Subtle, often minimal, Tomoko Hojo’s work evokes a sense of tranquillity and it draws you in. At the age of 35, the artist has already completed numerous residencies, be it in Japan, the US or Europe. She has won awards, held solo exhibitions, and participated in various group exhibitions, as well as biennales. With a particular interest in the voice of females and influenced by the likes of Fluxus, Hojo’s sound work is poetic, intimate and rather communal-oriented, definitely not often found in your typical exhibitions.
I was fortunate enough to catch up with Tomoko in Nagoya back in April this year, before her trip to London for another exhibition. In the first chapter of the interview below, Tomoko opens up about her journey from studying music to questioning her true calling, and ultimately landed at the crossroads where music and society meet. She discusses her time studying in Tokyo and London, as well as how the collaboration with her long-term working partner Rahel Kraft was conjured.
I’m Listening to You
Axel Wang: Before we start Tomoko, there is something that I must confess: I hardly listen to music.
Tomoko Hojo: That’s quite a statement.
AW: I used to, at my age now however, I just feel like there’s too much sound going around, silence has become the best music really, like Ai Weiwei once said.
TH: It’s impossible to have a complete absence of sound, as John Cage1 said.
AW: By having this conversation with you, I’m sure there are things about sound and music that I can learn for myself as well.
AW: Let’s begin! Before coming back to Japan around a week ago, you said you were in Belgium, Switzerland, Berlin and so on, what were you doing in all those places if you don’t mind sharing?
TH: One of the main reasons for me to go to Belgium, was the grant awarded to me by the Yoshino Gypsum Art Foundation, which is known for supporting young artists studying abroad. Originally granted to me in 2021, the opportunity was unfortunately postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, I was finally able to go on this journey earlier this year.
Right now, I am collaborating with a sound artist from Belgium named Myriam Van Imschoot2. I invited her to be my supervisor and we are creating a piece together that will premier around the end of May in Belgium, as a part of a festival.
AW: Sound work?
TH: It’s a performance that incorporates sound elements yes, with audience participation too. The performance lasted about 12 hours with 70 people participating. First, we all come jointly and do some group performances based on the scores we create. Then, we make music together that’s specifically designed for sleeping. And here’s the interesting part: at the end of the session, we all enjoy a bowl of soup and then snooze together in the same space.
AW: You travel around a lot, obviously this time you’ve only been away for a couple of months, but every time you come back to Japan after a trip, do you recall the feeling, of landing in the airport and seeing all the Japanese characters again?
TH: That’s a good question, because it’s something that’s been on my mind as well. It’s funny how every time I return to Japan, it feels as if nothing had happened. It’s like my experiences overseas just vanish. I can’t quite put my finger on it, you know? Logically in reality, I know things did happen, but emotionally, it’s like a whirlwind of overwhelming mixed feelings. When I arrive at the airport, everything just seems to go so smoothly, and I find myself thinking, “Wait, what’s going on, what am I doing here?” It’s all a bit confusing.
AW: Like you never left.
TH: Exactly. It’s funny how certain moments can strike you that way. Just the other day, I had a conversation with a guy who had lived somewhere for over 20 years and then returned to his hometown. Surprisingly, he expressed a similar sentiment — when he went back, it was as if he never left in the first place, like the bond of attachment was that strong. It got me thinking that perhaps I also have a deep-rooted attachment to Japan, to my hometown as well, even though I may not be consciously aware of it.
AW: Your hometown being Kita-Nagoya?
TH: Yes. Not like a personal attachment, but I think somehow my brain is wired to recognise that this (Japan) is my home.
AW: That’s fascinating to hear. But before we proceed, let’s take a trip down memory lane. It’s clear that you pursued a major in music during your university years, right?
TH: The department that I entered was the music department, but what I did was not musical training. The title of my course was Musical Creativity and Environment in Tokyo University of the Arts, it was a relatively new department, established only in 2001 I think. When we think of music majors, we often associate them with classical instruments like piano or violin, which have been around for a much longer time compared to my newer department.
AW: Have you always been interested in music since you were young? Any family influence?
TH: It was actually my mother who had this strong, almost intense desire for me to become a musician. It wasn’t necessarily my own personal wish then. My mother, having graduated from a musical university herself, just told me how great it was and all, and wanted me to follow her path.
