Since Takashi Murakami striked with his postmodern Superflat movement, Japanese art has been thriving. Today it is one of the most sought after in the Asian as well as in Western art market.

An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art Scene

Richly diverse arts

Inspired from traditional sculpture and painting modern Japanese art now takes more versatile styles and forms. Japan presents notably exotic and unique mix of expresses. Its contemporary art ranges from cute kawaii (Japanese version of “cute”) and anime (Japanese cartoons)  to sexually charged erotic pieces (shunga).

Several years ago Japan started to conquer Western market. In particular, it all has started from Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, and their so-called Superflat movement. It explains a new visual language, actively used by the young generation of Japanese artists. As Murakami himself puts it, “I thought of the realities of Japanese drawing and painting, and how they differ from Western art. For Japan, the sense of flatness is quite. Our culture does not have a 3D-shapes. 2D-shapes are approved in the historic Japanese painting, akin to the simple, flat visual language of modern animation, comic books, and graphic design. ” Murakami`s own works are glossy, slick, neon and combine anime with ukiyo-e (traditional Japanese block prints). They are even somewhat psychedelic and bizzare.


Conquering West

And it seems that Japanese art market started to florish with Superflat movement. “The Tokyo art world has changed a lot,” – says Atsuko Koyanagi, Director of  Tokyo’s top contemporary Koyanagi Gallery. “I think the market will grow just as much over the next fifteen years as well. But whether it’s Murakami, Nara or Sugimoto, these price rises have largely been due to the growth of the international market, so in a sense it’s like they are being imported back into Japan. These works didn’t increase in value through Japanese auctions, but European and American ones. But their sales abroad caught people’s attention here and have encouraged Japanese people to buy.”

An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art Scene

In 2008 in London it was opened a Kumi Contemporary Gallery  presenting works of most exciting and innovative names in the Japanese art scene.“We believe that focusing on a selection of notable artists allows us to carefully manage our collection and build an intimate knowledge of our artists’ works,” – tells the Kumi gallery director. “We like to focus on artists that have had an influential impact on the Art World; artists that we believe will be recognized for many years to come as masters of their craft. That is certainly already true to say for Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara.”


The Superflats

Esitomo Nara is known for his neo-pop art and psychedelic pop art style. The main themes of his works are children and dogs. In his works Nara combined traditions of anime and manga with the traditions of Disney animation. The post-war period with a flood of western pop culture, comics, cartoons and western rock music in Japan inflenced his works immensely. All these found expression as a protest and desire for freedom not only in paintings but also in sculpture. One of Nara`s most well-known public sculptures is “White Ghost”. The artist also has a series of dogs sculpturesf. The biggest of them, “Aomori-ken,  is a part of the Museum of Fine Arts Aomori in Japan.

An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art Scene

Other artists of Superflat movement are also conquering west mainly thanks to Murakami. Having studios across the US and Japan he promotes works other Japanese artists. Murakami’s company arm, Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd., represents Mr., Chiho Aoshima, Chinatsu Ban, Aya Takano and administers GEISAI is a twice-yearly “art fair with a twist”. For example, a member Kaikai Kiki company Chiho Aoshima paints her fancy pop creatures and landscapes. She uses computer software to create fantasticl and erotic worlds of ghosts, demons, and natural landscapes. Then Aoshima prints it on any surface, from canvas bags to giant wallpaper installations.  “My work feels like strands of my thoughts that have flown around the universe before coming back to materialize,” – she says.


On the edge of absurdity

An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art SceneHowever, Superflats are not the most extravagant in Japan. As one of the most recognizable and well-known artists of our time, developed her own artistic language. Signature ornament of roses or monochrome circles (hence «the queen of polka dot”) and legendary pumpkin scale installations paved her the way not only to contemporary art, but also to fashion, design, literature, and even politics. “Kusama’s obsessive repetition of these forms on canvas, which she has described as a form of active self-obliteration, responds to hallucinations first experienced in childhood,” notes the London gallery.

An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art Scene

In addition to the actual pieces of art Kusama was actively engaged in performances, for example, painted nudes with polka dots and let them out on the city streets as a part of “orgies”. She launched a happening in New York, titled “Homosexual marriage” a few decades before the legalization of marriages there. Not ignorant about the fashion world, she has collaborated with Marc Jacobs, Issey Miyake and Louis Vuitton. Kusama also founded her own fashion label: in the ’60s her clothing production was sold in New York Bloomingdale`s and was extremely popular.

Kusama is in all ways extraordinary. She always appears in public in neon wig with straight bangs, in her own bright dresses and sunglasses in color plastic frame.  Kusama, in fact, made a piece of art of herself without any affectedness, because she is art.  “When I create my work, I’m not forcing to bring the polka dots into it. Subconsciously, it became polka-dots always by itself.” – says the artist. “After all, well, moon is a polka dot, sun is a polka dot, and then, the earth where we live is also a polka dot.”


