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Traditional And Contemporary Japanese Graphic Design Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 5248 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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“This could be just a regular day in Japan: kimonos and mobile phones, traditional ceremonies ending at fast food restaurants, expensive branded handbags, and totally packed trains.” (Kozak& Wiedman, p. 16)

Japan has always been a progressive part of the world. Not only in the field of graphic design, but also in design generally, in technological process, in science etc. They have always been and always will be one step forward from the western world. We can only guess why it happened and when it started. The result of what kind of influence could lead to such exceptional anomaly? It might be cultural aspects: the Japanese culture is one of the kind, unique and sometimes indescribable. You cannot find anything similar or even alike in any other culture in the world. It always contains gargantuan spiritual message. It might be a harmony, which is the most respectable value in Japan in almost all spheres of activity. Maybe it is the other way of perception things, different mentality, which is based on parenting and surroundings and that in turn creates diverse individual personality and helps to build face of society in general. All of the above establish chain links where are one depends on another and every each of them influence one other. (Kozak& Wiedman, pp. 15-22)

I was always admired by the Japanese progression and it always inspired me not only in a creative way but also in a way of lifestyle. This pushed me to choose the theme of my dissertation: Contemporary Japanese Graphic Design is direct extension of Japanese Prints (Ukiyo-e) of the end of 18th – the beginning of 19th century.

I started to think if the contemporary Japanese graphic design is inspired and influenced by old examples of Traditional Japanese graphics. How deep is this inspiration and how Japanese people themselves perceive the progression of design, because for the western mentality it is something unbelievable extraordinary and conceptual? It is well known that the respect for the traditional Japanese art among artists not only in Japan, but all over the world is very deep, but for Japanese society it is extreme. And it is seen in most of the contemporary graphic design pieces: deep appreciation and honor to be a part of it. (Kozak& Wiedman, pp. 15-22)

Further I will try to answer questions to describe the current situation in relative to the perception of the traditional graphics and contemporary graphic design:

– study history of traditional Japanese graphic design, critically analyze it

– try to understand the most important aspects of life and try to grasp the essence of themes graphics and the main streams and details in the paintings of artists

– choose two traditional artists who worked in different genres and critically analyze their life and work

– study evolution of contemporary graphic design and identify mainstream

– chose the sphere of the graphic design which more correspond to traditional Japanese graphics

– choose several designers who perform in genre of graphic design

– investigate their life and works

– compare contemporary graphic design with traditional Japanese prints and detect influence and understand how current designers are inspired by Japanese old prints and techniques

– how deep is this influence

In my dissertation I will try to prove that nowadays designers from Japan are very much influenced and inspired by the works of traditional graphic artists and that this influence is very deep and broad or I will refute this fact.

History of Japanese Traditions and culture.

“Until modern times, the Japanese wrote with the brush rather than a pen and their familiarity with brush techniques has made them particularly sensitive to painterly values. They found sculpture a much less sympathetic medium for artistic expression.” (Pioch, 2002)

Japanese art started to develop sometime in the tenth millennium BC. For the long period of time, Japanese managed to develop the ability to absorb and assimilate different elements of foreign cultures which have been brought from the continent. They succeeded not only to implement these specific features in their own culture, but also to create new, based on their experience from this contact. (Pioch, 2002)

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Buddhism had a Dramatic impact on Japanese culture and traditions. It was introduced to Japan by travelers and visitors of China and Korea. Together with religion several art techniques as the design of pottery and metal vases, more advanced methods of casting in bronze and also new techniques and mediums for paintings were brought from continent. The religion became a very important factor in contact and relationships between Japan, Korea, China and whole Asian continent. (Hooker, 1996; Pioch, 2002)

First Ukiyo-e emerged in the middle of the 17 century in the city named Edo, which is now turned into famous and eccentric Tokyo. Everything was concentrated in Edo: politics, art, religion, this city was a centre of Japanese development. The Japanese art has always been characterized by unique polarities: simple content of images and a very deep and controversial meaning. The main topic of art in that period were pleasures of life, in fact the whole name of the art stream “Ukiyo-e” can be understand as “pictures of the floating world”. As the art at that era was the prerogative of the upper class which can afford to buy original paintings the artists themselves wanted the lower classes to be involved in the art life of the society. So, the special technique was introduced in Japan that time. The woodblock prints were very popular and inexpensive so, everyone could buy them. The essence of woodblock prints laid in the copying of original art work with the help of woodcuts, and that is why it is called Japanese prints.

