Contemporary Japanese Art

Going back 1,500 years, Japanese contemporary art has a proven record, featuring fantastic woodblock prints, harmonious ink-wash paintings, and amazing architecture. Artists today take a wide range of traditional and contemporary approaches.

Imagine woodblock prints with delicate depictions of future cities that no longer exist or favorite anime characters jumping out of the screen and onto the museum walls. Global art fairs now offer artwork of new-generation Japanese art by famous people, some of which cost several million.
Contemporary Japanese Art
May 15, 2024
Daryna Markova
contributor DOM Art Residence

The History of Japanese Art and Culture

The greatness of the artistic history of Japan, which runs for ages, is worth admiration. For instance, woodblock prints, molded porcelain, and awe-inspiring landscape paintings have been trendy among art lovers around the world. However, to truly understand contemporary Japanese art, we need to rewind to the 19th century. This era, called the Meiji Restoration, was a time when Japan ushered in the West's modernization after about two and a half centuries of being a country that was not open to outside contact.

Cultural exchange was perhaps a crucial factor in the development of the Japanese arts. European styles, such as realism and impressionism, also made their way into Japanese art, creating an artistic showcase period of experimentation.

Even though Katsushika Hokusai died before the Meiji Restoration, his woodblock prints, along with the Great Wave of Kanagawa, constituted the bridge between traditional uchiyo-e depictions and Western aesthetics.

Another ukiyo-e artist, Utagawa Hiroshige, had an artistic inclination for ancient landscape painting while shrouding Western perspectives and lighting techniques in them.
A pioneering proponent of maintaining classic Japanese culture, Okakura Kakuzō established the Nihon Bijutsuin (Japan Fine Arts Academy) and shared both traditional Japanese art and its aesthetic with the world.

Kawase Hasi, with his unique woodblock print style based on Western tradition, led the Shin-Hanga (new prints) movement and created what both Japanese and Western people admired: colorful scenes of nature.

Influence of Western Art on Japan

The infinite creativity of Japanese art is found in the surprising array of distinct styles and approaches. Western art helped establish its national landscape, especially when it is about the Meiji period (1868-1912).

In contrast to the secluded era of Edo, after the Meiji Restoration, Japan opened its borders and launched a period of modernization. A new era came into being with the country's door opened to the West, which led to a river of Western art styles and ideas coming in. Western writers like the realists and impressionists became sources of inspiration for Japanese artists.

Hasui Kawase started the New Prints movement (Shin-Hanga) by combining Japanese woodblock technique with Western aesthetics - which resulted in the depiction of lively nature. He established the Shin-Hanga movement in the same spirit, and the new aesthetics had a great appeal among both the Japanese and Western markets.
While the way the West influenced Japanese art history was not monodirectional, Western art played an important role in shaping the modern idea of this country's art. Despite the language barrier, the influence of Japanese woodblock prints, especially ukiyo-e, on Western artists was very strong, so it triggered the creation of the Impressionist movement.

The dominance of Western art can still be seen in Japanese artistic processes, resulting in the indigenous cultural complexity of the current period.

Contemporary Directions
in Japanese Art

Contemporary Japanese art may be considered a spot of various shapes and plots. Some artists, such as Takashi Murakami, are attuned to pop culture, and therefore, they create works that are seemingly innocent and easy to recognize due to bright color combinations. Other artists with strong political message art do exist, like Meiro Koizumi, who utilizes video art.

Countless young creators reflect problems such as social problems of conflict, ecological degradation, and a gender divide. The artists struggle to answer questions about identity, be it personal or national, in the context of our increasingly globalized society.

Technology and mass culture have a massive impact on the entire range of art forms, from video installations to animations. While there is a desire to maintain past artistic zeal, there is also a constant need to challenge oneself and introduce revolutionary techniques.

Famous Contemporary Japanese Artists

Now, let's meet some of the brilliant individuals who are shaping the landscape of Japanese contemporary art:

Hiroshi Sugimoto

He is a successful Japanese photographer whose name is famous for his strong and sensitive black-and-white images that convey the sense of time, memory, and various perceptions. Sturgeon became known for his minimalist compositions, long exposures, ethereal landscapes, seascapes, and architectural scenes depicted.

His paintings are like a sense of absolute timeless serenity. Through Sugimoto's work, the art world is limitless for being an art form that goes beyond the volume of traditional photography to touch dimensions of mental philosophizing and mysticism. s, challenge even artistic conventions based on Western patterns.

Nobuyoshi Araki

Nobuyoshi Araki is an extremely challenging and exciting figure in the Japanese contemporary photography scene. He has focused on the most taboo subjects, such as sex, bondage, and the human body.

In his volume of work that ranges over many years, the themes in Araki tried to show that he is a good director because his raw and intimate portraits of society challenge social taboos as well as conventional notions of beauty. Also, they raise questions about power and desires as well as mortality.

Tadashi Kawamata

Tadashi Kawamata is one of the contemporary Japanese artists who is famous for his big-scale installations and interventions in certain areas of localization that engage with architectural space and city surroundings.

