Japanese artist Tetsuya Ishida's poignant artworks serve as a powerful commentary on Japan's salaryman culture, particularly during the challenging years of the Lost Decade, which was a period of economic stagnation in Japan in the 1990s. Ishida’s paintings explore how a culture of overwork causes existential distress, loneliness, and identity crises, bringing attention to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Good Health and Wellbeing as well as Decent Work and Economic Growth.
In his 2023 exhibition, My Anxious Self at Gagosian New York, Ishida vividly portrays the dehumanizing impact of Japan's salaryman culture. The paintings presented there, such as Refuel Meal and Interview, capture the assembly line nature of corporate life, where individuals surrender their identities to become mere components in the machinery of the corporate world. Ishida's use of identical faces, which are his self-portraits, represents the collective body of a generation of workers affected by the societal malaise of the 1990s.
Born in 1973, Ishida's coming of age as a painter coincided with Japan's economic recession, leading him to be a part of a lost generation that emerged from Japan’s 1990s economic crisis. It was a generation whose integration into the workforce was plagued with unemployment, societal pressures, and the erosion of individuality. Hence, Tetsuya’s work reflects the feelings of hopelessness, isolation, anxiety, skepticism, claustrophobia, and solitude that originated in that era, whose traces can be found in Japan’s workforce even today.
What’s more horrifying is how, in today’s post-pandemic world, presenteeism, the need to work long hours—has worsened. A 2020 study by Harvard Business School found that people in 16 global cities were working an average of 48 minutes more per day after the lockdown started. Meanwhile, a 2021 research paper from the University of Chicago and the University of Essex found that in a sample of 10,000 remote workers from large Asian IT companies, workers upped their hours by 30 per cent, yet didn’t increase productivity. This goes to show how Ishida’s pieces now also resonate with workers outside of Japan.
Ishida's other paintings go deeper into the issue by vividly depicting the dehumanization of individuals in Japan’s working society. Recalled portrays a version of his self-portrait being showcased in parts in a box resembling ready-to-use, build-it-yourself furniture. All while another version of Ishida, dressed as a factory worker, stands over the parts as if checking their quality before the merchandise leaves the factory and gets to the hands of consumers. Ishida also depicts three men in suits and a woman wearing traditional Japanese funeral garments watching the factory worker.
This artwork highlights the ruthlessness of capitalism, which has been known to take lives. The South China Morning Post reports a total of 2,968 people in Japan committed suicide in 2022 due to problems related to their work environment. Everything from pressure to mental stress can cause karoshi—the Japanese term for death by overwork. This continues the tragedy of the lost generation, which in Ishida’s untitled piece is symbolized by a teenager sitting on a grave, with the person that he wants to be crushed under the grave due to societal pressures to join an unforgiving workforce.
In conclusion, Tetsuya Ishida's artworks depict a compelling exploration of Japan's salaryman culture and societal challenges during the Lost Decade while criticizing the dehumanizing impact of corporate culture. His art, even though deeply rooted in the 1990s, remains relevant today, resonating with global audiences that are facing post-pandemic economic challenges and unemployment.