Story of GAKU

GAKU (born Gakuto Sato)

Artist with autism. 19 years old, resides in Kawasaki. Diagnosed with autism at age 3. Hoping for quality therapy for Gaku, his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 4, where he lived for 9 years. Returned to Japan at 14. Attended Nobel High School, which is run by his father’s welfare facility I’m Inc., and currently resides at the care facility Picasso, also run by I’m. Gaku actively draws every day, finishing an astonishing 260 pieces a year.

GAKU is diagnosed with severe autism with an IQ of 25. He has difficulty communicating verbally, with his vocabulary being that of a six year old. However, he possesses rich and complex emotions and a unique vision within. When he holds a brush and faces the canvas, he understands that he is a professional artist. His talent bloomed after his fateful meeting with Coco Furuta.

Meeting Coco Furuta

GAKU first met Coco Furuta when she joined the staff at Nobel High School. He was 16 years old. Coco, whose own brother had Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, had always wanted to work in supporting people with disabilities. Meeting GAKU would turn out to be a fateful encounter. The more time she spent with GAKU, the more she felt his intelligence which wouldn’t translate on an IQ test. She became determined to find a fitting communication tool for GAKU to express his emotions.

GAKU is diagnosed with severe autism with an IQ of 25. He has difficulty communicating verbally, with his vocabulary being that of a six year old. However, he possesses rich and complex emotions and a unique vision within. When he holds a brush and faces the canvas, he understands that he is a professional artist. His talent bloomed after his fateful meeting with Coco Furuta.

Coco had had a successful 30 year career in fashion, working as a designer for several brands showing in Paris. Additionally, her father owned an art gallery and she grew up surrounded by art. “The only things I can teach GAKU are about fashion and art. Fashion requires communicating with others, so it’s not for GAKU. But paintings are self contained, so maybe that can be a tool for him,” Coco thought.

From there, Coco introduced painting materials to GAKU and showed him different art pieces whenever she could. And when GAKU did his first drawing, Coco became confident of GAKU’s overwhelming originality. Then, another fateful encounter would change GAKU’s life forever.

GAKU’s awakening at the Taro Okamoto Museum

Coco had taken the students at Nobel High School on a trip to the Taro Okamoto Museum. GAKU, who is extremely hyperactive and cannot sit still for more than 5 minutes, took one look at Okamoto’s painting, and stood still for the longest time, staring at the painting.

Then, all of a sudden, the next day GAKU said, “GAKU paint!” and began painting. Coco was in utter disbelief. GAKU had drawn a ‘sun’, a symbolic motif of Okamoto’s work. Coco had never explained much about Taro Okamoto to GAKU. However, GAKU had the ability to feel Okamoto’s energy through his art, understand, interpret, and express it in his own way. The first ‘sun’ that GAKU drew is full of color. “To GAKU, the sun takes many forms. He sees the world in his own unique way, and expresses that brilliantly,” Coco says of his work.

Beginning with this painting, GAKU drew over 200 pieces that first year.

From the Setagaya Art Museum, to a solo exhibition in New York

Coco doesn’t teach GAKU painting techniques, but the joy of painting, freedom of expression, and the endless possibilities that GAKU can communicate through his art. GAKU decides everything from motifs, composition, to colors and brushwork. “GAKU communicates through his paintings,” says Coco. “Instead of using words, he expresses his thoughts using paint and paper.” The wide range of GAKU’s work is a reflection of the depth of his emotions.

“GAKU show paintings!” he said one day, and in May 2019, he held his first solo exhibition at Setagaya Art Museum. Then, it was, “GAKU show paintings in New York!”, and in March 2020, he held his first solo show in New York. He was scheduled to show his work at the United Nations Headquarters on April 2nd, World Autism Awareness Day, but the event was unfortunately cancelled due to the spread of COVID-19.

This time, at the Setagaya Art Museum, GAKU will be showing in a space 4 times larger than his first exhibition, an impressive 170 square meters. Through his experience showing in New York, GAKU has grown and evolved tremendously as a painter, and 140 of his best works are presented here today.

“Not leaving anyone behind”
The creative vision behind I’m and unique approach to welfare

GAKU’s father and I’m Inc. CEO Norimasa Sato has a unique approach to welfare. Creativity is most important, he says. Through the ‘by GAKU’ brand, Mr. Sato aims to create new jobs in all aspects of the production process, leaving nobody behind.

Mr. Sato had created I’m in the hopes of providing a better environment for his autistic son. When he first came back to Japan from the U.S., Mr. Sato felt very troubled about the conditions surrounding children with autism and other developmental disorders. He felt the urgency for a more different approach to welfare. For GAKU, the most important thing was that he was given an opportunity, and that there was an adult close to him who noticed his talent when he drew his first painting. “Without these two elements, ‘by GAKU’ would not have been possible,” says Mr. Sato.

At the same time, it’s important for people to be understanding and accepting of an environment where individuals with disabilities can just be themselves. “GAKU was born with severe autism, but that doesn’t mean he lacks something compared to a healthy person. GAKU is whole, just the way he is,” says Coco.

I’m provides an environment where people with disabilities can be themselves and also creates opportunities for them to shine. That is the new welfare model I’m hopes to create.

Story of GAKU





16歳の秋、GAKUは『ノーベル高等学院』に先生としてやってきた古田ココ(通称:Coco)と出会う。Cocoは、自身の弟がプラダー・ウィリー症候群という知的障害を伴う先天性の障害を持って生まれたため、セカンドキャリアとして障害に関わる仕事を望んでいた。そんな彼女にとって、GAKUとの出会いは運命的なものだったという。 日々、GAKUと触れ合ううちに、Cocoは彼に知能検査では測り知れない知的センスがあることを見抜き、その内なる世界を外に伝えるためのコミュニケーションツールを探し出したいと強く思うようになる。












GAKUを支える、父親であり『アイム』代表でもある佐藤典雅が考えるのは、新しいクリエイティブな福祉だ。GAKUの絵から派生した『by GAKU』ブランドを構築し、商品生産のすべての過程に関わる人たちを主役に新しい仕事を創造し、誰一人取り残さないことを目指す。


もともと『アイム』は、自閉症の息子をより良い環境で育てたい、という佐藤の思いから設立された。アメリカから家族で帰国した当時、佐藤は、日本の自閉症や発達障害を持つ子どもたちを取り巻く環境に危機感を感じ、福祉を新しい視点で見つめなおす必要性を強く感じた。「GAKUにとって重要だったのは、機会を与えたこと。そして、1枚目の絵を描いた時にそれを判断できる大人が近くにいたこと。この2つが揃わなければ、『by GAKU』は成立しなかった」と佐藤は語る。