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Welcome to Ueno, here in Tokyo. This is where you're going to find many of Japan's national museums.
And, where you'll find Vermeer! Known as Verumēru (ヴェルメール) in Japanese.
Ueno is a peaceful park with six exceptional museums and a zoo,
And where you'll find Saigō Takamori (西郷隆盛), the last samurai, standing tall.
He's pretty big here in Ueno, but who's big in Japan these days?
It's hard not to say Tommy Lee Jones!
He's the pitchman for a canned coffee brand, and yes, he loves Japanese coffee!
Product marketing is a way to see who's big in Japan these days.
And recently, I saw this: the painting of "The Milkmaid" on an ad for a Tokyo soup chain.
Like the painting, it has broken pieces of bread and fresh milk.
How did an artist's work become a meal in a cup?
Japan really loves Vermeer's work!
Yeah, I was surprised by that too!
Vermeer is so popular in Japan that people line up for hours to see his work at the museum.
You can get museum tickets at a convenience store, but there's almost always a wait because attendance is the highest in the world.
He even has his own brand of otaku, the "Vermeer Otaku"; one of which we're gonna be meeting today.
So the question is, what makes Vermeer so popular in Japan?
The answer on how Vermeer's art is interpreted here also gives good insight into Japanese culture.
I headed to Aoyama Gakuin University on a lovely autumn day to meet with an expert in Vermeer's work.
This is Professor Shin-ichi Fukuoka.
He's written a few books on Vermeer, and,
When you get to his office, you realize he's more than an expert. He's a Vermeer otaku!
Is that the original 1672 "Lady Seated at the Virginals"?
My first thought was, 'Wow!'
There's at least 25 million dollars worth of masterpieces here!
That frame! The original "Milkmaid" on the floor?
And that one, too? Who is this guy?!
It's Professor Fukuoka, the biggest Vermeer otaku in the world.
And he has a thing for the 'Mona Lisa of the North'.
You can find the original "Girl with the Pearl Earring" at the Mauritshuis in the Netherlands, and the professor is quite familiar with that.
He had a perfect recreation in this house in New York when he was a post-grad student there.
The Mauritshuis invited him for a visit.
But the professor didn't know they'd completely recreate his New York City apartment inside the museum!
A dream come true!
An afternoon with the original at home... sort of.
Let's just say it's easier for the museum this way.
What did you think when you saw that?
F: [chuckle] It's...
But there's more to this story, and to learn why Vermeer is big here, I have to understand Professor Fukuoka's passion.
He's uncovered a lot about Vermeer's life because...?
F: I'm kind of an introvert.
A lonely kid.
Butterflies are my only friends,
And the microscope is my only tool. So it's a kind of "otaku obsession world".
That's me at this moment, at that moment.
J: Hmm. So that means, then, you are an "otaku".
F: Yes.
(Someone with an) obsession...
Or "nerds", "geeks"...
Or some kind of "weirdness". But this "otaku mind", "obsession mind",
it's kind of a talent; it's to be a scientist.
He loved butterflies and microscopes as a kid, which is when he discovered Leeuwenhoek— a pioneer in microscopy in 17th century Holland.
He even recreated Leeuwenhoek's journal!
He discovered something odd with the drawings...
F: I first thought that
Leeuwenhoek had a very skillful artistic talent, but in fact, it's not true.
Leeuwenhoek said in his notebook something like this:
"I, Leeuwenhoek,
am not good at drawing."
So he, Leeuwenhoek, asked someone skillful to draw pictures for him.
—Who could it be? An artist who lived near him perhaps? In the city of Delft in the mid-1600s?
J: So you have an otaku mind that's very analytical.
F: Yes.
J: You see things, like, in an extreme!
F: Yeah.
J: So this "otaku mind" led to some amazing discovery.
F: Yes.
J: Can you tell me about that?
There were some well-drawn images and also childlike drawings; although scientifically accurate,
But they didn't match.
F: All of a sudden, his touch has been changed completely.
