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Interview with Toshiki Hayasaka

By Jake Price, December 5, 2023

Born in 1990 in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, Toshiki Hayasaka is a self-taught multidisciplinary artist based in Tokyo. Through his art and way of life, Hayasaka is dedicated to living life in the present. These moments of living in the present ultimately weave together to form the fabric of a lifetime. Appreciating the richness of life by fully engaging with every seemingly fleeting moment, Hayasaka recently exhibited his “Ephemeral Samurai” at New York's Tenri Cultural Institute, curated by Japan Contemporaries Editor in Chief, Kyoko Sato. The opening performance was accompanied by the violinist Tom Chiu who hauntingly accompanied Hayasaka as he created a scroll of his Ensō (円 相) poetry at the exhibit. (Please see glossary at the end this article for terms used.) Chiu's accompaniment was noted not only for his masterful playing but also his use of silence.

Yohei Fujimura for Japan Contemporaries

At the core of his “Ephemeral Samurai,” Hayasaka incorporates Bushido (武士道), the "Way of the Warrior," which encapsulates the traditional code of conduct, emphasizing values such as loyalty, honor, self-discipline, and moral integrity. Hayasaka's embrace of the fleeting was further inspired by samurai who were aware that death could come at any moment. Hayasaka said that, “The deeper the shadow of death, the brighter the light of life, so they spent their days living in the moment.” His commitment to the principles he lives by are not merely inspired by philosophy, but have been deepened through the life experience of volunteer service in the aftermath the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan’s Tohoku region on March 11, 2011 when we he was 21.

On that day at 2:46 PM, Hayasaka's life changed when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake in Tohoku struck. Grocery shopping at the time, he experienced the supermarket's windows shattering, showering everyone with glass. Once the shaking stopped, Hayasaka's immediate concern was his mother and younger sister's safety. Luckily, they were unharmed as they lived away from the coast, unaffected by the black water that devastated coastal areas. However, over 20,000 people lost their lives on 3/11 and millions were displaced. Motivated by the urgent need to help, Hayasaka, aspiring to become a firefighter, joined a fire brigade the next day. He was assigned to Arahama, a small coastal town 15 km south of his home in Sendai.

Just after opening his solo exhibit at the Tenri Cultural Institute, we spoke together about how the tsunami influenced his embrace of life and how every moment needs to be lived to its greatest potential.

Japan Contemporaries (JC): Thank you for sitting down with us. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you because even though we didn’t know each other, I was also in the region following the tsunami. Separated by the Natori River you were in Arahama and I was in Yuriage only a few minutes away from each other. (Both locations were entirely obliterated by the tsunami.) I remember that time as being so cold, with snow that was almost like a liquid, oddly making it seem colder and more miserable than if the snow was more frozen and crystalline. In these immensely difficult conditions, I find that your commitment to rescuing the living and caring for those who lost their lives all the more profound.

Can you talk to me about those days, what you experienced and how it influenced your life?


Toshiki Hayasaka (TH): Together with my fellow firefighters, I engaged in the search for bodies under the title of “life rescue.” I had to wear boots that reached this far (he gestures with his hands and shoulders to show that the rescue gear reached his torso) otherwise, I couldn't walk. Stepping in, it felt like sinking deep into this dark place—you couldn't help but see bodies. It was really, truly challenging. In the morning, many bodies were lined up. They were just lying there.

Water was still seeping in, and lifesaving activities were underway. Numerous efforts to search and transport were in progress. I carried as many bodies as I could, and that's when I truly encountered life. Without that experience, I wouldn't have been aware of death. Prior to that moment, I had never consciously contemplated mortality.

JC: To have a philosophy of life is one thing. But you acted on your philosophy in the darkest and hardest times resulting in a profound life experience that you now express in your artwork.

TH: The tsunami triggered a shift in my perspective on life. In the aftermath, my primary focus was on the recovery work for those who lost their lives. The scene then was overwhelming, and I found it challenging to resume daily activities. However, as time passed and I could reflect on the scene more objectively, I began questioning whether I had been living sincerely, truly facing life as it was. This introspection gave rise to significant questions.

JC: Did you stop making art in the time of your introspection?

TH: No.

JC: What and when was the first thing you created?

TH: I began my artwork a day after the disaster. I drew a simple circle just with a pencil as I couldn't handle color initially. It was only two years after the earthquake, right after graduating from university, that I officially aspired to be an artist. This shift in identity marked the true beginning of my journey.

As I continued to paint, I noticed my mind gradually unraveling [the events of the tsunami], and over time, I gained the ability to work with colors such as acrylic paints. I may be a little off topic, but, even now, whether I enjoy it or not, drawing a picture is the happiest thing for me. I've always loved drawing as a form of expression. I cannot live without making art. Even after the tsunami, I kept drawing and that somehow healed my soul. 

JC: You’ve referred to yourself as a Kotodama (言霊) artist. Please explain that.

TH: During the rescue work an elderly lady said, "thank you" to us, the workers. Even though it's something that I’ve heard politely expressed before on a regular basis, her expression of thanks had such a different weight to it. That moment sparked my journey into learning about the power of words. I still carry that within me to this day.

When I create Kotodama artworks, it involves writing words, and it's like I'm putting my feelings into the vessel of language. Last year, the theme I worked with was Sword Strokes and, in this exhibition, it was Setsuna, very short moment. It involves writing poems, and in doing so, I delve into the vessel of words. I place my own emotions in the vessel of words to convey them to others.

