Hello. Below is the second extract preview (for now, in English) from my new book, BEFORE AND AFTER SUPERFLAT. Please enjoy! Coming next: "Yoshitomo Nara as businessman" ...

The book is available now on

On Sunday 8th July, I will present my book and there will be a discussion of
Japanese contemporary art since 1990, with Michio Hayashi, Kiyoko Mitsuyama-Wdowiak, Yasuko Furuichi and MAM chief curator Mami Kataoka at Sophia University, 2-5pm. Please join us!

Before and After Superflat
A Short History of
Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011

Adrian Favell





• Tourists in the Japanese Pavilion

• 日本館のツーリスト

Little Boys and Tokyo Girls: The Rise of Superflat
• Artist in Wonderland: Takashi Murakami
• The Little Prince: Yoshitomo Nara
• Tokyo Girls Bravo! Kaikai Kiki and Mariko Mori
• Utsukushii Kuni: Yokoso Japan!

• 不思議の国のアーティスト:村上隆
• 星の王子さま:奈良美智
• 東京ガールズブラボー! カイカイキキと森万里子
• 美しい国:ようこそ!ジャパン

How to be A-Zillionaire: Commerce, Design and Art in the Superflat World
• The Art Entrepreneurship Theory
• Nara as Businessman
• The World is Flat
• The Creative Surplus


• 芸術起業論
• ビジネスマンとしての奈良
• フラットな世界
• クリエイティブの余剰

Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? The Tokyo Art World in the 1990s
• Tokyo 1991-1995: The Birth of the Cool
• Ginza Days, Omori Nights: The Birth of a Contemporary Art Scene
• Art and Money: The Birth of a Contemporary Art Market
• When Will Aida Be Famous? Before and After Zero Japan

• 東京 1991-1995年:クールの誕生
• 銀座の日々、大森の夜:現代美術シーンの誕生
• アートとお金:現代美術市場の誕生
• 会田誠はいつ有名になるのか?:日本ゼロ年の前と後

Art & The City: How Art Replaced God at the Heart of Neo-Tokyo
• The Tower of Power: The Mori Story
• Yokohama: From Triennial to Debacle
• What are Contemporary Art Museums in Japan Really For?
• Echigo Tsumari and Rural Art Festivals: Rise of the Northern River

• 力のタワー:「森」のお話
• 横浜:トリエンナーレからその失敗へ
• 日本の現代美術館の真の目的
• 越後妻有と地方のアートフェスティバル:北の川の繁栄

After the Gold Rush: The New Japanese Art Scene in the 2000s
• China Mania
• The Zero Zero Generation
• Aida’s Children
• Space for Our Future

• チャイナマニア
• ゼロ年世代
• 会田の子供たち
• スペース・フォー・アワー・フューチャー

• After the Tsunami

• 津波の後

Sources and Acknowledgements


Cast of Characters

キャラクター のキャスト

Utsukushii Kuni: Yokoso Japan!

美しい国:ようこそ! ジャパン


It might be thought that otaku style representations of Japan would not go down so well with policy makers. Yet there was a strange alliance between conservative policy makers and otaku obsessions, as Cool Japan became official foreign policy in the 2000s.

Before they were swept away by the victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the 2009 elections, the last years of unbroken Liberal Democratic Pary (LDP) rule were marked, as always, by a series of forgettable prime ministers, stumbling through one political crisis after another. What they talked about, as the economy remained stagnant and Japan’s influence in the world declined, was culture: how to rebrand and repackage Japan’s international image. And so they put manga and anime on official brochures. Video games and toy character stars replaced cars and computers as the image of Japan’s principle export industries. The men in suits supported a world cosplay (costume play) competition, promoting the bureaucrat behind the idea to an ambassadorship. One prime minister, Mr Abe, talked about the utsukushii kuni (beautiful country) – a deeply conservative pre-war vision of Japan – while his bureaucrats were hiring J-pop stars like Puffy AmiYumi for Yokoso Japan (Welcome to Japan) tourist campaigns. Another, Mr Aso, a huge old school manga fan who had appealed to otaku in his leadership battle, went one better and talked about Akihabara as a national treasure. In the final, desperate days, the LDP government created a global media storm by appointing three teenage looking girls from Tokyo's fashion streets in Harajuku and Shibuya – a garish style "Shibuya 109" girl (a famous teen department store), a punk schoolgirl, and a gosu rori (gothic lolita) – as the nation’s foreign ministry “Ambassadors of Cute”.

Much of the logic behind these strange policies was built on a set of ideas about Japan’s future identified by an American technology journalist, Douglas McGray, in an article for the widely read American Foreign Policy magazine in 2002. Japan’s burgeoning pop cultural and content industries, he argued, could provide an alternative to its former manufacturing and financial influence in the world. Japan could reposition itself internationally, with a new leading role in Asia, through its growing “Gross National Cool”. Although neither a culture nor Japan specialist, McGray’s article was rapidly hailed as visionary in Japan. Travelling around the big cities at the start of the new millenium, McGray was really only observing the tail end of the post-Bubble cultural explosion of the early to mid 90s that was already beginning to fade. But the politicians and bureaucrats seized his words with the fervour of prophecy. This unlikely foreign policy guru was then flown back to Japan to speak to packed policy conference audiences taking notes.

