Story of GAKU



Gaku, an artist with severe autism. His miracle began when he was 16 years old. Now he creates 200 paintings a year. 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.

Upon returning to Japan at 14, his father founded I’m Inc. to pursue a more secure and reliable welfare program for his son. Attended Nobel High School, where he met Coco and found his passion for painting.

Currently resides at the care facility Picasso, also run by his father. As a professional artist, Gaku actively draws every day, finishing an astonishing 200 pieces a year.

Characteristics of Autism

GAKU is diagnosed with severe autism with an IQ of 25. He has difficulty communicating verbally, with his vocabulary being that of a five year old. However, while his verbal skills may be limited, he was always good at getting his way and making people do things for him, even as a young boy, and his family suspected that he may be smarter than he seemed.

Just recently, GAKU suddenly showed amazing observation and memory, by recalling the details of the classroom he spent in his childhood, as well as the names of his classmates and what they did. "People with autism perceive things differently than we do, so general intelligence tests can't measure their abilities. When somebody communicates differently or when we can’t get the expected output from them, we tend to assume that that person doesn't understand, but that's wrong. " (comment by Sato - GAKU’s father and I’m Inc. CEO)

Sato has been convinced of something since GAKU started painting. That is, people with autism are so much more interested in people than we think. "People with autism are said to be uninterested in others or incapable of empathy, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. They just use a different method of communication. Looking at GAKU, I can see how much he wants to communicate with people. And GAKU himself was able to realize that he could communicate with people through his paintings. GAKU’s art is his way of communicating to the world. " (Sato)

Sato thinks that GAKU's driving force for painting is his desire for communication, but at the same time, the characteristics of autism are reflected greatly in his art. For example, his paintings are strongly influenced by his need to squeeze out all the paint tubes or empty out all the paint cans once he opens them. Also, the way he does the base coat so evenly, is another reflection of his fixation for perfection. Furthermore, the unusually fast drawing speed is largely due to his heightened concentration, another characteristic of his disorder. Perhaps because of this, people who bought GAKU's paintings often say, "I felt a tremendous amount of energy from the painting."

Sato thinks that "the characteristics of autism are directly reflected in his paintings. The GAKU who has autism and GAKU the artist are the same." Instead of trying to change or suppress the characteristics of GAKU’s autism, he adjusted the surrounding environment so that his son could easily express himself and communicate. GAKU's artistic activities are one case where this worked extremely well.

However, while GAKU is active as a professional artist, his daily life is filled with struggles particular to autism, such as his strong impulsivity and extreme obsessions, which definitely takes a toll on family members and support staff. However, Sato laughs, and says without a hint of despair, "Other than when he’s painting, GAKU is like a constant nuclear fusion. This hasn't changed since he was born.” The cheerfulness and humor that we see in GAKU’s art definitely runs in the family.

Meeting Coco Furuta

GAKU is diagnosed with severe autism with an IQ of 25. He has difficulty communicating verbally, with his vocabulary being that of a five year old. However, while his verbal skills may be limited, he was always good at getting his way and making people do things for him, even as a young boy, and his family suspected that he may be smarter than he seemed.

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. And it was Coco, who helped GAKU find his passion for painting.

At that time, GAKU was said to be the most rambunctious among the children who attended the after-school program run by his father, but Coco took an interest in him. She offered to look after GAKU at Nobel High School. Coco laughs and recalls, "I think it was love at first sight."

"When I first met GAKU at the after-school class excursion, I understood the difficulties of looking after him, but at the same time, I was fascinated by how engaging and lovable he was. He has such a great smile, and he would play pranks on people which was so funny. I was instantly captivated. Afterwards when we met again in the classroom, GAKU, who remembered me, looked me straight in the eye and said ‘Coco-san’. That really made an impression. " (Coco)

Initially, while GAKU attended Nobel High School, he barely did any school work. He couldn't sit still for 5 minutes, and would suddenly jump out of the classroom, run around the block, and come back. He basically spent his day doing what he pleased. However, watching GAKU's behavior, Coco intuitively felt that he was much more intelligent than he let on. In order to figure out the direction on how to instruct GAKU, Coco wanted to know how much learning ability GAKU actually had.

GAKU was given an elementary school entrance exam workbook, and it turned out that he was able to solve a lot of the questions. He liked being praised for answering correctly, and he actively tackled the problems. However, the goal for GAKU was not to show results academically. Coco strongly felt that she needed to find a communication tool for GAKU that could replace language and speech.

GAKU is Introduced to Art

Before joining I’m Inc., 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.

Coco showed GAKU painting materials and paintings, but initially, he was not interested . He didn't want his hands to get dirty with paint. So Coco changed the material to crayons. Then, for the first time, GAKU drew a picture of his favorite "Baby Einstein" character. Coco saw the potential in GAKU's drawing, which firmly captured the shape of the character.

