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From Woodblock to Computer Graphics:
The 20th Century Japanese Poster 

Japan’s extraordinary postwar transformation from a war-torn impoverished nation into an economic superpower is well documented in modern literature. Few, however, are familiar with the parallel revolution that took place in Japanese graphic design, particularly the poster. Perhaps more than any other graphic medium of expression, the development of the Japanese poster records the exceptional 20th century transformation of Japan into a modern state.

Posters first appeared in Japan around the 1870s, after the import of Western machinery and printing techniques. Until the 1920s, many Japanese posters were “bijin-ga,” or “beautiful woman posters,” romantic depictions inspired by the bijin-ga genre of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. At that time, the poster was considered a kind of mass-produced decoration with little intrinsic worth, a poor cousin to the fine arts. Designers were something akin to technicians, with accordingly low social prestige.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, several new design-related magazines in Japan introduced the best of graphic art from at home and abroad. Japanese designers eagerly absorbed the design styles from Europe and Russia, becoming influenced by cubism, futurism, constructivism and other movements. Above all, the German Bauhaus had a tremendous effect on this generation. This was largely because its philosophy resonated so closely with Japan’s own native cultural traditions – namely, the integration of fine art and applied art. Naturally, Japanese posters reflected these international influences, and the period between the two world wars provided fertile ground for the nascent design industry. 

When Japan set about reconstructing its cities and economy after the war, that meant industry … and sales, sales, sales. This in turn meant advertising, and design. The country looked to the West for new standards of modernization, and design was no exception. 

Though Japan possessed unsurpassed traditions of centuries of decorative and fine arts, it had no real concept of modern design. Young graphic designers like Yusaku Kamekura, Yoshio Hayakawa, and Hiromu Hara set themselves to the formidable task of matching the high level of design skills in Western countries, and even aimed to surpass them. Given their country’s devastated conditions, and designers’ lowly status, this was no small feat. Moreover, from a purely technological point of view, printing technology in Japan could not compare to that of western industrialized nations at the time. 

For this country, anxious to be modernized as rapidly as possible, only modern designs would do. The romance of kimonoed bijin and Japanese landscapes were forgone; Instead, 1950s posters such as the Nikon ads by Kamekura, and the Daidoh Worsted Mills Wool ad by Kenji Itoh communicate about design, corporate and social sophistication, and thoroughly modern products. Kamekura’s bold lines and colors convey the bold determination of a growing nation and his generation of designers, and Itoh’s pioneering use of photography announced breakthroughs in Japanese design as well as worsted wool. 

Of course more traditional imagery was still utilized. Yoshio Hayakawa, in particular, continued to use more traditional Japanese imagery, but these were consciously contemporary versions. He used unorthodox amalgamations of expression, such as a kimono fashioned of a collage of origami, accented with mood-setting calligraphy -- a totally fresh approach for the time.

This decade saw Japanese design emerge as a modern profession with the formation of the Japan Advertising Artists Club in 1951 and the Tokyo Art Directors Club in 1952. In 1951, the first of many JAAC exhibitions took place. Most of the works submitted were posters, and many were created expressly for the exhibit. Designers continued producing posters specifically for the annual JAAC exhibits, which encouraged the creation of posters that were more artistic than commercial. 

Three years later the “Graphic ‘55” exhibition was held in Tokyo, showing works by the likes of Kamekura, Hara, Hayakawa, Takashi Kono and Tadashi Ohashi. Even when the posters were commissioned as advertisements, Japanese designers moved towards creating works that also stood on their own as expressive artistic creations. This reinforced a trend whereby graphic design imagery might seem –and perhaps, was – completely unrelated to the product, service, or company it was advertising. 

The Japanese poster moved from adolescence into maturity in the 1960s, coming into its own as a significant and valued design genre, distinct from other graphic design media. 

“Posters are judged by a momentary impression. They’re not pored over like books and magazines. They have to excite people’s interest, and have a really strong, apparent meaning,” says designer Mitsuo Katsui. 

