Japan’s legacy of artistic innovation is long, varied and deeply influential. Despite being smaller than the state of California, the country has birthed numerous globally influential movements like ukiyo-e, whose detailed woodblock prints gave new form to landscape and erotic art, and the Gutai Group, whose intensely visceral abstractions, forged after World War II, helped pave the way for both Arte Povera and 1960s performance practises. Japan’s living artists of today continue to produce work that has an impact felt far beyond the island nation’s boundaries. Blockbuster names like Pop pioneer Yayoi Kusama, avant-garde performance artist Yoko Ono, and manga-inspired painter-sculptor Takashi Murakami have indelibly influenced art and visual culture across the globe. While they might get the most play in international press, countless other Japanese artists are producing groundbreaking work across mediums.
Japan’s art history spans several thousand years, but the roots of its “contemporary art” can be traced back to the nation’s first opening to the West in the Meiji Era (1870s). The next half a century saw not only Western art make a renewed and lasting impression on Japan, but the influence of Japanese artists also began to stretch across the globe.
Japan’s living artists today continue to produce work that has an impact felt far beyond the island nation’s boundaries
Following the end of World War II, Tokyo went through vast changes and the city became a fertile ground for bold experimental movements like the Gutai group, Hi Red Center and the later Mono-ha. These groups blurred the lines between art, everyday life and political action, and had exchanges with other international movements like Fluxus in New York (of which Yoko Ono and Yayoi Kusama were key contributors). Other forms of Western minimalist and conceptual art in the 1960s and ‘70s drew major inspiration from classical Japanese art, design and philosophy, particularly Zen Buddhism.
As Japan grew to become an economic giant in the 1980s, increasing crossovers were seen between contemporary art and other disciplines, like photography, music, anime, fashion, design and technology. This led to the emergence of a new generation of artists who fused “fine art” and “pop culture”, like Yoshitomo Nara, whose work is deeply influenced by the manga comics of his youth, Mariko Mori, who combines science fiction with spiritual journeys, and Ryoji Ikeda, whose electronic music and videos fit just as well in a nightclub as at a major museum. And then, of course, there’s Takashi Murakami, who has combined art and pop better than any artist since Andy Warhol.
Japan’s art history spans several thousand years, but the roots of its “contemporary art” can be traced back to the nation’s first opening to the West in the Meiji Era (1870s)
Murakami’s ground-breaking “Superflat” exhibition toured the world in 2001, sharing his theory that Japanese visual culture has been marked by a unique style of “flatness” from anime all the way back to 17th century woodblock prints. He also helped establish the careers of an entire wave of artists who combined kawaii (“cute”) playfulness with social critique, like Aya Takano and Chiho Aoshima. Like most of the international art world, the Japanese scene is today quite eclectic. However, one can see a fresh testament to Japanese tradition appearing in many artists’ work, even if it is “remixed” with contemporary techniques and topics in surprising ways.
Kohei Nawa, for example, the multidisciplinary artist (and designer of the 2nd Floor of Los Angeles’ Japan House), harks back to centuries of nature portraiture by rendering animals like deer, wolves and tigers through complex computer models and 3D printing. Chiharu Shiota (who represented Japan at the 2015 Venice Biennale) creates breathtaking room-sized installations tied together with thread, highlighting an interconnected environment and the hidden lives of everyday objects.
As Japan grew to become an economic giant in the 1980s, increasing crossover was seen between contemporary art and other disciplines, like photography, music, anime, fashion, design and technology
In the autumn of 2017, the wildly popular new media collective ‘teamLab’ illuminated an entire forest in Tokiwa Park (Ube city, Yamaguchi Prefecture), with interactive sensors that made trees “breathe” in response to viewers passing by. This project connected to the ancient Japanese practises of natureviewing – from hanami (cherry blossom viewing) to shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”).
It also echoes an event that took place in another forest in Japan 61 years previously, when – in June 1956 – the Gutai Group staged an art show in Ashiya Pine Forest (Hyōgo Prefecture), effectively kicking off Japan’s contemporary art era.
Though the technology may change, it seems that Japanese art’s creative spin on tradition has deep roots and will continue to grow.