By TOMOKO NAGAI, Rafu Staff Writer
LONG BEACH — One day at the end of January, despite the stormy weather, an artist silently worked with his paintbrush, all by himself, in the auditorium of Long Beach Japanese Cultural Center (LBJCC). His name is Shuji Nishimura and the day was his 13th of a two-week project.
A mural is painted on the back wall of the stage, about 9 x 20 feet. LBJCC won a grant from the Japan Business Association of Southern California (JBA), whose Education and Cultural Committee offers Japan Enrichment Grants (JEG).
Born in 1972 in Hyogo Prefecture, Nishimura came to the U.S. in 1999 and currently lives in the South Bay. He has been continuing his art while working as a graphic designer and began creating chalk art in 2007. He went on to win awards in various contests, including the Pasadena Chalk Festival, where artists draw pictures onto the streets. Nishimura focuses on realism, exploring how close he can get to photography with chalk art.
For the LBJCC project, using a huge wall as the canvas was not a problem because he often works on large-scale pieces.
Nishimura is recreating the famous ukiyo-e “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” (Kanagawa-oki Nami Ura) by Katsushika Hokusai. Mt. Fuji can be seen in the background with small boats caught in the swelling waves. It is Hokusai’s most famous work and represents Japanese culture.
“I’ve painted ‘The Great Wave’ three or four times so far, so I wasn’t worried,” says Nishimura.
His work began by erasing the existing blurred, 25-year-old painting. Then, onto the white wall, he dynamically drew a big wave taller than his height, and splashes. About two weeks later, on this day, the project is nearly complete. He was putting the final touches on the mural by carefully drawing the name of the sponsor organization, JBA, and a picture of “Amabie.”
What is Amabie? She is an apparition (yokai) believed to be living in the sea, according to a legend that has been handed down in Japan for a few hundred years. Amabie has been a relatively unknown monster character. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, she became popular and idolized in Japan as a talisman to dispel the plague.
With Amabie in prayer for the end of the once-in-century pandemic, the Hokusai mural is nearing completion. The only disappointment is that the center is closed due to a pandemic. The time to show off the new stage mural to the community center members is still many days ahead.
LBJCC has long contributed to the Japanese American community in Long Beach as a base for learning Japanese language and Japanese culture. Due to the proximity of Terminal Island, which prospered as a Japanese fishing village before the war, many Japanese Americans lived nearby at one point. Although it is said that the number has decreased significantly, it still has 300 families as members, and more than 100 people gather at the pancake breakfast. In addition to the Japanese language school, there are classes such as kendo, judo, karate, calligraphy, and flower arrangement.
The stage usually accommodates the speech contest and skit presentations of Japanese language students, as well as cultural performances for the various parties and summer festivals. The facility has been closed since outbreak of COVID-19. The Japanese language school went online and will continue to do so for a while.
In the midst of so much melancholy, the grant approval brought some brightness to LBJCC.
The Japan Enrichment Grant (JEG) contributes every year to educational institutions and organizations engaged in activities to spread Japanese culture, traditions, and language. In the 2020 fiscal year, a total of $25,000 was contributed to ten projects, which include a tea ceremony demonstration via Zoom for a high school, a performance of the children’s story “Momotaro” for an elementary school, a Japanese cooking experience, and the purchase of Japanese musical instruments and books.
Takato Hayashi, the head of JEG, praised the Hokusai project. “A magnificent project that allows local people to see and understand Japanese culture and Japanese painting. I was impressed by their appeal in the application process. Such a wonderful concept that the famous Japanese art painting will encourage and energize the members of the Cultural Center and the local community. It was perfect.”
He said the project has motivated him to agree to support LBJCC.
The JEG funds are individually generated by the Education and Cultural Committee every year, rather than being allocated by JBA. The committee organizes an annual charity golf event, and the committee members are enthusiastic about their mission. The funds raised through the golf tournament are providing educational support to the local community.
2020 was a life-changer with a pandemic no one ever imagined. The committee worried about how they could support the community under such circumstances.“However,” said Saya Kawai, 2020 president of the committee,“contrary to our anxiety, despite the school being closed and all the events canceled, new educational ideas popped up. We received as many applications as we normally received in other years. We were deeply impressed by the educators and teachers who continue to provide learning opportunities for students. It was a very encouraging year for us.”
With the approval of the grant, the LBJCC Board of Directors decided on the final design from the three Hokusai pictures submitted by Nishimura. “Our board decided on this one … a most iconic piece of work,” said Jay Shaheen, president of the board.“We liked this picture because … it actually has people, has the concept that there are some people in the boat.”
On Feb. 13, two weeks after the mural painting was completed, a small ceremony was held. A few board members were invited with consideration for social distancing. Participants who saw the completed mural for the first time were amazed at the grandeur and power of the work. They can’t wait for the day when the center will reopen and the mural will impress many more people.
Shaheen said,“We are lucky to have JBA support us. We will be in some way supporting JBA for sure, by word of mouth that they are doing such a great job. For our Community Center itself and also for the Japanese Language School, it is going to be very valuable. The Japanese art gives a good feeling for those who come here. Overall, it is beautiful.”
Hayashi of JBA said, if the COVID situation continues for a while into 2021, “The mission of the Education and Cultural Committee will not change. We will focus on how to proceed in this environment, in order to contribute to the local communities, and for sharing of Japanese culture.”
Expressing his motivation, Nishimura said, “I would like to continue drawing in various forms. I would love to paint on any occasion if I have the opportunity given, regardless of the place, whether it is inside or outside.”
Nishimura’s amazing works can be seen at his Facebook page. Also a mural painting by Nishimura is on the outside wall of Art and Fish restaurant, located on Mateo Street in L.A.’s Arts District near Little Tokyo.