Changes in Tokyo's Contemporary
Art Scene Since the 1990s

by Fumihiko Sumitomo

How is Tokyo’s contemporary art scene different from those in the rest of the region? We often hear that this city’s real estate and economy are what make it unique, but what about its contemporary art world? To understand its current state, we need to go back nearly two decades to the end of the Cold War.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the subsequent end of the Cold War wrought significant changes worldwide, and its effects rippled out to the art scene in Tokyo. In the literary world, Noriaki Kitazawa released his book Me no Shinden ‘Bijutsu’ Juyoshi Noto (A Shrine to Vision). This book explained in detail how Japan’s art system was imported from the West during the Meiji Era, consequently inviting a greater scrutiny and re-evaluation of the art system in this country. Despite a long-standing inferiority complex in regard to Western culture, the booming economy of the 1980s gave Japan renewed confidence, and this period saw artists taking a new look at traditional forms of art and considering the country’s own modes of expression and systems. The year 1989 also saw the opening of P3 Art and Environment. This space showcased art that focused on society and the environment, and like the Sagacho Exhibit Space that had opened a few years earlier, it became well known for its alternative activities. In 1990, the National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo opened the Osamu Tezuka exhibition, the first time the museum had held a solo show for an artist working in manga. These events showed that the definition of ‘art’ was gradually starting to encompass elements not associated with the Fine Art forms of the West.

Another major development was the way in which media art, with its use of technology, came to be assimilated by private enterprises. Canon launched its ArtLab, and the telecommunications corporation NTT opened the InterCommunication Center. The idea of marrying art with technology was readily embraced not only within the art world, but across a wide spectrum of society, including the world of industry. Here, one saw a trend emerging: people began blurring the line between a company’s profit-driven activities and art, and expected creativity from both; this is connected to the attention that nowadays the financial and political sectors are paying to the production of video and gaming contents. One can say that this was a result of some companies, unable to keep up with the cutting-edge art scene, turning toward their own marketing or business departments instead of seeking cultural support.

Since the 1980s, during which the term ‘avant-garde’ became virtually extinct, art left the confines of the individual and the personal, and was drawn into the realm of industry and politics. Large-scale public-works projects continued with the money left over from the bubble years, with key examples being the completion of Faret Tachikawa in 1994 and the Shinjuku I-Land Art Project in 1995. Fram Kitagawa, who led the Faret Tachikawa project, was also behind the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial in 2000, a large-scale art project and festival held in sparsely populated towns deep in the mountains of Niigata Prefecture with the aim of revitalizing their societies. Fumio Nanjo, who was in charge of the Shinjuku 132 I-Land project, is now director of the Mori Art Museum, opened in 2003 in Roppongi Hills, an urban development in the center of the city made famous by its sheer scale.

On the other hand, this same period saw the emergence of young experimental artists who rejected the industry-led trend in art. In 1992, Takashi Murakami participated in the Anomaly show at Roentgen Kunst Institut which would establish him as a well-known artist. The show had a major influence on key figures within the art industry. In 1993, Nobuo Nakamura, who had been educated at London’s Royal College of Art and was fiercely critical of Japan’s art world and art education published Shonen Art — Boku no Taiatari Gendai Bijutsu (Relax Contemporary Art), which stirred interest in the British art world and the work of the YBAs (Young British Artists), one of whom was Damien Hirst. Inspired by this book, Masato Nakamura and a group of young artists put on Shinjuku Shonen Art in 1994, a guerilla-style art event in the Kabukicho area of Shinjuku. In the same year, there was a substantial trend of artists banding together to form groups. One such group, the Showa Yonjunenkai,1 included Makoto Aida, Tsuyoshi Ozawa and Hiroyuki Matsukage, while another called Studio Shokudo, named after the abandoned factory cafeteria where the studio was located, included Isao Sato, Daisuke Nakayama and Yoshihiro Suda. In 1999, Masato Nakamura’s artist collective commandN launched Akihabara TV, an art project that took over the use of TV monitors throughout Tokyo’s electronic-goods district.

In general, these domestic artists needed a second job to support their livelihoods. When trying to sell their work, they would often find galleries to be extremely closed worlds that would only handle the works of well-known, veteran artists; struggling artists would end up repeatedly showing their works at rental galleries. However, these market conditions changed drastically in the 1990s. The NICAF (Nippon Contemporary Art Festival), held eight times between 1992 and 2003, never developed into an art fair of worldwide renown, but it made its mark on organizers around the country as the place to show contemporary art. In 1993, SCAI The Bathhouse, a public bathhouse-turned-gallery opened, one of a number of other galleries such as Taka Ishii Gallery and Wako Works of Art that catered to up-and-coming foreign and Japanese artists. NICAF has since changed its name to Art Fair Tokyo and focuses more on selling artworks to the average consumer as opposed to business interests and the rich, which I believe cultivates a better environment for artists to achieve independence.