One of the most important and popular motif of art at that time was an image of soldier and war theme. The popularity of this flow started from Onin war, which took place between years of 1466 and 1467 and was one of the most devastating civil wars in 15th century.

During the 16th century the new historical order was established in Japan by two misfires of the country Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who started an early Modern Age in Japan. In art this time period is called Momoyama period.

The main motifs of traditional Japanese art which started to appear in Momoyama art period were:

landscapes paintings, images of flowers and animals in different season of the year, scenes from every day city life, the pictures of historical events, unusual views of famous places, tea-houses visits, geishas images, motif of “bijin-ga” which can be encrypted as portraits of beautiful women, erotic pictures and also a heavy demand for scenes of brothels and theaters was touched in the paintings.

One of the most well-known entertainments for public was theatre where the “Kabuki” performance was held. “Kabuki” means “song-dance-art” and it was founded by Izumo no Okuni. Kabuki was presented by men in kimonos who danced in traditional style for Japan. This performance was very popular among public and generated “Kabuki-mono” dance. This trend was copied by prostitutes who danced on the street and in the brothels to attract new clients. With time “Kabuki-mono” dance became an art, and upper class prostitutes and courtesans, who owned this art to perfection, could be very expensive. This trend generated with time the new flow, only Geishas can perform the “Kabuki-mono” dance and only them had a right to do that. This phenomenon had a heavy impact on artists and at that period the pictures of geishas, courtesans and “Kabuki” dance actors became very popular stream which stayed in the Japanese art for several centuries. (Fahr-Becker, pp. 10-36)


“The man who loved women: this was Kitawaga Utamaro. It would be hard to think of an artist more intent on the opposite sex. Or one who left more images of women working, wating, arranging their faces, combing their hair, readying themselves for the day performance (or the night’s trade) or simple thinking, feeling, watching… ” Laure Cumming (Guardian News and Media Limited, 2010)

There are not much known facts about Utamaro, he was born around 1753 probably in province named Musashi. After his father death, young artist moved to Edo. After some time in year 1775 he joined the studio of a painter Seiken, who might be his relative. He stayed there for 7 years.

In year 1780 he was discovered by a leading publisher at that time Tsutaya Juzaburo, who recognized his talent and entranced him to Yoshiwara, which at that time was a rendezvous for artists and poets.

Two years later Utamaro signed the contract with Juzaburo and together they published several book illustrations, which made Kitagawa famous At the same time he changed his name from his original name Ichitaro Kitagawa to Utamaro Kitagawa and under this name he became popular (Fahr-Becker, pp. 173-230; Artelino GmbH, 2010).

His style became completed and built only in 1790’s. He had conquered the field of Ukiyo-e with his bejin-gas. In 1793 Utamaro started to work on his most famous erotic graphics paintings of women from Yoshivwara (Glenn, 2010). He was truly inspired by female body – Kiyonga – graceful and elegant female type, which he surrounded with a mist of eroticism.

Utamaro was one of a kind his style was unique; he was the very first artist that time who started to picture women more realistic, without lying (Artelino GmbH, 2010).

His works contain very good composition, easy command techniques; he used silver and gold powder and different paintings styles in his art works (Fahr-Becker, pp. 173-230). Utamaro was a master of half-tones; his colors run from black and white to all shades of grey, umber, soft ochre and plum. It is seems, he was dreaming while painting. He played with silhouettes shadows illusions and reality. The way Kitagawa portrayed prostitutes and courtesans is contains as much dignity as his portraits of aristocrats (Guardian News and Media Limited, 2010). Even thought he portrayed his women more realistic than any artist before, he liked to idealize them. His women are taller and slimmer than they really were. Indeed his graphic painters looked like nowadays fashion magazine photos (Artelino GmbH, 2010).