Roots to tradition

Japanese art is inherently associated with Buddhism. For Buddhist paintings the image of the mandala is representative. Mandala is a symbolic image of the Buddhist universe is a circle inscribed in the square, which in turn is inscribed in a circle. When creating mandalas artists  used expensive materials. Contemporary Japanese artists reinterprete the tradition. Thus, Motoi Yamamoto commemorates his sister by making sculptures and art in salt. He makes astonishing forms from labryrinths to floating gardens and forests, all in white.

An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art Scene

But even in his innovative expression he remained close to the traditional art. In Japan, salt is used in funeral rituals and mourning. According to tradition, mourners  throw it behind them as they enter the service. Sumo wrestlers often purify the ring with it before a match, too. Yamamoto, who grew up by the ocean,  epitomized his grief in his instalations, as well as the fleetingness of life. ”Drawing a labyrinth with salt is like following a trace of my memory. Memories seem to change and vanish as time goes by; however, what I seek is to capture a frozen moment that cannot be attained through pictures or writings. What I look for at the end of the act of drawing could be a feeling of touching a precious memory,” – tells Yamamoto.

An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art SceneUsugrow, another modern artist,  portrays balance of the eternally conflicting  things. Like in buddhist tradition one undivided without a second, the artist brings together life and death, black and white, skulls and flowers, yin and yang, visual and audio in his works. His monochromous pieces drew inspiration from Japan’s punk and metal scene as well as from Asian calligraphy. Now Usugrow mainly works on illustrations, calligraphy and often collaborates with other artists and numerous skateboarding and fashion brands.


Light and space

An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art Scene

Tokujin Yoshioka, focusing on the relationship between man and nature, explores the sensations that natural light brings to us. “I would say I am attracted to light rather than specific materials,” Yoshioka told. “I have always considered light as a very profound element; it creates a mysterious aura and changes the atmosphere of a space.” For “Rainbow Church” he installed a huge glass window, made up of numerous crystals, which refracted the light and filled the space with rainbows.

An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art Scene

Yoshioka also constructed  an entirely transparent glass teahouse called “KOU-AN”. “At some point in the afternoon, there will be a rainbow light, which is sunlight coming through a prism glass on the roof, and it seems like a flower of light that decorates the tea house,” Yoshioka said. His other nature-inspired futuristic works  also connect art, design and technology to provide extreme sensory experiences. The “Tornado” installation was  built using clear plastic drinking straws arranging in a way that they look like a tornadoe. The “Snow”, a 15-meter-wide dynamic  installation, mimicked snow by blowing kilograms of light feather.

An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art Scene An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art Scene

Taro Shinoda  alike is interested in the ways  human coexist with nature. In his pieces he attempts to understand the continuous universe and cosmic space. As the Art Gallery of New South Wales puts it: “Shinoda perceives nature as an evolving and inclusive entity, coexisting alongside human activities. His works possess an intrinsic meditative simplicity and beauty, reflecting a deep consideration of nature, humanity, philosophy and science.” Moreover, his works are linked with Zen ideology. “Taro Shinoda’s hand-built installations and contemplative sculptural works are informed by karesanui, traditional Japanese garden design and creation, and the associated philosophical concepts and Zen ideology.”Not only interest to philosophy drives Shinoda`s works. He also uses natural sciences, engineering, architecture, and landscaping in his installations.


Art for meditation

In general, issues of  inevitability, universality, and mortality pass as a leitmotif throughout the contemporary art of Japan. Drawing inspiration from Buddhist practices Tatsuo Miyajima contemplates on  the flow of time and space. “I am making installations which experiment with different systems of time,” he says. “There is no absolute length of time, only a personal rhythm.” In his installations Miyajima mainly uses LED lights coming in a limited range of color, and counting up or down between numbers 1 and 9 without ever reaching 0. As a result, geometric and organic compositions allow the audience to contemplate and meditate on vital topics.

An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art Scene

Ryoji Ikeda goes futher. He not only manipulates human perception by  transforming the physical properties of sound and vision through digital technology. The artist focuses on the characteristics of sound itself , often using frequencies at the edge of human hearing range , by means of both mathematical precision and  computer-generation. His “The transfinite,” a huge electronic light-and-sound installation consists of an immense wall that serves as a screen for streaming video projections. Horizontal black, gray and white stripes scroll downward, flickering to the sound of percussive electronic music. The patterns extend to the white floor where the audience can contemplate and meditate.

An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art Scene


Between real and virtual

Continuing the topic of parallel realities it is necessary to mention Daito Manabe. A programmer, composer, designer, DJ, VJ, he focuses not on realistic perception but on interaction between a human and a computer. For instance, music video “Cold Stares,” in colaboration with Nosaj Thing, features choreography of real people and drones. On the question, where does the dance take place, Manabe answers: “It should be taken in the both worlds, “the real and virtual,” through techniques such as drone controlling, 3D scanning with 64 RGB cameras, motion capture, and AR techniques. This means we switch the worlds that take place. By using more complicated scanning systems than Kinect, we have succeeded in making smooth transitions between the real and the virtual.”