The first part—very artistic;
but a later part is scientifically precise, but it's not artistic anymore.
The claw-like drawing here was a big clue. It's just too well drawn!
And those artistic drawings vanished in an important year.
F: It's the year 1675,
Vermeer died.
So it's all circumstantial evidence, but,
I believe personally that Leeuwenhoek,
and Vermeer,
J: They're like best friends, basically.
J: They're like best friends, basically. —Yeah.
J: They're like best friends, basically.
And best friends share things, which means Vermeer shared his artistic talents in the journal.
F: Yeah.
J: The microscopic talents...
F: —Transferred to Vermeer from Leeuwenhoek, and,
No little documents—like letters—or some...
...little material has not been found, but there,
They live in very close distance.
J: And nobody had made this connection before?
F: No.
Someone said they were near to each other, but,
Helping Leeuwenhoek in microscopic studies, that was by Johannes Vermeer.
That's my original finding. —Yeah...
F: Yes.
J: Wow. So this is the, um...
The discovery of an "otaku mind".
F: That's right!
J: But there's more. —Yes.
J: There's more! [chuckles] —Yeah.
F: Uh, listen...
I guess we have to answer, "What exactly is an otaku?"
I asked my friend Patrick W. Galbraith, who is a leading expert in Japanese subculture and the study of the otaku mind,
—like in his book, "Otaku Spaces".
Is this Professor Fukuoka an "otaku"?
P: Yeah, he's a textbook definition (of an otaku).
So, according to the Kōjien, the Japanese dictionary, an otaku is someone who's "interested in a particular object or genre",
"Extraordinarily knowledgeable about it"; he fits it perfectly; and the last part of the definition is "lacking in social common sense".
So take your fandom, take your interest in an object or genre, or a painting, or a painter,
—One step further. That makes you into an otaku according to the Japanese definition.
That also means that my friend Patrick is an "otaku"; in the study of otaku!
Once he starts talking, better bring popcorn!
Now the question, "What do Japanese see in Vermeer's work?" Let's ask the professor.
So when you see this painting, what do you see?
F: Yes, I can see...
A microscopic universe,
inside of Vermeer's painting.
It's a small world,
but it contains everything.
A universe...
And Vermeer's paintings are always very fair,
no ego,
and very precise.
That's a reason why Japanese people love Vermeer's stuff;
Because we love small things without ego,
and we see the universe inside of it.
J: Right. It's realistic. He didn't put himself too much into what he sees.
He used it from more of a scientific point of view, I think?
F: Exactly. Very science-minded.
In it, I see a scientific mind; in Vermeer's paintings.
The painting itself is still, but it's moving.
J: So now we're looking at the "Lady with the Pearl Earring". —Mm-hmm.
J: What do Japanese people see in this painting? What makes it so special?
F: I think we share the same kind of experience, a special experience.
When you look at her,
she looks (back) at you.
J: So we're looking at the original right now, but your recreations are different.
F: Right. It's not just a copy, not just a replica,
We just reconstruct the original color and brush strokes from almost 360 years ago with computer graphic design techniques,
And we restore everything to the point when Vermeer created it.
So it's more beautiful, more precise than the original.
—It's more than a high level of passion, it's the highest level.
I wanted to get another point of view, so I asked a former art student who studied in Japan about her thoughts.
Yuki's view doesn't go into microscopic detail as the professor's, but it explains a lot. Vermeer's painting makes everyday life seem nicer.
Back in Ueno.
There's also a drink dedicated to Vermeer. It matches the colors of "The Milkmaid".
There's no doubt there's a deep love for Vermeer's work in Japan.
And if you're not a collector, or an otaku,
Only in Japan can you have a meal of it, and say "kanpai".
If you liked it, click the Subscribe button and watch more of my series, ONLY in JAPAN.
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See you next time. またね。
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How a Japanese Otaku Decoded Vermeer's Art Materpieces ★ ONLY in JAPAN

1 Folder Collection
Summer published on July 30, 2020
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