The origin of Heralbony, talking with Takashi Itagaki of Lumbini Museum, about life and determination "Listening Museum #21"

"HERALBONY TONE FROM MUSEUM ~Listening Museum~" is a podcast that launched this spring and focuses on artists contracted to the welfare experimental company Heralbony.

Sara Ogawa, an actor, filmmaker, and writer, and Takaya Matsuda, CEO of HERALBONY, will be the interviewers. As they listen carefully to the art, they will touch upon the personality and life story of this "unique artist" that can be seen beyond his work.

With just one episode left until the final episode, our guest for this episode is Itagaki Takashi, art director at the Lumbini Museum in Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture, where HERALBONY originated. What does Itagaki want to convey through the works of this unique artist, whom he describes as "art that makes you feel alive"? We spoke to him about his thoughts on HERALBONY.

#What Itagaki Bet On

Ogawa: Who is our guest this time?

Takaya: We are joined by Mr. Itagaki Takashi, the art director of the Lumbini Museum, which was the catalyst for the founding of HERALBONY. When we created the brand "MUKU" before HERALBONY, Mr. Itagaki was the first person we presented to. He has been with us since we were at the point where we were wondering "who are these guys?" and has supported us from the very beginning, so I consider him to be one of the founders of a kind. Thank you for joining us today.

Ogawa: Thank you!

Itagaki-san: Thank you. Itagaki here.

Ogawa: So, today I'm connected with Itagaki-san remotely. You're in Iwate right now, right?

Itagaki: Yes.

Ogawa: Mr. Itagaki, do you remember the first time Takaya and his team came to give a presentation?

Itagaki-san: Yes, I remember. One of the founding members of Heralbony, Ota-san, still plays a core role today, and he was actually a rival in table tennis with Takaya-san and Fumito-san in high school. Ota-san was the first to contact me to set up an appointment, and then Takaya-san and Fumito-san came to the museum, and that was the first time we met.

Ogawa: What was your initial appointment like?

Takaya: I was working in Tokyo at the time, and when I went back home for Obon, my mother told me that the Lumbini Art Museum in Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture, where people with disabilities are creating art, was amazing, so I went there with my brother Shota. At the time, there were works by artists such as Kiyoshi Yaegashi and Sanae Sasaki lined up, and I was so impressed by how cool they were. I wondered if we could do something to bring them together in our creations, and I just couldn't sit still. I wrote a proposal to create a brand of ties called "Lumbinii Ties," and went to make a presentation like a cold call.

Itagaki: Yes, yes.

Ogawa: That was during "MUKU," right?

Takaya: That's right. "MUKU" is a brand that was launched about seven years ago, so I think it was about eight years ago that I went to give a presentation.

Ogawa: Itagaki-san, what did you think when you heard that he wanted to make those ties?

Itagaki-san: Actually, we had been approached before Takaya and his team with the idea of ​​turning the work into a product. Takaya and his team had a very appealing proposal, although there are still some elements that need to be discussed and finalized. The proposal also included an image of a tie, but at that stage, the design was quite different from the tie that was ultimately completed. It was a simple and orthodox image visual that used the work as a pattern, so at that stage I wasn't surprised by the content of the proposal itself, and my impression was "I see, so that's what they're trying to make," but it was clear to me that they had thought it out very well, that their feet were on the ground, and that they had a solid foundation in mind.

Ogawa: Takaya, did you sense any passion from Fumito?

Itagaki-san: Yes, yes. I could clearly feel his passion from the first time we met. No matter what happens, he won't flinch or run away. I think there were many unknowns for Takaya, too, but I think I could sense from the beginning that he was determined to take on the uncertain and not back down. I think I got the feeling that he had something worth believing in.

Takaya: Thank you.

Ogawa: Was Takaya around 25 or 26 years old at that time?

Takaya: That's about it. I remember well that at the time, we had weekly meetings starting at 6am, and I would talk with fellow creators about how we should create a proposal and take it to the Lumbini Museum. When we presented the idea to the Lumbini Museum, three people from the museum responded to us. The other two were a bit skeptical. They were like, "Honestly, what do you think about this?", but Itagaki commented, "I'd like to bet on this enthusiasm." It was a memorable push for me at the time.

