Fine details in an illustration from a pioneer of botanical art in Japan, Chikabo Kumada.

About A 97-Year-Old Botanical Art Maestro

It’s the first Thursday of the month again! Meaning, for today, we introduce you to one of the recent PingMag MAKE delights to direct your cherished attention to Japan’s arts & crafts scene. Enjoy! As the name says, botanical art is all about the drawing of plants. Originally, botanical artists used to team up with botanists to make drawings of medicinal herbs in order to create a record to help people identify different plants. So, 97-year-old Chikabo Kumada, known in Japan as a pioneer of botanical art, has made countless book illustrations and picture books about the subject. For 71 years (!), he’s been drawing the insects, animals, and plants that live in his garden and neighbouring woodlands. But only in his 70s his career took finally off! PingMag MAKE spoke to him about his experiences in life.

Written by Takafumi Suzuki
Translated by Claire Tanaka

An illustration by Chikabo Kumada.

Mr. Kumada, when did you first start drawing illustrations of plants and insects?

I started to do it for work when I was 26. I quit the graphic design company I’d been working at and switched careers without talking to my wife about it first. At that time, all the books had been burned in the war, and bunches of shoddy picture books had started coming in from the Kansai area and I thought, This won’t do! I’ve got to draw some good picture books. I love children. That’s why I started doing it. That was where my years of impoverishment began. (Laughs)

So you were a graphic designer before you started your career as a professional illustrator?

Back then, we didn’t use the English word designer; we called what I did a “zuan-ka.” At that time, the 1930s, even the modern idea of advertising was new. The firm I worked at, Nihon Kobo, was a groundbreaking company in Japan’s graphic design world. Ayao Yamana, who I considered a mentor, was of course very famous, but there were a lot of other very skilled people who came from there. People like Ken Domon and Yusaku Kamekura started there after me. I was particularly good friends with Domon. We were so busy, we worked every day from morning until the last train at night. We made good money too. (Laughs)

A praying mantis sits atop Mr. Kumada’s hand. When he encounters insects in his garden or at the park, he observes their movements closely.

It must have been uncommon to work in a field like art and design in those days.

I graduated from Tokyo Art University with a degree in industrial art, but normally, you can’t expect to earn a living after graduating from an art school. (Laughs) My brother was a poet and I was an illustrator so our family had two freeloaders in it. My father was a very magnanimous man. He really was a free human being.

Did you father also work in an arts-related field?

No. My father was a doctor. He went all the way to Germany to study, and he opened a clinic in Japan. Just like in Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard, the people who couldn’t afford to pay he treated for free. He had a very humanistic and free heart. When I was a child, I was terribly weak physically, but my father never said anything to me about it. Everything about him was really free. I think he really was happy just watching me play. Even now, I love my father more than anything in the world. Both my older brother and I were greatly influenced by the books and culture that my father brought home from overseas.

Though he mostly draws from memory or imagination, the drawings are finely detailed

Have you been interested in plants and insects ever since you were a child?

I was very weak as a child so I couldn’t really play outside. If I wanted to play outside I would go into the garden outside the house and play surrounded by plants and insects. But I only really got turned on to the world of insects and plants when I was in Junior High School. At that time, we were made to “play war” under the command of a real commissioned officer, and I was lying on my belly in a grassy field and we were ambushed by the enemy, but I noticed how the grasshoppers, ants, and beetles just calmly went about their business and got sucked into their world. The next thing I knew, I was the only one left and everyone else had advanced past enemy lines. (Laughs) They pulled me out of my hiding spot and dragged me in front of the teacher, and I said “I’m a wounded soldier.” Then the teacher didn’t get angry with me, actually he praised me. (Laughs)

That sounds like a lovely experience.

God is watching over me. I was so weak as a child and I’ve lived to be 97, and I believe I’ve got God to thank. For example, one day when I was past 70 years of age, suddenly I got the urge to eat raw vegetables, even though I knew it would give me an upset stomach. My wife was worried and a bit scared for me, but I just munched away at those vegetables. And for some reason, my stomach was fine. And back in the war, I was about to get drafted but thanks to a soldier I met, he wrote some illness in my file so that I wouldn’t have to go out to the battlefield. I think that’s thanks to God helping me out when I was in a pinch.

