In the summer of 2015, the phrase “the 70th year of the postwar era” appeared in all the Japanese newspapers. I wonder if there are any other nations that have been burdened with the term “postwar” for such a long time, in our case continuously since the end of World War II. According to Eiji Oguma, one of Japan’s most noted sociologists, “postwar” is not a term of periodization rather its meaning, in Japan, is equivalent to “nation-building.” Indeed, the summer of 1945 saw the national structure of our country redesigned from the ground up.

It could be said that the first thirty years of “the history of Japanese postwar art,” which I will quickly survey in this essay, is a trajectory of very fresh artistic activities in a newly born (or re-born) country. During this period, Japan raced along at a high speed, beginning from a jump-start to a fast acceleration and then proceeding at a steady rate. The 1950s witnessed a new society arise from vast areas of scorched ground, the 1960s an era when Japan become an economic power through its incredible growth, and, in the 1970s, a maturation period, with the arrival of a fully developed consumer and information-based society.

Along with this, Japan’s art underwent drastic changes and shifts. Emerging from the deeply engraved mark of 1945 as the beginning of the “contemporary”, artworks made during this period possess an enduring rawness and vitality, making them feel contemporary even today, decades after their creation.

In the first half of the “postwar” period, Japanese artistic practice grew with drastic changes, winding through new styles and bold gestures of experimentation. As a body undergoing intense growth spurts in a short period of time, these initial decades were characterized by unexpected twists and strains, aimed at destabilizing many previous and established conventions of art making and Japanese aesthetics. Japanese society, and its artists, grappled with the conflicting experiences of liberation from the Imperial and intensely nationalistic governance and, at the same time, intense reactions towards Americanization and the occupation that characterized these initial decades after the war ended. What is surprising is that the identity of Japanese contemporary art remains elusive and shaky, despite these seminal forerunners’ pursuits. At present, we in Japan are still formalizing a fully authorized Japanese postwar art history and confronting our own contemporary art.

1945 to the 1950s: Wound or Reset

Sur-documentalism and Avant-garde

After the Allied occupation from 1945, Japan finally recovered its sovereignty through the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1952. Two main types of artists pioneered new directions in this highly-charged period: those who viewed Japan s defeat as a wound and those who approached it as a reset.

Sur-documentalism, advocated by the writer and critic Kiyoteru Hanada as a new type of realism, applied aesthetics associated with Surrealism to paintings, shedding light on social injustices and revealing deeper layers of reality. Also known as its alias, “Reportage Paintings”, works by artists of this movement (Tatsuo Ikeda, Kikuji Yamashita, etc.) portrayed oppressed people and controversial incidents as caricature, based on their first-hand investigation of the dark sides of society.

In contrast, the avant-garde artists initiated artistic innovation through their unconventional methodologies. As inheritors of the pre-war generation of avant-garde painters, such as Yoshishige Saito and Takeo Yamaguchi who established the group Kyushitsukai (Ninth Room Association), these artists would form the mainstream of the early postwar Japanese art history; the groups Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop) in Tokyo and Gutai in Osaka. Formed around the critic Shuzo Takiguchi in 1951, Jikken Kobo was composed of members who were as curious as laboratory workers about experimentation, engaging in cutting-edge, all-encompassing, works of art, by incorporating industrial technologies, music, theater and different media. Gutai, formed in 1954, was different.

Responding to the proposition, “Do what no one has ever done before,” the favored dictum of its leader and chief proponent, Jiro Yoshihara, Gutai s members invented radical ways of art making, such as painting with feet (Kazuo Shiraga) or calling an electric circuit a painting (Atsuko Tanaka). Yoshihara himself had been a member of Kyushitsukai (Ninth Room Association) and also made Surrealistic paintings and calligraphically-based abstractions. Inviting the formless such as bodily actions and fluid materials to the notion of painting, Gutai works were described by Allan Kaprow as a precursor of Happenings, and positioned by Michel Tapi as a representative of Art Informel. It is possible to view Gutai paintings as works emancipated from all restraints associated with modern art, and with a kinship to their contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg.