At one point, Coco took GAKU to Tokyu Hands in Shibuya. The store's art supplies department, with its neatly lined with paints, was Coco's favorite place, and she was curious as to how GAKU would react. GAKU sat in front of the paint shelves, gazing and gently stroking the paint tubes with his finger. In the beautiful gradation of colors, GAKU learned that there were many different shades of red, and many different shades of blue.

Afterwards, GAKU enjoyed arranging and touching the paints that he bought for a while, but when Coco taught them that he could draw with them, GAKU started drawing little by little. Seeing this, Coco began to be convinced that GAKU had a talent for painting. It was around this time that GAKU would come across the fateful painting that would change his life.

GAKU’s Fateful Encounter with Taro Okamoto’s ‘Sun’

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; red, blue, green, purple, and orange. “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.

With this painting, GAKU embarked on his journey as an artist.

GAKU’s Painting Style

GAKU’s early paintings began by dividing the canvas and painting the areas separately. Then, when Coco showed him that he could paint a base color and then layer different colors on top, he started drawing circles. Coco thinks the reason why the initial shape was a circle, was that "the circle is the most comfortable shape for humans. Just as a baby likes round things, It was a shape suitable for his first step."

Then, deriving from circles, he moved on to combining simple shapes such as ellipses, squares, rectangles, stripes, lines, dots ... (interestingly, whether it’s because the balance is difficult, or the shape is somehow uncomfortable for him, he doesn’t draw triangles). "Different sizes, colors, order, blurring of the brush... The combination of these shapes were endless and each painting was different. I was surprised to see such a wide range of expression with such limited elements." (Coco)

When GAKU starts on a painting, he first paints the base color very neatly. He has his favorite base colors (green, blue, orange), but which color he chooses depends on his mood of the day. He continues painting the same base color for a certain period of time, and when he’s done about 10 of them, he lines up 3 or 4 canvases and starts to work on them simultaneously. Coco doesn't quite understand how he does this, but he paints them at the same time and completes them at the same time.

After going to zoos and aquariums, GAKU often draws animals and fish. When he doesn’t know the details, he asks Coco to search the image on the Internet and checks the detailed forms. The first animal GAKU drew was a chick. He had seen a chick when he went to Orbi Yokohama, an experience oriented zoo in Yokohama. "GAKU had such a strong desire to draw a chick, he painted the entire canvas in "chic color (yellow)", and after that didn't know what to do. He was struggling because he didn't know how to draw it, but when I said, ‘Maybe if you draw an outline on the yellow, it would look like a chick ...", he drew a picture of a chick with only a black outline.

He completed an adorable piece that featured three chicks outlined in black on yellow paper and some red circles to balance out the composition. From this experience, in the early days, he often drew animals with black outlines, but gradually began drawing animals in a variety of ways, such as those without outlines, animals layered onto other motifs, animals where the head and torso were separated, etc." (Coco)

In this way, GAKU decides what and how he draws, everything from the motifs, composition, colors, and brushstroke. What Coco teaches GAKU is not artistic technique, but the joy of painting, freedom of expression, and the possibility of communicating through art. "Painting is like a daily conversation for him. Instead of talking, he just expresses what he wants to convey on the canvas using the technique of painting. The range of his work represents the depth of his mind and soul." (Coco)

Coco’s Thoughts; “GAKU’s Greatest Talent is to be Loved by Everyone”

Whenever Coco is asked about GAKU, she almost always talks about his charming personality. "GAKU is such a lovable human being. He’s extremely good at reading people, and plays great pranks on people (laughs). He captures people's hearts in an instant. I think GAKU's greatest talent is to be loved by everyone.

GAKU happened to be born with autism and just happened to have limited language skills. I happened to not have autism, nor did I happen to have poor language skills. I don't think there is any superiority or inferiority in our relationship, nor is it a teacher-apprentice relationship. We are equal, and my role is to help him expand his means of expression.

What kind of painting materials can GAKU use to express the feelings that he has accumulated inside of him? How can I create a more comfortable environment for him? To find out what he wants, I talk to him, give him new materials regularly, and just try to broaden his perspective physically and emotionally. From there, GAKU can choose what he wants to do himself. " (Coco)

It's been three years since Coco first met GAKU. During this time, GAKU has shown remarkable growth.

"When I first met GAKU, it was difficult to simply walk together, I would always have to hold his hand so that he wouldn't run off. He would just say what he wanted to say, and it wasn’t an actual conversation, but he was always a cheerful boy who loved to talk, and he still is. Now that he knows that he can communicate through his art, GAKU feels comfortable in expressing his inner feelings, he understands the joy of communicating with others, and connecting with others.

