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10 Japanese Artists Who Are Shaping Contemporary Art

Compared with artists in neighboring Asian countries, Japanese artists, it is often said, tend to cultivate their creativity within a closed (and relatively smaller) ecosystem. Working under social oppression and stagnation, Japanese artists have developed distinctive art scenes across the country.
While Japanese contemporary art—especially from the post-war period—has attracted attention around the world and has been researched and contextualized within global art history and international exhibitions, it seems that the recent narratives are still limited. The spotlight is frequently placed on only six “star artists”—, , , , , and —who are successful internationally (and are currently celebrated in a show at Mori Art Museum in Tokyo). Therefore, the following list, while still failing to cover many prominent artistic practices, is intended to sketch out divergent Japanese streams of contemporary art.
Cultural sectors in Japan are compelled to deal with the latent censorship of political and sexual expression. Such was the case with the Aichi Triennale 2019 in Nagoya, which brought discussions of gender-related issues in institutions out into the open, though part of the exhibition, which featured works that had been censored by public institutions, was shut down because of their critical references to the history of Japanese imperialism and nationalism. Japanese artists must also contend with the violence of the revisionist tendency and the amnesia of history within the country’s homogenized society.
Now more than ever, artists convey the historical, economic, and social burdens and desires that exist in contemporary society. And they question the multilayered identities and conditions shaped by transcultural exchanges, which aren’t evident in public discussions. The artists featured in this list reflect on these specific conditions and conjure a bigger picture of cultural and artistic fluidity. They are esteemed due to their innovative approaches to cultural representation and their artistic methodologies.

B. 1973, Tokyo. Lives and works in Tokyo.

Yurie Nagashima, Onion, 2005. Courtesy of Maho Kubota Gallery.

Yurie Nagashima, Onion, 2005. Courtesy of Maho Kubota Gallery.

Yurie Nagashima, Poppy #2, 2019. Courtesy of Maho Kubota Gallery.

Yurie Nagashima, Poppy #2, 2019. Courtesy of Maho Kubota Gallery.

As a photographer, artist, and writer, Yurie Nagashima has depicted herself and her relatives, placing the concept of the family at the core of her work. Her early self-portraits and those of her relatives in the nude—which question the roles and functions performed by family members—made her a leading figure of a group of female photographers documenting daily life through portraiture and nudity in the mid-1990s.
Nagashima’s practice has expanded into intergenerational and collaborative works, which involve her mother and grandmother. Such works shed light on the invisible work of women at home, while reflecting the histories of her subjects. Nagashima’s writing is inseparable from her practice; her newly published book From Their Onnanoko Shashin To Our Girly Photo (2020) criticizes the Japanese heteronomative male gaze and narrates the movement of female photographers from a feminist perspective. Her work is urgent within Japanese cultural discourse, which is still far behind international debates on gender-related issues.

B. 1951, Osaka. Lives and works in Osaka.

Since the early 1980s, Yasumasa Morimura has been transforming himself into notable subjects from history with extensive props, costumes, makeup, and recently, digital manipulation. He produces uncanny and satirical recreations of iconic images, often from the canon of Western art history, as well as portraits of celebrities and political figures of post-war Japanese society. These self-portraits challenge and subvert the rigid codes of body, identity, and desire by engaging with a number of tangled images and issues surrounding race, sexuality, and gender.
While contemplating Japan’s complex absorption of Western culture, Morimura has explored the obscure state of being oneself by using his body, an Asian male body, which has been marginalized and feminized in contrast to the masculinity of the West. Within the traditional scope of self-portraiture, his practice unfolds temporally, engaging with the past, but also dragging the effects of history into contemporary culture.

B. 1976, Okinawa. Lives and works in Okinawa.

Chikako Yamashiro’s artistic practice amplifies the transcultural and political space of her native Okinawa. Her works have centered on the complexity of dominant historical accounts of Japanese and American occupations of the island. At the same time, she emphasizes the recondite aspects of Okinawa’s contemporary reality and the lives of indigenous inhabitants.
While sometimes utilizing her own body in performances and videos, her immersive installations dramatize historical colonialism, globalization, and the exploitation of natural resources. Such subjects intersect with issues of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and identity that are cultivated and internalized by historical accounts. Yamashiro conveys political and subversive geopolitical memories of Okinawa and beyond in East Asia. Her video installations often employ the haunting histories, nature, and mythology of the island alongside the sensual performativity of oral folklore to humorously invoke historical and political oblivion.