Ogawa: The passion that Itagaki-san put into HERALBONY has taken on a bigger shape now that it's reached its fifth anniversary. How do you feel seeing that transformation?

Itagaki-san: I think those years made me realize that what I felt when we first met was right after all. When I say he has a lot of passion, I don't mean that he's a powerful, pushy guy. Takaya has always been gentle since we first met. He was gentle, and he listened carefully to what I had to say, taking every word in. I think some of his comments were somewhat critical, but he never closed his ears. He was quiet and calm, but there was something strong and passionate that seemed to come from deep inside. That's what made me think that he was worth taking a chance on at the beginning. It felt like I was witnessing first-hand that he had a tremendous amount of energy.

Ogawa: Of course, I'm sure Takaya and Fumito approached the project with incredible passion, but it's also amazing that Itagaki and the others were able to see that and work alongside them.

#A place where you can feel the presence of life

Ogawa: By the way, what is the historical history of the Lumbini Museum itself?

Itagaki-san: The museum opened in November 2007, and the museum's parent corporation itself was established about 55 years ago. It started out as a facility for disabled children, and then in the 1960s it developed facilities for adults.

Ogawa: Wow!

Itagaki: We started with these businesses and then expanded to create group homes and employment support centers, and in 2007 we decided to take on the bold challenge of opening an art museum, which was quite an in-depth project for a social welfare corporation.

Ogawa: When you were originally running the group home, were there a lot of art-related activities?

Itagaki-san: I started doing it properly around 1998, when I first became involved with Lumbinii.

Ogawa: Mr. Itagaki was there in front of the museum.

Itagaki-san: I started being involved about 10 years before the museum was built. I started my ceramics activities about 10 years before that, but the works of artists like Yaegashi Kiryo and Sasaki Sanae, who are now in the limelight, received almost no attention at the museum and were not of any interest to me.

Ogawa: I see. How did it come about that someone noticed it and decided to create a museum?

Itagaki-san: At that time, there was a man named Mitsui who was the director of the adult residential facility and is now the chairman of the corporation. He also started making pottery. When Mitsui saw Yaegashi-san's paintings, he had a premonition that "I don't really know, but these paintings are something special." However, neither Mitsui nor the other staff had a clear sense of values ​​to evaluate such things. It seems that just when they were thinking of bringing in someone who could judge that, they met me. I was studying art at university at that time, and after graduating, I was unemployed and a "self-proclaimed artist" - a NEET (laughs). I didn't even have a part-time job. I went to two universities. First, I studied psychology for four years, graduated, worked part-time for one year, then went back to university and studied art for four years, and after a long period of moratorium, I became a NEET. The director of the facility, Mitsui-san, was actually a Buddhist monk and the deputy chief priest of my family temple. Mitsui-san had heard that a parishioner's son had studied psychology and art but was not doing anything at the moment, so he contacted my father and asked if I would like to help out. I thought, "Maybe it's a part-time job cleaning the temple?", but when I went there, he showed me to a facility and I realized, "Oh, so he was working at the facility." That's how we met.

Ogawa: Now that I think about it, it seems like you were perfectly suited for the job and it was your calling, but what was your impression when you first visited the facility and saw the art?

Itagaki: It was a real shock. Yes. I had never really had any contact with people with intellectual disabilities, and had never even had a conversation with them. I had only seen them from afar. I was rather skeptical, didn't want to get involved, and had negative prejudices. Then, by chance, I went to a facility for people with intellectual disabilities for the first time, and was surprised by the warmth of the people there. It was completely different from the image of people with intellectual disabilities that I had in my mind. I wondered what kind of image I had created in my mind. After that, I was surprised again when I saw the work. I later found out that it was a work by Yaegashi Kira, and it was a very complex work with two compositions and beautiful colors, and it was painted by someone who could barely speak. Each person painted such a unique work with a completely different expression, and it was a shock that turned my world upside down.