One of the most meaningful and important works of his life was a pillow-book “E-hon Utamakura” published in year 1788. It is said to be the most sophisticated work of an erotic graphic at that time in Japan.

Utamara was the most successful and well-known author of the beautiful women motifs. He showed women with deep sensitivity and respect as no one before him. (Fahr-Becker, pp. 200-230)


“From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was fifty I had published a universe of designs, but all I have done before the age of seventy is not worth bothering with. At seventy five I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am eighty you will see real progress. At ninety I shall have cut my way deeply in to the mystery of life itself. At a hundred I shall be a marvelous artist. At a hundred and ten everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you, who are going to live as long, as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokosai, but today I sign myself “The Old Man Mad about Drawing”.” Katsushika Hokusai (Andreas.com, 2010)

One of the greatest artists of the Japanese prints was born on 12 of October in 1760 in the city of Edo, which is now known as city of Tokyo. History did not tell us anything about his real parents, in age of 3, Katsushika was adopted by Nakajime Ise, mirror maker (Fahr-Becker, pp. 173-178). Work of his new father included paintings and design around mirrors, and this was a real inspiration for small Hokusai and pushed him closely to art. During his artistic life, he changed his name at least 30 times; probably it was a trend for artists of that time (Katsushikahokusai.org, 2010).

Small Katsushika started to pain in age of 6 years old, in age of 12 his father send him to work in the public library, where he was reading a lot and where he firstly was introduced to “Ukiyo-e”, Japanese prints. In 1775 Hokusai started to study at the art school of Katsukawa Shunsho, who had been a master of “ukiyo-e” (Fahr-Becker, pp. 173-178). He spent about 19 years in this art studio, after what, he was fired because he started to attend another art school, called Kano, and that was a well known fact. Later he had changed his school again and again, and each time he had been choosing a new name (Glenn, 2010).

His first work was published in 1779, it was a picture of actor, he published it under the name Shumo, and three years after his first big project appeared, it were illustrations of the book-novel.

During his studying he was very inspired by European art and, what is more important by Chinese historical art and after, he was known like a Japan’s expert on Chinese paintings.

One of the most well known of his works is woodblock print series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” (1831), where we can found most famous and recognized in the whole world print called “The Great Wave of Kanagawa”, which was produced during the 1820 (Katsushikahokusai.org, 2010). World know this series as a thirty six illustration work, but originally, before the series were published author included ten more prints.

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In his work all spectrum of “Ukiyo-e” art can be found: picture books, books of anecdotes, erotic books, individual prints, surimono, illustrations of verse and historical romances, paintings, sketches etc. (Japanese prints). Katsushika passed away after a very productive life; he left more than 30 000 works which included: woodblocks prints, silk paintings, erotic illustrations, picture books, sketches, manga and travel illustrations (Andreas.com, 2010). His manner of work is known to be as a very realistic one; his main themes were everyday life, people in nature life, animals, nature, plants, landscapes and mythological scenes.

Katsushika was a very productive and active person this can be seen though his art work and paintings. During his life he had changed his home more than 93 times, he was married twice, become a father of several children. Hokusai brought a new greatness to “Ukiyo-e” art (Fahr-Becker, pp. 173-178).


Graphic design has been introduced to our everyday life long time ago, so song we can’t even see it now. Everything we are surrounded with television, advertising, internet, web pages, “faces of the companies”, packaging and more is a graphic design, we live in it, we surrounded by it, we cannot imaging our life without it. Japan is probably a center of this circle, of contemporary “graphic design” life. Many mainstreams of contemporary graphic design are coming from Japan. It is Mecca for many graphic designers. Here you can found the most bold and bright ways of introducing graphic design to life.

