From street urchin to artist: Setsuya Kotani talks about his eventful life
*Editor’s note: In the print version of this article, there is a typo that has been changed in the online version. GreenHill should have a capitalized “H, ” and does not include “Center for North Carolina Art” as a part of its name.
Seventy years after nearly starving on the streets of Tokyo, Setsuya Kotani prepares excellent meals. Still slim despite his love of food, the 82-year-old artist, and retired University of North Carolina Greensboro professor is nimble in mind and body.
Kotani, as he prefers to be called, is getting his citizenship after 63 years in the United States and embarking on his fourth marriage. “My sweethearts are sad that Kotani is off the market,” he said while brewing a pot of green tea.
At his home, near the UNCG campus where he taught painting and ceramics for 25 years before retiring in 1999, Kotani was candid about his life before, during and after becoming UNCG’s first Japanese faculty member in 1974. He also served a delicious lunch of Normandie cheese garnished with shredded seaweed and a stew of mushrooms, ham and Japanese root vegetables.
It’s not how he ate as a runaway in 1946. “It’s amazing I survived,” he said, “but that sense of being on my own gave me lots of expansiveness in how I would live my life.”
Kotani was born in the Bunkyo-Ku near the University of Tokyo on Oct. 23, 1934. “The same birthday,” he said smiling, “as Picasso and Johnny Carson!” He was seven when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and spent the war years near Kobe and Osaka with his mother, sister and two brothers. His much older brother, Tetsuo served in the Imperial Marines and his father was in Manchuria.
He described his parents’ relationship as “very difficult.” His father Shoki was a reporter for the Tokyo’s Mainichi (Daily News). Kotani believes Shoki went to Manchuria as a military journalist. When he returned, “it wasn’t to us in Osaka, but his other family in Tokyo, whom we kids had not known about.”
It was a difficult time for Kotani’s mother Kikue, whose oldest son Tetsuo died from tuberculosis contracted in a campaign on Hainan Island off the southern coast of China. Kikue believed it would be better for her surviving sons to be raised by their father in Tokyo, while her daughter and youngest son would remain with her in Osaka. So she sent Kotani and his brother Minoru to live with her estranged husband’s other family.
“We hated them,” Kotani said, so the two boys ran away and lived on the streets. “This would have been in early 1946 when I was not yet 12.”
He described hard times bluntly. “I remember stealing, sleeping between prostitute and customer, not just once, and being cold, toes freezing.” He said his brother Minoru earned money doing errands for the Yakuza, “and then there were people who were kind to us and took us in.”
Despite struggling to stay warm and fed, he recalled positive things and said the cold and hunger was worth the transformative realization that “little me was on my own, with nobody telling me what to do.”
He returned to Osaka, but not by choice. “My mother learned I’d run away,” he said, “and contacted the people giving me shelter.” Kotani described being “caught and put into a train carriage through the window and placed on top of a luggage rack” for shipment home.
Due to that experience in self-determination, when his aunt in Hawaii later offered to educate one of her sister’s children in America, “I said, no hesitation, I wanted out of this little island!”
Kotani’s American relatives also suffered from the war. On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, his mother’s sister, Tsuyo persuaded her youngest daughter to go to school despite the child’s complaints of a headache. “As soon as my young cousin stepped out onto Honolulu street, something fell from the sky,” said Kotani, explaining that his family was never sure if it was bomb shrapnel or a fragment from a damaged airplane. “It doesn’t matter; she died, right there on the street.”
This resulted in more familial estrangement. “Her mother had cajoled her into the street,” Kotani said, “My aunt’s husband, Mr. Arakaki, remembered this, and it would cause marital problems.”
The oldest Arakaki children, Henry, Alice and June, were being educated in Japan. After Pearl Harbor, they were considered enemy aliens. “They looked like Japanese, but were American, and under what you might call house arrest.”
When the U.S. bombed Tokyo in 1945, Kotani’s cousin Henry was injured by shrapnel that severed his Achilles tendon. As Kotani later learned from his American aunt, “Henry came back from Japan a crippled young man.”
The two girls, also repatriated, adjusted well, “but Henry, not so much,” Kotani said. “According to my aunt’s story, he wanted to be an interpreter for the U.S. Army.” Henry enlisted in 1950, and “either hid his handicap, or the army didn’t care.” When North Korea invaded the South, Henry went to war as an ordinary private rather than an interpreter. Captured by the North Koreans, he survived the POW camp and returned to the U.S., “He was a victim of strife, twice, and an exchanged prisoner twice,” said Kotani, adding that Henry had PTSD the rest of his life.
In 1955, Kotani came to America through the aforementioned generosity of his relatives in Honolulu, where his aunt’s husband owned a successful taxi company. “A year after arriving, I persuaded my aunt to let me try to make a living and go to school without benefit of her family,” he said. He enrolled at the University of Hawaii with no intention of earning his BFA. “I was contemplating a political science major and then the foreign service,” he said.
In his third year, another student came into sociology class with a piece of pottery and suggested that Kotani “take an art course or two.” He did, and that “course or two” turned into his major.
After graduation, his mother wanted him to return to Japan and start a family, but Kotani had other ideas. “I wanted to move to the continental United States.” But first, he had to make sure he could stay in Hawaii, so he enrolled in graduate school. “And then I kind of fell in love.”
