Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

The World of Shaun Tan

A Visit to the Chihiro Art Museum Tokyo

Post by Mari Boyle, Tokyo, Japan


On July 6, 2019, a rather damp Saturday afternoon to be honest, a group of SCBWI Japan members set out through a quiet Tokyo neighborhood in search of a treasure house of art. Nestled between suburban houses and neat gardens, sits The Chihiro Art Museum Tokyo, the converted home of celebrated artist and illustrator Chihiro Iwasaki. Since the late 1980’s, the museum has exhibited children’s book artists’ work from around the world. The current collection is the first-ever exhibition in Japan of Australian artist Shaun Tan.

Shaun Tan exhibition photos at the Chihiro Art Museum


Tan, perhaps best known for his 2006 book The Arrival, is a prolific artist. Wandering through the museum, I was never quite sure what I might find around the next corner. In the first exhibition room were large oil paintings from his anthology Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008). The idea behind the stories, and subsequently the paintings, was to explore what happens when animals occupy spaces usually tenanted by humans, in towns and high rise buildings, courtrooms and boardrooms. Around the next corner, contrasting with the large dreamlike paintings, was a series of small observational works. Each one captured the mundane everydayness of life—a dimly lit corridor in a Tokyo hotel, a pink truck parked on the side of a road, kids drawing on a beach.


Another change of style awaited us in the next section, with Tan’s original illustrated spreads for John Marsden’s The Rabbits (1998), a picture book about colonization and conservationism. The section on The Arrival, too, included original illustrations from the book, together with research photos, materials and an explanation of some of the techniques Tan used to develop his storyboards.


And yet there was still more. Another gallery room included a mock-up of his working desk with his art materials and walls filled with notes and embryonic illustrations. Deeper into the room there were more spreads from more of his books showing the development from initial sketches to completed ones, providing a generous opportunity to see the drafting process artists and illustrators go through before they get to the finished product. There was also a screening of Tan’s 2010 Oscar winning short animation of The Lost Thing.


All of us explored the exhibit at our own pace, occasionally bumping into each other and remarking on things that caught our eye, or better still our imaginations.

SCBWI Japan member signing the guest book


Despite the seriousness of some of the themes, the humor behind so much of Tan’s work left me with a smile, the kind you get when you feel nostalgic, or unexpectedly familiar with the circumstances.


Some of us had come a considerable distance to see the exhibition, and over a lovely coffee and snack in the museum café, we all agreed it was well worth the journey.

SCBWI Japan members enjoying the museum café (photo by Kazumi Wilds)


Our thanks to Yoko Nakahiro, senior associate of the Chihiro Iwasaki Memorial Foundation who greeted us at the museum.


The Shaun Tan exhibition closes on July 28, 2019. Check here for details.

For more information on Shaun Tan check out his website.


Mari Boyle is a writer and teacher.