Through the use of genuine materials such as wood, cardboard, and metal, Kawamata creates different temporary structures, shaking the mental concepts of permanence and monumentality. Utilizing his situational projects and community-based approach, Kawamata offers readers a chance to think afresh about their relationship with the built environment and with each other.

Yoshitaka Amano

Yoshitaka Amano, from Japan, is a multi-talented artist, a master of art synonymous with manga, anime, and video games for his renowned style and supernatural imagination. The great artist Amano is hailed greatly for his renderings of “Final Fantasy” gaming history.

His otherworldly creatures, complex landscapes, and fantastic characters are loved by fans from all over the world. Through a career that spans decades, Amano's pictures will still present new ways of visualizing stories, drawing in new generations of artists and fans.

Leiji Matsumoto

One of the most important creators in the world of manga and anime is Leiji-Matsumoto, whose legendary anime pieces are loved by millions of Japanese. The master of the space operas Battleship Yamato and Galactic Express 999 is a man usually associated with his breathtaking Matsumoto-style plots.

Ingenious images and space themes adored by fans all over the world are the style of this artist. Accordingly, Matsumoto has always bugged the global anime and manga industries with his mixture of action, romance, and existential philosophy.

Hayao Miyazaki

The unstoppable Hayao Miyazaki is a co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Japan’s legendary animation studio that gives life to many blissful and memorable animated film masterpieces. Even people who had no experience with cinema found themselves charmed by such Miyazaki works as "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Spirited Away".

His characters and backgrounds were originally planned for two hours of screen time, but the movie was ultimately released in more than two hours. It has enchanted fans of all ages from all over the world.

Through his love for hand-drawn animation, the depiction of ecological themes, and meaningful storytelling, he has forged himself as an awesome sounding board among the greatest movie animators in the world.

Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama, born in 1929, is a living icon known as the Japanese daring artist. The iconic polka-dot-style pumpkins and the infinite room reflections created are hers. Despite sexism and mental health difficulties, she kept her eyes on the prize, and eventually, her incredibly powerful vision that broke frontiers daily was appreciated by the global sphere.

Meiro Koizumi

Meiro Koizumi, born in 1976, is doing video artwork to investigate the inheritance of the Japanese Empire and the results of this heritage on modern Japanese society.

The use of historical footage that is manipulated and intertwined with contemporary scenes is very common in his work. The final effect of this approach is just staggering and truly raises a lot of questions concerning the influence of the past on the present.

Chiharu Shiota

Chiharu Shiota, a child, has a great talent for creating large-scale installations that emotionally forecast and entwine their innermost feelings. Her signature material – breath-taking webs world just by threads, which are miles long, leave objects unseen, rooms covered, and buildings surrounded.

Shiota's thread can be interpreted as a vehicle for visually demonstrating the invisible threads (rope) that play a role in holding us together, like people, memories, and experiences

Takashi Murakami

Takashi Murakami (1962) is a true pop culture starchild by nature. One can view Murakami's work as a joyful bit of bright color and a lively image, much like current-day anime and manga have a huge impact on his creative process. But she meticulously masks the seriousness embedded in the sweetened outer layer.

The artistic doctrine of Murakami called "superflat" assumes, contrary to the historical approach, that high art should not be in a hierarchy with low art. He strives to connect trade and artistic forms of beauty. Through this global success, Murakami has become a disseminator of Japanese pop culture between art scenes worldwide.

Yoko Ono

In her artworks, Yoko Ono spans past the classical limits, thus bringing the viewer in as an active actor in the creative process. In her interactive installations, performances, and happenings, Ono defies the divide between the caller and the audience, creating channels of dialogue, reflection, and community.

Wheter it is with the "Wish Tree" project, where viewers are invited to write their dreams, or with the legendary "Cut Piece" performance, where viewers are cast as the protagonists, Ono's art allows the viewers to steer that of society as a whole.

Perspectives on Japanese Art

The composition of Japanese art is mostly saluted for the harmony between tradition and innovation, fusing subtly the skills and aesthetic rules inherent in such art practices and the potential innovations along with external influences.

Whether it’s the monochromatic micro-world of ink-wash painting (sumi-e) or the sensual kinetics given by contemporary manga and anime, Japanese artists have always adjusted and reinterpreted styles they borrowed from their forebears, making them relevant to current people.

Japanese Art
in the 21st Century

21st-century Japanese art today is reborn with a fresh vigor. Even though Istanbul is steeped in 1,500-year-old history, it is not a static old monument. In 2023, the Tokyo National Research Institute of Cultural Properties published a report revealing an increase in traditional arts, including woodblock print and ink-wash painting techniques, among young artists who often depict contemporary issues. This doesn't only affect the domestic, but the international art fair has witnessed an overwhelming demand for works by Japanese artists.

In the year 2022, Takashi Murakami's Lonely Flower in the Museum sculpture set a record auction amount of $15.8 million, which was paid at Sotheby's auction, thus further establishing the position of Japanese art in the global art market.
Japanese art goes beyond language and time. It's a soft sound that sinks in with the idea of transience but echoes with the incredible essence of nature and humanity.