Along with that, he began to enjoy talking with people even more, and his vocabulary improved exponentially. Of course, there are many routine conversations, but we are always laughing. He has shown tremendous emotional growth, and he’s become very stable. I feel that painting is definitely accelerating GAKU's natural growth. " (Coco)


He's over 20, and he is experiencing the complex emotions that any adolescent goes through. Coco wants GAKU to be an artist who can express such conflicts and negative feelings.

"As GAKU’s emotions develop, his art is changing with it. Recently, when GAKU becomes overwhelmed when he’s painting, he often says to me, "Tell me what to do!" I think he says this, not because he really wants me to tell him what to do, but by drawing out an opinion that differs from his, he wants to reconfirm what he’s already made his mind up on. He’s become more aware as a professional artist, and his desire to draw better and to be acknowledged and accepted has become stronger.

Creative input is the most important thing for GAKU to continue to grow. Being exposed to sophisticated culture and art, experiencing different things... From there, GAKU can see and feel as he pleases. I can't predict how GAKU will process and arrange this information, and ultimately translate that onto the canvas. He always goes far beyond my imagination." (Coco).

Sato’s Thoughts; “GAKU’s Paintings are a Plea to Society”

What can you say about GAKU's artistic venture? Sato answers the question as follows.

"The important thing isn’t that GAKU began to paint, but that he was able to realize and understand the characteristics of autism and convert that into painting. The other crucial factor is that the people around him understood and accepted his autistic tendencies, which is often considered a difficulty or obstacle, and created an environment where he could apply his unique sensibilities. And finally, there is the issue of how we need to be more aware of accepting minorities.” (Sato)

The discussion on diversity is front and center in our world today, and we are called on to recognize and accept all minorities. Sato calls this "creative diversity."

"Minority people have a different sensibility from the majority, which could be difficult to understand. For example, non-LGBT people may not be able to have a true insight on LGBT people. But the fact is that there are such people in the world. So how do you understand and accept them? What’s needed is a creative mind on the part of the majority. When we are presented with a fact or situation that lies beyond our preconceived notions, we must use our imagination and think, "Maybe this is the case?" We must adjust and adapt and be able to say, "Oh, so that’s why." In other words, the issue of diversity cannot be solved unless the recipient is creative. "(Sato).

With that in mind, this becomes the theme for society as a whole.

"GAKU's work is there as a catalyst to think about this issue. GAKU's painting is not just something he wanted to draw, but it’s a challenge to the world from GAKU who has no words. He can't plead in words, but he can plead through his paintings. He is telling us (non-disabled people) how he wants us to accept his autism and how to recognize his emotions. It is up to our (non-disabled people) creativity to decide how we interpret and accept his art." (Sato)


Story of GAKU






GAKUは知的障害を伴う、重度自閉症と診断されている。言語能力は現在でも4~5歳程度でしかなく、言葉を介したコミュニケーションには困難が伴う。ただ、言語能力は低いものの、GAKUは幼い頃から自分の主張を遂行する計画性や人を動かす能力に長けていたため、「実はもっと賢いのでは?」というふうに周囲には思われていたという。 そして、最近になって、それを裏付けるようなことが起こる。高校生になった頃、GAKUは突然、幼少期に過ごした教室の細部の様子やクラスメイトの名前、その生徒が何をしたかを正確に言い出すなど、驚きの観察力と記憶力を見せたのだ。
































GAKUはたまたま自閉症に生まれて、たまたま言語能力が低かっただけ。私はたまたま自閉症ではなく、たまたま言語能力が低かったわけでもない。二人の関係においては何も優劣はなく、師弟関係でもないと思っている。その対等な関係性の上で、私の役割は、GAKUの表現の幅を広げることだ。GAKUが今までためてきた気持ちをどんな画材だったら表現できるのか? より心地よい環境作りはどうすれば良いのか? それを探るために、彼と話し合い、新しい画材を定期的に与え、物理的にも心情的にもフィールドを広がるだけ広げて、その中からGAKUがやりたいものを改めて吟味すればいい」(Coco)。








GAKUのアート活動について何が言えるか? という問いに佐藤はこう答える。


「マイノリティの人たちというのは、多数派の人たちの常識とは異なる感覚を持っているので、その感覚を理解することは難しい。例えば、LGBTではない人はLGBTの人の感覚を理解することは絶対にできないだろう。でも、世の中にそういう人たちがいるのは事実だ。では、彼らをどう理解して受け入れるか? そのために必要なのが、受け手側のクリエイティブさだ。自分たちの既成概念から外れたことにも、「多分こうなのでは?」と考えられる想像力、そして「あぁ、そうなんだ」と考えられる柔軟性が必要となってくる。つまり、ダイバーシティの問題は、受け手側がクリエイティブでないと解決しない」(佐藤)。