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


Tourists in the Japanese Pavilion

What image should Japan present to the world? The Japanese worry a lot about this question. Every year, in fact, the Japanese Foreign Ministry, Japan Foundation and Agency for Cultural Affairs (Bunka-cho) spend millions of yen trying to answer it. Among the many fields of culture they cover, contemporary art is one of the central elements of their mission. Although it is a small and specialised field, contemporary art is the cultural lingua franca of some of the world’s most cosmopolitan and influential elites. In major cities around the globe, it is what can be seen at top museums, in the fanciest auction houses, and on the walls of the richest millionaires. With the symbolic importance of art in mind, the Japan Foundation organises the Japanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale once every two years. This is the world’s biggest festival of global contemporary art. At any World Expo like this, with so many wonderful countries on show, strong images are needed to pull in the viewers. Many will often overlook or forget the Japanese Pavilion. But, although it was not the official selection in the Pavilion that year, at Venice in 2009 a contemporary Japanese artist certainly gave the world something "Japanese" it could remember.

The sun was shining, and the famous old city was full of rich and beautiful tourists. High on their list of things to see was the newly reopened customs house on the Grand Canal. On display here were the works of a global art collector, François Pinault, the multi-millionaire owner of Gucci and Christie’s auction house. He had engaged the Japanese architect Tadao Ando to renovate this spectacular waterside building at the entrance to the city. There are many famous American, German and British names in Pinault´s collection. But at Venice there was also something Japanese. Near the centre of the show, in a big white room, stood a monstrous eight foot high plastic sculpture. It seemed like something straight off the pages of a disturbing adult comic book. A naked cartoon boy with a big grin, enormous eyes and crazy hair stood there masturbating, a wild lasso of plastic semen filling the air around him.

The sculpture was Takashi Murakami’s My Lonesome Cowboy. Sold to Pinault by the auction house Sotheby’s of New York in May 2008 for a reported $15 million, Murakami’s provocative “little boy” stands as the most successful piece of Japanese art ever. It was one of the last big trophy acquisitions of the global art elite, before the collapse later that same year of the world economy and the global bubble in art prices of the mid 2000s. As a result of his success, Murakami represented during those years most of what anybody in the West knew about Japanese contemporary art. He called this distinctively Japanese style art "Superflat". It was inspired by the country’s animation and comic cultures, and it seemed to be everywhere. ©MURAKAMI, a major world tour and retrospective of the artist’s works, during 2008 and 2009, took his vision from Los Angeles, via New York, to Europe and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. In 2008 he was listed by Time magazine among the 100 most influential persons of the year – the only fine artist in the list – and in 2009 was ranked by the magazine Art Review as no.17 of the 100 most important persons in the global art world today – the only Japanese in the list, one of only three Asian names, and one of only about 20 artists. In the autumn of 2009, London tourists packed into to the Tate Modern to see Murakami bookend a retrospective history of contemporary art after Andy Warhol with a huge mural of Akihabara, the electronics and video game epicentre of Tokyo, and a video featuring Hollywood actress Kirsten Dunst singing “I’m turning Japanese”, an old punk rock song also about masturbation. In the autumn of 2010, Murakami’s giant and colourful installations found a home in the Palace de Versailles in Paris, en route for an even bigger show for the Qatar royal family in 2012. It all confirmed “Takaaashi” – as he is known to his American friends – as Japan’s most visible international art superstar. He alone was able to rub shoulders with global art superstars, such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.

There are many other Japanese artists, but few in the 1990s and 2000s had anything like the kind of recognition Murakami enjoyed in terms of international sales and consistent museum visibility. The cult illustrator, Yoshitomo Nara, was one. Nara was a worthy partner to Murakami, with his childlike paintings, toys, playroom installations–and big sales. He too fitted the idea of superflat art. Nara spent much of the 2000s on a world tour of his own, rounding up an impressive decade with a large new catalogue and retrospective show in New York in the autumn of 2010 which celebrated his alternative status. Behind his international success, Murakami was also able to cultivate the careers of a number of young girl artists, employees at his Kaikai Kiki corporation which produces all his art works and spin off products in a related style. This obviously adolescent art appealed to a Western sense of what they thought Japanese youth culture must be like. Then there was, for a while at least, Mariko Mori, with her fantasy girl photos and space age machines.

Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara and Mariko Mori were successful internationally for a simple reason. Each made an art that confirmed, reproduced and sold to the West a certain vision of Japan that reigned until March 2011. This was “Cool Japan”: a kind of neo-Japonisme, which worked as an updated version of the historical Western fascination for classical Japanese culture known as Japonisme. It was the hip high-end tourist’s Japan that everybody wanted. Countless books, magazines, travel guides and websites for international tourists celebrated this image. Japan, for this kind of consumer, was a land which during the 1990s and 2000s became a cartoon: full of cute-yet-seductive schoolgirls, super-nerds with weird fetishes, and a warped, decadent pop culture. Young people in North America and Europe rushed to learn the words to describe this Asian wonderland. It was the land of otaku (obsessive nerds), of manga (comics) and anime (cartoons), of all things kawaii (cute) and moé (a word expressing an otaku nerd’s adoration of a cute young girl). It was also a Japan whose capital was a futuristic techno-scape called “Neo-Tokyo”, overlooked by the gleaming towers of Tokyo's high rise city centres, Roppongi Hills and Shinjuku, and full of the sensory overload and neon-possibilities of its commercial hubs, Akihabara and Shibuya. Where once Japan had an exotic culture of geisha (entertainment women), tea ceremonies and zen gardens, and an art of subtle wood block prints and ukiyo-e (Edo period pictures of the floating world), it now became a Cool Japan of maid cafes, outrageous teen street fashion, and infinite lines of plastic collectible products. The art of Murakami, Nara and Mori somehow succeeded in packaging this mostly youth and teen oriented pop culture for the elite, adult, and very rich global art world. Like the Young British Artists – a parallel generation who managed to re-invent London and “Cool Britannia” with a dramatic and often shocking pop art in the 1990s – this group of Japanese otaku style artists found international acclaim by presenting Japan and its capital city, as the artists in London had, as uninhibited “Sensation”.
To say the least, this superflat vision of Japan seems history now. The international image of Japan may have changed forever. Cool Japan is over. Japan is no longer seen as the leader of high tech modernity or the world’s Asian future. And for weeks in 2011 all the world saw on 24 hour news channels and YouTube were images of buildings shaking and the sea smashing into a vulnerable coastline. It watched in horror as nuclear reactors exploded, and numerous cities and towns were laid waste. For years the world had known that Japan had a stagnant economy, and even more stagnant politics. It had an ageing population and a desperately low birth rate. It had too many suicides, and a massive gap between urban growth and rural decline. It was being supplanted industrially and financially by China. But at least it had culture. For a decade, Cool Japan provided an alternative vision. It was government policy, and the first line in all the tourist guidebooks. Then, all of a sudden, the long distance air flights were nearly empty. Cool Japan became history, the bad memory of another “lost decade”. Internationally, Japan nearly dropped off the world map.

In the Japanese contemporary art world, the problem with Murakami and associates was already visible a long time before 2011. The easy eye candy of superflat art was, to anyone that knew anything about the place, a blatant caricature and distortion of modern Japan. For a decade, it became practically the only Japanese contemporary art ever seen internationally. In fact, the success of their otaku style art stood as the stunning exception to the dismal failure of much Japanese contemporary art to match the international impact of Japan’s other creative industries. As a result, aside from Murakami and co., contemporary art from Japan was much less globally appreciated than its anime and manga artists, its character and toy producers, its architects and fashion designers, or even its cooks and novelists. The Japanese art scene in reality languished for over a decade in the shadow of a far bigger Chinese art boom. Its turnover was a miniscule part of the global art market, and its many expensive museums and ambitious art festivals were largely overlooked by foreigners. Tokyo’s lively but small art world has never been anything but a minor outpost on the global map. Successive waves of home grown artists and creators articulated a variety of original and alternative visions to Murakami, Nara or Mori. But in the shadow of Cool Japan, they struggled to attract much attention or sales.
Meanwhile, Takashi Murakami’s heady cocktail – written down in his 2001 manifesto for the Western art market, Superflat, that blended oriental stereotypes, deviant sexuality, corporate branding, and promiscuous pop culture iconography – was channelled into a bigger entrepreneurial mission back home. He successfully promoted himself as the guru of the kuri-eita (creator) generation, the young adults of Japan’s two “lost decades” of the 1990s and 2000s who grew up in a society in decline, but who dreamt of the freedom to travel and to express themselves creatively. To these followers in Japan, he declared he was on a mission to fool the West and smash the Japanese art system. Yoshitomo Nara meanwhile pursued a no less successful path to independence. He built on smart collaborative ventures across Asia, drawing on the help of thousands of internet fans. He also tapped into an outpouring of regional development aid from his native region, putting on touring shows that fronted his own multi-million yen book, toy and merchandise franchise.

