Botanical art is the name for professional drawings of plants. Originally, botanical artists used to team up with botanists to make drawings of medicinal herbs in order to create a record to help people identify different plants. Chikabo Kumada has made countless book illustrations and picture books with his botanical illustrations. He’s been drawing the insects, animals, and plants which live in his garden and neighboring woodlands for seventy-one years. He’s ninety-seven years old now! Mr. Kumada is known in Japan as a pioneer of botanical art, and he continues his busy career to this day. We spoke to him this week about his thoughts and experiences.
Interview by Takafumi Suzuki Translation by Claire Tanaka
Mr. Kumada, when did you start drawing illustrations of plants and insects?
I started to do it for work when I was twenty-six. I quit the graphic design company I’d been working at and switched careers without talking to my wife about it first. At that time, all the books had been burned in the war, and bunches of shoddy picture books had started coming in from the Kansai area and I thought, “This won’t do! I’ve got to draw some good picture books.” I love children. That’s why I started doing it. That was where my years of impoverishment began. (laughs)
You were a graphic designer before you started your career as a professional illustrator?
Back then, we didn’t use the English word “designer;” we called what I did a “zuan-ka.” At that time (the 1930s) even the modern idea of “advertising” was new. The firm I worked at, Nihon Kobo, was a groundbreaking company in Japan’s graphic design world. Ayao Yamana, who I considered a mentor, was of course very famous, but there were a lot of other very skilled people who came from there. People like Ken Domon and Yusaku Kamekura started there after me. I was particularly good friends with Domon. We were so busy, we worked every day from morning until the last train at night. We made good money too. (laughs)