Kiyoshi Yaegashi "(Untitled) (House)"

Ogawa: Yaegashi creates beautiful works that use lines and circles to create room layouts or stained glass-like pieces.

Takaya: That's right!

Ogawa: What were your thoughts when you decided to create a museum and allow everyone to see these works?

Itagaki: The idea for the museum business was Mitsui's, and I was a bit surprised when I first heard about the plan. As I had no experience in a social welfare corporation, it was a business I had no idea about, so I was hesitant, thinking, "This is going to be a bit of a hassle" (laughs).

Takaya: Hahaha! So that's what you thought (laughs).

Itagaki: However, since I had already decided to do it, I strongly wanted to make it a project that I myself could believe in, so I thought about what the concept of this museum should be, something that is really needed in the world, and I felt that we needed a facility that was not just about conveying or enjoying the works of people with intellectual disabilities. I intuitively felt that the ideal form of a museum should not simply be to convey the appeal of the works, so I wondered what it was. When I dug deeper into the fundamental reasons why the social position of people with intellectual disabilities is weak or low, I came to the conclusion that we actually think that "the lives of ordinary people in society are not equal." We often hear phrases like "all lives are equal" and "there is no difference between lives," but on the other hand, I think that unless we repeatedly put up slogans like that, we will not naturally think that way. Why do we make distinctions between lives, such as light or heavy, important or unimportant, and stubbornly try to protect them, even though there should be no difference in essence? If we can unravel this and come to understand that "after all, all lives are the same," then people with intellectual disabilities should no longer be discriminated against or looked down upon, and I think we can get closer to resolving the root causes of unfair discrimination and exclusion that arise from the weighting of life. So, I wanted to create a museum concept that allows visitors to feel the workings and presence of life, and even life itself, through the artworks.

Takaya: I see.

Ogawa: Indeed, the art of Sanae Sasaki, who is famous for her works with Yaegashi and Kuromaru, really does exude the energy of life.

Sanae Sasaki "(Untitled) (Circle)"

Itagaki-san: Yes. It's incredibly persuasive, as if it's not something that was created by human minds or knowledge, but a work that is shaped and expressed as some kind of energy that comes from the very center of human life.

Takaya: When I first saw it, I was also very impressed. It made me realize that all these circles were connected together to create the work. I still remember being moved by the idea that it must have been born from something very strong within the people themselves, and not from a desire for social recognition.

Itagaki-san: Yes, it goes without saying. Even if you're not a fan of art, you can understand.

Takaya: So, since we are working on such productions, I think it will be difficult to maintain the purity of the original work, but we need to get as close as possible to it and communicate it as directly as possible, rather than beautifying it.

Ogawa: That's true. I imagine there must have been quite a few hurdles to overcome when turning the original drawings into a finished product.

Takaya: Well, when I made my first tie, I was thinking about how I could incorporate the purity of that work into the design. I thought that a woven silk tie would be the coolest. But as a company, there are many options when it comes to taking on new challenges, such as best-selling items or easy-to-grab products, and I thought this talk was a chance to go back to basics.

Ogawa: Is there a permanent exhibition of Heralbony artists at the Lumbini Museum now?

Takaya: We are currently exhibiting works by artists other than those belonging to the Harumbini Museum. For example, we are exhibiting works from the Nishinari area, not only art by people with disabilities, but also homeless people and children who require medical care.

Ogawa: I see. You may have had exhibitions of artists affiliated with HERALBONY, or conversely, you may have met some artists at Runbinii and ended up joining HERALBONY. Is there anything memorable about your involvement with Runbinii Museum so far?

Takaya: I'm really glad that I was able to work with Lumbinii from the very beginning, because Itagaki-san told me, "I have a condition." He said to me, "I think that from now on, HERALBONY will work with various welfare facilities in various ways, but I want it to be a company that carefully obtains the approval of artists." That's what he said at the very beginning.

Ogawa: By approval, I mean when the work is commercialized, right?

Takaya: Whenever we commercialize something, develop it into a product, or use it in urban development or any other way, we have to go through a three-way process between the artist, their parents, and the welfare facility. But there is a certain violence in the idea that artists receiving monetary compensation, having their work exhibited to the public, being featured in newspapers, and gaining social recognition are all good things.

