Tetsuya Ishida: Art That Disturbs and Awakens to Reality

Tetsuya Ishida (1973 – 2005) was a Japanese artist known for his surreal paintings of the modern life in Japan. Tetsuya Ishida’s art speaks powerfully about the negative aspects of Japanese society, including over-work, social pressures and the erosion of individuality. His paintings are trying to show the human cost of capitalism and economic prosperity, society’s indifference, people’s isolation, alienation, uncertainty, anxiety and hopelessness, as well as the negative effects of consumerism in our industrialised societies overall.

Much of Tetsuya Ishida’s art should be understood in its context. In the 1990s, Japan experienced the economic crisis, recession and stagnation, with many people being laid off, and the “Lost Generation” was created. These were the people who missed their chance in the job market through no fault of their own. Normally, Japanese graduates have only one year’ opening to apply for jobs in companies, and many young people lost their opportunities when, in their graduation year, Japanese companies did not offer graduate positions (because of the need to cut costs). Of course, in the coming years, when Japan’s economy had improved, companies preferred most recent graduates to these “left-over” young people who then struggled to find employment, with some surviving by doing menial work. Some of these people also became what became known as hikikomori (“shut-in” adults living in their family home and not participating in any social life), facing much stigma. Tetsuya Ishida was, in fact, one of those “Lost Generation” people who experienced the 1990s’ hardship and discrimination first-hand.


Recalled is a powerful painting that shows the prioritisation of the collective over the individual in Japanese society, as well as the evils of ruthless capitalism that dehumanises people. According to it, people are viewed only through the prism of whether they can perform their functions as efficiently as it is possible with high productivity returns. If they cannot do so, there must be something inherently “wrong” with them, requiring “concern” and “treatment” (plus shaming, discrimination and all the other “perks”). Their individuality, interests, desires, hopes, spiritual well-being, etc. are all irrelevant. The man in the box appears yet another victim of industrial exploitation – he was probably worked to death. Naturally, he is viewed as a “product” like no other, and not good in that since he appears “broken”. Hence, he has been recalled to his family, who sit calmly beside the box, grieving, as the technician performs certain work over the body.


On the first glance, this Untitled painting above depicts a typical teenager on his bed with his headphones in, listening to music. However, on a closer glance, we can see that he is sitting on a grave, near a tombstone, (what should have been a TV), a shrine, paying respects to…himself. His hopes and dreams are buried beneath him, and he seems isolated and depressed. The person who he may have been is left crushed underneath him, only his arm and feet are showing. Now he is all alone as the societal failures, pressures or expectations moulded him into something he never wanted to be.

This artwork probably depicts the tragedy of the “Lost Generation” like no other. As my introduction explains, these were the people who lost their dreams of achieving their professional goals because of the economic recession, companies’ policies and government’s action, with the result being they were left in the “perpetual grief” of what if and why them. Misunderstanding, depression and discrimination followed. The Japanese government’s efforts to right the situation later on were deemed by many as insufficient and coming too late. However, this art probably paints an even more insidious picture still. The Japanese culture and familial hierarchies are still so that some young people are hardly expected to have a say in their own future, for example, they may be “destined” to continue their fathers’ business ventures and arranged marriages are still far from being uncommon.

Many paintings of Tetsuya Ishida show people being “objectified” and “dehumanised”, i.e. turned into objects of usefulness or otherwise but no spiritual fulfilment, losing their individuality and spirit along the way, being just means to others’ gains. The paintings above emphasise the helplessness of people caught in a capitalistic and bureaucratic machine of making economic gains at whatever cost. In Cargo, recent graduates are just boxed packages to be shipped to designated companies (if they are lucky) to be worked to near-death (most likely). They are just “numbers” not in control over their life directions or destinies. In Waiting for a Chance, young people are simply dirty and broken “cars” or “machines”, having little hope of “getting better” or “fixed”, i.e. being useful and getting an employment.

The Untitled painting above again demonstrates the claustrophobia and distress of the daily modern life with its endless routine and underlying hopelessness and apathy. The already “small” life in a confined space is getting “smaller” still, and, in the blink of an eye, your place will just be taken by another. Japanese people especially need to feel needed to be happy, which makes the tragedy of the “Lost Generation” people even sadder. In another Untitled painting, the “Lost Generation” high school graduates are “sinking deeper and deeper into oblivion”, beginning for help with their textbooks and high school degrees as onlookers stare.