B. 1976, Gunma. Lives and works in Yokohama.

Meiro Koizumi’s performance-based video works explore the relationship between the nation and the community, as well as the group and the individual. He often addresses the political and military history of Japanese imperialism and its impact on the cultural and social reality of the present.
Through repetition, disruption, and manipulation or close-ups of certain actions, his works generate intense tension and emotions that accumulate between the bodies of performers, as well as the viewers. At times, he explores the nuances of comfort by placing performers in awkward and sometimes painful situations. The cruel dynamics of his practice, which resonates somewhat with contemporary Japanese society, break down banal images of daily life. His work encompasses themes of heroism and self-sacrifice for the collective national identity, thus showing different and multilayered relationships and ideologies that exist side by side under the “peacetime” of the Japanese post-war psyche.

F. 2005, Tokyo.

Founded in 2005 with six members—Ryuta Ushiro, Yasutaka Hayashi, Ellie, Masataka Okada, Motomu Inaoka, and Toshinori Mizuno—the artist collective Chim↑Pom’s artistic practice and projects have intervened directly in contemporary society. The artists have opened provocative discussions and social dialogues concerning public space, urbanism, consumerism, and poverty in globalization, as well as the historical traumas and the various “borders” present within society.
Through working with diverse local and international collaborators and with a humorous and ironic way of approaching subjects, Chim↑Pom has expanded the scope of their guerilla and live interventions, which are often documented as video works and shown as installations. Pushing the boundaries of the realm of art, they also initiate and collaborate on events and projects, such as the international exhibition “Don’t Follow the Wind,” launched on March 11, 2015, in Fukushima, inside the nuclear exclusion zone, that can be accessed and viewed if the evacuation regulation is lifted.

B. 1968, Kagoshima. Lives and works in Akita.

Tadasu Takamine’s multimedia installations—primarily involving video, sculpture, and performance—touch on buried and often troublesome issues in Japanese society, such as the history and subtle racism against Zainichi Korean people and immigrants in Japan, as well as the self-inflicted homogeneity.
His works encompass narratives ranging from family histories to the marginalization of sexuality and the body to commercial products and community, unveiling the concealed oppression and control over daily life. Through his ironic commitment towards his own body and sensitivities, and embrace of the personal experiences of his collaborators, Takamine shares a diversity of emotions—frustration, pain, and conflict in uncomfortable situations—which are often dismissed by the cultural emphasis on “empathy.”

B. 1975, Tochigi. Lives and works in Kyoto.

Through various means of presentation—such as documentary-style video, installation, critical writing, workshops, gatherings, and talks—Koki Tanaka asks the question of how we live together in society. He explores the possibility of the act of sharing, of coexistence and mutual understanding, or of incomprehension and mistrust within the cultural, social, historical and institutional framework of human activity.
Tanaka’s body of work tends to investigate the existing frameworks and institutions surrounding contemporary art, and attempts to redefine and displace them through reflecting on human behavior. Alongside the current worldwide rise of nationalism, right-wing populism, and xenophobia, the artist has also approached racist sentiments and discrimination against Zainichi Korean and multiracial people living in Japan. He opens conversations to develop an exchange of experiences and politics behind the construction of cultural and national identity.

B. 1965, Shizuoka. Lives and works in China, Mexico, Belgium, and Japan.

Through a wide range of media including painting, drawing, video, performance, and sculpture, Yutaka Sone demonstrates his profound interest in landscapes, both natural and architectural. His works explore the existence and presence of landscapes as forms and phenomena, with boundaries that are always blurring; his subjects range from microscopic snowflakes to urban engineering. He considers the uncertain and ephemeral aspects of landscapes, as well as the impact of human intervention.
While his early pieces focus on impossibility and failure as methodologies of art production, his marble sculptural works and installations show the collaborative aspects and labor of production. He is interested in the social nature of artmaking and embraces different types of technologies that give shape to the artistic process.

B. 1980, Kanagawa. Lives and works in Tokyo.

Yuko Mohri’s kinetic sculptures convey a contemplative, sometimes animistic mechanism; she employs an ecosystem of movements and circuits of energies. Her works often involve found objects and assemblages, as well as intangible conditions of space, such as gravity, wind, light, sound, or temperature. Mohri creates networks of objects, sometimes working with various collaborators, that vibrate with different frictions and resistances, resulting in auditory and object-laden landscapes. The works elicit ephemeral phenomena in the way they move and shift, always under the influence of unexpected encounters, uncontrollable forces, and ever-changing conditions of the environment, beyond human control.

B. 1972, Osaka. Lives and works in Berlin.

Chiharu Shiota’s large-scale and occasionally performative web installations are composed of thousands of black, red, or white threads, carefully strung together throughout entire spaces. These installations are often embedded with common or personal objects that convey and address “the presence in absence.”
Shiota’s works often feature a selection of objects including a window frame, a chair, a bed, a suitcase, and keys—objects that allow people to access different internal and external universes through memories. At times, an accumulation of objects like shells or vessels within her woolen installations lend themselves to a symbolic reading of human relationships. Her monumental installations, which viewers can enter, touch on feelings of anxiety, silence, and oblivion, while also placing the act of remembering in the foreground.
Mika Maruyama