Ogawa: That's where the artist's intention disappears.

Takaya: That's right. The artist says "yes," but is it really "yes?" He asked us to do it carefully, even to that extent, and that was a big guideline for the company. I think it was a very grateful opportunity.

Ogawa: That's a really important point. Is there any memorable episode with Heralbony, Itagaki-san?

Itagaki-san: Earlier, you mentioned that the first tie you made was made from woven silk, but I naturally assumed it would be printed. But when I saw the finished product, it was woven, and silk at that. It was a real shock. There was no doubt about it, it was an incredibly beautiful object. I heard later that there were almost no factories that were willing to weave silk, and they all refused. In fact, they even refused to print it.

Takaya: That's right. There are too many colors!

Itagaki-san: Even though they turned down the print, they insisted on weaving the silk. That courage is impressive, and the finished product was so beautiful that it was shocking. It was unbelievably beautiful, like the shell of an insect that shines with the colors of the rainbow. Moreover, they didn't just reproduce the colors of the work with the colors of the thread, but they carefully thought out how they could best use the charm of the original painting as a translation of the work through the medium of weaving.

Yaegashi Michiyo's work has a lot of black lines drawn on it, but the fabric is slightly depressed only in those black parts, or the edges of the borders between the colors separated by the lines are slightly different in thickness, or the reflectivity is slightly different. Something extraordinary, like a crystal, was formed, and I thought, "Something amazing is going to happen." That first tie was a shock.

Michiyo Yaegashi "Word Processor"

Ogawa: By the time the original drawing is turned into a product, it's like a game of telephone, with many people involved. But to still be able to create something beautiful like that shows how clear and powerful the original thought was.

Itagaki-san: That's right. I was really touched by the fact that it was made by engineers with high skills and taste who really put all their effort into it, and that the starting point for it was the passion of Takaya-san, Fumito-san, and the other members of the team.

Takaya: At that time, Fumito was in charge of neckties, so he made a list in Excel and called everyone from top to bottom to find a manufacturer. A necktie manufacturer told us that Ginza Taya had the best quality in the world, and that they thought it would be technically possible. We looked into it and found out that they had a workshop in Yonezawa City, Yamagata Prefecture. However, they had never contracted out OEM (contract manufacturing of products for other brands) for manufacturing in their 100-year-plus history, so we thought it would be difficult. So, on a whim, Fumito said, "I'm a fan of Ginza Taya!" and took us on a tour of the Yonezawa factory, and when we showed him the proposal I made and said, "Actually, I want to make a necktie like this," the factory manager said it was interesting. The head office in Ginza, which we were connected to, also sympathized with us, and they are still doing wholesale to brands other than their own for the first time in their 100-year-plus history.

Ogawa: That's amazing. He continues to pave the way.

Takaya: I think that was a really wonderful opportunity.

#Determination to take on challenges as a business

Ogawa: The second floor of the Lumbini Museum is an atelier, right? Can I ask you a bit about the atelier?

Itagaki-san: This is the atelier where Sasaki Sanae and Kobayashi Satoru, who are well known for their Heralbony products, are active. There are currently about 10 members. The lineup and number of people change depending on the day. It stopped for a long time after the COVID-19 pandemic, but originally it was a very open atelier, and people who were looking at the works on display downstairs, or eating or drinking at the cafe on the first floor, would casually go up the stairs and say, "I heard you can also visit the atelier on the second floor," and "Let's take a look," and there they would find the artists drawing, dozing, or just staring blankly. Anyone could enter freely, chat with the artists freely, and people would come back many times because they liked it and become familiar with the faces. It was a place of encounters, so to speak. Now, little by little, it is finally returning to that state. Old facilities are often built on the outskirts of town or near mountains. This is also the case with the facility that the corporation that runs the Lumbini Museum is housed in. Therefore, interaction with the outside world was extremely limited. In that respect, the Runbinii Museum, located in the middle of a residential area, is a place where people of all kinds can come and go freely and enjoy meeting new people.

