The Land of the Rising Sun is constantly brewing creativity — if you’ve seen the famous Great Wave print by Hokusai, you somewhat know that Japanese artists have been around and creating revolutionary works since centuries ago. But the new wave of contemporary artists go beyond traditional woodblock printing and the likes, bringing a new generation of the country’s rich artistry. From paintings and sculptures to visual media and perspective photography, these four Japanese artists of today transform Japan’s art scene on a global scale.
In the episode, we touched on Takashi Murakami’s anime-style crafts, Yayoi Kusama’s polka dots, Tatsuo Miyajima’s illuminating creations and Hiroshi Sugamoto’s refreshing captures. This article is a recap of what we covered in detail in the podcast.
1: Takashi Murakami
Takashi Murakami is undoubtedly the country’s most successful Japanese contemporary artist to this day. He wouldn’t be called the “Warhol of Japan” if that wasn’t the case. This revolutionary artist saw similarities between traditional Japanese painting and Japanese anime and manga. He created the now-world famous artistic movement, “Superflat”, which refers to the flat, two-dimensional imagery using flat planes of colour. Combine that with popping colour combinations as well as his intriguing play on compositions, and you get Murakami’s iconic aesthetic. Murakami brings Japanese traditional art into the world of popular culture.
Despite his extremely modern creations, Murakami has his artistic inspirations rooted in cultural theories that are based on Japanese subcultures. He takes elements that are considered “low” and repackage them as “high”. His collaborations — particularly with Louis Vuitton to produce fashion accessories — and other activities like the auction of a fiberglass sculpture called Miss Ko2 for USD567,500 (the highest price for a Japanese artist) has earned him celebrity status.
And to top it all off, Murakami proves himself to be quite the influence in the art scene when he opens up his own art production company called KaiKai KiKi Co., Litd. This company provides a platform for up-and-coming artists to gain international exposure through exhibitions, selling merchandise and art festivals in both Japan and in the US.
If that’s not proof enough that Takashi Murakami is a ground-breaking force in the art world, I don’t know what is.
2: Yayoi Kusama
When you hear the name Yayoi Kusama, you automatically think of the polka dot print. That’s when you know, she’s the real deal. In the span of seven decades, Kusama has explored multiple mediums including (but not limited to) painting, sculpture, installation, film and fashion. From Dots Obsessions paintings to walk-in installations of rooms covered entirely with colourful dots and mirrors, it’s safe to say that’s her trademark.
This Matsumoto-born artist described herself as an “obsessional artist”. Her earlier works, Infinity Net, were full of repeated tiny marks on large canvases. While Murakami embraces 2-D, Kusama is all about infinity, and she began venturing into physical and psychological boundaries — one of her adventures led her to paint tiny dots on participants’ bodies near New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Started out minimalist, but eventually moved on towards the full-on pop art and avant-garde.
When Kusama moved back to Japan from New York, she continued exploring various mediums — with her obsessional artistic style, of course. Eventually, she opened up a museum to showcase her works.
3: Tatsuo Miyajima
If you’ve been to Japan during winter, you’d realise that the country’s huge on illuminations. One of Japan’s foremost sculptor and installation artists, Tatsuo Miyajima literally lights up the Japanese art scene. Unlike the previous two artists who are more of paintings and prints, Miyajima uses materials like electric circuits, videos, computers and other “gadgets” — as he would call it — in his works, bringing technology into the world of traditional art.
Miyajima’s works aren’t just about lights — there’s a whole concept behind it. He’s inspired by Buddhist teachings and humanist ideas which brought about his core artistic concepts: “Keep Changing”, “Connect with All” and “Goes on Forever”. Miyajima uses LED number counters that flash in cycles from one to nine repeatedly and continuously, skipping the finality of zero. Zero never appears in his work. This signifies the journey from life to death, but never reaching the end, ever — kind of like saying, life and death are constantly repeating. It’s all about connectivity, continuity and eternity. Miyajima’s works have been presented in all kinds of structures — grids and towers, using simple to complex counters.
Since 2017, Miyajima has devoted himself to social participatory projects. One of them, called Revive Time: Kaki Tree Project, involves taking saplings from persimmon trees in Nagasaki that survived the atomic bombings and planting them all over the world. Another one is an ongoing project called “Sea of Time — TOHOKU”, where the end-goal is to install 3,000 LED counters permanently in the Tohoku region of Japan as a tribute to the souls that were lost in the 2011’s Great East Japan Earthquake.
So it’s safe to say that Miyajima’s works are more than just a light show — every single one of them tells a story, and some of them are even movements of their own.