Moreover, in one of the most homogenous societies in the world, the individualistic expression became of poster designers became highly esteemed. 

This came to pass with a series of major international events in which Japanese posters played a key role. The World Design Conference (also called “WoDeCo”) in 1960 brought internationally prominent designers to Tokyo, thereby bringing greater credibility to the design profession in Japan. 

In that same year, the Nippon Design Center was co-founded by Yusaku Kamekura, with the assistance of Ikko Tanaka, and Kazumasa Nagai. The NDC constituted a joint venture between eight major Japanese companies (Toyota Motor, Toshiba, and Nikon among them), and brought them together with designers for the purpose of using effective, innovative advertising to encourage the development of Japanese industry. With the NDC, industry acknowledged design as a key to economic growth. 

The Tokyo Olympics of 1964 was a spectacular turning point for all of Japan, and design was no exception. Just as the Olympics gave the recently industrialized Japan a chance to show off its new highways and ultra-fast shinkansen trains, so the massive coordinated design project involved gave the young graphic design industry a chance to parade its talent. 

Yusaku Kamekura designed the Olympic symbols and photographic posters, garnering both international and national esteem. Some of Kamekura’s powerful, direct posters depicted photos of athletes in action, marking the entry of photography into mainstream poster design. Their forceful symmetry of line and plane make them a benchmark for the industry even today. With the Olympics, Japanese graphic design attained an undisputed world-class level. 

In1965 a second major graphic design exhibition, “Persona,” was held in Tokyo, organized by Ikko Tanaka and Yusaku Kamekura. It showcased Japan’s second generation of post-war graphic designers: Kiyoshi Awazu, Shigeo Fukuda, Gan Hosoya, Mitsuo Katsui, Tsunehisa Kimura, Kazumasa Nagai and Tadanori Yokoo. As the title of the event suggests, this exhibit encouraged works that were very much the unique creations of their individual designers. 

Fed by the success of the Olympics, Japan’s rapid economic development accelerated. A consumer society emerged, one that consumed at an astonishing soar rate. The new consumer culture spurred on the demand for graphic design, and the field matured: Illustrators and photographers emerged as clearly significant roles within graphic design. 

Major improvements in printing and typesetting technologies –the forgotten siblings of graphic design -- were also made in the ‘60s. Designers consistently pushed the envelope of printing capabilities, leading the print industry forward in innovations, which in turn allowed greater possibilities for graphic designers. 

“When I’m designing a poster, I’m thinking 100 percent about the print finish. I’m always thinking about, first of all, the printing,” said Koichi Sato, known today for his skilled exploitation of Japan’s advanced printing techniques. 

The late ‘60s brought to increasingly individualistic Japanese designers the burst of creative self-expression that was sweeping the globe. The range and scope of imagery used in Japanese design broadened tremendously. Kazumasa Nagai and Mitsuo Katsui became known for their intriguing studies in geometric composition and form, while Shigeo Fukuda was renowned for his visual tricks, humor, and playful effects. Tadanori Yokoo revived traditional Japanese imagery with an avante-garde flourish. He and other youthful designers rode the period’s socially critical wave, and created images totally divergent from the standard modernist expression. 

All the energy of the ‘60s climaxed with Expo ’70 in Osaka. The team of Japanese designers who worked on the Expo reads like a Who’s Who of Japanese graphic design. But the Expo was most remarkable for the tremendous amount of interaction it facilitated between the Japanese people and culture and those from abroad. This sparked a renewed, comparative interest in the cultural essence of Japan, which can be observed in posters produced throughout the ‘70s. Tadanori Yokoo’s “Greeting,” from 1973, juxtaposes iconography from Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism in an advertisement for a printing company, also demonstrating the artistic approach to Japanese posters that seems almost comically divorced from their commercial purpose. 

By the mid-seventies, Japan’s export- and production-driven economy had shifted. Japan possessed new affluence, and the importance of advertising boomed in order to win the attention of Japan’s new consumer class. Artistic directors at corporations and department stores pioneered a new form of innovative communication in the late ‘70s and 80s. They were now the leading innovators of poster design, particularly with their creative use of photography and illustration.