AW: And you were okay with that?
TH: Well, it’s hard because I was just a kid, and you know how it goes with parents. I couldn’t really defy what my mother wanted for me. I basically went along with her wishes without thinking much about my own future. I just thought, well, if it’s what she wanted, I’d just play along. But when the time came to choose my path, I just became aware that this wasn’t what I truly wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I kind of just mustered up some courage to express my feelings to my mother, she went a bit crazy (laughs), because she was so invested in the idea of me becoming a musician. But as I went through my teenage years receiving music education, I discovered that classical music just wasn’t my thing. Performing in front of people made me so darn nervous. I was a very shy girl and always scared of messing up. So, yeah, it became clear to me that music wasn’t my true calling. But at the same time, it’s really tough for me to say goodbye to music because it meant everything to me.
AW: That’s who you were.
TH: Yeah, exactly. I didn’t want to disappoint my mother by saying, “Hey mum, I don’t want to do music,” without having a proper justification. So I kept on pondering, okay, I won’t make music my profession, but what are the layers, the background, and the stories behind music?
During my musical education, I struggled with this severe hierarchy that existed in classical music training. The teachers always held this aura of greatness, and we were expected to follow their every word. And let’s not forget the value they placed on who was creating good music and who wasn’t. It was all about technique, you know? It’s kind of like looking at realistic paintings, you can easily tell which one is good because the closer it is to the reality, the better it is right? Well, I soon realised that this structure just wasn’t really for me either. If I couldn’t match up to the level required technically for certain performances, what was the point of pursuing it at all?
On top of that, I didn’t find much joy in playing music like I just told you. I just couldn’t see the point, why should I keep on training and dedicating myself to a career in music? That’s when it hit me. I wanted to explore the connection between music and society. I wanted to figure out how to transform the struggles I faced into something meaningful for people out there.
You see, the music world can be quite insular, with its rigid triangles and hierarchies. But once you step out of that little bubble, it loses its influence. I wanted to observe it from a different perspective, to see how it all shapes from the outside. That’s where my motivation came from, why I wanted to join this department — to dig deeper into the relationship between music and the world beyond.
AW: After Tokyo, what made you decide to go to London?
TH: When I first entered university, I had this idea of studying art management in order to excavate this connection between art and society. But I quickly noticed that simply thinking about it wasn’t enough — I had to create something of my own. I wanted to approach art as a form of critical thinking rather than just making physical objects. My first piece created, was a lip-sync performance that I did at the Aichi Art Center.
The performance was part of an open call, I just had this idea of challenging the structured nature of a concert hall, where the line between musical sound and noise is clearly defined, and the idealisation is obviously based on Western classical music. Audiences experience performances in this concert hall/space, it’s all live on the stage and they are inclined to be wowed or moved by it, but they don’t see what goes on behind the scenes so to speak. I questioned whether the experience would be the same for the audience if the performance was pre-recorded and played through speakers. Would they still feel the same way?
I won the competition luckily in the end, and one of the judges, Tomomi Adachi3 — a renowned performer and musician, recommended me to go to his private school in Tokyo. There, I encountered and started to delve into historical avant-garde music, like the pieces from Fluxus4 and John Cage that were developed around the 20th century, performing and reinterpreting them, which was not quite the same as what I had in mind initially of what I wanted to do, which was art management. I guess life always pans out differently than how you picture it. I continued down this path until the end of my bachelor’s degree. Even though I felt that while it was enjoyable and I certainly learnt a lot, on the other hand pursuing this kind of work in Japan is challenging from a market perspective, it’s very difficult to sustain a living solely based on it. That’s when I decided to expand my focus beyond experimental music and explore sound art during my master’s in Tokyo. Later on, my professor advised me to go to London because the Japanese market for my work was incredibly and fundamentally tiny — almost non-existent. If I wanted to continue this direction of my artistic research, I had to go abroad.
AW: How did you feel before you took off and when you first arrived in London, was that the first time you went abroad?
TH: No the first time I went abroad was 2010, to New York for like three days, and I remember feeling so scared! Everyone looked so busy, I felt very much isolated and overwhelmed. Afterwards I visited and stayed with my friend in London, the whole thing just turned out very contrastingly to New York — it was quieter, calmer. Then I thought, London was probably the right call.