4: Hiroshi Sugimoto
If a picture speaks a thousand words, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s works scream a billion. Sugimoto dabbles in a few different mediums including architecture and antiques, but he excels in photography and videography. Well versed in everything from politics and history to arts, his works capture the expression of exposed time. The different series of works each have its own distinct theme, and each one is like a capsule of time, encompassing a series of occurrences.
Using long exposures and large format photographs alongside conceptual aspects featured in his works, Sugimoto has caught the attention of many. His first series Dioramas in 1976 captured the displays inside a museum and making the fake look real — “Polar Bear” from this series is also the first work to be in public collection, acquired by New York Museum of Modern Art. The same approach of turning reality into fiction was used for the Portraits series in 1999 where he captured wax figures, all looking like they were basically posing for the camera.
Sugimoto has other tricks up his sleeve, like capturing a reality and making it look surreal through long exposures, like in his 1978 Theatres series.
Here’s a quick vocab recap:
Eikyou (影響) — inspiration or influence
Kaisha (会社) — company
Matsuri (祭り) — festival
Porukadotto (プロカドット) — polka dot
Hatsubutsukan (初物館) — museum
Choukoku (彫刻) — sculpture
Gijutsu (技術) — technology
Seikatsu (生活) — life
Shi (死) — death
Shashin satsuei (さ神撮影) — photography
Shashin (写真) — photo
Genjitsu (現実) — reality. It comes from the word “jitsu” (実) to mean “truth”
Fikushon (フィクション) — fiction
Each one of these contemporary artists of Japan paints beautiful pictures of Japan and Japanese culture. This article merely scratched the surface of Japan’s contemporary art scene — head over to the Nihongo Master Podcast if you’re interested in similar content to this!
If you love art, you’d love this episode where we talked about the rich art culture of Japan. Art is one of the best windows into the character of a nation and culture, and Japan has one of the richest artistic traditions in the world.
It’s here that probably the most famous image in the world was created: Hokusai’s The Great Wave. But in this episode, we looked at more than just the big names — we explored some of the most significant styles of art styles that were cultivated in the courtly halls and artisanal workshops of this unique island nation.
We focused on four iconic Japanese arts that shaped the Japanese aesthetic tradition the most: ukiyo-e woodblock prints, shodo calligraphy, shikki lacquerware, and ikebana flower arrangement.
Ukiyo-e – Woodblock Prints
Image Credit: Katsushika Hokusai, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
We started the episode off talking about ukiyo-e, which is an art style hugely popular in the Edo Era that involves the use of woodblock printing for mass production of paintings. The word Ukiyo itself actually means “floating world”: a term used to describe the pleasure-seeking life of Japan’s medieval urbanites.
Ukiyo-e started off as simple as it could get: black and white prints used for illustration inserts found in books. It wasn’t until the mid-Edo Era when the people demanded for more that coloured woodblock printing became a thing. In those days they were most often made to advertise beauty products or kabuki shows!
And they were introduced to the West as…wrapping papers!
We talked a bit about the evolution of ukiyo-e and the process of woodblock printing in detail in the episode, so give it a listen for the full rundown. But here’s a basic overview of how it goes: there are publishers who commission the prints to artists, who then give their painted pictures to woodcarvers, who then give their craft to printers.
As we said, it’s a method of mass production — so why are some prints more valued than most? Listen to the episode to find out!
What I can tell you is that Hokusai broke away from the tradition of printing beautiful women or kabuki actors, and started painting religious figures and landscapes instead. Ukiyo-e has travelled a long way since its early days — from being just a quick, simple piece of mass entertainment for the locals to inspiring the best Western artists of their generations.
The next Japanese art we looked at has been around since the early 5th century — Shodo calligraphy. It has its own set of philosophies: to connect the mind and body through art. Even though skill and practice is important in Japanese calligraphy, artists have to also master mushin (無心), a state of mental rest and zero thoughts when your heart is free of any disturbances. This is a concept lifted straight out of Zen meditation.
We talked a bit about how calligraphy came to Japan in the first place and how it became a hot new fad at the time — but I won’t go into it in this summary article; you’d have to listen to the episode!
Anyway, we also looked at the various styles of shodo, with each style reflecting the trends of the time it was created, or even just of the ruling ruler of the time.
The first one is kaisho, the most basic style of shodo, and it translates to the “square style” that became the standard style of Japanese calligraphy. These brushstrokes are the closest to the original style of Chinese calligraphy but it’s also the easiest to read because of the clear-cut, box-ey aesthetics.