The new branding of Japan directly borrowed from what had been going on for a few years in the art world, as it sought to make a sensational splash for Japanese contemporary art on the international scene. After Takashi Murakami's Superflat, the Japan Foundation – on the whole a rather conservative institution usually attuned to avoid offence at all costs – nevertheless thought it a good idea to sponsor a huge otaku pavilion at the Venice Architectural Biennale in 2004, curated by cultural studies professor Kaichiro Morikawa. The show recreated in explicit terms the ambiance and visual stimulation of Akihabara. The catalogue even included a plastic toy kit by Yuki Oshima – a cult designer who has also featured in Murakami’s shows – of a giant cartoon schoolgirl straddling an Akihabara train in a mini skirt. Meanwhile, over in New York, it was the equally conservative, corporate funded Japan Society, more known for its sponsorship of classical Japanese arts, who adopted Murakami’s Little Boy.

This was the Cool Japan of the 2000s. Mid-level bureaucrats involved in implementing these ideas were themselves secret otaku, the same original generation as Murakami and Nara. The new cultural policy gave these fans in suits the chance to talk about manga characters, anime, or a j-pop idol in the middle of a boring policy document. They could mix nerdy graphics and projections of sales in the content industries with images of a maid café, or fashion snaps like Shoichi Aoki's FRUiTS (a famous Japanese street fashion magazine). If this was trade and foreign policy, then, it’s no surprise that Takashi Murakami, the most successful and most “pop” of Japanese contemporary Japanese artists, also became a poster boy for the policy makers. He was one of their star “global performers”, as a Japan Foundation brochure described him. Another official document identified him – alongside such names such as fashion designer Issey Miyake, anime artist Hayao Miyazaki, star chef Nobu Matsuhisa and film maker Takeshi Kitano – in its “dream team” of creators who could rescue the Japanese economy.

Of course, it might be a mystery why an ironic and controversial radical, famous for celebrating the culture of the most marginal and despised outsiders in Japanese society, should have so willingly hitched his vision to conservative government policy. Yet the answer lies in what always unifies left and right in Japan: its contempt for America and an underlying nationalist resentment of the West.

During the 2000s, Murakami was always laughing. Laughing at his audience in the West, principally. When his manifestos in Japanese to his catalogues in English are compared, there is a massive gap. In Japanese, he has always been angry and vitrolic in his anti-Americanism. He was, he said, happy to sell a “soy sauce” culture to Westerners if they will buy it. Behind this has been a bitter drive to assert Japanese national culture: to put his contemporary art on the front row of the starting grid, like Ayrton Senna, the upstart fast car driver from Brazil. For Western viewers and curators, it was nothing but the boundlessly happy neo-pop vision that he sold.

This strategy worked for Murakami because there was for years a startling mismatch going on: between the Japan out there in the struggling cities and regions of a country in decline, and the fantasy Japan in the Western audience’s heads, as it enjoyed Superflat, Little Boy and ©MURAKAMI. This could be boiled down to three peculiar selection mechanisms at work here. It was these ironic differences that lay behind the success of Murakami, Nara and otaku style art in internationally.

1) Timing: Cool Japan peaked worldwide in the mid to late 2000s, yet by all accounts the Tokyo scene was much more interesting in the 90s.
2) Selectivity: What got represented and consumed in the West as Cool Japan was always a narrow slice of any given creative field.
3) Taste: The selections of Cool Japan were a lot more underground, marginal, and weird than either mainstream or hip pop culture in Japan.

One of the key players in the making of Cool Japan in the US, Eric Nakamura, has a good answer for all this. Nakamura is second generation Japanese American, and the cultural entrepreneur behind the Los Angeles based magazine, shop and website for Asian pop culture, Giant Robot. At a business conference in LA to discuss transnational opportunities in Japanese media and creative industries, a Japanese audience member asked angrily why Westerners like him only pay attention to a tiny amount of the popular culture coming out of Japan. Why do they distort everything with their weird selection? Nakamura was unfazed. He said he knew that real Japan was out there, but like any country most of it is boring and provincial. Like all the fans in the West he was only interested in the 2 or 3% of it that was cool from his point of view. In other words, when he started going to Japan he only had time for Neo-Tokyo. Giant Robot magazine started printing features about this stuff in the mid 1990s, originally photocopied for friends out of their bedroom. So it took a long time to make Cool Japan cool in the US: more than ten years. Giant Robot was among the first to run feature stories on Nara and Murakami. It treated them like any of the cheap commercial pop art in California, which is fun and easy to consume, and possible to pick up as postcards or t-shirts, or $30 or $40 dollars for a print. Soon Nakamura and his Chinese-American partner, Martin Wong, had a little empire with two stores and a restaurant in LA, plus stores in San Francisco and New York.

