Interview
2019.08.07

Interview with the Producer: Behind the Development of the ART AQUARIUM, a summer tradition of Nihonbashi, and its Future.

Interview with the Producer: Behind the Development of the ART AQUARIUM, a summer tradition of Nihonbashi, and its Future.

Since its start in 2011 and subsequent shows every year, the “ART AQUARIUM” has become a summer tradition of Nihonbashi. The producer behind this popular exhibition, about to reach 10 million cumulative visitors, is Mr. Hidetomo Kimura, an art aquarium artist. Centered around this exhibition, just what is behind Mr. Kimura’s push towards expanding his field of activity, including his managing of the theater-style restaurant, the “Suigian.” We listened in to various aspects about this man, from his passion to the town of Nihonbashi, his eye towards business, and future challenges.

Let there be Creativity to the Aquarium Finding a unique perspective from traveling the world.

- So the ART AQUARIUM recently began its circuit again this year. We want to start with your background. Before handling these exhibitions, what kind of activities where you a part of?

I began in the retail business of aquarium fish at such a store, but later started my own business when I was 24. Afterwards I decided to go more upstream in the retail business, which was into the trading business, and established a company in Manila Philippines to be a “shipper” of tropical fish throughout the world. The Philippines was like ground zero of tropical fishes from the Pacific, and shippers gathered there to export fishes all over the world, one of which I took part in. The business in Manila was going great, but was not exactly a safe place to live. So I left after 2 years in the Philippines to travel around the world, whilst still being in the shipping business.

- From your business in shipping tropical fishes to your current activities, was there a decisive moment where you changed ship?

Although the work as a shipper was going very smooth, a thought occurred to my mind at 28. It was like, “what am I doing with this life?” I guess I felt something lacking in the situation. Thinking now, I think everybody feels that way when they are around 30. So I just said “whatever” and semi-retired from work to travel to various countries to see different worlds. That took 2 years. I did travel internationally before in my work, but I only knew of equatorial countries with tropical fishes, so many places like Europe where I’ve never been to feel fresh and unique.

And as a result, my savings from work pretty much dried up after this 2-year travel. Looking through what I spent my money and time on during this period, I found that it was mostly all related to art, design, and entertainment. That was the moment I realized that what I was lacking and looking for was in the creative world, and then decided to take action towards that.

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scene of the ART AQUARIUM venue

- Where there any memorable moments during your 2-year travels?

In Munich, I visited a pretty renowned first-class hotel. They were holding a limited time aquarium bar for the summer, and I felt interested enough to take a peek. But I was surprised at how bad it was. Usually when you are building something at a first-class hotel, you should be assigning famous designers and artists to pay attention to even the minuscule of details. But this just looked like a person went to a hardware store to string up a bunch of fish tanks from the ceilings. You could literally see the wiring and electric cords. Absolutely nothing in terms of creativity towards building an aquarium. What I think had happened was that although the hotel may had wanted to put more details, since they were dealing with live fishes which required specialized skills to handle them, they probably had to follow through on whatever the fish store had instructed them on. Adding to this was the fact that most people in the tropical fish store industry are focused primarily on the fish, not on creativity, which therefore leads to subpar presentations. That’s the reality of the situation.

- I see. So there were no players in the industry that could provide content at a high level.

That’s right. It just became this thing where no one could provide an “aquarium with great taste and presentation.” As a result, this made for a situation where most of the world’s sophisticated upper-class VIPs had very few or no aquariums in their houses. Regardless of how sophisticated the room can be, because an aquarium stands out, unless it is in good taste it would ruin everything. Being a person who knows all too well about the appeal of tropical fish, this is pretty unfortunate. But due as such, I felt it was my duty, as a person who thoroughly understands these fishes and is interested in the creative aspects, that I was the one who could, and should change this situation.

- Your interests and the industry issues aligned. But without experience in the creative field, how did you go about creating your work?

That is a good point because that was very true. When I decided to fall into the creative world, it was a challenge into the unknown. I literally came close to enrolling at the Tokyo MODE Gakuen*. (*Note: Japan's largest specialized training college focused on creative design.) But after coming up with the idea for an art aquarium, I felt I could utilize my experiences during my time in the aquarium fish industry. For example, this even relates to the technology used in my work. When considering a comfortable environment and the ecology of fish, thinking about how to shed light and run water as an art piece is just something only a professional of tropical fish can understand. In addition, due to my work as a retailer, wholesaler and shipper of tropical fish, I already knew everything about each of the perspectives and important factors. This experience was also a great help. There just wasn’t a person like this anywhere. I felt that it could be possible to express something unique by building an art piece utilizing these specialized skills that not many people could imitate.

- Mr. Kimura’s experiences in various fields brought about your individual form of expression.