Gyōsho is where cursiveness comes more into play. The strokes aren’t as clearly defined and deviate quite a bit from the standard printed characters, This “moving style” is like the calligrapher’s style of how writers write on paper: without lifting the pen, or brush in this case.
The last one, sōsho, takes the extreme end of cursive and resembles the wind-blown grass — this style looks pretty abstract to say the least. Sōsho’s technique is to convey the smooth and flowy sensation of writing, with each character integrating with the next.
There’s a bit more elaboration in the episode, and we emphasize how shodo is more of getting into the right state of mind. Whether you’re a master painter, or your handwriting looks like a toddler’s scrawl, this ancient Japanese art can be a lot of fun to practice.
We then went on talking about shikki, Japanese lacquerware. These are covered with layer upon layer of sap from poison oak trees used to make the lacquer. Shikki has quite a history; it’s probably the oldest Japanese art on this list. Long story short (the long story being in the podcast episode), it goes back to the Jomon period (14,000-300BC) and crimson red and black were the most common historical colours.
Each prefecture has their own unique method of production, and because you can’t get that kind of lacquerware anywhere else except there, these pieces became the perfect souvenir. How is one prefecture different from the other? We highlighted a few areas in the episode!
Anyway, back in the olden days, getting the materials for this art required some real creativity. Red lacquer was created with refined tree sap and red pigments, while the black lacquer is from the soot of burnt pines, canola oil and sesame oil. The Heian period saw a shift in shikki technique — a new style called Makie to make gold or silver lacquerware. It was regarded highly back in the day and today it’s a prized artifact. How is it done? Episode 10, people!
One thing’s for sure, though — it sounds like an intense process that requires truckloads of patience, but without a doubt, the results are more than impressive — Japanese lacquerware is said to be able to endure the harshest of conditions and last for decades of constant use. The 1998 Winter Olympic medals even used shikki techniques!
This last Japanese art is my personal favourite: ikebana is the traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement. The name is a combination of the Japanese word ikiru (生きる, to live) and hana (花) for flower.
Ikebana is just as beautiful on the outside as it is on the inside — ikebana compositions are more than throwing a few stems into a bowl and calling it a day— they’re tied to the ideas of reflection and inner peace. Ikebana is practiced in silence, allowing the ikebanaists to concentrate fully and only on the nature in front of them.
What’s the history? It’s tied to religious practices, both Buddhism and Shinto. So, if you’re interested, go check the episode out for the full backstory!
What I will tell you here are the different ikebana styles. It all began with Rikka, which translates to “standing flowers”. This is the orthodox style — very orderly, with the tallest flowers in the centre.
The Nageire style is a bit more like punk than classical, and the name literally means to “throw in”. This was an extension of Zen Buddhism; more particularly the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi, in which imperfection is considered beautiful.
The Moribana style came after, and has stuck as the most popular one of them all. There are three elements in a Moribana composition and they can represent one of three things: heaven, man and Earth.
What’s consistent throughout all ikebana styles is the importance of seasonality and the flowers’ symbolism. Pick a size too small and it completely disrupts the flow of the whole composition.
Here’s our list of vocabulary words from the episode:
E (絵) — painted pictures, sketches, and book illustrations
Hanmoto (版元) / Shuppansha (出版社) — publisher
Eshi (絵師) / Gaka (画家) — artist
Bijin (美人) — beautiful woman
Haiyuu (俳優) / Yakusha (役者) — actor
Kaku (書く) — to write
Bungaku (文学) — literature
Egaku (描く) — to paint
Kami (紙) — paper
Washi (和紙) —Japanese handmade paper
Fude (筆) — writing brush
Efude (絵筆) — paintbrush
Shokki (食器) — tableware
Chawan (茶碗) — rice bowl
Hashi (箸) — chopsticks
Omiyage (お土産) — Souvenir
Washoku (和食) —traditional Japanese cuisine
Kin (金) — Gold
Gin (銀) —silver
Ikiru (生きる) — to live
Hana (花) — flower
Kabin (花瓶) — vase
Kudamono (果物) — fruit
Wabi sabi (侘び寂び) — the Japanese aesthetic basically meaning “perfect imperfection”
Saizu (ザイズ) — size
Iro (色) — colour
We can always learn something new from history — like taking away a thing or two from the ikebana art to construct the perfect bouquet, and match it with a handwritten letter using the techniques of shodo calligraphy. There’s so much we can take away from Japanese art no matter your level, so why not dip your toe into it by listening to Nihongo Master Podcast episode 10?
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