People like an old woman peddling goods about the countryside and an old man burning charcoal in Taiji Harada’s paintings have surprisingly rich facial expressions, even if their eyes, noses or mouths are not drawn.

Harada, who kept painting nostalgic and heartwarming archetypical images of Japan throughout his painting career, died on March 2. He was 81.

A native of Nagano Prefecture, Harada contracted polio when he was 1 year old and the disease disabled his legs. He lost his mother to a disease when he was 2.

While his father was working in the fields, Harada would be lying on a straw mat placed in the fields and observe flowers and insects with one of his cheeks touching the ground.

He worked for a design studio in Tokyo's flashy Ginza district for a while. But commuting during the rush hours exhausted his mind as well as his body. After he returned home, he tried to earn a living as a designer, but designs for wrapping paper at small retail shops and package designs for matchboxes were about all the gigs he got.

“I was filled with the feeling that I had been defeated by the city,” he later said, recalling those days of struggle.

Harada painted landscapes he saw as a boy between periods of working. This led to the publication of picture books and books of his paintings. I first encountered his works thanks to a series of articles about his paintings, titled “Harada Taiji no sekai” (Taiji Harada’s world), which were published in Sunday editions of The Asahi Shimbun for two and a half years starting in 1982.

Taiji Harada speaks in front of one of his works in July 2008. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

It was soon after I started living alone in an apartment in Tokyo. The old folks in his paintings published weekly in the series powerfully reminded me of my own grandparents. I really missed the series when it came to an end.

When I read the news of his death, I opened one of his picture books in my bookshelf, titled “Yama no omiyage” (A souvenir of the mountain). It is about a boy who traveled alone to his grandmother’s home in the countryside and discovers the joy of exploring “satoyama,” (a hilly woodland near a rural community).

I was surprised afresh at how meticulously Harada painted fine details, such as each one of the roof tiles and daikon Japanese radishes.

The contented faces of the old people in villages he painted brought great comfort to people tired of living in large cities. Long before the surge in the popularity of exploring satoyama and moving to the countryside in recent years, Harada’s paintings taught us the richness and beauty of rural life.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 6

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.