An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art Scene

The artists goes even further by experimenting with myoelectric sensors to transform people’s faces into drum machines. The face is twisted to the music via electrical-pulse stimulation. However, Manade is not just a programmer-geek. Choreography and music play a crusial role in his works, especially in  an interactive show combining video mapping and dance. “I use technology for that, but it’s not the most important thing,” – he says.

Tetsutoshi Tabata, in collaboration with  Maria Adriana Verdaasdonk (Netherlands-Australia), also explore advanced technologies towards human. In 1994, they founded 66b/cell, a collective using real time and pre-recorded computer graphics and animation to create different textures, lighting and kinetic effects. In particular, they are working with “Saccade-based Display”, which uses the scanning feature of human eye movements (called saccades) to perceive image arrays via an LED display system. Their performance installation entitled Living Lens (2006-2009) is a meyaphor capturing the idea of worlds within worlds. By means of visual and sound elements, performers and viewers sense a poetic felt space of ‘presences’ in the garden.

An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art Scene


Simple materials

Onishi Yasuaki is also an artist who works with translucency and space. “I am interested in the visible and the invisible thing, “- he says. “ Through my art work, I get information from the space and leave clues on the space. Form, color and movement is changed to the simple element, like points, lines and lights. The artist is noted for his works with things that are not there. His soaring plastic bags, spider web-like sculptures and crystal forest structures exhibit massive space and volume. To achieve this effect Yasuaki uses the simplest materials like plastic sheeting, strings of glue, fishing lines.

An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art Scene An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art Scene

Another artist who transforms ordinary materials into expressive pieces is Chie Hitotsuyama. Upcycling old newspapers the Tokyo-based artist crafts three-dimensional portraits of animals: “I’m breathing new life into old newspapers that no longer serve their role as an information medium.” She meticulously searches for photographs and videos of the chosen animal and then makes figures with glue and twisted rolls of newspaper of corresponding color. “By gluing paper rolls one by one, I can form beautiful contours and curves, and the shapes of the animals emerge,” she tells. “If I’m creating a big animal, like a dugong or walrus, it takes approximately three months to put down all of the strips of paper, and finish the whole process.”



Hiroaki Morita  works with absurdly simple materials. Her installation “from ” Evian “to” Volvic “” opens an interesting topic for contemporary Japan – processing plastics. A bottle of water “Evian” is on the glass shelf and its shadow falls exactly into the neck of another bottle standing on the floor of the company “Volvic”. It creates the illusion that the water is poured from a bottle in a bottle. For the Japanese, this conceptual work not only symbolizes the cycle of “kami”, ie spiritual essence, but in the truest sense of the principle of recycleing. As an island nation, Japan is one of the first learned to collect, sort and recycle plastic waste.They learned how to use re-produced materials in new bottles and shoes, and even artificial islands.



Ryota Kuwakubo develops his works  with the use of shadows. He base his installations on the themes of relationships between fiction and media, analog and digital, humans and machines. In order to do that he creates devices that make connection to the audience. As Ryota says: “I do not mean that the installations must just be beautiful. What is important for me is that the people can experience something important. I believe that it is not necessary that the people experience the work by interacting physically with it, I want to give them the opportunity to interact inside by themselves.” This method is called Device Art.

An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art Scene

Kuwakubo actively works with digital and electronic elements, media and gadgets. Once he collaborated with Maywa Denki to create a movie display device using pixels. A noted installation The Tenth Sentiment was made of everyday objects arranged on the floor. Moving LED lights created shadows which took the form of moving figures and city landscape. Because the light is in constant motion the shadows give the audience the impression they’re watching a movie.

Smiilarly, Sachiko Kodama creates ‘objects’ that transform as she designs. The artist dedicated herself to reconciliation of computer design and holography.  Kodama uses ferrofluid, a liquid complex matter used in the electronics industry, medicine and defense technologies. Physical properties of this fluid, associated with a magnetic field, allow to create art according to strict natural laws. Her  three-dimensional sculptures beautifully and naturally present complex growing forms, rhythm, composition and texture generation.

An Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Japanese Art Scene

What about future?

“In the past Western artists used to dominate everything and both female and Asian artists were a minority. That’s just not the case anymore.” says Atsuko Koyanagi. “Now artists gain recognition simply according to their individual merits. There are also more and more chances for artists to go abroad these days. In the 1980s it used to be that an artist would have to make it big in Japan before going abroad, but now it’s possible to become popular in other places like New York and then come back to Japan, and I think there will be more artists taking that sort of route from here on.” Indeed, Japan`s contemporary art scene is so  versatile that It can`t remain out of sight. With the use of c visual media and technology in art practices, it becomes especially fantastic breakthrough.

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