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To the Titans of industry, it was a lost decade. But to thwarted Japanese creatives, particularly young, hungry graphic artists, the 1990s were anything but a loss—those years spelt prospects, freedom and the end of old-fogy, zaibatsu domination.

Japan’s prolonged recession put an end to the real gold sprinkled in some art directors’ morning tea and other grandiose excesses of the ’80s bubble era. Insecurity was everywhere, with plummeting prices creating a vortex of deflation and businesses going bust by the thousands. Japan Inc.’s difficulty, however, soon turned to opportunity for Japan’s more flexible slacker generation.

For a new generation of twenty-somethings, their chance came at last when budgets were slashed, economical became cool and the spared-down money started stalking those who reflected the new zeitgeist. Just as New Wave design flourished in hard-times punk Britain 25 years ago, Japanese young blood has seen its moment and for the first time young, edgy, independent designers are thriving all over the country.

British-born, Tokyo-based designer and architect Mark Dytham finds his adopted city brimming with energetic youngsters riding that new wave and reckons Japan has never had it so good, talent wise.

“No longer are students coming out of university with jobs guaranteed for life with this ‘Name’ company or that,” Dytham says. “Simply the jobs don’t exist or they don’t trust the big companies.

“This sounds like a recipe for disaster, but I find this is the most exciting time since I came to Japan ten years ago. Young kids are coming out of university and taking a year off to travel the globe, or setting up a small café with friends, or starting a media company doing a bit of graphic and Web design to sponsor a band they are in. Anything seems possible.”

There is certainly a new, vital energy and buzz abounding in cities such as Tokyo. And despite the recession, new buildings, shops, cafés and media offices are mushrooming up and down Japan’s confined streets and alleyways. In fact, visitors to Japan would be hard pressed to see evidence of a recession at all. Shoppers throng the streets, particularly in the youth Mecca centers of Harajuku and Daikayama. Thanks to plentiful part-time work and wealthy supportive parents, there’s money to spend. Crucially, these new enterprises have given youthful designers somewhere to hawk their work with parents’ deep pockets often helping them to get started.

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And it’s not just Tokyo-based. Other major cities are undergoing image makeovers, with far-flung islands such as Kyushu sprouting unexpectedly hot new design scenes. The catalyst behind these changes? Dropping land prices caused by the collapse of the economic bubble and a transition of generations among the consuming public.

Yes, Japan is in recession and jobs for life have gone forever. But rich, complacent clients had never encouraged young talent anyway. Most design talent had left university to be shoveled into safe jobs producing homogeneous bland design for big and small corporations. Those jobs have gone and the young must fend for themselves; taking a part-time job to help a fledgling design business get launched or taking time off and living on savings. Economists estimate that the entire 126 million population could afford to take a year off without suffering a decline in their standard of living. Young Japanese sense this, take advantage of the safety net it offers and, for the first time, are preferring to branch out by themselves as freelancers or small independent outfits.

Their parents’ generation may balk at all this, but there is a sense that Generation X’s, as well as embracing the slacker lifestyle, have become the new emblems of Japan and are demanding appropriate images that reflect these new attitudes.

Born into a high-tech world, bombarded with graphic images and steeped in manga comics and computer games, Japan’s Gen X artists continue to produce distinctive graphics which, thanks to the likes of Sega, Nintendo and animated manga, have become one of that country’s fastest growing cultural exports.

At the vanguard of such a breakaway are media artists/graphic designers working in the gaming industry and elsewhere blurring the lines between technology and art, pastiche and cross-fertilization. The rise of the Nintendo Generation is causing art and game cultures to merge, producing this undeniably Japanese-nuanced fusion.

“The capital reason behind the shift,” says Takashi Kaneko, director at the Inter Communication Centre (ICC) which houses a permanent collection of media art in Tokyo, “is that video game companies want to promote their products through art because the younger generation rejects other attempts to do so through commercialization.”

Many youngsters have seized on once-shunned Japanese traditions in graphics, the arts and fashion. Bubble economy Japan demanded big name (preferably Big Foreign Name) treatment for its commercial images. The ShinjinRui generation—literally “new human beings”—wants the antithesis of that and they want it with the Japanese flavor that has made Japanese graphics so cool and foreign in Western eyes.

