In our Season 2 Episode 11 of the Nihongo Master Podcast, we got artistic…without the brushes and paint. Instead, we drew inspiration from some of the top Japanese artists of today!

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

Image: Photo by RK (IG :@rkrkrk) ©︎ 2019 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. ©︎ Fujiko-pro

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

© ANNA KUCER

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.

Vocab Recap

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

Conclusion

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!