Bridging the Gap: A Look into the Rich Art Scene of Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo, the capital of Japan, is a popular destination, boasting phenomenal cuisine, bustling city life, and traditional Japanese architecture.

Tokyo, the capital of Japan, is a popular destination, boasting phenomenal cuisine, bustling city life, and traditional Japanese architecture. Whether it’s Shinjuku, Tokyo’s famous shopping district, or Meiji Jingu, a famous shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife, the city provides engaging destinations for people with many different interests. Tokyo is also a city rich in culture and the arts. Its extensive art scene features pieces from not only traditional Japanese styles, but also from a large contemporary body of work.

Art in Tokyo represents a blend of East-Asian culture and the western world. However, in order to understand how traditional art forms are, according to art history Professor Kyoko U. Mimura, “being given a modern spin,” we must first recognize the power of classical art. The Edo Period, lasting from 1615 to 1868, was a significant period of Japanese art history as during this time Japan restricted foriegn contact. Consequently, its isolation drove artistic progress with development in porcelain, theater, and woodblock printing that would ultimately create the acclaimed The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Many past traditions were revived and refined during this time and made Edo, modern-day Tokyo, a center for the arts. Thus, during the Meiji restoration period from 1868-1912, western techniques flooded into the arts scene, and from paintings such as Seiki Kuroda’s Lakeside, we can see that a new concept of oil painting was integrated into the depiction of traditional subjects. As Kuroda said, “The Westerners place emphasis on the finish, whereas the Japanese emphasize the subject and the amusingness.” He believed that Japan’s characterizing style could emerge through the blending of these two foci. Other Asian cultures impacted Japanese art as well during this time. For example, Chinese literature introduced by monks led to bunjinga, or literati painting.

The Edo and Meiji periods also led to the development of many new art forms popular amongst young generations today. Manga, or Japanese graphic novels, have historical ties to the late 18th century as wood-printing techniques promoted a style where subjects were outlined with black lines and filled with black and white contour instead of color. Anime, visual cartoons that blend Manga with animation, are a large part of contemporary Japanese popular culture. The Akihabara neighborhood in Tokyo is full of specialized venues such as the Tokyo Anime Center, displaying current trends in manga, anime, and video games. Taking inspiration from anime, the Harajuku style was formed as a fashion movement that rebelled against rigid societal customs and pressures. Anime is also widely popular overseas, spread through famous artists such as Hayao Miyazaki, founder of Studio Ghibli, an animation film studio based in Tokyo that has produced movies such as Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, and the classical Spirited Away, which grossed $289 million worldwide. Tokyo’s Ghibli Museum offers a behind-the-scenes view on the production of these movies and their original sketches. Much of Japan’s teenage culture revolves around anime and has even impacted new forms of verbal language and slang.

A few winters ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Ghibli Museum and observe for myself the creation process of the works of Miyazaki. The exterior design, colored by bright yellow, red and blue, looked as if it sprung out of a Miyazaki movie. With vines covering the walls, spiraling staircases, and large glass windows, the museum is located in a naturalistic environment. Tickets are made from clear film that shows different movie scenes when held up to light. Inside the museum, there are spaces for specialized couches shaped like movie characters. Manuscripts cover the walls, and replicas of Miyazaki’s studio were displayed, creating a space that represents a blend between traditional mediums mixed with digital displays.

In recent years, exhibitional art has also become widely popular with the introduction of technology as a medium to display art. TeamLab Borderless, a popular destination for young people in Tokyo, offers an immersive experience highlighting the fluid, intertwining relationships between humans, art, and nature. TeamLab stated that “digital technology has allowed art to liberate itself from the physical and transcend boundaries.” Graffiti, as an art form, has also been accepted in contemporary Tokyo; although it is banned within the city, public art initiative Mural City Project in Koenji provides a space for artists to paint murals which makes Tokyo “a landmark destination for street art.” Omotesando Avenue in Tokyo’s Harajuku area is an architectural haven. It contains over 10 buildings designed by architects that have won the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Spiral, drafted by architect Fumihiko Maki, takes on a 1980s post-modern Japanese style. Inside the building, a large spiral ramp leads up to the second floor; the exterior is made from reflectable aluminum and glass with which Maki wanted to “represent the chaos of the city.”

Various art forms are represented within Tokyo. With museums such as the Mori Art Museum and Edo-Tokyo Museums, visitors can experience for themselves the development of art from traditional to contemporary, complete with an abundance of art where modern technology is integrated into classical forms.