Ogawa: Were the location and structure of the museum also designed to create a place for such encounters?

Itagaki: Actually, that wasn't the case.

Ogawa: Is that so?

Itagaki-san: That's right. To begin with, the building wasn't a new one. It was originally a two-story building that housed a store selling pottery and an office. The store closed and put the building up for sale, so we acquired it and renovated it to become the Lumbini Museum.

Takaya: You said that it was a cutting-edge facility at the time, and many people came to inspect it, right? There was a bakery on the first floor.

There's a cafe on the first floor, an atelier on the second floor, and an art museum on the first floor. It's a novel development.

Itagaki-san: Yes, yes. It's structured to aim for some kind of community-like interaction to occur there. That was Mitsui-san's idea. I think he really nailed it.

Takaya: Actually, I visited the colony last week, which was the beginning of welfare facilities in Japan. It was a facility in the mountains where more than 1,000 people with disabilities lived together. To explain a little, in an era when there was no welfare facility system, parents formed the "National Association for the Protection of Severely Mentally and Physically Disabled Children" and appealed for the country to save their children. So a national colony was created based on the welfare idea of ​​"lifelong protection," which was revolutionary at the time, that children should spend their whole lives in a facility when they reach a certain age. After that, a movement started by a group of people with cerebral palsy, saying "They should not live in the colony forever, they should go out to the city," and from there the system and laws changed. So I think people must have been surprised at the time to see the Runbinii Museum, which is right next to the practice tree of Hanamaki Higashi High School, which also plays in the Koshien.

Itagaki-san: That's right. I think there were few precedents for a welfare facility in a residential area in Hanamaki, and I think there were still some people who resisted it. When the same corporation opened a group home in a residential area, the neighbors were very unhappy. They once told me, "When a group home for people with disabilities opened next door, I thought my life was over." At a time when such values ​​were still commonplace and familiar, I think it was a pioneering base in many ways.

Ogawa: With the opening of the Runbinii Museum in a residential area, have you noticed any changes in the town?

Itagaki-san: As for the neighboring towns, I didn't notice any immediate change. If anything, I remember that in the first few years after we opened, more people came from far away. There is a local koto teacher who has been a regular visitor since we first opened, but there was surprisingly little immediate growth in the area. For several years, there were more people coming from Morioka, which is about 30 minutes by train from Hanamaki. It really felt like things started to take shape bit by bit.

Ogawa: The self-restraint measures imposed due to COVID-19 are starting to ease, and I think Lumbini Museum is returning to its previous state, but what is the atmosphere like?

Itagaki-san: Before, I had been able to meet a lot of different people, but then the coronavirus pandemic hit and it all stopped. It was like the air was no longer flowing, the flow of time in the room had stopped, and I thought the older members might develop dementia. The time that had been rather stagnant has finally started moving again, and everyone's lively expressions are gradually returning.

Takaya: It's a really fun place. There's Takahashi-san who shakes hands while making the "X" shape, someone who keeps drawing a map to the local bakery, Anpo-san who does cat impersonations, and it's an exciting space for everyone to come, not just the artists we have contracts with.

Itagaki-san: Yes, yes. Everyone really smiles and their hearts are warmed. There are quite a lot of people who say, "I came back because I wanted to feel better."

Ogawa: What a great place! It's been really interesting hearing so much from you today, but before we close, is there anything you would like to see happen with Heralbony?

Itagaki: As Takaya mentioned earlier, I think it's very important that they have accepted the conditions of getting the approval of the creator himself, which is quite unreasonable in a sense as a business, and have continued to include it in the system. When providing a work for secondary use, it is common to enter into a non-exercise clause such as a waiver of the author's moral rights. It is a contract that says, "The creator will not complain at all. Please use it freely." Most of the design things that we see on a daily basis are probably like this. Instead, they implemented a system where they check each time while devising ways to communicate so that the creator can feel a little more real, saying, "This is the project. It has this image, it will be installed in this place, and it will be sold here," and proceed only after the creator is satisfied. I think that the fact that Heralbony has continued to show a pioneering example and success story as a business model in this field is a very important message in itself. I think that they will continue to convey this message for a long time, so I think the impact will be great. Another thing is that we are now in the process of increasing social recognition of the existence of people with intellectual disabilities, seeing them as a kind of talent or special person.

