April 8, 2023 - Roger W. Lowther
This is the Art Life Faith podcast, live from Tokyo, Japan, where we talk about art, what it has to do with your life, and what it has to do with the Christian faith, especially in the context of foreign missions. And I'm your host, Roger Lowther.
Today, I'd like to share a conversation we had with Mayuko Shono or Mayu for short. Her story is not new to this podcast. In fact, our very first podcast back in July 2020 was about Mayu and her Love Your Neighbor mask project right in the midst of the COVID epidemic. Well, she's been really busy since creating art, hosting events, and connecting people. This past January, I heard Mayu speak at the IQ Café in Shibuya, one of the coolest hangout places for young people. The front walls of the café were all made of glass and overlooked a really busy intersection. Clearly, in every way, we were downtown amidst the hustle and bustle of the busiest, most populated city on the planet. And there was Mayu in the heart of the heart of the city speaking passionately about her artwork, and speaking passionately about Christ to a group that was mostly not Christian.
To draw people in, Mayu began the time with live painting, including a dramatic toss of glitter onto canvas and into the air. It was pretty cool. Everyone was engaged. Everyone was having a great time. And then she seamlessly went into sharing her faith by talking about her other artwork.
Mayu is really good at talking about God in ways that are engaging in any environment, but especially in really urban settings like that one. Whether it be a café, or street corner where she was handing out her masks, or a really cool mall in Harajuku, where I saw her speak in December. Now, Harajuku is one stop from Shibuya Station, still technically part of Shibuya, and, in my opinion, the coolest part of Shibuya. In Harajuku, she held this pop-up shop for two weeks through Christmas, and it quickly became a hot spot for where God was working in Tokyo during the Christmas season.
Let me try to paint the picture for you. You're walking through a really busy shopping district. There's nothing Christian anywhere around. Then you suddenly come upon her store in the main place that people are hanging out. There Mayu sat, in a display window, painting and talking with everyone who came by. And there were a lot of people coming into that store, a constant flow of young people. My two youngest boys, ages 9 and 13, helped out for a day by handing out cool gospel tracks that Mayu made. Japanese people usually throw things like that out, but hers were prints of her art and so were very engaging. People held on to them and flipped to the back, where there was a conversation about the true meaning of Christmas. There was a group of young women coming down the hall and they saw my boys and kept saying, “Kawaii! Kawaii!” (“Oh, they're so cute.”) My boys, as you can imagine, were so embarrassed. They ran away and back into the store, “Mommy!” And the group of women followed them inside. After that, my boys got a lot more bold and better at their job interacting with people.
There's this image in Japan that Christianity is just for Western people or for old people. But Mayu completely shatters those images. She shatters that image of a boring Christian who's wearing very serious looking clothes and shouting at people while holding a Bible. There was Mayu, sitting in a display window in the best of what is attractive to young people, making her art and talking about Jesus.
One of the nearby shop owners was first attracted to Mayu's nativity scene that she had painted and placed in the entrance. “Are you a Christian?” she asked. Well, this question led into many other questions and great conversations in the days that followed. This shop owner was especially interested in the Fruits of the Spirit series from Galatians, asking about the meaning of each of the words. There was also another shop owner who visited Mayu at her gallery across town, Mina-tera, and they're still in contact today. In fact, Mayu is still in contact with many of the people she met those two weeks at the pop-up shop. God was clearly working through her during that time, building relationships and sharing his good news of light and hope in a world that desperately needs it.
Anyway, I'd like for you to hear from Mayu herself. I've invited Alana Essex, a six-month intern we had on the show just a couple of episodes ago, to interact with Mayu about these things.
All right, Mayu, I have some very important questions for you. I really want to know, what was your favorite part about your recent pop-up shop?
Good question. Well, there are many favorite parts about that event, but I think my favorite part was that I got to meet many new people. People kept asking me about the story behind my painting and art. “Why did you create this?” And I got to answer their questions. So I was able to share the purpose and story behind my artwork very naturally. And I was able to share my ... How do you say? Something like God has put in your heart? Yeah, God was working during that time.
Yeah, you also had a design that was on sweatshirts and T-shirts specific to Christmas that included the whole Jesus scene. Can you explain what that looks like?
