Just like traditional arts, Japan has an incredibly rich and diverse culture of contemporary art. From influences of anime and manga to modern takes on ukiyo-e, elaborate performance artists to daring sculptures, the world of Japanese contemporary arts is an ever-evolving landscape that just waits to be discovered.
Art in Post-War Japan
The foundations of Japanese contemporary art are to be found in Post-War Japan, in a society that had been rattled by not one but multiple historical milestones, from the Second World War itself to the bombing of Hiroshima and the occupation by the U.S. military. The themes of the post-war generation artists weren’t merely war and destruction, however, but also heavily themed around rebellion and self-determination.
Some turning away from traditional techniques and aesthetics entirely, others incorporating them into their art, Japan brought forth various avant-garde movements that did not only explore unknown topics but also entirely new aesthetics.
One of the most famous artists of this time – one that was rediscovered in the West just recently – is Kazuo Shiraga who created powerful expressionistic paintings mainly with his feet but sometimes even with his entire body. He was part of the Gutai group, a radical art movement that completely turned their backs toward classic and reactionary art and sought to explore the abstract.
The Surge of Manga and Anime
Often disregarded as “Japanese cartoons” in the West, manga and anime are an important part of Japanese contemporary art and, much like the avant-garde movements, the modern manga took shape in the post-war decades. While the country’s writers and artists were heavily censored during the war itself, the new Japanese Constitution of 1947 strictly forbade any kind of censorship, which lead to a figurative outburst of artistic creativity in the Japanese post-war society.
One of the most famous and ground-breaking works is Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy of 1951. The main hero of the piece, Astro Boy, was like an antithesis to the formerly propagated idealistic Japanese society during the years of imperialism. Astro Boy and his kindness heralded a new age of pacifism and kindness and thus was hugely popular with a society that was scarred both by the war itself and the imperialist propaganda that came with it.
If Osamu Tezuka is the father of modern manga, Machiko Hasegawa certainly can be called its mother. She is the creator of Sazae-san, a manga that debuted as early as 1946 and features a Japanese woman named Sazae-san that was hade homeless by the war. Sazae-san faces hardship and trouble with a cheerful resilience and completely renounces the old wartime ideal of a delicate, obedient woman. She was as strong as she was relatable, not only for Japanese women but also for men.
Superflat: Japanese Contemporary Art Conquering the World
One of the most famous Japanese art movements of today is Superflat, a movement that draws a lot of inspiration from the aforementioned manga and anime, as well as generally flattened forms throughout Japanese art mediums. Its founder is the internationally famous and acclaimed Takashi Murakami who is known for his extravagant pop art that closely resembles Japanese anime and kawaii culture.
Other artists that count themselves as members of this Superflat movement that has gained a lot of attention in various galleries around the world are Chiho Aoshima, Yoshimoto Nara, and Aya Takano, among others. Paintings, statues, illustrations, and even digital design is created under the umbrella of Superflat that have toured the world in various exhibitions. Takashi Murakami also founded a company called Kaikai Kiki which doesn’t only market the various Superflat artists but is also on the lookout for new talents.
Discovering Contemporary Art in Japan
Throughout Japan, there’s a vast number of art galleries and museums that focus on contemporary Japanese art, such as National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, the Hakone Open Air Museum, and the entire island of Naoshima in the Seto Inland Sea, which features a large variety of museums and installations by Japanese artists spread across the island
Besides museums and galleries, Japan does also have a rich variety of different art festivals, like the Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale in Niigata, the Setouchi Triennale spread over numerous islands throughout the Seto Inland Sea, as well as the Nakanojo Biennale in Gunma. The venues that highlight Japanese contemporary art are as colorful and diverse as the art and its artists itself – there is much and more to discover.