Dear Achtung: A Letter from Tokyo from Hiroshi Tanabe

Hiroshi Tanabe is a Japanese fashion A lister. His unique and vibrant fashion illustrations are modern yet traditional, with lines reminiscent of the historical Japanese woodblock print. While living for more than two decades in New York City working for Anna Sui and Shiseido, he has returned to his native Tokyo a few years ago. In spite of tradition, his art thrives on constant development and exchange with current fashion from his contemporaries like Jun Takahashi of Undercover. Standstill is regression. But it is this standstill that the Tokyo-based illustrator has now experienced with the Corona Pandemic. Tanabe spoke to us about longings during the lockdown and why children's voices outside his window suddenly become the sound of freedom. He exclusively made this portfolio for AD in his letter from Tokyo using Sacai and Undercover runways as inspiration.

Tokyo is considered a particularly fast-moving, efficient city. Have the people and the city been laid to rest by the virus?

Yes. Everyone spends their time cooking and watching Netflix.

A “tied up” Buddha as temples have been closed.

Did the lockdown help you to concentrate more on your work as an illustrator or do you need the hustle and bustle of the city around you to stay inspired?

I spent a lot of time watching movies and reading books, that gave me new inspiration. It was a very valuable experience because I had time to look back at myself.

Finding your way in Tokyo in Comme des Garçons boots.

Do people need art in a crisis? 

Art is not needed at all in a crisis. No one can afford it or should be. However, I think that the number of people who heal their hearts with art and culture will have increased from the moment the situation has settled down somewhat.

A Tokyo street view – empty.

What does the view from your flat look like?

The view from my apartment shows some temples and a quiet residential area. The COVID-19 situation hasn’t it changed from before to now. Only the kindergarten in front of my place is quiet, so I want to be able to hear the voices of the kindergarten early again. 

Sacai is good.

What made you realize that this is a serious crisis/ What was the moment you realized it?

In the middle of March, my friend in NY was infected with COVID-19 and felt the seriousness and fear of talking to him. Every day, I watched news of unfocused stress and anger in people as the economy deteriorated. It seems that the number of people with corona infection is abnormal and it feels like I’m watching panic movies.

An illustration inspired by the Undercover S/S 2020 collection depicting a vigorous hand wash.

What was your first thought when it was clear: This is a serious crisis, our lives are about to change?

I thought that I wouldn’t be able to live the same life as before. I thought the values of things would change. It seems that it will take a considerable amount of time to regain my life. We lost a lot. However, I was convinced that something new could be done (culture, technology, entertainment, etc.). That is my only expectation right now.

From the archive: Sayoko Yamaguchi illustrated by Hiroshi Tanabe for Achtung Mode Nr. 10.

You experienced your lockdown in Tokyo, is there a place you would have preferred to be? 

A place where I could keep a pet and live in a small town with proper nature. Like San Sebastián.

From the archive: Karl Lagerfeld illustrated by Hiroshi Tanabe for Achtung Mode Nr. 37.

In Japanese culture, or at least that’s what they say in Europe, one of the biggest social risks is to lose face in front of others. Do curfews and bans work better when you also feel observed and judged for your behavior by your neighbors, people on the street and in the supermarket?

It seems that we are observing the rules. In Japan, the word vigilantes called “self-restraint” came up this time. That means people who harass those not complying with the “stay home” requests. I think it’s healthier if nothing gets too nervous.

From the archive: Jil Sander illustrated by Hiroshi Tanabe for Achtung Mode Nr. 22.

If you could put this time into an illustration, what would it look like?

The current situation is not bright at all, but I want to draw something that is not only dark by mixing some brightness and humor in the illustration. Like the street view I did for you.