However, I would like to see the business develop in a way that doesn't turn it into an illusion. I hope that by conveying the value of people through a heroic, easy-to-understand story, they don't fall into the trend of spreading illusion over the existence of human beings. Rather than simply reducing the author to an easy-to-understand story or meaning, or elevating it by adding value such as something special, I hope that ultimately the value of a human being's life itself will be firmly recognized by people all over the world. To that end, I would like to cooperate as much as I can.

Ogawa: Thank you. Takaya, what do you think?

Takaya: Thank you for your thought-provoking story. For me, it's very important how much fun my brother, who is four years older than me, can have. Even while we're running hard, receiving investment as a company and needing to steadily increase sales, and trying harder and taking on more challenges, we have to keep looking at the values ​​we want to cherish. I think that's very difficult. But it's precisely because we can be easily categorized and lumped together that I've come to realise that we really have to treasure each and every individual, like my brother Matsuda Shota's breathing, or the Hello Kitty sandals that Sasaki Sanae always wears. Thank you!

Itagaki-san: Thank you. I think it's a really difficult challenge. It's not just people with intellectual disabilities, but I think the reason why people with disabilities are given a low position in society or are left behind is precisely because of economic factors.

Takaya: That's right.

Itagaki-san: This is a challenge to go right into the heart of economic principles, which is the core of the city, and turn negativity into affirmation, so I think there will be all kinds of traps. Very bewitching, tricky traps. I think that will happen many times in HERALBONY's challenge. But I'm sure HERALBONY, led by Takaya and Fuminori, will be able to break through them in the end. So I'd like to see that happen.

Takaya: Please let me work with you! Thank you!

Ogawa: Thank you. Mr. Itagaki, do you have any news about the Lumbini Museum?

Itagaki: A new exhibition will be starting for a woman with cerebral palsy named Ozeki Sayoko, who lived in Fukushima Prefecture. She left behind a huge number of paintings in hospitals and facilities, depicting her free, alternative life and her aspirations. We will introduce Ozeki's life along with some of her works. The exhibition will run for about four months, from September 15, 2023 to January 22, 2024.

Ogawa: Just hearing that story makes me want to go see it! Thank you very much.

Takashi Itagaki

Born in 1971 as the eldest son of a farming family in Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture. As a boy, he aimed to become a manga artist, and in college, he switched from studying the cognitive functions of the brain to copperplate engraving. In 1998, he casually walked through the gates of the local welfare facility for the disabled, Lumbini Garden. (When he was a boy, the name of the facility was a derogatory term among his friends.) He met the people who lived there and the sculptures they created, and the course of his life changed. Since then, he has continued to support the creative expression of people living with intellectual and mental disabilities at welfare facilities and support schools, including the facility. He was involved in the planning of the museum for the corporation that runs the facility, and was appointed art director of the Lumbini Museum when it opened in 2007. Why did he look down on people he didn't even know? Starting from this question, he devoted himself to creating a museum that would be a place where people could encounter the hearts of others and experience the equality of all life. In 2016, he started the Deai Jugyou Project, which aims to popularize on-site classes taught by people with intellectual disabilities. In order to further expand these practices, the Social Medicine Research Institute was established in 2020.

"HERALBONY TONE FROM MUSEUM ~Listening Museum~" is now available for free

Based on the concept of "imagining the history of an unconventional artist through his art," this program listens closely to the art and touches upon the personality and life story of one "unconventional artist" that can be seen beyond his work.

The two MCs are Sara Ogawa, an actor, filmmaker and writer, and Takaya Matsuda, CEO of HERALBONY. Each episode focuses on a writer under contract with HERALBONY, and welcomes intellectually disabled writers, their families and welfare facility staff as guests.

It is available every Sunday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Amazon Music.

You can also enjoy back issues for free.

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