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To what extent does Japanese modernist graphic design reflect the native particularities of Japanese Culture?

Japanese graphic design has always been fascinating, a design style that at face value seems to have almost developed in hibernation from the rest of the world, especially from the early-to-mid 20th century modernist movement in Europe. One of the first aspects of Japanese graphic design one notices is the colour, the spatial consideration and the experimental and playful layout fused with a unique sense of humour. Japan had an incredibly eventful 20th century with just as much landmark events signaling Japans progression and prosperity, notably the Tokyo Olympic Games of 1964; and just as many scenes of absolute terror, notably the atrocities of Hiroshima. Amidst all the war and natural disasters Japan, perhaps unfairly is known for to the rest of the world, Japan has never shied away from addressing these social and political issues, often in a tongue-in-cheek satirical manner.

This essay will further investigate the Japanese visual style, sense of humour, key designers throughout post-war Japan and Europe, the increased importance and social responsibility of the modern designer, modernist theory and the modernist movement of the 20th century, key historical events in society and in design which had a lasting impact and shaped Japanese design and also influenced European modernism, finally the lasting legacy and influence of Japanese design towards Europe and around the world will be analysed.

Modernism relates to modernity, the cultural and technological change and innovations that took place resulting in a far-reaching impact on industry and culture in Europe and with extension, the world. Modernism is a broad term

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encompassing the activities and creative output of those who felt that “traditional” forms of art; architecture, literature, socialism and religious organisations were outdated in the new economical, social and technological climate.

‘Modernists, including the De Stijl, Constructivism and Bauhaus movements, departed from the rural and provincial zeitgeist prevalent in the Victorian era, rejecting its values and style in favour of cosmopolitanism.’ [AMBROSE, 2009; p58]

A key symbolic location of this progression of mass urbanization and industrialisation in the late 19th and early 20th century was Paris. A core concept of modernity in Paris was to show off technology and to mark it’s territory to the rest of the world, to share just how far ahead Paris was compared to the rest of the world, showcasing the future – a form of self-validation.

‘The 1925 Exhibition… this bombastic display signaled modernity highly pertinent to the revitalization of post-war France: the cascade of light celebrated specifically modern and urban rituals – those of shopping and consumption.’ [GRONBERG, 2003; p47]

This form of self-validation was also noticeably prevalent in the Japanese design scene as they too aimed to establish themselves amongst the rest of the world with the rise of graphic design in Japan from the 40’s onwards. Japan sought to rise from the ashes of the Second World War and it’s occupation by the US as a thriving and progressive state in its own right.

Cities became immensely populated compared to before; rural life was swapped for city life. New forms of entertainment and transport such as movie theatres and train transport changed peoples lives and leisure habits, changing demand and possibilities for design. The role of a designer now arguably became to shape society, work was no longer for the church or for an individual or groups personal interest - it was for society.


‘Designers have a key role to play in creating the visual fabric of the world around us and are instrumental in producing the cultural tapestry that binds us together as a society. This ultimately comes with responsibility for the outcomes of the design.’ [AMBROSE, 2009; p56]

It’s important to nail down what the existing perception of modernism in terms of graphic design is and apply the characteristics and theory to design to see if the piece of design befits the characteristics of a certain style of design. The following break down of modernist design is particularly succinct and to the point.

‘Modernism through the cubist, surrealist and Dadaist movements was shaped by the industrialisation and urbanization of western society… In graphic design, modernism embraced an asymmetrical approach to layout with strict adherence to the grid, an emphasis on white space and sans serif typography, and the absence of decoration and embellishment.’ [AMBROSE, 2009; p58]

This theory will now be taken and applied towards two pieces of graphic design from the post-war period, one from Europe and one from Japan, both pieces of design are from the same decade - Wim Crouwel’s iconic Hiroshima poster and Shigeo Fukuda’s exhibition poster (Fig 9 and 10, respectively) Applying Ambrose’s theory, both posters employ a sans serif typeface to showcase elegance and progression, both adhere to a grid but Wim Crouwel’s grid is much more noticeable, Ambrose fails to mention the geometric layouts and shapes employed by Modernism, exemplified by Crouwel’s work where even the typeface is created using the grid underneath. Although both adhere to the same principals on paper according to Ambrose on paper and both can be classed as modernism, both are strikingly different with Fukuda employing a human figure and multiple layers and interaction between elements for a playful poster with more personality through arguably decorative elements, allowing the debate about the crossover to post-modernism, way before Ambrose says post-modernism arrived – the 60’s.