AW: Any cultural shock you experienced in London?
TH: The food! It’s crazy expensive and doesn’t taste very good I’m sorry to say (laughs).
AW: I mean, there must be something that you enjoyed while you were living in London right?
TH: Absolutely! One aspect I truly appreciated during my MA was the wonderful conversations I had with my classmates. While I was in Tokyo, I didn’t have like friends who I could share ideas and conversations about sound and music with, but London was different, obviously being on the same course we all had the same interest, and a certain level of knowledge too, and communication was just so smooth, even though my English wasn’t so fluent back then it was just so easy and enjoyable, to have those conversations with my coursemates.
AW: Is that how you met your working partner Rahel Kraft?
AW: You guys have been working together for quite a long time and I imagine you are still working together?
AW: That’s quite hard to come by, it’s like a marriage even don’t you think? With completely different backgrounds, especially for artists coming together to form a duo. Can you tell us about this working relationship?
TH: Funny enough, one of the reasons behind it was the small size of our course, with only the six of us. The limited number of students actually intensified our communication since it became essential, like there’s no escape you know, and I think we all embraced it well!
Around the time we completed our MA, Rahel and I both knew that we shared the same interests, storytelling through the realms of voice and memory and so on. So, we kind of just looked at each other and said, okay, let’s actually do something together.
AW: So all very natural.
TH: Yes, very natural indeed. We didn’t really set out any specific goals like we-must-achieve-this or we-have-to- be-like-that, it unfolded organically, you know? It’s more like let’s give it a try because we’re not entirely sure how it worked either. We sent out many applications applying for projects, and while some didn’t pan out as expected, one fortunate opportunity came our way, and it happened to be from Japan.
So, Rahel came to Japan for this project, and I think the bond grew stronger as a result. She’s incredibly diligent and a bit of a perfectionist, and I think I share that nature as well. Working together feels extremely comfortable, it’s amazing how she can handle almost everything — I’m genuinely surprised because I know I couldn’t do it all. But she never feels overwhelmed by it. She’s great at energetic things like climbing and hiking, and she’s unbelievably supportive. For the most part, she ends up taking on more tasks than I do, but I think she genuinely enjoys it.
I tend to gravitate towards conceptual aspects rather than practical matters, so we have this vague division of roles. But overall, we work together from start to finish, we don’t strictly divide tasks like one person handling visuals and the other in charge of sound or whatever. We exchange ideas, opinions, and take step-by-step actions.
AW: And very collaborative too.
TH: Exactly. It’s all very intertwined. Another aspect of it is that we produce our own works individually, we don’t remain as a duo all day. We work together for one project, then for the rest of the year, we march on our own separate ways and we will meet again somewhere for something else. That’s pretty much the dynamic, and not to mention the fact that we are located in different parts of the world, most of the time anyway.
Rahel is a remarkably open-minded person. I think this is crucial, for us both to be able to listen to the other person’s opinions and having the flexibility. We always want to try something new, we always want to share ideas and execute the ideas, and it doesn’t really matter whose idea it is to begin with.
AW: You mentioned Fluxus earlier, after reading some of your previous interviews as well as learning about some of your works, it’s not hard to tell that you are influenced by Yoko Ono too. Feminism is a constant topic that appeared in the works of Fluxus and Yoko Ono. In an earlier interview you said, “I wanted to do some form of expressions that only I could do as a Japanese woman working in sound.” Do you think you could elaborate a little bit further on this statement, what exactly is it that you think only you could do?
TH: The umm, catalyst for my exploration of feminism, sound, and identity, actually stemmed from another period I spent in London, around 2017, 18 for roughly a year, as I received an artist’s grant from the POLA Art Foundation then. Towards the end of this residency, as part of a presentation, I wanted to plunge into the depth of sound and identity with my supervisor. Up until then, I hadn’t given much thought to the topic of identity or its significance, but after spending so much time overseas, it prompted me to contemplate my strengths as an individual and as an artist.