Tokyo is seen from abroad as a gigantic bright and never-sleeping city. As Japan itself for foreigners it is a mystery and unpredictability, which they could never found “at home”. Everything in Japan exists in a form of harmonized polarity. And this kind of polarity can be found not only in graphic design and art, but in everyday life. Because of island situation, Japan is very hard to see with “your own eyes” and ever harder to discover. Japan is a country of contact, where everything happens simultaneously. Japanese traditional culture is originally based on a simplicity, harmony and sensitivity, which is based on the respect for balance, the perfect example for that would be the Japanese language itself – the hieroglyphs, which combine all the features so important not only for the Japanese culture but what is more meaningful for the people of Japan. Same simplicity can be seen in traditional Japanese art forms as Kabuki mono dance, and Ukiyo-e woodcut graphic prints. In contrast there is another flow which is very popular in Japan nowadays bright, colorful, brush and busy style, mainly influenced by Manga comic books and Anime animated movies. The existing and using of four different languages in speaking and writing in Japanese culture make the possibilities of combination of different symbols far more richer for Japanese designers than for any others. (Kozak&Wiedman, pp. 15-22)


“Design is like a fruit of a tree. In product design vehicles and refrigerators are the fruit. Design functions from the perspective of how to produce a good fruit. If you look at the tree from some distance, you see next to the tree that bears the fruit and then the soil in which the tree stands. Important to the whole process of creation good fruit is the condition of the soil.” Kenya Hara (The Designer’s Review of Books, 2009)

Kenya Hara was born in 1958 in Tokyo, he represents new generation of designers born in post World War two periods in Japan and raised in the 1960-1970 when the nation transformed from a heavily militaristic Asian society with feudal roots in to a new developing power of the world (Dezeen, 2010).

Kenya Hara is not only a great graphic designer, but more importantly he is a thinker, philosopher and orator. According to his words, the main aim of design is not design itself, but a concept and perception. Before created something, you have to understand and realize what are the reasons and functions and features of what is supposed to be created (Theme Magazine, 2008).

From the beginning of his art career he was searching for the meaning and purpose of his work. He wanted to find his design methodology which would define his design life and he recently found his life principles. He claims that his methodology is inspired by traditional graphics of Japanese masters of Japanese prints “Ukiyo-e” (Core77, Inc., 2010). He incorporated traditional Japanese art culture to contemporary graphic design through his works. One of many examples would be the designing of Nagano Winter Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, where he tried to show the essence beauty and spirit of Japanese culture to those who came abroad of forget about their roots (Moleskine, 2010).

Kenya developed his unique methodology, which is based on notions of emptiness, minimalism, escapist colours and archaic form. He advocates simplicity in design, and most of his work is done exclusively in white colour, he insists that: “White is a colour, from which colour has escaped, but its diversity is boundless.” According to him, the emptiness in design is dramatic in contrast with western perception of this idea Japanese would argue that emptiness is a chance for probability it is not defined and this concept goes far deep into Buddhism and Zen concept (Core77, Inc., 2010; Bigin Japan 2010).

One of the greatest examples of his perception of art is his book published 2007 “Designing Design”, which is the translation into English of his book “Design of Design”, which was published in Japan in 2003 and received several Awards (Moleskine, 2010). One of the main purposes of translating this book into English was according to the author to show and introduce unique Japanese culture and its concepts to Western world and to bring closer Western world to Japan.

Now Kenya Hara is a professor at the Musashino Art University in Tokyo and Art Director of Muji (a brand with “no-brand” policy) since 2002. He is interested in travel and deepening his concept of perception, so he can bring those new ideas into his art work.