‘Design and fashion are big enemies.’ – Wim Crouwel [WALKER, 2007]

Applying Ambrose’s theory to more European and Japanese design, inspecting Ikko Tanaka’s iconic UCLA poster (Fig.4) and Karl Gerstner’s grid poster (Fig.11) it’s an easy connection to make regarding the influence each design had on each other, this is an example of Japanese design being influenced by Europe, with Tanaka’s work arriving around 20 years later than Gerstner’s. Although Tanaka has referenced and applied modernist characteristics such as considerations for space, asymmetry, grids and sans-serif typefaces, Tanaka again, as is frequent with Japanese design, has given the work soul and personality through a human face. European design tended to shy away from adding personality and soul to a design, instead believing each viewer would extend their own personality towards the design, consequently design and typeface focused towards neutrality, a reason why Helvetica is so closely attached to modernism.

‘The objectivity of Helvetica is a myth, which turned the typeface into one of the most widely used typefaces in the first place. Because of the neutrality, whether real or imagined, they can fully focus on the design itself and keep the concept as clear and pure as possible.’ [KREKLOVA, 2011; p18]

In terms of Japanese design reflecting the culture itself in an almost subconscious way look no further than Ikko Tanaka’s poster for a noh production (traditional Japanese theatrical production) from 1961 (fig.1) Clearly influenced by the ancient art of Japanese calligraphy and typography, itself a key factor in establishing a unique Japanese visual style that significantly pre-dates the modernist movement yet still remains intact in modernist Japanese design.

‘One of Tanaka’s specialties is his trademark design, born of his deep appreciation of the shapes and lines created by Japanese calligraphy. These


kanji letters…are arranged in traditional fashion, reading from top to bottom, right to left. The beauty of the letter form is enhanced by the printing of different parts in distinct colours.’ [THORNTON. 1991]

The World Wars had and continue to have a significant effect on Japanese design, motivations and overall psyche. The most significant shift in Japanese design and conventions changed during World War 2, a flurry of war restrictions placed upon Japanese design in 1941, with complete military control over material such as magazines, newspapers and posters. Poster design, just as in wartime Europe was often used as a means of propaganda for national interest and military campaigns. Notable designers in this practice were Tadashi Ohashi and Ayao Yamana. An actual agreement was in place in the advertising industry regarding restraint in colour and design – aspects of Japanese design that historically been paramount, especially colour. Japanese people had never even experienced invasion by a foreign force or even serious military defeat until WWII. This devastation, along with the restrictions and lack of freedom in the design scene fused with the utter devastation of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings shaped Japan’s psyche and motivation for design and modernisation in its structure.

‘The devastation caused by bombs and complete economic collapse brought severe psychological “loss of face.”’ [THORNTON, 1991; p65]

At first glance one would think this occupation of Japan by the American forces would devastate and cripple Japanese rule, it did, but seeds were planted for Japan to rise again with newfound hunger and optimism. Under American rule, a new constitution was passed in 1946, which provided coeducation, and voting rights for women for example. Japan was slowly starting to become a forward thinking country. This attitude didn’t neglect the design scene – the Japanese Advertising Society was established only a year after the end of WWII and held it’s first exhibition in 1947. During the occupation, western influences were beginning to become part of everyday life in Japan with American magazines such as Saturday Evening Post filling the newsstands in Shimbashi, Tokyo. Japanese design and


culture was little known to the west and Europe but the western world was definitely part of Japanese society and had a strong influence.

‘Fall down seven times, stand up eight.’ – Japanese proverb

You would be wrong in thinking this was the first time Japanese design had been influenced by the burgeoning modernist movements of Europe and America. In the early 20th century, the Bauhaus school of design was set up in Germany after the outbreak of war from 1919 to 1933 until Hitler’s Nazi regime caused a halt to the movement. The Constructivist movement in Soviet Russia, was established in 1919 focused on shaping society and the blue-collar workforce. Of all the movement in Europe though, it is fair to say to Bauhaus had the most impact on Japan with several Japanese posters of the ‘30s showing clear typographical influences of European designers such as Herbert Bayer and Ian Tschichold. Takashi Kono was a legendary Japanese graphic designer heavily influenced by the European scene, his film poster advertising Lady and Beard (1931) illustrated flat faces in the same vein as Picasso, showing multiple facets in a flat image (fig.2). Many iconic designers in their own right such as Tadanori Yokoo and Ikko Tanaka regard this poster as having a significant influence on their own development.

What often does not get noted in art history is the opposite of this notion Japanese designs influence on the European scene, including the developing Swiss style and Bauhaus.

