Where Art and Culture Diverge: Legacies of the Ohtake’s and Japanese-Brazilian Immigrants

by Zoey Duan

Standing tall in the center of the city of São Paulo is a skyscraper like no other. Its vibrant burgundy and purple stripes contrast the blue skies while panels of hard metal, seemingly defying physics and gravity, curve and wrap around its base. Its entrance caves inward in a playful, wavy cut out, reminiscent of a cartoon cloud, beckoning visitors to come and explore more of its wonders within. This is the Tomie Ohtake Institute –– a museum and cultural center of contemporary art that has been critically appraised as not only one of the best art venues in Sao Paulo but also an architectural treasure. It celebrates the legacy of the landmark Brazilian Japanese artist Tomie Ohtake and her sons, Ruy and Ricardo Ohtake. It also represents the mark that Japanese culture has made in Brazilian society and culture. 

The blend of Japanese and Brazilian culture dates all the way back to the 16th century when, according to the book Laços Do Olhar – Roteiros Entre O Brasil E O Japao, merchants, navigators, and missionaries “weaved the tenuous web between Portugal, Brazil and Japan.” But it was not until 1908 that Japan and Brazil began to interact more frequently through greater volumes of immigration and exchange, when Ryo Mizuno, founder of the Imperial Colonization Company, sent the first 781 immigrants to Brazil on board the Kasato-Maru, initially as coffee farmers and agricultural workers. This would pave the way for the first wave of over 200,000 Japanese, who would trickle into Brazil until the 1940s. 

The life of an early Japanese immigrant farmer was far from glamorous. Harsh working conditions, limited diets, poor housing, and disease outbreaks made it difficult for the Japanese to survive. Through many rounds of trial and error, however, the Japanese slowly built a flourishing community in Brazil. According to the Museum of the Japanese Immigration, incSão Paulo, by the 1930s, the Japanese community expanded across the states of Brazil, from Amazonas and Pará, through Mato Grosso, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo, all the way to Rio Grande do Sul. 

Entrance of Instituto Tomie Ohtake | Photo by Zoey Duan

Of these states, São Paulo became one of the most popular hubs for Japanese immigrants. It was known as the “the informal capital of the Japanese colony” in the 1930s and remains a central avenue for the nikkei community. Therefore, the city quickly became the center of Japanese-Brazilian art production, where, according to Laços Do Olhar, “artists from all regions of the country… [came to] intertwine Brazil and Japan.” At the same time, Laços Do Olhar posits that these artists and their art, regardless of their origin, are not just the products of historical immigration and capital movements, but of “a new composition of dynamic and open culture.” In São Paulo, Brazilian and Japanese influences are not separate, they are not “modeled” on each other but, rather, they “contaminate” each other.

The works of Tomie Ohtake and Ruy Otake exemplify this notion. Neither the sweeping yet minimalistic abstracts of Tomie nor the modernistic, almost commercial aesthetics of Ruy’s constructions resemble what people most typically associate to be “Japanese” inspired or influenced works. 

For Tomie, the reasoning for these decisions was not made clear. Being an artist and mother who valued privacy and personal life, she spoke little of her creations, let alone their meaning. When asked if his mother ever told him what her paintings meant, Ricardo Ohtake, Tomie’s second son, said, “No. Never.” Whether she wanted to appeal to the Western preferences of her primary clientele, the Brazilian bourgeois, to push against restrictive stereotypes and expectations of cultural identity, or due to some other unbeknownst reason, it is difficult to understand the seemingly intentional lack of Japanese influences or allegories in her works. Art critics have, however, pointed out that while Tomie’s works are not overtly “Japanese,” their essence reflects her roots and cultural interests. For instance, many describe her works as defined by “a Zen inflection,” represented by the struggles and contrasts between emptiness and matter visible in her paintings. 

Her son Ruy, on the other hand, is more vocal about the inner workings of his pieces. He acknowledges that, despite his personal roots in Japan, his projects are “markedly Brazilian.” In response to “the mechanistic Japanese expectations about his architecture,” Ruy said, “Some people thought I would do something very Japanese. But my training took place here, so the project turned out to be Brazilian.” The architect “does not seem to want to incur the monotony of the origin, which is often irreversibly lacking,” wrote Laços Do Olhar. It is through this perspective that Ruy took on projects such as the Tokyo Brazilian Embassy building, his mother’s residential home, and the Tomie Ohtake Institute, all of which were recognized as not only culturally significant to Brazil and Japan but also to the entire world.

Now, the most curious question at hand was, what were the inspirations behind these revolutionary motivations, if not Tomie and Ruy’s Japanese heritage? Tomie’s second son and Ruy’s brother, Ricardo Ohtake, shed light on this by explaining their family’s immigrant experience. 

With toothy grins and hearty laughs, Ricardo reminisced his childhood to us over capim santo and bolinho de aipim, saying, “My mother [had always] said, well, we’re going to stay here, so our family must be a Brazilian family.” And as Brazilians they lived. Like any ordinary Brazilian children, Ricardo and his brother attended Catholic schools, received Brazilian education, played soccer and basketball with Brazilian kids, lived in a middle-class Brazilian house, and ate Brazilian cuisine for daily meals. 

And, like his mother and brother, Ricardo believes his love for art and curation developed separately from his cultural identity. Even in his teen years, Ricardo would plan soccer games, ping pong and chess tournaments, and an annual visit to the São Paulo Art Biennial for his neighborhood and school friends. He knew then that he wanted to make his own art and his own path, in the art world, just as his mother and brother did. Now, as the president of the Tomie Ohtake Institute, he has done exactly that. Ricardo told us with pride, “My brother invented this institution. And I work at this institution.” 

That is not to say that Ricardo’s Japanese heritage did not play into who he is today as a Brazilian and as an artist. It is reasonable to assume that it did and will continue to in the future. But, more importantly, his stories of his mother and brother demonstrate that they have always thought of themselves as artists first, Brazilian and Japanese second. 

While others have criticized such viewpoints as disingenuous to the Japanese-Brazilian community, my time with Ricardo has shown me that that is not necessarily true. Fully embodying the values of courtesy, kindness, and respect that Japanese people hold so dear, Ricardo’s roots seep through in every word he speaks, every gesture he makes. His culture does not define him or his work but rather serves as a mere backdrop from which he has since arisen. 

Therefore, perhaps it is most fitting to remember his and his family’s legacy as neither Japanese nor Brazilian, but simply as those of Tomie, Ruy, and Ricardo Ohtake –– and the legacy of Japanese-Brazilian immigrants as that of individual people.

The GLO Summer Reporting Team with Ricardo Ohtake | Photo by Zoey Duan

Zoey Duan is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards. She can be contacted at zoey.duan@yale.edu.