“Gone are the days when the youth of Japan looked to the West for styles and inspiration,” explains Dythan. “They realize the rest of the world is looking at them. Japan is cool; they are looking at themselves and rediscovering their own culture, whether manga, graphics or cooking,” he says.

The new generation doesn’t think about what is art or what is illustration. “Their work is no ‘genre.’” —Takashi Murakami

A look at any cutting-edge publication, trendy new shop logo, or CG advert may tell you all this is true. Granted the trend has pushed aside a lot of stodgy graphic art in Japan, but as any casual observer will find on a visit there is still a great deal of mimicry of the West and even more insipid cute-for-cute’s-sake design about.

“A lot of consumers just aren’t ready for the more bleeding-edge graphics. Even in Japan, products may be well designed but the packaging for instance should appeal to the conservative,” says trend watcher Junko Oda.

Ayako Terashima, formerly of GAS Publishers in Tokyo, agrees that the West still heavily influences the Japanese scene, but that the best artists manage to fuse both to create something fresh and unique.

“Compared to the graphic designers in the ’70s or the ’80s, I think the style of the contemporary Japanese graphic design scene has become much closer to the European or American design scene,” says Terashima. “They totally get inspired by Western culture, fashion and music. However, Japanese designers are good at mixing up lots of different influences and making something unique out of it.”

She adds that Japan still has a long way to go to educate corporate Japan as manufacturers there only recently started to appreciate the value of graphic design. “So the need for the graphic design will rise in the future and I think there will be more chance for graphic designers to work on different projects,” Terashima says. “They will not only be designing record covers, but designing cars, artillery, stationery and so on.”

Already, distinctions are breaking down rapidly in Tokyo where it would not be unusual to find a graphic artist moonlighting as a DJ, party organizer or big-time contemporary artist.

Perhaps emblematic of Japan’s new confidence in its contemporary culture, particularly its trash pop culture, is the work of Takashi Murakami, that one curator described as “a splendid blend of mass culture, like animation, and pure art.” Drawing heavily on irony and Japan’s passion for manga figures, his work, and that of graphic artists like him, is being referred to as super-flat.

Compared to the graphic designers in the ’70s or the ’80s, I think the style of the contemporary Japanese graphic design scene has become much closer to the European or American design scene." —Ayako Terashima

The super-flat style typifies much of Japan’s Otaku (anorak) Generation’s graphic output and has become universally familiar, as the world now joins in the love affair with characters, manga and animation that have that distinctive made-in-Japan, flat aesthetic.

Jumping between graphic artist, art director and fine artist, Murakami’s work has become world famous and commands prices greater than Picasso at auction. Miss ko2, a 74-inch-high painted fiberglass sculpture, sold for $567,500 in 2003, establishing a new auction record for the artist.

Murakami, who at 43, is a little older than his contemporaries, says super-flat also refers to the tendency of the new generation of creators to flatten, and compress everything together. For them, pop culture, illustration, graphic art, fine art—is all the same.

“The new generation doesn’t think about what is art or what is illustration,” Murakami says. “Their work is no ‘genre.’”

Takora Kimiyoshi Futori, an established graphic designer in his twenties, echoes Murakami’s words: “Although my work is graphic design and illustration-based, I prefer not to be considered as a graphic designer or illustrator. My main passion is Pop Art, however creating Pop Art works for an old-style gallery space is not my intention. In my works, I aim to create Pop Art for the commercial environment, ranging from advertising and logos through to commercial videos and movies.”

His happy-go-lucky images exude a type of childish, playfulness bordering on the naïve. This reflects his deepest wishes just to make everyone happy.

“I always try to put fun and happiness into my work. My happiness will come through my work and let other people be happy I believe,” Futori says.

Such a far cry from previous generations, who were seeking something perhaps less, well, American. The pursuit of happiness, the enshrining of individuality, seems to be a common thread amongst a more hedonistic young generation—and it shows in their art.

Japan’s long celebration of consumerism, of self-sacrifice for the common good, for the Otaku Generation, at least seems to have taken an alternative, almost radical, detour. Japanese graphic art certainly seems the better for it. ca

Michael Fitpatrick, following two years as a correspondent in Tokyo, returned to Europe to bring news of the alarming and wondrous from the Far East. He continues to enlighten his fellow Europeans on developments in Japan and elsewhere via the English national press, such as the Times and the Daily Telegraph.

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