‘I am intrigued by the Japanese influence on Bauhaus, modernist design. It is inevitable to connect the two with the shared emphasis on minimalism and clean, spare, lines.’ {RILEY, 2007]

One of the best-known Japanese graphic designers internationally is Ikko Tanaka, receiving international acclaim for his Japan Style exhibition design held in London, 1980. During the time he came up in the 60s, European poster designers


such as Raymond Savignac and Herbert Leupin were at their peak, clearly influencing Tanaka. As with most Japanese graphic designers, Tanaka nit-picked what he admired from European design and infused Japans and his own distinct visual style with it, resulting in a mathematical and logical style Tanaka became synonymous with. A beautiful example of European structure meeting Japanese design is the UCLA festival poster designed by Tanaka in 1981 (fig.4).

Another symbol of Japanese design and a more playful and experimental take on the term ‘modernism’ is Shigeo Fukuda. With his mix of expressionism, modernism submerged with a satirical take on devastating issues such as war – Fukuda has won more international poster prizes than any Japanese designer ever. Self-admittedly influenced by the Bauhaus and Constructivist movements. Fukuda often addressed devastation and war with an irreverent tongue-in-cheek sense of humour; a prime example is the Victory peace poster, 1976 (fig.5). “Kawaii” literally meaning “cute” is ever present in Japanese culture

‘The Japanese are born into cute and raised with cute. They grow up to save money with cute (Miffy the bunny on Asahi Bank ATM cards), to pray with cute (Hello Kitty charm bags at Shinto shrines), to have sex with a cute (prophylactics decorated with Monkichi the monkey, a condom stretched over his body, entreating, “Would you protect me?” [ROACH, 1999]

Post-WWII was Japan’s period of renaissance in graphic design with the primary purpose of Increasing Japan’s prosperity on an international scale, in terms of employment, trade and worldwide recognition. Design was now high in demand, design was to shape and visualize society. A much more progressive and forwardthinking Japan was driven to succeed and advertise and exclaim to the world it was not just the ‘Land of the Samurai’.

‘Government regulations in the late fifties forced major manufacturers to develop design policies. Swept up in this economic growth of industries


were designers who suddenly found their profession in demand.’ [THORNTON, 1991; p93]

This new found importance and confidence in Japanese design brought about the need for an international design conference to showcase the social role of graphic designers, interior designers, industrial designers and architects in Japan’s blossoming economy. What followed was the first ever exhibition on Japanese graphic design, the Tokyo World Design Conference, 1960.

Influential designers from all over the world were invited to this exciting exhibition showcasing the best this fresh new industry had to offer. Attendees included Herbert Bayer, Joseph Muller-Brockman and Saul Bass. Japanese design in this period clearly inspired and attracted some of the most revered graphic designers of the 20th century but this is rarely mentioned throughout history. Bauhaus and Constructivism are synonymous with modernism, but Japan isn’t.

‘For Muller-Brockman in particularly, WoDeCo was the beginning of his long relationship with Japan and Japanese design. It was his first visit to Japan… Muller-Brockman had an affinity for Zen teachings, believing that objective design was closely related to Zen themes of empty space and the tension between positive and negative.’ [THIS IS DISPLAY, 2011]

The Tokyo Olympic games of ’64 was a landmark event in Japanese history, especially when viewing the games an opportunity for Japan to rise from the ashes of the war. Japan initially was set to host the 1940 games but this privilege was taken after an invasion of China and eventually scrapped altogether because of the breakout of a world war. The games of Tokyo were going to be watched and attended by the entire world, a huge opportunity for Japan to show it could stand on it’s own two feed and an opportunity to present cutting edge design. Yusaku Kamekura’s iconic emblem of the five Olympic gold rings blended with the iconic red sun of Japan was chosen as the official Olympic logo. A great example of Japan as a land itself being just as iconic as the graphic design. It’s rare to find Olympic


graphic design before or since the ’64 games that merges the countries culture with design as successfully as the Tokyo games. The logo was a huge step forward in modernist design in mainstream culture. Comparing the logo to the previous logo of the 1960 Rome games illustrates the leap forward in modernist design communication that Japan exemplified for the world to see. The objective of increasing international recognition for Japan was going to plan.

Looking deeper into Japanese history allows one to see why the design style seemed to have such a unique and experimental outlook compared to the rest of the world, in terms of composition, colour and concept. Before the dawn of modernity, art wasn’t hobbyist or a form of self-expression, often art had the sole purpose being a portrait, a religious piece or even propaganda - art was often for someone else’s self-interest and not the artist. This notion still existed in Japan but looking deeper it’s arguable Japan had a long established art sensibility, which was more hobbyist and expressionistic with unique disciplines established long before modernism. These disciplines and cultural iconography such as the red sun, samurai, geisha, and the use of space within a vertical layout and type composition still show through in Japanese design from the 20th century onwards. Modern Japanese design still utilizes calligraphy, colour and a strong period in its culture. It’s arguable that the rest of the world enjoys Japanese design in a distinctly different manner, allowing for more analysis of composition, colour and imagery, elements that have become celebrated. Most Europeans can’t read or write Japanese so work is objectified as a piece of art in the purest sense – shapes and colour and type almost become flattened as an image similar to a painting, instead of a communicative piece you read and digest.

