The pieces were based around the concept of "this" world—what we see around us—and "that" world, the beyond that humans give meaning to. The worldview he presented was unlike anything imagined from his picture books, and garnered much commentary. This latest exhibition offers significant expansions on those two-dimensional pieces. There are around 30 pieces seeing their first display here, including the newly-approached Goshintai Series and the Yonagashikouta Series of small works based on the theme of reaching the banks of the Sanzu after one irreplaceable day.

Bringing the joy of living in the moment to Shigan

In these last few years, with his movement restricted and facing only his own art, Yoshinaga also lost his father and a friend. Those experiences only reinforced the sense of days slipping past. Yoshinaga, who says he has spent his whole live being frightened of death, says that his father's passing in particular showed that death comes to everyone. That made his fear "that lingered on like a nightmare" finally disappear and allowed him to look at death from the joy of life.

In the live painting sessions he has held, he says, children who use their brushes in unexpected places "have allowed me to break down my own pictures, and have softened my fossilized thinking and brush strokes." When Yoshinaga started illustration in 2002, he could find nowhere that would accept his unique touch, and he spent days wondering whether he would have to give up the path of painting. Then, by accident, he found the path to picture books. He devoted himself to picture book artist work as if he were fulfilling a pledge to the only children who had ever accepted his work—the same children he once met in South America who had no "intersection" with the world.

Yoshinaga will continue through his life in Shigan as a picture book artist, but even as "I pursue my core of painting" his art can only take him to the banks of the Sanzu River, where the waves lap at the land of Shigan, without crossing over. He will continue to enshrine the joy of living each day "as a way to complete the revolving lantern of my life."

Yoshinaga has been aware since childhood of the random nature and nearness of death, and his encounter with a deer corpse revealed to him the connections between life and death. Another Higan, a prayer for joy in life amid all of this world's uncertainties is presented here as a prayer for the pleasures of that other world Shigan.

Highlight works:

*Some of the works on display are subject to change. please note that.

Regarding sales:

At the same time as the exhibition is held, it will be possible to view and purchase the works on the YUGEN Gallery official online store.



2014 Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale 2014

2017 Picture Book Artist 10 Year Anniversary Exhibition at whitespaceONE, Fukuoka
2018 Dual exhibition Inochi no Arika Shin Yahiro+Koutaku Yoshinaga, at Art Space Baku, Fukuoka

Koutaku Yoshinaga


Yoshinaga was born in 1979 He began his career as an artist at the age of 18, and has since worked as an illustrator for various domestic and international media. His first picture book for children, Kyushoku Bancho (The School Lunch Punk) (Kogakusha) became a hit and was turned into a series. He has since worked on several others, including the Yokai Gamatono (Gamatono the Monster) series (Akane Shobo), Boku Datte Ultraman (But, I'm Ultraman!) series (Kodansha), and Waokokko. Along with his major works, he is known for his Japan-wide series of story-time and live events.

Go to author page



2022.08.19(Fri) - 2022.08.24(Wed)


YUGEN Gallery


Totate International Building 3F, 2-12-19 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 150-0002


Weekdays: 14:00-19:00
Weekends: 13:00-19:00
Note: will close at 17:00 on the last day

Artists appearance:

August 19 (Fri), 20 (Sat), and 21 (Sun) All day



Entrance fee:



Please note that the exhibition period and opening hours are subject to change without notice depending on circumstances.