I also feel it is important that I work as the business manager in every category. This is to personally take risks. For example, say you’re a person with a mindset of purchasing fishes that are within the company budget. If you handled the fish wrong and it dies, all you have to do is apologize. But from my mindset as a manager of a business, I also have to think of countermeasures to prevent that from ever happening. You have to think long and hard in order to keep the fishes away from dying to protect your profits. Unless you have that kind of passion, I do not think it is possible to handle a living thing for expression.

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Swimming at this year’s ART AQUARIUM are over 10,000 goldfishes.

“Money being the lifeline of culture.” Building a win-win relation between the creative and business.

- So a determination that it is your own business, along with the knowledge and experience on handling living things are required to operate this aquarium.

I believe so. The fishes that swim within my art pieces are living in an ideal environment. Of course you have to love and enjoy the fishes, which is why you take good care of them. At the same time, you take care of the fishes because you are operating a business using your own money. Having these two perspectives is what I believe made this business continue.

- The ART AQUARIUM has found success business-wise, what is the reason do you think?

It is probably due to the fact that I am personally taking a risk on everything. The ART AQUARIUM is almost like a privately-owned show business, the aquarium doesn’t even have sponsors currently. Initially at the start we had some, but upon seeing that the aquarium could continue in show business, we decided to forego the sponsors. By doing so our costs have risen, but the decision process have become simple and quick, with more emphasis on what we want to do. This also has the merit of having a thorough understanding of the business process.

- It’s surprising that a project of this scale has no sponsors. How is it possible that you could personally bear all of this risk?

It’s just who I am. I’m always constantly thinking in the “now,” and put in my all into what I want to do at the moment. This is not something you can do if you’re thinking of old age. (laughs) But if you constantly continue to think of how you want to live right now, that would carry you through your life, right? So that’s my stance on that.

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- After valuing the moment right now, what do you hope to accomplish in the future?

I  want to build a culture and tradition that will remain after I am gone. And in order to do that, the lifeline of such an activity is money, and without spending it, cultural vitality will run out. In other words, anything that does not circulate cash flow is ultimately not necessary. I do not feel that such a thing can be considered as culture. I feel that even traditional cultures that continue to this day are possible because they have established business models.

- It is true that there are many shows and events that struggle holding events because they are not established business-wise.

You cannot disregard the interaction between the creative and the business. Money is the lifeline of culture. Nothing will circulate without a lifeline, and just how well it is being circulated is up to the producer’s side. For example, the annual admission numbers for the ART AQUARIUM is about 500,000 to 600,000 visitors. This same number of people will in turn generate various commercial activities in Nihonbashi. And there are now more young women wearing yukatas, and the general atmosphere of summer in Nihonbashi has changed drastically. I believe this was due to the cash flow generated by the ART AQUARIUM and one of the things I wanted to accomplish.

Studying in Kyoto to take shape in Tokyo. Becoming a “Connoisseur” of Japanese culture, like the Edo era merchants.

- You’re wearing a great looking yukata today, and it seems that the term “Japanesque” is a key factor in your activities. What was the impetus behind that?

When I was offered the opportunity for the “SKY AQUARIUM” at the Mori Arts Center Gallery in a city with many foreign nationals like Roppongi, as a Japanese person, I knew that wanted to create a work that could highlight the Japanese culture. That was the instance where I properly tried to understand and face Japanese culture full-on. I created a special corner dedicated to Japonism where I created my first work called the “Oiran,” which was very well received and has become the starting point for all my other works later.

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Mr. Kimura’s maiden work, the “Oiran”

 And later you relocated to Nihonbashi.

Yes. I knew that if I was to incorporate Japanese culture into my work, I wanted to open an exhibition in Nihonbashi, which is a special cultural place in Tokyo. Nihonbashi was the epicenter of the old highway, with many established and long-standing stores. Even just by listening in to the townspeople, you can hear a great deal of deep history. The town is like no other out there. Ever since I have been involved with this town, I dove even deeper into Japanese culture. And what I first decided to study was the kimono, which I was fascinated with. However, everyone in the kimono industry told me that “you have to go to Kyoto if you want to delve into Japanese culture.” So that was when I started visiting Kyoto often.

- What do you do in Kyoto?