In the mid 20th century, technological restrictions in Japan often gave the design a recognizable quality and shaped the style. Often shapes and elements had great consideration of colour and an almost grungy line quality, a reason why is designers often had low budgets; usually working with limitations of one or two colour lithographic prints. These limitations added focus and great consideration towards maximizing visual effect. The work process frequently involved


photocopying and placing elements distinctly larger than the original copy, creating an ephemeral and fuzzy line quality.

Studying Japans graphic design, especially during the modernist movement of the 60’s, it’s clear how much Japanese design was inspired by the European design scene, especially Bauhaus. In fact during the 30s and 40s many art schools were opened to support the next generation and to be inspired and learn from art around the world. Tsunehisa Kimura’s film poster for Ziguneir Weisen (1980) references Constructivism heavily with it’s angular lines, photomontage and type treatment.

‘Shin Kenchiku Kogei Gakuin (New Architecture and Industrial Arts School) was established in 1931 as a Japanese version of the Bauhaus.’ {THORNTON, 1991; p76]

It’s also clear the Japanese design scene was internationally recognized with notable international design conferences held in the 60s and 70s, winning international awards and acclaim and having ties with leaders of European design such as Muller-Brockman but it’s difficult to see this same inspiration being mirrored back into Europe. Looking at European design during the same period, the visual style seems unaffected. It still seems as if Japanese design was working in hibernation but its designers were clearly influenced by the west. A definite factor in this lack of synthesis between the Far East and the Europe has to be a communication barrier.

‘‘The free and easy flow of design exchange between Europe and America had difficulty reaching Japan. There was the factor of distance from Japan to the West, and then there were formidable language problems.’ [THORNTON. 1991; p53]

This same problem also possibly leads to the lack of awareness in European art schools of Japanese design history. In terms of the application of modernist design


theory, both Europe and Japanese designers applied the same characteristics with the same social responsibility but approached this application in a distinctly different way.

In terms of legacy, the intense experimentation and at times secluded form of work in Japanese design led to design that perhaps wasn’t ‘fashionable’ or affected by output of others, leading to timeless design ahead of it’s time. A recent case study of this is Kimura’s photomontage for Pioneer Electronics in 1979 called Gan Hosaya. The poster consists of a superimposed Niagara falls on the New York skyline, with copy reading “Sound is flowing our world” (fig.6). This same poster has directly influenced the record cover for Australian electro-punk band Cut Copy’s 2011 release, Zonoscope – A record cover incidentally winning numerous design awards. The same concept of Kimura’s work is reminiscent in the poster for Joseph Kosinski’s sci-fi movie Oblivion. Both modern reiterations of Kimura’s work have occurred more than 30 years later and still seem contemporary and cutting-edge.

Japanese design has clearly been influenced by the European and Western design scene but at the same time Japan still had its own strong foundations of expression and experimentation, not as prevalent in the neutrality and form follows function mentality across Europe. The long history of personal exploration instead of work for another’s self-interest lead to deeply cultural and experimental work with visual cues that have come to be synonymous with Japanese design. The culture and sense of humour shows through in even the darkest subjects, more so than ever with the series of posters for the Hiroshima Appeal series managing to tackle an atomic bomb catastrophe with grace and cheek. Japanese graphic design postWWII was a hugely inspired and motivated environment, which in turn created design that inspired others around the world. Unfortunately history has not remembered this, as perhaps it should have. Japanese design inspires me greatly – someone who has grown up being accustomed to seeing European graphic design in everyday life and being taken aback by so much of Japanese design and it’s beautiful, timeless, vivid, sometimes shocking but always fascinating art.


Fig. 1 Ikko Tanaka 1961

Fig. 2 Takashi Kono The Lady and the Beard Directed by Yasujiro Ozu 1931

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Fig. 3 NC State Campus, USA

Fig. 4 Ikko Tanaka UCLA Festival poster 1981

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Fig. 5 Shigeo Fukuda Victory peace poster 1976

Fig. 6 Gan Hosoya Poster for Pioneer Electronics 1979

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Fig. 7 Cut Copy ‘Zonoscope’ Modular Recordings 2011

Fig. 8 Oblivion Movie Poster Dir: Joseph Kosinski 2013


Fig 9. Hiroshima Wim Crouwel

Fig 10. Shigeo Fukuda

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Fig 11. Karl Gerstner

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Level 05 Abbas Mushtaq Essay  

"To what extent does Japanese modernist graphic design reflect the native particularities of Japanese Culture?"

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