“One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on the table and when I looked up, I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows, and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had began to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness. As I realized it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened…” Yayoi Kusama (McShane & Eliason, 2010)

She was born on 22 of March in 1929 in Matsumoto City in Japan (Gagosian Gallery, 2010). According to her words, her mother was extremely violent and hated to see her painting, she beat her almost every day and destroyed many of her first paintings. Yayoi started to see hallucinations since she was ten years old and that was the time she started to paint. She ran away from her family to study art in Kyoto, but she found her school to conservative out of touch with reality of modern art. So, she did not really attend classes, she used to paint in dormitory instead (Bomb Magazine, 2010). She also studied Nihonga panting rigorous formal style developed during the Meiji period (1868-1912) ( Gagosian Gallery, 2010 ).

At the same period of her life she began to receive psychiatric treatment. In one of her interviews, Yayoi claims that she tried to cure her disease by translating her hallucinations and fear of hallucinations into paintings (Bomb Magazine, 2010).

In 1957 Kusama moved to New York, where she started a new life. She stayed in USA for next 10 years and was broadly recognized as genius artist not only among critics and colleagues, but also she was rediscovered by public (Kusama, 2007). She produced astonishing number of works; among them we can found not only paintings, but also sculptures, collages, photo-collages, installations, performances, graphic design, fashion design and even film. She could not be defined as artist of particular style or rubric, as she does not fit in any of the categories. Many connoisseurs of art tried to put her in categories like pop art, minimalism, post minimalism etc., but she is everything and nothing, she is unique (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998).

The pumpkins and flowers are one of her iconic motifs, which she likes to paint using polka dots and nets. She was often called by paparazzi while living in New York “Polka Dot girl” (Switchedonart.com, 2010; Gagosian Gallery, 2010).

Main themes of her works have always been “Infinity”, partly due to her disease, which she has been fighting all of her life, and partly due to her philosophy of art and life. Philosophy, which is in my opinion had been influenced by traditional Japan philosophy, Japan culture and mentality. All of this surrounded her since her childhood and had a huge impact on her life and art work, even if she does not want to recognize this fact. In one of her interviews she said that she has never been influenced and inspired by anything, but in practice it is almost impossible as the whole world affect us and our creativity (Kusama, 2007; Bomb Magazine, 2010).

In year 1973 Yayoi returned to Japan. Since then she is living in hospital, still creating unique pieces of art and trying to fight her disease (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998).


To prove my initial argument about inspiration of contemporary graphic design artists of Japan by traditional Japanese masterpieces Ukiyo-e from end of 18th beginning of 19th century I decided to compare work of Katsushika Hokusai “36 views of mount Fuji: The South Wind Dispels the Clouds” and work of Kenya Hara “MUJI Horizon” (Uyuni Salt Lake; poster).

“36 views of mount Fuji” by Hokusai Katsushika is a series of woodblock prints where the Fuji Mountain is portrayed from different viewpoints. The particular painting I have chosen is named “The South Wind Dispels the Clouds” it is regarded not only as Hokusai’s masterpiece, but the masterpiece of art among all Japanese woodcut prints. The mountain on this picture symbolized tranquility, equanimity, spirituality, stability, harmony, balance as the mountain is still and the life around it flows without stresses and live all problems and questions behind. You can find there place without fear and doubts; you can find your soul up in the mountain. Hokusai creates a mist of soft clouds which are dispelled by the wind as a symbol of the disappearance of all the extraneous thought and lives you in a state of meditation. The artist uses soft pastel colour and russet tones to high light the softness of clouds. The simple diagonal composition with a lot of space around mountain personifies the main idea of a picture – harmony and emptiness – as an idea of endless possibilities. (Fahr-Becker, pp. 99-109)

The project “Muji horizon” by Kenya Hara is a series of posters which took the artist to the Mongolian prairies and Bolivian salt lakes, where photographer Tamotsu Fujii captured these memorable billboard images of emptiness and possibility. And this idea of emptiness and possibility is a design philosophy of Kenya Hara. I have chosen this work because it is also a series like “36 views of mount Fuji” by Hokusai Katsushika. In this poster we can find a small figure on an empty landscape as symbol of a soul seeking for harmony and balance. As if in the work of Hokusai you already have found the balance and tranquility, but on the poster of Kenya Hara you are on the way to that calmness and harmony. The composition is again very simple and static as on the “36 views of mount Fuji”, but it is horizontal, and the presence of space is valuable. The idea of emptiness and possibility is very important to Hara and comparing these two works we can defiantly say that Hara is inspired by the philosophy and work of traditional Japanese art masters. (Dezeen, 2010)

To prove my argument I also would like to compare two other works, which are in contrast are not that obviously alike.

