What is true happiness? What we can learn from people with intellectual disabilities

I want to become a more valuable person.

I think many people unconsciously feel that they should be "useful" to both others and themselves.

There are two legends who have been leading the field of disability welfare for many years: Takashi Itagaki, art director of the Lumbini Museum (Hanamaki City, Iwate Prefecture), and Kazukazu Yamashita, director of Atelier Yamanami (Koka City, Shiga Prefecture).

What kind of image do we have when we hear the words "welfare facility"? At the very least, we may imagine a closed-off place far removed from sociality, unrelated to creative thought or creativity. However, in order to create a place where people with intellectual disabilities, who are oppressed by society, can express themselves as they are, they introduced artistic creation activities into the welfare field. As a result, their facility has produced many intellectually disabled artists, who have received high praise worldwide.

The talk event was facilitated by Takaya Matsuda, CEO of Heralbony, which runs a licensing business using art created by artists with intellectual disabilities, and his deputy CEO, Fumito Matsuda. What emerged from the event was a new philosophy of value that is needed, especially for those of us who live in these suffocating times.

"Promises" with Lumbini Museum

Matsuda Takaya (hereinafter, Takaya) : First, could you please introduce yourself?

Itagaki Takashi (hereinafter, Itagaki) : My name is Itagaki and I am the artistic director of the Lumbini Museum in Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture. Lumbini Museum is a space for art and relaxation run by the social welfare corporation Korinkai. I began my involvement around 1997 by supporting farm work and leisure activities, and have been involved in the management of the Lumbini Museum since it was established in 2007.

Yamashita Kanwa (hereinafter Yamashita) : My name is Yamashita, and I am the director of Yamanami Studio, an art center and welfare facility in Koka City, Shiga Prefecture. Currently, 97 people are enrolled at Yamanami Studio, and each person is doing what they want to do, in their own way, at their own time. I am really happy that we happened to have a connection with Heralbony and Lumbini Museum, and that it has expanded the opportunities for them to be active.

Takaya : I first saw art works at the Lumbini Museum nearly seven years ago. I became curious and did some research, which led me to learn about Yamanami Kobo and I was shocked to discover that such a world existed. I couldn't wait any longer, so I wrote a proposal to send to Itagaki-san, asking if I could make a tie called "Lumbinii Tie" using the artist's work.

This art necktie was made possible by the long-established men's clothing store "Ginza Taya." The delicate and elegant luster is made possible by the silk weaving techniques of artisans.

>>> Check out this tie in our shop

Takaya : The first thing Itagaki-san said to me that I'll never forget was, "Please keep in mind the author's wishes and whether the author has given their permission. I want you to remember those things." With that as our promise, we were able to celebrate our fifth anniversary together, and I'm very grateful.

Fumito Matsuda (hereafter, Fumito) : I was looking forward to speaking with these two legends in the disability welfare field today. I would be happy to talk to you about the direction that HERALBONY is heading in, and how disability welfare should change in the next five to ten years.

The ability to say "If it makes you happy, then go ahead" to people who don't agree with something

Yamanami Kobo Facility Director, Masakazu Yamashita (left) and Lumbini Museum Art Director, Takashi Itagaki (right)

Takaya : What do you two think about creating art in a welfare setting?

Itagaki : Actually, I'm not doing this because I like art. I think that humans cannot weave together the fact of life unless they express what's inside of them. I think that this is the same for all humans, regardless of whether they have a disability or not. In that situation, I think that people with intellectual disabilities or mental disabilities are in a position where they are restricted from expressing themselves from various directions. So, first of all, I want them to express themselves fully on paper or in their works. If it's on paper, they won't be bothering anyone. Anyway, we establish a field where they can express themselves fully, and then help them spread it to society. I think that such a framework is welfare.

Yamashita : I'm very simple. I spend time with them (people with intellectual disabilities). How can I help them feel at ease? What can I do to make them happy? I just thought deeply about these things, and that's how I ended up creating art in a welfare facility. I've never wanted them to be successful in art or to become famous, and I never have.

At the Lumbini Museum and Yamanami Koubou, there are some artists whose works may surprise people and make them seem problematic. For example, there is an artist at Lumbini who strings together threads.

Takaya : That was Nizato Riki (hereafter referred to as Riki). He cuts the threads, ties them together and strings them together like beads to make beads.

Nisato Chikara was born in 1968 and lives in Iwate Prefecture. He began his creative endeavors at the Mayura atelier in the Lumbini Museum in Hanamaki City. He initially created embroidery based on existing designs, but in 2009 he began creating "Untitled" balls of thread. This work won him the Excellence Award in the Contemporary Art Division of the 2009 Iwate Prefectural Art Festival. He continues to create the same work to this day. Reference article: Nippon Foundation DIVERSITY IN THE ARTS TODAY

Yamashita : When I saw him, I became convinced that I could affirm all of the work of the Yamanami people.