The essays in this book retell the story of these two remarkable artist-entrepreneurs, as well as others close to them – both in terms of what they achieved and what their success prevented during their two decade long rise. They portray the social and cultural milieu out of which they came, and get inside the Japanese contemporary art world to explain its rare successes – and more frequent failures – on the international stage during these years. Based on over five years of interviews, documentary research and participant observation as a visiting writer on the Tokyo art scene as well as its outposts in Asia, America and Europe, it is a sociologist’s account of the Japanese contemporary art world today. Placing art in context this way is in fact one way of narrating the dramatic social and generational change of Japan since its own economic “Bubble”. This was when Japan's incredible post-war boom years came to an end at the beginning of the 1990s, and it entered a period of long, slow decline that have continued through to the new shattering disasters of 2011.

Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara did it “their way”, but not by themselves. They joined forces with a new generation of art world entrepreneurs – leading gallerists, impressarios, and writers in Tokyo, as well as foreign dealers and curators. Together these people invented an international art scene, with new networks of museums and curators, and a new contemporary art market in Japan. Japanese government and corporations ignored this until it became something they too could use. Artists, curators and entrepreneurs tapped into an extraordinary creative boom of crisis-stricken Japan in the mid 1990s. They invented ideas, attitudes and imagery that were later made successful on a global scale. Yet along the way, an essentially radical and transformative cultural movement was hooked to much more powerful conservative forces of urban development and political nationalism. Big financial interests such as the Mori Building Co., and big political concerns, such as Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s Olympics-driven vision for Tokyo, were able to appropriate the creative surge to their own ends. So did bureaucrats and ambitious leaders of Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party, desperate to find a new image for Japan internationally, using Cool Japan to boost its “soft power”.

As part of the global Cool Japan mania, superflat art came to dominate the world’s view of Japanese contemporary art, monopolising spaces and opportunities where other visions might have been seen. It offered false promises to young artists who thought they could follow the path of these older artists, leading many astray. Meanwhile, the world grew tired of Murakami and Nara’s pop production lines in the international art world, with nothing emerging to take its place. It was already clear by the end of 2010 that there would be a terrible void in Japanese contemporary art the day that Cool Japan ended. The Western art world was already getting bored with images of Akihabara and cute cartoon characters. Its interest had long since moved on to other, hotter, Asian destinations such as China and India.

Still, something important started in the difficult years before March 2011. A younger generation of artists, now in their late 20s and 30s, absorbed the business lessons and international ambitions of Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, while rejecting their aesthetic stylings and obsessions. Others initiated distinct forms of creativity under the influence of various less well recognised figures from the early 90s wonder years. More idealistic entrepreneurs in the art world inspired extraordinarily ambitious festivals and redevelopment projects that brought in art and architecture to some of the most declining regions and urban neighbourhoods in the country. And the disasters of 2011 inspired a new kind of community engagement from artists looking for a redfined role in a troubled society. After the rise and fall of Superflat, there may still be hope for a fresh and more sustainable vision for Japanese art.

BOOK LAUNCH AND PARTY: April 4th 2012, NADiff a/p/a/r/t, Ebisu, Tokyo. Please join us!


日 時:4月4日(水) 18:30-20:00
会 場:NADiff a/p/a/r/t 1F店内





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