For my second analyses I have chosen “Woman Playing a Poppin” by Kitigawa Utamaro and “The Polka Dots” by Yayoi Kusama.

“Woman Playing a Poppin” by Kitigawa Utamaro.

We can see, like almost always, beautiful women playing on Poppin, which was obviously some traditional Japan musical instrument. Woman has a typical Japan face, hair and dress, which is portrayed with using a pattern. Woman is showed to us in normal everyday life. The composition is simple and vertical; we can see just a woman, nothing more without any other details. It is very harmoniously. The drapery of dress softly creates a nice, playful line. The face is very calm and is portrayed in very easy way, just line. The line is very important in this kind of prints. I think, by the idea of artist, the first thing you see is a pattern and dress and only later – the face. (Fahr-Becker, pp. 173-230)

On picture by Yayoi Kusama “The Polka Dots” we can see self-portrait where she is using a pattern of polka dots everywhere, on wall, on chair, even to her dress to show that same pattern unifies everything together into one seamless and harmonious element. It is her obsession, same like an obsession of Utamaro with beautiful women – bijin ga and with patterns too, which he used on dresses and not just on them. We can see calm and peaceful expression of her face, like on Utamaro’s woman. The composition is very similar too, it is simply and vertical. In the work by Yayoi Kusama we can also see the line as a one of the main structural elements on the picture, but in contrast with Utamaro’s picture it is hidden within the dance of polka dots. As on the “Woman Playing a Poppin” by Kitigawa Utamaro, in the work of Kusama first we see the pattern and only later we recognize the face of the lady presented on the picture. So, it is seem like Yoayami was somehow inspired by Japanese traditional art. May be it is not that obvious like in the Kenya’s Hara works but probably she was also inspired by the traditional Japanese prints, and even though it is hard to see the spirit of “tradition” can be found in her so modern and Pop art works. (Kusama, 2007)


In the process of the research I have deepen my knowledge about history of Japan, culture, traditions, Japanese traditional art and Japanese Prints of 18-19 century – Ukiyo-e. I have discovered amazing Japanese painters, found out more about their life, career, work, habits, obsessions and art path. One of the most entertaining parts of my work has been exploring different techniques and methods, which were used by the painters in Japan. In the process of my study I learned what were the main themes and trends which were popular among painters of Ukiyo-e in the end of 18th century and beginning of 19th century.

The same I can say about the second part of my study. I discovered many talented and sophisticated contemporary Japanese designers and other artists. I have become acquainted with a lot of new names in the field of contemporary graphic design, with their art works. From this long list of interesting artists and designers I have chosen two absolutely different creators. I was introduced to the new beautiful complicated astonishing world of their ideas and philosophy. In particular I was amazed by the works, ideas and concepts of Kenya Hara, which are very close to my perception of perfect concept for the successful, functional and outstanding design. This person has become one of my tutors not only in my creative life, but also in my life path.

As a conclusion of my work I would like to express my opinion on the inspiration of contemporary graphic designers by the traditional Japanese art. I was convinced by all the facts that the traditional Japanese masterpieces as Japanese history culture and religion have huge impact on the inspiration and creativity of contemporary graphic designers. I am sure that many of Japanese designers are inspired by the traditional art and philosophy, consciously or unconsciously. And even if some of them would not admit it we still can find a elusive elements and more in the techniques, using of colour, motifs, themes and etc.

Nowadays in the beginning of 21 century we are still admired and inspired by old master pieces, their perfection, deep meaning and philosophical question which are raised in them.

So, how the contemporary graphic design would look like in a 22 century when artists would be inspired by us, and if they would?


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