In Japan, Christmas is all about couples and Santa Claus, and people don't know the real meaning of Christmas. So I wanted to create a space where people get to know and learn about the real purpose and meaning of Christmas. So I created this artwork about... How do you say this? I made a nativity scene drawing, and I displayed it at the pop-up shop. And people walked by and asked, “What's this?” and, “Oh, is this the baby Jesus?” and I was like, “Yeah, how do you know?” And it just started the conversation. When some people walked by, they even asked me, “Are you Christian? Are you a Christian artist?” and I was like, “Yeah.” And some people told me they used to go to a Christian school when they were students, or that they went to church with their parents when they were little. And it just opened up unexpected conversations.
Is there any conversation you can think of that really stands out in your mind from all that?
Yeah. So there are many different stores around my shop and one of the ladies from the store came to my shop to talk to me and she asked if she could take a picture of the nativity drawing. I was like, sure. And she said, “My mom is Christian and I want to share this with my mom because I’ve never seen a nativity scene in Japan during the Christmas season.” It was rare for her to see that. So she was excited and she took a picture. But she just kept coming to my store every day. And we just got along, and we became friends.
Was she a Christian too or just her mom?
I think she didn't have a personal relationship with God, but she said she felt at home when she messaged me after the event. It felt like home coming to my store. I think that’s because there were more than just me, but there were many Christians, missionary friends at the store helping me. So she felt at home and peace just being around us and talking to us. So it was very encouraging.
That's such a gift, though, that you're able to make a Japanese person through all your Christian art feel at home and that a Christian influence in their life is something that impacted them so much, to feel like they’re at home in your shop.
Yeah. I had these paintings on the wall about the Fruits of the Spirit. Japanese people don't really know the English words. So she asked me, “What does this mean?” And it was just natural to be able to share the gospel and share the meaning of each word. And she was so interested.
Yeah. It seemed like a lot of people were coming in there buying things that had Bible verses on them. But it's just blowing my mind that they're buying those things and giving them as gifts to people and not even aware that you've prayed over those things. That's your artwork and it displays literally the nativity scene and all those Bible verses that point to Jesus in their heart for them and they're unaware. One of my roommates bought things for her two friends who were having babies that had Bible verses on them. So many people were going in there buying what you had, and it was just so cool.
Yeah, I think art has the power to do that. If my artwork had no color, if it's a very old style, it wouldn't attract young people in Japan. But I purposely create things, very colorful things, that attract the younger generation in Japan. I want to change the wrong understanding and impression of Christianity because art helped me to have a better understanding of who God is. I used to think being a Christian is very strict and boring. I thought it was all about following the rules, that you have to be the right person and go to church and everything. So I felt distant from Christianity. But art and music helped me to understand, how do you say…
Understand the gospel?...
Yes, who Jesus is. There are many different types of Christian art and Christian music in America.
But not a lot in Japan?
Also, how did you get that space? You really got a good spot. It was basically a mall near Shinjuku and Harajuku. How did you even go about getting that space? And then how long did it take you to prep?
So I had my first pop-up shop in Shibuya two years ago. And how I got that opportunity was through my online shop that I started during COVID when I started to make masks. In the very beginning, I started this brand called LYN (Love Your Neighbor) during the COVID season. I made a bunch of masks because we didn't have enough masks here. I had a bunch of fabrics at home so I just started to make a bunch of colorful masks and I started to give them to my neighbors and friends, unconditionally. And I called this project Love Your Neighbor. I also made a little sticker that said, “You are loved.” And so, with this little note, I decided to give this mask to my friends. And I also made an Instagram account for this project because I wanted to post the pictures, and I wanted to give not just to my friends or family member who lived around my house but to anyone who needed a mask. So after I made these social media Instagram and Facebook accounts, people started to message me, “Can you send me this mask? I need two masks. I need five masks. Can you send me 10?” And I made more and more. But during that time, I was not able to go out and do things, so I really enjoyed doing this.
Was it all free?
Yes, but it was hard for me to buy new strings and fabric. So people started to donate their fabrics. My friends who lived around my neighborhood were like, “Mayu, I left a bag in front of your door. You can use that fabric.” And people just started to give me a bunch of fabric and strings. So I was like, “Okay, God, this is my mission. I need to make more masks.” So yeah, that's how Love Your Neighbor (LYN) started. But after a while, we had enough masks at the store, so I didn't have to make any more masks. But I still wanted to continue this Love Your Neighbor Ministry. So I was praying, “God, what do you want me to do next?” And the idea just came to me to make T-shirts and mug cups and all different products. When I was living in America, I was working as an artist and selling paintings and prints because it's common for American people to display artwork at home because houses are big. But in Japan, people don't really buy big paintings or wall art. So I decided to make T-shirts, something easy for Japanese people to purchase. Because my passion is to share the message about my artwork. So somehow I wanted to…how do you say…Hand out? Yeah, hand out my artwork. So I decided to make an online shop called LYN, Love Your Neighbor, because my passion is to reach out to young Japanese people. And my art style is more…how do you say…a better fit in Laforre, the mall where we met in Harajuku, so I just kept applying but they never responded. I didn't give up, and I just kept sending emails and kept trying. And then in October, they replied to me and told me, “Come to the office on this day” and I was like…
Wow, that's your big break!