Japanese schools can be high-pressured, stifling and soul-crushing places, where students compete with, and compared to, each other daily, and, at the end, there are only so few university places for so many applicants (in Japan, a university essentially determines what kind of a life career you will have). Scars from a painful school experience may be taken well past one’s adulthood. In Japan, school-bullying is also rife, presenting a real social concern, exacerbated by the culture of conformity and the senpai/kōhai etiquette whereby junior students must pay respects to senior students.

In the paintings above, Tetsuya Ishida drew attention to some of the failures of Japan’s educational system. The painting Prisoner powerfully underscores the helplessness and claustrophobia of an individual stuck in a system designed to “standardise” him. In Earthquake, the artist makes a connection between a school experience/day and an earthquake event. School experience becomes something to hide away from and then – uncomfortably and silently endure, in isolation or maybe even in fear and distress if bullying takes place or pressure of getting those good grades becomes unbearable. Soldier paints a picture of a school experience turning into a battleground since its emotional and mental pressures may be akin to those experienced during a war event. Soldier may also be viewed as a city life, with its rigid culture, competitiveness and loneliness, turning into a war trench experience, where a frightened and confused citizen (aka a soldier) is visibly injured (mental trauma), carrying only an umbrella by way of a weapon.

Ishida was heavily influenced by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, Osamu Dazai and Kōbō Abe, and individual alienation, nihilism and the loss of identity are certainly recurring themes in his work. Both the Public Property and Forgotten by Everyone paintings are about people being ignored and forgotten by society. These are probably the people who could not find employment during the recession of the 1990s or who for one reason or another were unable to fit into the Japanese rigid hierarchical structure. The paintings show how the people’s individualities are now being erased as they are turned into part of the public’s property, that kind of property that functions as being a background to something or on which people can stamp their feet. How people then dealt with that trauma? It is also no coincidence that it was in the 1990s that Japan saw the biggest proliferation of “infantile culture” items on sale or items designed for people to experience “a second life”. In fact, the “Golden Age” of manga is considered to be the 1990s, with the year 1995 being its peak.

The art of Tetsuya Ishida is hard-hitting, unflinching, uncompromising. The artist’s untimely death in 2005 only made his work so much more potent and immediate. The art bares the still fragile and tortured soul of Japan, hidden and kept in the dark by all the fake glitter, technological monstrosities and incessant productivity-levels. Tetsuya Ishida’s individual in still there, unnamed and unwanted, being at a complete loss as to how to navigate the absurdities of the modern society, its dehumanisation processes, and its insurmountable pressures and expectations. The art is not just a touching tribute, it is a call to action – to pay attention, recognise and, if not try to remedy, then just be kind.


19 thoughts on “Tetsuya Ishida: Art That Disturbs and Awakens to Reality

  1. Wonderful post. I’ll definitely be sharing it.

    What a powerful artist. So much of what is depicted here applies to young people worldwide, many of whom feel lost and isolated from the over-the-top performances that they can continuously stream online.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. While Ishida’s works are definitely heartbreaking given their context, they also serve as both windows to Japanese society and reminders that the Land of the Rising Sun isn’t a paradise as many picture it to be.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Stupendous that these are both specific to Japan and yet universal at the same time. Here is surrealism speaking of the nub of a painful reality. Thank you, Diana, for making us aware of Tetsuya Ishida, who should truly be better known.

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  4. Thanks so much for all the background information – I am glad I didn’t grow up in Japan with all the pressure there is on people already from childhood. The paintings are super impactful, I would love to see some of them in real life.

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  5. These paintings are just so powerful and heartbreaking at the same time. I feel like your interpretations are spot on, and they really show the reality behind what life really is in Japan, behind all the “glamourised” bits that we see in the Western world. I always found it extremely interesting how ambivalent is Japanese culture, and the societal pressure and need for conformity definitely explain some darker parts of it. I loved discovering works by this artist, thanks a lot for sharing!

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    1. Thanks a lot for stopping by! I think you are spot on about the ambivalence of Japanese culture. I find this to be so true. I think ambivalence is the very essence of Japan and its culture, which is both very much thriving past and tradition and, at the same time, rocketing futurism and technology. It’s like Japanese Zen – it is both a yes and a no, the black and the white, and that uncertainty causes so much trouble and confusion for the westerns, but which most Japanese seem to understand intuitively or instinctively.

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  6. I appreciate you sharing this info. I have The Crab Cannery Ship by Kobayashi on my list because I may include parts of it in a course I am offering next year about writings that protest the dangers and the dehumanizing experience of labor in East Asia. I will have to spend lots of time look at this jaw-dropping art.

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