This was with Laura, whom Kotani described as “born of Japanese-American parents in a small town near Pearl Harbor.” Laura spoke no Japanese, “but this was a good thing, as it made learning English faster, although I still struggle with it!”
Laura, who had one more year left, agreed they would move to the mainland after her graduation. Kotani said that Bert Carpenter, chairman of the art department at the University of Hawaii, supported this decision. “‘You can go to graduate school here,’ he said to me, ‘but why not get the Hell out of this place?’”
They moved to New York in the winter of 1961. Kotani had his Green Card, and the couple worked at the Art Student League on 57th Street, then Kotani managed a small mercantile company and Laura worked for an airline. They enjoyed her privilege of discount travel, visiting India, the Soviet Union, Italy and France, but something wasn’t right.
“I was getting too comfortable as a company man,” Kotani said.
In 1968, he returned to graduate school. “Both New York University and Columbia were in Manhattan,” he said, “but we were living on the Upper West side, and Columbia was two subway stations away, so Columbia it was.”
Among the people he asked for recommendations was his old department head, Carpenter. Kotani said he later learned Carpenter gave him a glowing recommendation, “even though I’d made a point of only asking for references, telling people to say anything about me they felt like.”
Awarded a scholarship, Kotani finished his MFA in painting in 1970. He then “ignored reality” for a year while the couple rented a second-floor loft on Canal Street and Kotani painted. Realizing he couldn’t keep living on Laura’s salary, he applied to 80 schools, seeking any position available. “I’d begun to think that, if I could be a good manager, maybe I teach.”
He ended up teaching ceramics part-time for three years at Hunter College, but his contract was not renewed. From a chance encounter with Carpenter’s wife Didi, Kotani learned that she and her husband had moved to Greensboro, where Bert was head of the art department at UNCG. “So I wrote Bert asking about any openings,” he said. Carpenter replied there was one in ceramics and invited Kotani to Greensboro for a few days. “I met Chancellor Ferguson and Dean Robert Miller from the College of Arts and Sciences.” They offered Kotani an appointment at UNCG, and he came in 1974.
He would teach there until his retirement in 1999. “I took my duties very seriously,” Kotani said, “but always realized I was only one or two steps ahead of these young people. I learned as much as I taught.”
Laura and Kotani divorced before he left New York. He met Linda Moss in a private ceramics studio where he was teaching in the Village. “When I got my appointment at UNCG, I had to discuss it with Linda, who was living in Little Italy.’’ Kotani said she made one thing clear: “I’m not going to the South unless we get married.”
After their wedding in Bethesda, Maryland, the couple rented a truck and moved to a house on Greensboro’s Wilson Street not far from the University. Kotani described the marriage as lasting “four or five years,” explaining that Linda was unhappy living in the South. “We were both preoccupied with our own work,” he added, “and I think maybe we were not so very loving.”
Kotani has been married three times, “with lots of times where I was bachelor in between.” He described himself as a man who had many relationships, joking that “the ladies were always there, clamoring for Kotani!” Becoming more reflective, he said, “I do still like women, but not in that way when the world and I were younger.”
He described himself as a man who valued being alone, but also loved “the feeling of being kindred spirits with certain people, which they sense, too, and very much give energy.” Some relationships, he said, dissipate that energy. “When that happens, it’s not easy to work out.” He compared relationships to ballroom dancing. “You must be sensitive to your partner’s emotion, feeling, idea, movement, and they, yours.”
What he described as the great love relationship of his life did not end in marriage. “That was with Nina,” he said, “who died in my arms of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1994.” A few years later, he married again. “That was Janet. Our relationship lasted four or five years.”
He expected to remain a bachelor but met the painter Yoko Yoshimatsu when he was on a tour of Tokyo’s gallery district in the Ginza five years ago. “Since I retired, I began to have more time to revisit and exhibit my paintings.” He explained that Yoshimatsu has been taking care of her aging mother, “so we have to make arrangement so her mother can be cared for by professionals.” When I asked him if they considered themselves engaged, he said “yes,” adding “we’ve not exchanged rings or anything, but talked about it.”
When told he seemed remarkably candid, he laughed heartily. “My life is open; everyone knows Kotani is a blabbermouth. I cannot ignore these wonderful people who have come into my life, both the men and the women, but especially the women.”
I asked him why he has only this last year decided to become a U.S. Citizen. He said that he had “gathered the forms” on two previous occasions, “but somehow, could somehow never bring myself to fill them out.”
This time, he did without hesitation. “Maybe because my age,” he said, “and maybe because what’s going on with United States political reality.” He explained that Yoshimatsu would have an easier time coming here if he is a citizen. The original idea had been that he would move to Japan. But his fiancé, he said, “came to realize that Kotani’s life is much bigger in America.”
In An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art, Roger Lipsey describes how Kotani’s delicate abstracts “disappear in reproduction,” with photographs failing to do them justice. At Kotani’s request, no examples are reproduced here. Several of his recent paintings will be on display from Feb. 2 until April 15 as part of the “Slow Art” exhibition at GreenHill on 200 N. Davie Street in Greensboro.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.