After starting out studying kimono, I delved into various other fields such as tea ceremonies and traditional performance arts. This allowed me to connect with many different people, and has now become a foundation for my current activities. What I found interesting was that even the people of Kyoto, whom all had great pride in Japanese culture, had a sense of respect towards Nihonbashi. Saying that “I’m from Tokyo” gets you nowhere, but if you add the word “Nihonbashi” you get a different reaction. (laughs)

While we are on the subject of Kyoto, do you know where the word “Kudaranai*” comes from? (*Note: in Japanese, it means for worthless or senseless, or literally means not flowing downward from above) Nihonbashi was originally a place where merchants gathered, but initially they did not know whether something was of good or bad quality. So they just figured that “if something is from Kyoto and vicinity, it is good.” But gradually the people of Nihonbashi became knowledgeable about quality, so they began refusing to accept low quality products. This is the origin of the word “Kudaranai” (not flow downward from Kyoto and vicinity to Nihonbashi) that products of low quality will not be accepted in Nihonbashi. When I heard this story, it hit close to home. Background-wise and generation-wise, I knew nothing about Japanese culture, so I am still in the process of becoming more knowledgeable as a connoisseur of culture. I hope that I can become a professional of Japanese culture that truly understands value, just like the merchants of the Edo era.

- Japanese culture seems to have a pretty high bar to clear in terms of class. What do you think about this?

There definitely is. For some reasons, it is pretty costly to have the opportunity to experience Japanese culture in Japan. You have to be over 30 years old and well off, just to stand in the doorstep of “experiencing” Japanese culture. It’s a strange situation, it is after all, our own culture. That’s why I want to build a friendlier and more comfortable environment where people can just “enjoy” Japanese culture.

The bar may seem high at first, but you will learn more as you interact with it. That is the interesting part of Japanese culture. You will begin to see the kimono being worn by a pedestrian is of good quality, or understand how good or bad the performer of a flute is, just from a single note.

“SUIGIAN,” the next stage. Importance on succeeding and the evolution of traditional culture, not protection.

- Based on these ideas, you opened the SUIGIAN last year.

Yes. After more than 10 years of holding the ART AQUARIUM, the visitors too have aged become mature. So I created the SUIGIAN as the next stage in showcasing the essence of Japanese culture. The SUIGIAN is a new type of theater-based restaurant where actual traditional performance art like Noh, Kyogen and Japanese dancing can be enjoyed every day alongside first-class dining and alcohol.

You can enjoy various performances in one location, with different styles of Noh and Kyogen that varies day to day beyond the border of schools. We want to do something that has never been done before.

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Enjoying first-rate traditional performance art while dining at the SUIGIAN

- Gathering different styles of traditional performance artists beyond the border of schools...just hearing about it sounds daunting.

It was definitely a challenge. For the first 3 months after opening, the Noh performances did not allow wearing Noh costumes and had simple performances wearing only a haori and hakama (Japanese traditional male formal attire). But what I want to do is not just protecting culture. I want to properly inherit and evolve the culture itself. So I make sure that I talk and understand with them, and ask them to perform things that have not been allowed before in the field. Not just to perform in proper Noh costumes, but to show behind-the-scene on how to wear a Noh mask, and have the Noh performers chat with the customers after their performances. But no matter how much we try new things, the most important core essence of the performance must be intact. This should never be “de-valued.” We have kept and protected what is absolutely necessary, and were careful of taking the necessary steps in the process. That is why we have remained on good terms with the traditional performance artists.

- Is there any other place where there is this much Japanese traditional performance art?

At the SUIGIAN, there are over 300 performers coming in and out in one year. I do believe that there is no other stage in Japan with this many variety and number of performances, not to mention the sheer amount of performers. But there is value in being the only player in town, and traditional performance art needs to be kept alive for future generations in an evolved way, like at the SUIGIAN. I believe this project will bear fruit one day, and I hope people will come and see.

This Year’s ART AQUARIUM will be a culmination of the past. Desire to contribute towards building interest in Japanese culture.

- The ART AQUARIUM, which can be said is the origin of the SUIGIAN, will be having its final show in Nihonbashi this year. What are the highlights?

It is going to be a culmination of the past. We have gathered together all of our famous and popular works from the past. When you continue something for 10 years, many couples who first dated each other at our earlier shows have now become married. We want to create something that would not only be memorable, but remind our frequent visitors of the past when they visit. Of course, if it is your first time visiting, being able to see all of the famous and popular works will be greatly appealing.

- What is the message that Mr. Kimura wants to tell through this exhibition?

I initially created the ART AQUARIUM from my wish to put a spotlight on aquarium fishes and from my desire to do something creative. This was later compounded with my hope to “add and highlight Japanese culture,” which took shape in this way. Even though what we express at the ART AQUARIUM is only an introduction to Japanese culture, we take care in utilizing high quality, such as the using first-rate kimonos for the “KIMONORIUM.” I would be enthralled if a visitor becomes even slightly interested in Japanese culture after seeing the ART AQUARIUM. My journey of discovering Japanese culture began here in Nihonbashi, and I have so much love and appreciation for that, and I hope that I can contribute in some way to this town through the ART AQUARIUM and SUIGIAN.

Interview and Article: Minako Ushida (Konel) / Photo: Daisuke Okamura

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