1960s: Art Informel Sensation and Revelry

The Escalation of Anti-Art

Art Informel, a French term describing various styles of abstract painting that were gestural during the 1940s and 1950s, was associated with Gutai and possessed strong ties with Japan. Prior to the founding of Gutai, Japanese painters including Toshimitsu Ima , Hisao Domoto and Kumi Sugai, were already associated with this movement in France and its creative resonance, as well as its break from tradition in modernism, was distinctively felt in Japan.

Introduced into Japan in the late 1950s, Art Informel advocated the materiality of paints and the act of painting itself and instigated the production of anarchistic works oozing intense emotions amongst the younger artists. The Yomiuri Independent, an annual, unjuried and non-competitive exhibition, became their platform, filled with odd, almost garbage-like works combined with movement and sound, often made of discarded everyday items and obsolete materials. Continuing until 1963, this annual exhibition produced many young stars, such as Ushio Shinohara, Tetsumi Kudo and Hi-Red Center, and ended when the self-destructive craze by radical artists, so-called “Anti-Art,” reached its peak in the early 1960s.

Anti-Art emerged as part of the globally erupting counterculture. Not only art, but also culture in general in Japan, saw an explosion of often brutal, savage or wild body performances as well as archaic and more traditional visuals. It was resistance against modernity, propelled by the complication of people’s mixed feelings: they loved and hated the postwar modernization, because what it actually meant to them was nothing short of full scale Americanization. Cultural icons of this period include Tatsumi Hijikata’s Butoh dance focusing on the Japanese body, Juro Kara’s and Shuji Terayama’s Angura (Underground) Theatre and the signature blurry photographs (are, bure, boke) by Daido Moriyama and Takuma Nakahara, as well as kitsch posters by Tadanori Yokoo. Even as the basic attitude of the artists was “anti-establishment,” this radical and festive mood was also intrinsically bound up with Japan’s elation, buoyed up by two enormous national events: the 1964 Summer Olympics (Tokyo) and Expo ’70 (Osaka).

1970s: The Calm after the Storm

The Triumph of Mono-ha

After the revelry comes repose. The hot resistance, which characterized the 1960s, gradually shifted to cool-headed questionings. After each and every existing institution and value related to art was challenged, the next target set upon was the artist s intention. From this came a style of not making, later called Mono-ha. Artists who emerged in the late 1960s, such as Lee Ufan, who placed rocks on broken glass, and Kishio Suga, who, in a matter-of-fact way, leaned square pieces of timber against architecture, employed minimal materials and actions to explore primordial relationships with the world.

With Lee Ufan, well informed by both Eastern and Western philosophies, as its theoretical pillar, Mono-ha was not a group but a tendency of loosely interconnected artists, unintentionally coinciding with the contemporary ascetic practices such as Minimalism and Arte Povera. The ambiguity of the Japanese term mono, which covers various concepts such as objects, materials, things, and even situations, indicates their specific orientation. Staying away from articulate symbolization and objectification of the world, namely anthropocentrism, the Mono-Ha artists attempted to touch the intrinsic mystery of the world with no distinctions between objects and situations. Moreover, their practice of not making was interrelated with a new stream of conceptualism, in which works made solely of words emerged one after another, from artists like Jiro Takamatsu and Yutaka Matsuzawa. In stark contrast to the 1960s, art in the 1970s was nourished by such a style of rational contemplation.

At the same time, works using reproducible media blossomed, not only in the field of visual art but also in other genres such as anime, manga, illustration and graphic design, fueled by the growth of accessible technology such as video and in popular culture with the widespread availability of the TV and magazines. Such cultural activities, centered around consumer industries, functioned as an incubator for the genealogy of art after the 80s, in which glamour and flamboyance would be regained.