Itagaki : I think Yamashita-san first came to Lumbinii shortly after Chikara-san had started making balls of thread. Even after 15 years, he was still tying and joining threads in the same way. He was originally told not to do this. He would secretly cut and tie the threads he wanted to sell, so he was warned every time he was caught... But he never stopped, so we decided he could continue as he liked, and before we knew it, he had made an amazing ball of thread. That being said, I don't think Chikara-san was trying to make balls of thread. I think he just enjoys the process of cutting and tying.

Yamashita : The power to say, "If doing that makes you happy, then go ahead and do it," is amazing. Rather than thinking, "Let's make a good piece," or, "Maybe we can get the bait of Heralbony," I think it's important for us to face the happiness of each and every one of them on set.

Artists with intellectual disabilities may not consider their work to be art

HERALBONY Vice President Fumito Matsuda (left) / HERALBONY President Takaya Matsuda (right)

Takaya : At HERALBONY, we have contracts with many unique people, but I think that among them, there are also cases where the artist wants to create art but is not actually active in that field. Like Chikara's ball of thread, the artist calls what they really want to do art and expresses it to society. In this way, it becomes something that can be traded for hundreds of thousands of yen in capitalist society. I myself feel that this method can be abusive to artists... It is related to the "promise" I made with Itagaki-san, but I think we need to continue to sincerely face what the artist really wants.

Fumito : It leads to a debate about whether it is really right to call that act art.

Itagaki : I think that's a very interesting point when thinking about welfare and art. Looking at the people at Lumbini, none of them call what they express "art." The creators don't see any distinctions like "this is a work of art," "this is art," or "I am an artist."

Yamashita : You're right. There is no one in Yamanami who says, "I'm an artist," or "This is a work of art," or "I'll do my best to have it exhibited in an exhibition."

Itagaki : Right now, the world is rigid and bound by various values, and I think there are many people who are struggling with the idea that something is not going well and that something needs to change. I think people with intellectual disabilities know a world where those constraints have been reset. They are not bound by the boundaries of art or works of art, but simply use their hands because they want to express themselves. I think this is a very important perspective in normalizing the world.

Humans are the only ones in nature who seek meaning and value in others.

Yamanami Kobo Facility Director, Masakazu Yamashita (left) and Lumbini Museum Art Director, Takashi Itagaki (right)

Takaya : What are the future goals of Lumbini Museum and Atelier Yamanami? How can HERALBONY be involved in that?

Yamashita : I'm not good at making plans or visions, so I think I've just been doing random things and stirring up trouble at Yamanami Kobo... But even so, ideas come to me when I think about what I can do to make the users and staff happy and surprise them. So I want to continue choosing things that I find fun. I hope that Heralbony will continue to do things more flashy and with their eyes fixed on the front! We ourselves will do our best not to be left behind.

Itagaki : I think that since ancient times, people in this world have been exposed to the value that "since you're born, you have to achieve something." I think that everyone accepts that value and does their best to follow it. However, I think that this in itself is a major cause of division and exclusion among people.

Like Riki, who we mentioned earlier, who cut the thread that was for sale, losing its value. Even Kobayashi Satoru, who is now a popular artist, started out with people saying, "Satoru has started writing strange characters! This is bad, something is wrong!"

In this way, I think that many things and actions that are stigmatized as useless to society actually come from us as well. However, the current situation is that we are bound by values ​​that we try not to produce such things as much as possible, and that we have to produce things that everyone will be happy with. So, if people can see Chikara and Satoru's works and have the experience of thinking, "It's good for no particular reason," or "It moves me," I think art can play a role in changing such values.

Fumito : There's no need to be bound by values ​​like "you are superior because you have accomplished something" or "living without achieving anything is decadence."

Itagaki : In fact, the act of seeking public meanings and values ​​from others and separating what is useful from what is not is something that only humans do. Animals and plants other than humans do not judge each other based on such meanings or values. I wonder if we can stop this "negation based on meanings and values." I think we should be able to relax it a bit more.

I believe that the world of intellectual disabilities holds clues for how to change the present. We just haven't tried to take an interest in them, or look at them from their perspective, but people with intellectual disabilities have been carrying important wisdom that we didn't know about for ages. In this context, I believe that HERALBONY's business is increasing the number of people who want to see the view from the other side.

Takaya : HERALBONY is celebrating its fifth anniversary, and we've increased our staff, received investment from companies, and have management goals such as how much sales we need to achieve by a certain period. We're on track to fulfill our social promises. It's important for us as a company to fulfill those promises, but through this session, I was able to reaffirm that what we really need to value are the feelings of the artists, their parents, and the welfare facilities. Thank you both for such an insightful session.

*This article is an edited version of the crosstalk that took place at the Heralbony 5th Anniversary Event "Unusual Thanksgiving" held on Sunday, July 23, 2023.

*As this is a paid event, we had not intended to write about it, but we believe that it is Heralbony's role to spread the words of those who continue to take on challenges on the front lines of welfare to society, so we have made it open to the public in this way.