In the latter half of the 1990s, the Japanese economy took a nosedive. The Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo opened in 1995, but after a while its budget for acquisitions was frozen and the once-popular corporate support of the arts either ground to a halt or faced budget cuts. In addition to this economic stagnation, Japanese society suffered two other major blows in 1995: the subway sarin gas attack perpetrated by the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect and the Hanshin earthquake that devastated Kobe revealed our vulnerabilities. There was also increasing popular discontent with the way social values had come to be measured by economic yardsticks, and many began to look inward and question their way of life. Against this backdrop, art shifted from exploring the larger social issues of the day to drawing on everyday life and immediate personal concerns. By becoming more of an expression of individual diversity, Japanese art came to explore rich and distinctive possibilities during this time. Key examples of this trend were the anime-inspired work of Takashi Murakami and his creation of Kaikai Kiki Co. with a group of young artists whose works reflect childhood ruminations, as well as Kazuhiko Hachiya’s works inspired by the film Back to the Future and the anime Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

More and more museums, faced with the need to establish regional ties and appeal to the public, improved their outreach programs. By and large, they had become institutions that catered to a select group of museum lovers and could no longer garner the support of the government or the taxpayers. Furthermore, public museums throughout the country were being pulled into the wave of privatization that was sweeping the country. There was no changes in tokyo’s contemporary art scene discussion of what role museums play in society. The questions of why so many large museums were built during the bubble period and what future they have remain unanswered. Improvements have been made, albeit in small steps: money spent on advertising and business operations has actually paid off, and museums have begun to attract a wider cross-section of society. With more people leading fulfilled lives, the greater their appreciation has grown for art. The booming Asian art market has led to an ever-growing number of people who show interest in buying artwork.

Aided by the increase in the number of museums and galleries, the Japanese art scene was gradually starting to discover its distinctive mode of expression, and yet at the same time its interest in the US and Europe began to wane; one can say Japan was going through a period of introspection. Then, in 2001 the Yokohama Triennale, a rather large-scale international exhibit, was held. Many overseas artists who were barely known in Japan participated in the event. Heavily advertised in the mass media, the event attracted people who did not typically visit museums and gave them the chance to view contemporary art up close. Also, art universities that were incredibly behind in their approach to art education were inspired by the international trends they witnessed at the event to improve their curriculums. At the same time, new information was pouring in from artists and curators returning from studying overseas during the 1990s. Returning to Japan in the early 2000s, these people did not simply occupy traditional jobs in museums and galleries but started activities of other kinds. Some began work for nonprofit organizations, putting their knowledge to use in the field of cultural arts for the greater good of the public: Arts Initiative Tokyo and Aomori Prefecture’s Harappa are but two such examples. In some cases, NPOs such as Yokohama’s BankART or Osaka’s remo are starting to replace the government or its directly affiliated foundations in the management of cultural facilities. At the second Yokohama Triennale, held in 2005, many of the city’s residents were able to experience contemporary art for themselves, which eventually led to the opening of art facilities using a number of empty spaces around the city. Despite being a huge city, Tokyo was sorely lacking in English-language information on the art scene, but the appearance of bilingual publications like ART iT magazine and the website Tokyo Art Beat remedied that situation. With the development of media information, the contemporary art world is no longer the preserve of a relatively small number of specialists, but has become increasingly accessible and well known.

Japan’s postwar art scene progressed from a period during which it absorbed Western culture and dealt with the discrepancies and contradictions this posed against its own culture, to a honeymoon period with the economy and the government, subsequently resulting in a rebellion of sorts against that marriage. At present, art stands at a crossroads: having been the preserve of specialists for so long, can it coexist comfortably among the public? The answer to that question is unclear. The challenge we face is learning how to stop treating art as something on a pedestal and embrace it on our own terms.


  1. The name means ‘Showa 40,’ the Japanese year for 1965. The group was made up of artists all born in that year.

About the Author

He is a founding member of Arts Initiative Tokyo (AIT) and currently serves as deputy director. He was a curator at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa and the NTT InterCommunication Center in Tokyo, and senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.

Among his independent projects, he was co-curator of Rapt! – 20 Contemporary Artists from Japan (Various venues, Australia, 2006), Beautiful New World: Contemporary Visual Culture from Japan (“798” Dashanzi Art District and Guangdong Museum of Art, 2007), and the 3rd Nanjing Triennial, 2008. He was the artistic director of the Festival for Arts and Social Technology Yokohama [CREAM] 2009, and a co-curator of Media_City Seoul 2010. He is currently a curator for Beppu Art Project 2012 and Aichi Triennale 2013, as well as adjunct curator of the Maebashi Art Museum which will open in 2013. He is the co-editor of From the Postwar to the Postmodern, Art in Japan 1945–1989: Primary Documents (Museum of Modern Art New York, 2012).

Fumihiko Sumitomo