But what about the question of taste? The art was superflat, but there was some kind of power underneath the surface. One American curator in LA, Catherine Taft, put it nicely when she described this kind of Japanese contemporary art. It was all “eye candy”: easy to like, very attractive, yet it was those disturbing, subliminal messages underneath that hooked the viewer. During the 2000s, Western viewers let these Japanese artists get away with it – because they were “typically” Japanese. The presentation of women and girls in Japanese art would not be acceptable for an American artist. But Little Boy and Tokyo Girls Bravo thrived on this subliminal thrill: the underlying sex, strangeness and violence that Westerners identified with Cool Japan. Contemporary art viewers like to feel they are “on the edge”. Even the anti-American nationalism was a kind of thrill for countercultural viewers in the US, especially in the era of George W. Bush. At Murakami’s big show at MOCA, in 2008, the entry looked like a children’s adventure playground, but the monstrous masturbating giant and the girl with milk spraying out of her breasts had some children sobbing with fear. Yet no scandal erupted. And Nara was anything but kids’ stuff: with all that anger and sorrow in the children’s eyes. There was something very dark going on in these images. As such, American collectors entertained their own rumours on what it was all really about. While Cool Japan reigned, they enjoyed the ambivalence as the sign that this was truly great art.

In the 1990s, Takashi Murakami’s contemporary Makoto Aida and others in Japan also made art out of similar sources: the marginal extremes of contemporary Japanese society. But they pushed it way over the line. Many people in Japan think Aida is the most important artist of his generation. Yet he has been misunderstood or ignored in Europe and America. Murakami always recognised he and Aida shared similar ideas and sensibilities, but Murakami has been far more effective in masking it with a flat and attractive surface. In one of his best works, from 1996, Aida painted Mitsubishi Zeros circling in a moebius loop over a burning New York skyline, appropriately enough in the flat Japanese painterly style on folding bedroom screens. It was hard to see this one going down well at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And, indeed, when it was shown as part of an Anti-Americanism show at the Whitney Museum in 2003, it didn’t. There was a scandal. When Aida went to the self-styled Capital of the Western World in 2000, he had a hard, disillusioning time. Murakami, however, came home from New York triumphant, one in a million. He did it His Way. The underlying message was still there. He called his show after the name of the bomb that flattened Hiroshima, and mentioned mushroom clouds and Akira. But then he turned the mushrooms into cartoons, and filled the show full of happy flowers. He made it big in America, showing off marginal and deviant art from Japan made by his friends back home to the applause of a basically ignorant foreign audience.

Now Cool Japan is over. Politically, the tide had turned in Japan well before the disasters of 2011. The new DPJ government scrapped the idea of manga museum, and turned away from culture in favour of economic priorities. The Tokyo Metropolitan government passed legislation in December 2010 that criminalised the commercial use of sexualised images of virtual cartoon characters that looked underage. There was a threat to close down Akihabara and half the manga, anime and toy figurine industries with it. It became dangerous to sell Japan as “Sensation”.

Murakami had a magical run. Cool Japan celebrated Japan, when there wasn’t much to celebrate otherwise. Depressing politics; shaky global business; bad relations with Asia; a demographic crisis looming; a lot of young people locked in bedrooms with psychological problems. Also, after 9/11 in the US, there was a need for images of shining silver towers with flowers and happy dinosaurs, not one collapsing, with smoke and flames billowing out. So the tourists got their ©MURAKAMI Roppongi Hills monopoly game, with its happy dinosaur, and plenty of smiling flowers. They had their unattainable cartoon girls, always giving service with smile. They had Groovision chappies staring blankly back. These were, during the 2000s, the kinds of things they might have hoped and wished for when they visited Japan: the things Mr Abe might have been suggesting when he talked of an utsukushii kuni.

So it may have seemed silly, but Cool Japan made sense for Murakami and the politicians that used it. There was one Japanese writer I talked with who had nationalist views on international relations and Japanese wartime history that quite shocked me. He reserved his biggest scorn for the Japan Foundation, and the policy of promoting otaku culture as an image of contemporary Japan. He thought it was a conspiracy of New York Liberals and Democrats and what he called “Asia-loving multiculturalists” in Japan who wanted to present Japan to the West as a “submissive female”. He felt ashamed by this representation. It was wrong to present Japan as an otaku paradise, he told me. But in a way, he was wrong. For political purposes, while Cool Japan lasted, the opposite was true. What better than representing Japan in the world as eye candy? Flat, colourful art that put a smile on your face. Who could see past those computerised colours, those simple seductive lines, the happy celebration of all things “pop”? The screen was captivating and complete. The nationalist politicians and civil servants understood this art very well. Behind the screen, you could do anything you want.





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