My best teacher

13th July 2001 at 01:00
I loved to draw from a very early age. Like all Japanese children, I drew all over the pavement - and on the road, when there weren't many cars. At school, I drew caricatures of the teachers, propping up a textbook to make it look as though I was working.

We didn't have art lessons until secondary school. I didn't go to art school but my primary school teacher in Tokyo, at the Shimo Meguro primary school, made a lasting impression. Zazuo Adachi loved to talk to the class, and he talked to us as if we mattered, so he always had our full attention. He'd talk non-stop for at least an hour every morning about anything, whether it was a book he'd read, something he'd heard, or something in the newspaper. Whatever it was, he'd talk about it at length and we'd sit there - a class of 40 boys and girls - totally absorbed because he made it so interesting.

Real lessons - maths, science, Japanese and so on - had to be condensed into whatever time remained. He was a gripping storyteller, and there would be daily instalments of a complicated saga that he made up as he went along, although it was based on a traditional Ninja adventure, a bit like the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It went on and on and we loved it. He hardly ever went to the staffroom; he preferred to stay in the classroom. Even at lunchtime, when a bowl of food would be brought in and dished up for the class, he'd eat with us and talk.

We had to work hard and we had a lot of tests in class, but he didn't like the silence that descended when we had our heads down. He would stand by the window and sing - not in a quiet hum, but in a voice we were clearly meant to hear and enjoy. There was a television set in the classroom, in a cabinet, and sometimes when he wasn't singing he'd open the doors enough to put his head in and watch television while we worked. He was very funny.

He made such an impression on me because he was so dedicated, so constant, and such an individual. He wasn't interested in self-advancement; he hated the administrative side of teaching, and never wanted to move on and take up a headship, for example. He inspired his pupils, he made you realise there was more to life than endlessly passing exams and joining a big corporation.

One of his stories that fired my imagination was about the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who, as a child, dreamed of excavating the remains of Troy and devoted his life to realising this ambition. The story impressed me - made me understand that if you have a dream, you must follow it, be true to yourself, do what you want to do rather than take the conventional course.

I left school at 16; I dropped out, really. I knew I wanted to do "art", but my father wanted me to have a skill, to be a craftsman. I considered being a potter, but the idea of a long apprenticeship with a master craftsman up in the mountains didn't appeal. It was probably the example of Schliemann that inspired me to leave home and follow my instinct.

The other (and probably the greatest) influence on my work has been my publisher, Klaus Flugge, of Andersen Press in London. He's another individual, he has a vision, he's definitely not a corporation man. He gives his artists and authors freedom and trust. When he commissioned my first book he gave me the money and told me to come back when I'd finished. I respect him. He's one of a rare breed, one of the old school. He probably doesn't belong in the 21st century.

Illustrator Satoshi Kitamura was talking to Joanna Carey


1956 Born in Tokyo 1975 Begins work as an illustrator on magazines and in advertising 1979 Moves to London 1981 Exhibition at the Neal Street Gallery 1982 First book, Angry with Arthur, with author Hiawyn Oram, published by Andersen Press; wins the Mother Goose Award and the Japanese Award for Picture Books. Other major books include When Sheep Cannot Sleep (1986), Sheep in Wolves' Clothing (1995), and Me and My Cat?(1999) 2001 Features in Through Eastern Eyes: the art of the Japanese picture book, a touring exhibition during the year-long Japan 2001 season which began in May in London

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