Mr. Kumada at age 20 (inset) and 80.

God? Do you subscribe to any particular faith?

I’m fake Christian. (Laughs) I just say God because I don’t know what else to call it. I’m talking about the great power of nature that controls all matter. When you draw plants and insects like me, you can feel it. I’ve been doing this work for more than 80 years now, but for me it’s like I am writing reports for God. Like I’m showing what kind of place this planet called Earth is. That’s why I’ve never once sold my originals. Though I’ve had lots of people who came saying “money is no object!” trying to buy them. (Laughs)

I read somewhere that your eyesight improved after you exceeded 80 years of age. Is that true?

I hit the renaissance of my life when I turned 70. That was when I really bloomed. Up until then it was like I had been like living in muddy water. (Laughs) When I turned 70, my works received recognition at an international picture book exhibition in Bologna, I got a lot of press and requests to speak publicly, and I got more work. When Italian and French people see my work, they say, “Mr. Kumada’s pictures are alive. The esprit is like that of Fabre.” Isn’t that nice? So my 80s were really like the bloom of youth for me. But when you reach such an age, you could really die at any moment. So I felt that it was important that I didn’t miss anything, and I took another close look around my garden. And that was when I realized I was able to see things in flowers and leaves that I hadn’t been able to see before, and my work got more detailed. Now when I look at the work I did when I was younger, it’s so amateurish that it embarrasses me. Most people rest on their laurels once they get into their 70′s, but that was when life really started for me. (Laughs)

Mr. Kumada’s beloved “Souvenirs Entomologiques” by Jean-Henri Fabre

He owns many imported books thanks to his father’s influence

Do you have any kind of message you want to send out to the world through your detailed illustrations?

One is Treasure the small living things. When you have been drawing insects and flowers for as long as I have, you start to develop a sense of camaraderie; “I am an insect, the insect is me.” The source of life is the same for everything. Now, I even find cockroaches unbearably cute. I scatter breadcrumbs and talk to them, We’ve survived another winter together! I say. I believe that any living thing can be beautiful if you love it. Most mothers of small children hate insects. That’s why I draw insects larger than life on purpose. I do that so they can see what lovely eyes the insects have. That’s how many mothers have grown to like insects. Honeybees are particularly charming; they’re one of my favourites!

You like honeybees?

Well, their eyes are so cute! But I don’t like their workaholic nature. (Laughs) These days there’s no space, no sweetness, it’s a nasty era. I find if I put myself into a drawing, it actually ruins the picture. There’s got to be an element of ease.

Mr. Kumada sits down to this desk to work every day

Even so, you’re very youthful considering that you’re 97 years old!

I don’t drink energy drinks or do special exercises or anything. I’m like a leaf floating down a stream; I just go with the flow. It’s easier if you think of it as being moved by an outside force. (Laughs) When people age or get successful, they start to think “This has to be a certain way.” But I don’t think of it that way and I haven’t come to any conclusions about anything, even now. That’s how I stay alive. I’m still in the height of my career now. There’s no retirement for me. Age is something invented by people. I hate numbers. (Laughs) Once you stop producing sparks, that’s the end.

What are you creating right now that produces sparks, Mr. Kumada?

Oh, all kinds of things. (Laughs) Starting next year there’s going to be a travelling exhibition sponsored by Asahi Shimbun, and the year after that, the year I turn 100, I’m having a homecoming exhibition in Yokohama. There are lots of other events planned as well. I’m currently working on illustrations for Fabre’s Souvenirs Entomologiques and I’d like to continue along that vein.

Mr. Kumada’s Garden
Botanical artist Chikabo Kumada, born in 1911 in Yokohama, Kanagawa.

Thank you, Chikabo Kumada, for your inspiring wisdom; thank you, PingMag MAKE for this piece!

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    Thank you, Chikabo Kumada for setting a great example for the restless young like me ;) !

  • Pingback: » About A 97-Year-Old Botanical Art Maestro

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