I saw the fact that if I were to replicate the exact same ventures as native British artists, I would inherently be at a disadvantage, plus that I didn’t have a compelling reason to centre my work around, say British historical elements for instance. In light of this, I sought in my heart, something original that would resonate with people and make them grasp the reasons behind my artistic choices or approaches. And eventually it all just led to Yoko Ono, considering her Japanese background. Although she spent a significant portion of her life outside of Japan, working in London as well, she maintained a connection to her home country.
So yeah that’s the whole rationale. Moreover, her being married to John Lennon adds an extra layer of significance I guess. I think the British somewhat have this special feeling towards Yoko Ono because of John Lennon and The Beatles. It’s not solely confined to the British people alone obviously, but as a nation that takes pride in The Beatles originating from their homeland, the perspective may differ somewhat substantially from other Beatles fans around the world.
AW: Maybe we could have a few words on feminism. The topic is probably a bit sensitive here in Japan, with the works that you do, are you looking to challenge these societal norms or expectations in Japan?
TH: I don’t know if challenge is the right word, but these days I feel that I have to state my position.
AW: Like you must say something you mean?
TH: Yes, but my approach isn’t as direct or activist-oriented. I engage with feminism ideas through research and my artworks, like the piece you saw in Ichinomiya last summer (Aichi, 2022). That particular work is based on research conducted on women working in textile factories. Back then, men relied on these women, many of whom were young girls from rural areas across Japan. They were essentially forced into these factories, lacking any freedom to speak of. It’s almost a form of modern-day slavery, where the young girls were treated almost as disposable labour. While I may not have explicitly stated it in that particular piece, the underlying intention was to question and criticise this oppressive system that once surely existed.
AW: Given how sensitive it might be to address feminism in Japan, have you experienced any pushbacks for your projects or works, from individuals or organisations at all?
TH: Not really. Another reason why I felt motivated to undertake this line of work is because there is a growing trend in Japan and of course globally, when it comes to feminism. Not in a way of feminism being trendy per se, but more like there’s a growing awareness for people working in particularly museums and galleries. While I can’t speak for their exact intentions, but I’ve noticed a heightened consciousness when it comes to curating, both in terms of artists’ gender representation and the thematic content being explored.
AW: It’s got to do with society’s expectation I guess, like in Japan, society still expects a woman to say, get married at 25 and have kids, and then not work for the rest of their lives and just become a housewife right?
TH: I think the situation is changing, I hope so at least.
AW: Well, it has to.
TH: Definitely, but obviously things are a little bit different when you compare Tokyo with maybe some rural parts of the country, where people may still tend to be quite conservative when it comes to this, it takes time.
1. John Cage (1912-1992) was an influential American composer, philosopher, and artist, best known for his pioneering work in the field of experimental music, particularly his compositions that incorporated chance elements and unconventional techniques. Cage’s innovative approach challenged traditional notions of music and expanded the boundaries of what could be considered musical. He was also a proponent of indeterminacy and the exploration of silence in his compositions, leaving a lasting impact on the field of contemporary music and avant-garde art.
2. Myriam Van Imschoot is a Belgian artist and performer known for her interdisciplinary work in the fields of sound, voice, and performance. She explores the intersection of language, music, and movement, often incorporating improvisation and collaboration into her artistic practice. Van Imschoot’s work engages with themes of identity, memory, and embodiment, creating unique and immersive experiences for audiences.
3. Tomomi Adachi (足立 智美) is a renowned Japanese artist, musician, and poet known for his innovative and experimental approach to sound poetry and vocal performance. He combines traditional poetic elements with contemporary techniques such as beatboxing, vocal improvisation, and electronic manipulation, pushing the boundaries of language and sound in his captivating performances.
4. Fluxus was an international, interdisciplinary artist group that emerged in the 1960s and had a significant impact on the development of avant-garde art. It was founded by George Maciunas, a Lithuanian-American artist and graphic designer. Fluxus artists rejected traditional boundaries between different art forms and sought to blur the line between art and everyday life, embracing the concept of art as a continuous process, emphasising the importance of spontaneous and ephemeral actions, as well as encouraging an active audience participation and interactivity.
The original interview was conducted in English by Axel Wang on 19 April 2023. The above conversation has been condensed and edited. The title of the chapter is in reference to the work created by Tomoko Hojo in 2018.
Introduction, Editor & Design: Axel Wang
Photography: Courtesy of Tomoko Hojo