So I had the first meeting with them in October and they asked me, “Do you think you can do it in December?” and I was like, if it's the Christmas season then I get to share the real meaning of Christmas, so I said, “Yes, I will do it.” And I started to prepare for this event.
Wow. So you only had two months?
You were prepping the whole time?
Yes, every day. I mean, I rested, but yeah. I wanted to do it professionally. I wanted to do it well because as a creator, as an artist, I think it's important to…how do you say…think through how you share your artwork. For example, sushi. If your sushi is on a paper plate, it doesn’t look good. But if it's on the nice Japanese traditional osara plate, it looks delicious. Same food, but depending on how you present it, how you show it, it is completely different. So I wanted to take my time to think about how I want how to set up the space. So I made a theme, color yellow concept for this event, and I started to prepare.
And it looked so professional. It looked like every other brand that was in there that had probably, I'm sure, done that before. And yours, I think yours stood out because it was so colorful because you love the colors and you made it yellow and bright and still included the Christmas concept and had Christmas-themed things. But your brand, LYN, stands out. It has that...I don't know…I don't know if it's because you have that Christian gospel mindset, but it just shines. I just feels and looks so bright. And it brings in people…Yeah, I just think it looked so good.
Yeah. I just want my motivation to be, as I said, to change a wrong understanding and impression, image of Christianity. So I wanted to make it unique and different and colorful. And I wanted to tell people, “Hey, I'm Christian. I'm weird. This is weird art. I'm different, but it's okay.” Christians, it's okay to be unique. It's okay to be you. God still loves you. God created us all uniquely. I used to be very insecure about myself growing up in Japan. I'm tall, I'm big, taller than most of the boys at school. I didn't like myself. I didn't know I was beautiful. But when I went to America and heard the gospel, my Christian friend told me how God created us all uniquely and differently. And we're all beautiful. God purposely made us unique. And we are all God's beautiful masterpiece. And that really healed my heart and opened my eyes. So I actually made one painting about this story. It's called Uniqueness. But yeah, I also displayed, exhibited this painting at the pop-up shop so that people could see it. And if people ask me about this painting, I get to share about this story how God healed my heart, how beautiful we are, because a lot of young people in Japan struggle with appearance and insecurity. People try to look like others. We want to become like beautiful American girls — blond hair, big eyes. But I just wanted to encourage people who walked by the pop-up shop that you are beautiful, you are valuable, you are special. You don't need to look like others. Just be you, and we are loved.
Can you describe what that painting looks like?
I don't know how to describe the painting…
Well, there’re some faces on there. They all seem to have long noses…
Yes, different shapes.
Yeah, different colors. It's all very bright, very your style. Why did you do it?
When I create something, I usually make an outline and prepare before I paint. But this piece, I didn't prepare anything. I just prepared a huge white canvas and had my brush and paint and just went for it. I prayed like, God, I want to paint whatever you want me to paint, so please use me. I felt like I was worshiping. I was communicating, dancing with God while I was painting this piece. I just started with this figure in the middle. I call him boss because he's the first guy I painted. But everyone is different and unique in different colors. And this artwork is completed together. If it's just one guy, it's boring. It's not interesting. But this art is beautiful because everyone looks different. So all my paintings have a spiritual message behind them.
You also have one that's the huge mural of 2022 with all the events of the big things that happened. Can you talk about that?
Yes. After I accepted Christ, I became a Christian. I started to pray before I painted. My art style really changed after I became a Christian because then I created what God wanted me to create, not my own selfish desires or my own reasons. But yeah, this new painting that I just did was all the things that happened these past few years. Starting from COVID, and the Tokyo Olympics, and all the arguments. Every day when I turned on the news in Japan, there were always arguments about whether to do the Tokyo Olympics or not. I was so tired of watching all the negative news. Yeah, COVID and people losing jobs, suicide, depression. The recent news was not just in Japan, but shooting at schools in America, natural disasters, the thing that happened in Korea in Itaewon (when 159 people were crushed to death). Yeah, just unexpected crazy things happened these past few years. When I actually started painting this, Mr. Abe, the Prime Minister, he was still alive. But while I was painting, trying to complete this work, he got shot. So I also added that as well. And I just painted all the shocking news, things that happened these past few years. But not only the negative things.