Illustrations by Harumi Yamaguchi and art director Eiko Ishioka for the fashion-making PARCO department store demonstrate the growing bond between designer and corporate client. Yamaguchi was one of the first illustrators to adopt airbrushing techniques from the manufacturing sector. She and her images of sexy, daring beauties (known as “Harumi Girls”) and the contemporary PARCO lifestyle became synonymous for each another. 

Makoto Nakamura and Shiseido cosmetics developed a similar symbiosis. Nakamura’s posters helped reinvent the notion of Japanese feminine beauty. His classically-oriented photographic closeups relied on the finest printmaking skills, since the impact of his posters relied on exacting details such as the texture, tone and light reflection in a woman’s face. With work from the likes of Yamaguchi and Nakamura, Japanese posters returned full circle to the pre-war bijin depictions, but on a completely new level.

The early 1980s bore the fruit of the previous decade’s self-exploration into Japanese culture. Kohei Sugiura, for example, had spent years traveling throughout Asia, particularly India and Asia. His Buddhist mandala poster for the 1984 exhibit, “Tradition and New Techniques: 12 Japanese graphic artists,” presents the spiritual profundity of Japanese and Asian culture combined with stunning design and the highest printmaking skill. 

While in the 30 years after the war Japanese designers were keen to develop a more westernized modern aesthetic, by the ‘80s they had renewed esteem for their heritage, recognizing it as part of the foundation of their modern success. 

“Historically, the Japanese excelled at planar or two-dimensional expression: The foundation of Japanese culture is wood and paper. During the Edo Period, for three hundred years, this ‘paper culture’ fermented, condensing that aesthetic sense. Edo wood-block prints have a lot in common with modern-day printing techniques,” said Mitsuo Katsui, a pioneer in computer and photographic design technology in Japan. 

By the mid-1980s Japan’s bubble economy had driven consumption and high prices to astonishing levels. Yen flowed like water, and the insatiable desire for fresh, original products and more information funded a prolific design industry. The excess of the age was reflected in an ever-wider range of visual expression, from the nonsensical to the surreal to the magical. 

The young Makoto Saito broke new ground in the use of photography in graphic design, with an extreme but totally original presentation that captures the intense, heady energy of the bubble years. The raw force of his imagery appealed to the youthful, purchasing public. 

The 1980s also saw Kazumasa Nagai broke with his traditional style of abstract geometric shapes and moved into elaborate designs using animal imagery. These mysterious posters proved both appealing and disturbing, like nature itself, and paved the way for an increased social awareness of the environment in Japan. Nagai’s ability to reinvent himself after 30 years in the business attested to the continuing innovative force of Japan’s first generation of designers. 

Despite the advent of the computer age, Nagai continues to design all of his work manually. “By hand, you can’t draw a line with the same thickness twice – that’s the limit of the human technique. On the other hand, that’s precisely where you get the ‘touch’ that only comes from the human hand, “ he says.

Meanwhile, Mitsuo Katsui has continued his configuration-oriented style, now evolved to works of brilliant color created with computer graphics. From his generation, he has led the way into the future of computer graphics and digitalization. 

“Usually even the color of the printing on paper must shine in a similar was as colors do when seen on a computer monitor, or else human being don’t feel satisfied. Visual culture is evolving another step,” he explains.

The bubble economy burst in the early ‘90s, and the element of excess in graphic posters also diminished. With the advent of the internet and increasing media exposure, posters have become less prevalent as an advertising medium. As a result, their standing as an artistic medium for designers’ original expression is more pronounced. Unusual in other countries, in Japan many posters are printed at the designer’s expense to help promote a social or environmental cause, or an artistic group. Whatever the purpose, the common ground for Japanese poster design developed in the 50 years since the war -- ambitious innovation and a diverse range of styles and expression -- is here to stay.

Images copyright Winds publications, November 2001 issue


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