JC: Yes, I was amazed at how quickly you moved in this exhibit, Setsuna indeed. Before I began photographing, it was already over! Your first pattern in the scroll was circular. Can you talk about the inclusion of wabi-sabi (侘寂) in your artwork?

TH: I believe the form of that emotion is circular. It stems from the direct confrontation with life that I experienced in the aftermath. Another factor was the realization of how communication can deeply resonate with people, serving as one of my catalysts. I believe the shape of the mind is circular. It took me a while to realize that my artistic choice of a circular form transcends mere trend—it's become a reflection of life itself. It was the earthquake disaster that allowed me to truly understand and embody this circular shape in my art. Now, it's not just a style; it's a profound expression of life's journey.

JC: The title of your exhibit  is "Ephemeral Samurai." In essence, a samurai is not just a man with a sword; rather, a man with a code of ethics who wields control over something potent—the sword. Could you discuss your personal code and its connection to Bushido?

TH: In the teachings of Bushido, the term "ephemeral" signifies a fleeting moment, prompting contemplation on the transience of each life moment. I find myself pondering when I will have the time to truly confront the essence of life. It seems like a natural progression, a phenomenon that enables me to authentically engage with life's momentary nature.

By capturing the ephemeral in my abstract paintings, I aim to embody my thoughts in a form that invites dialogue with life. To make my work relatable, I wanted to incorporate elements that are easy to imagine. Upon reflection, I realized that what resonated most was not the scenery, but the sounds around me.

Of course, I am more of a visual artist than a musician. My desire is for people to truly see and appreciate my work. Being Japanese, I strive to capture the essence of Japan. In my work, "Stroke Number 5", for example, I used  andesite from Mt. Fuji. (Andesite is a type of volcanic rock that forms from the cooling and solidification of lava rich in silica.) I hope that those who view my art not only recognize that it's crafted by someone from Japan but also feel a connection to the beauty and spirit of the Japanese people portrayed in my pieces.

Ultimately, my art concept is to live in the present, no matter how many pieces I create or exhibitions I have in various places. I believe it's crucial to ask oneself, regardless of being Japanese, American, or from any other country, how are you living in the present? I think that question is the truly foundational aspect of the heart.


円 相—Ensō

Drawing Ensō is a disciplined-creative practice of Japanese ink painting, sumi-e (墨絵—墨 (Sumi) means ink and 絵 (e) means painting. The tools and mechanics of drawing the Ensō are the same as those used in traditional Japanese calligraphy: One uses an ink brush to apply ink to washi (和紙), a thin Japanese paper.

The circle may be open or closed. In the former case, the circle is incomplete, allowing for movement and development and the perfection of all things. Zen practitioners relate the idea to wabi-sabi (see below), the beauty of imperfection. When the circle is closed, it represents perfection.

The Ensō is not just a visual symbol but also a disciplined-creative practice which incorporates hitsuzendō (筆禅道, "way of Zen through brush"), calligraphy for self-realization. It's a meditative process performed daily by some, emphasizing the transient nature of existence and the pursuit of inner harmony. Hitsuzendō aligns with the principles of wabi-sabi, encompassing asymmetry, simplicity, weathered beauty, natural authenticity, subtly profound grace, freedom, and tranquility.


Translated to Way of the Warrior, Bushido is a code of ethics and moral principles that was formalized in the Edo period (1603–1868) and was influenced by Zen Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shinto. The principles of Bushido emphasized virtues such as loyalty, honor, self-discipline, and frugality.


Some key aspects of Bushido are:

Rectitude (義, Gi): Upholding moral and ethical principles, doing what is right.

Courage (勇, Yu): Facing challenges and adversity with bravery and strength.

Benevolence (仁, Jin): Showing compassion and kindness to others.

Respect (礼, Rei): Treating others with courtesy and respect.

Honesty (誠, Makoto): Being truthful and sincere in all actions.

Honor (名誉, Meiyo): Maintaining a strong sense of integrity and personal dignity.

Loyalty (忠義, Chugi): Demonstrating unwavering loyalty and devotion to one's master or lord.

Self-Control (自制, Jisei): Exercising restraint and discipline in emotions and actions.

Filial Piety (孝, Ko): Respecting and honoring one's parents and ancestors.

Wisdom (智, Chi): Developing intellectual and strategic acumen.

The samurai followed Bushido not only on the battlefield but also in their daily lives. Adhering to this code was considered essential for maintaining one's honor and social standing. Over time, Bushido became deeply ingrained in Japanese culture and influenced various aspects of society. 


Kotodama is a Japanese belief that words have spiritual power and can influence the world around us. It combines "koto" (言), meaning "word," and "tama" (霊), meaning "spirit" or "soul." The concept suggests that words carry energy and intent, and speaking positively or negatively can impact one's surroundings. Together, these characters convey the idea of the spiritual power inherent in words.


The philosophy behind Kintsugi is rooted in the acceptance of impermanence and the beauty of the broken or damaged. Kintsugi" literally translates to "golden joinery" or "golden repair and consists of two kanji characters:

金 (kin) - means "gold"
継ぎ (tsugi) - means "joinery" or "repair"

Instead of concealing cracks or breaks in a piece of pottery, Kintsugi involves repairing the object with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.​ It's a metaphor for life, suggesting that healing and growth can come from acknowledging and embracing our scars and experiences. The resulting piece becomes a unique and even more beautiful work of art, embodying a history of breakage and repair.


The concept of wabi-sabi often encompasses the cycle of life, including the acceptance of impermanence and the beauty that emerges from the natural aging or transformation of things. The patina and weathering that occur over time on objects are seen as integral parts of their beauty, reflecting the continuous cycle of creation, decay, and rebirth.

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