There were cool things in there, too.
Yeah, I mean, all the athletes…
And you had a big hand in the middle of it, too. Can you explain that?
Yes. So this painting is called Chaos because this world is broken and things happen unexpectedly. So we can't...In Japanese, I always say, “Kono yo niwa kitai dekinai.” Yeah, we can't depend on anything in this world. This world will disappoint you because it's broken. And we don't understand. Even as a believer, I don't understand why those things happen. It breaks my heart. People are still suffering who lost their kids in Itaewon, Korea, and from the natural disasters and shootings. It's heartbreaking. But when we look up and when we keep our eyes on God, there is a hope and peace that we can't explain. It's indescribable. There is hope and peace in Christ. I experienced that in my personal life, too. I can't explain by speaking. That's why I paint. So I painted this strong, powerful hand coming from the sky. And I want people to see that. And even in this broken world, we can still find hope. And there is a hand who is wanting to help you, and unconditionally love you.
That was so cool. I love that painting.
A lot of people asked me about that painting, and we all feel the same way as a human living in this world. So a lot of people agreed with what I said. Even people who haven't accepted Christ or who don't know God. I think as a human, we naturally seek for joy and hope and peace. So it was cool. I was able to connect deeply with many people. Even though it was my first time meeting them because of my painting and artwork, I was able to connect with them in a deeper way.
I really like the visual reminder of that big, strong hand. It was the biggest thing in the painting. It was very powerful. It was like God has the power to make things right in the midst of our chaos.
Yes. Also in the middle of that painting, there is a baby, a naked baby in the middle. It's also a reminder, we all start as a baby, no matter where you're from, what nationality you are, we are family, we are the same human. We start as a baby. And we start to have a different story in life.
And you can say Jesus also was a baby. He came down and yet he also holds the whole world. He chose to come down and be just like us when he didn't have to. He's both.
He's the greatest and the weakest in the midst of our chaos. There's this little baby, and you’re like, “Oh, he's going to get hurt!”
“Help the baby!”
“Get him out of this world. Why is he in this?” But he did that for us to save us in the chaos. He came down into the chaos to do it when he didn't have to. Such a cool message.
Yeah, I think that message that you give of God's presence in our chaos, in our broken world, is especially powerful in Japan. Just knowing that God is not a foreign God. He's not only a Western God. He's not something we have to somehow bring here. But God is reaching down to the people of Japan, into our brokenness here and working. Whether you recognize him or not, he's there. He wants to help us.
What I love about art is if I'm just speaking about this without artwork, people would think I'm just a religious lady who's trying to...I don't know…What's the word in English?
Trying to lure people in?
Yeah. But art creates this natural conversation. When we are talking, we are looking at something and we are in this...bonding?
Yeah, it’s crazy how just looking at something can even resonate with emotions with someone else. Even if they don't even understand why you painted it, they can have their own feelings that emerge just because of how they view it. Even looking at the one you did that shows people who all don't fit the beauty standard and are all ugly in their own way. And it's just a lovable painting. But someone could also have their own reason why they're attached to it. And it could have a similar meaning, or it can just be something that they just resonate with in a different way. And it's such a cool, powerful thing.
It's all by the grace of God. Yeah, I don't know how he did it. I was surprised what happened during that event. I couldn't...For a couple of weeks, I was like, God, what did you just do? I needed time to organize my mind and think about all the people I met and all the conversations I had. I felt God was there just using that space to encourage people because he loves ungodly people. He loves both godly and ungodly. It doesn't matter. People on this Earth, everyone, he loves, he wants to rescue, he wants to take them to a better place. So it was cool and encouraging for me to see that. And it reminded me how much God loves Japan and Japanese people.
Thank you so much, Mayu, for sharing. That's great.
Thank you for having me.
This is Roger Lowther, and you've been listening to the Art Life Faith podcast. Check out my website, www.rogerwlowther.com, to see some of Mayu's artwork and get a transcription of this conversation. As we say in Japan, “Ja, mata ne! See you next time.”
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