Japanese Modernism Reconsidered

IKKO TANAKA - Japan Graphic Design Modernism

“Modernism” is such a loaded term in terms of graphic design. For some, it’s the banal aesthetic that brought about the Helveticization of the corporate world and stripped all of the personality away from the non-stop barrage of advertising we are subjected to daily. To others, the term refers to something more political and innately humanist —a desire and movement to craft a world where communications are enhanced, with an end goal of life being made more livable. Some view Modernism as a movement that had vaguely defined start- and end-points, while some view the contemporary age as being a mere moment in the continued evolution of a larger, socially focused Modernity.

Here, I take a bit of both of these “Modernisms” and speak of the Modern from a hybrid standpoint —an observation of the moments in time when we as a global society made a conscious effort to veer away from the fussy classicism and pre- industrial struggle of pre-Modernity and set to the task of trying to make graphic design for the people (not that this was a purely altruistic pursuit – in Japan it tended to be trickle-down, manufacturers and retail ventures being among the first to shift their visual methodologies)1.

This is complicated by the difficulty in identifying exactly what “Japanese Modern” graphic design looks like. A dizzying number of design idioms came into play both from domestic and international sources from the Meiji Era (1868–1912) onward, so there is no overarching visual rubric which can be easily applied to easily
define early “Modern” Japanese graphic design. Other critics have argued that an application of visual elements co-opted from progressive aesthetics of foreign cultures, including but not limited to Art Deco and Avant Garde movements, defines Japanese Modernist graphic design. While there is no argument that forms of visual expression from abroad were highly influential (It is no coincidence that Marinetti’s 1909 Futurist Manifesto was translated into Japanese the same year it was published), little allowance is made for the myriad of other influencing factors, particularly the influence of vernacular advertising from both the West and the East whose elements and influence were assimilated, not just the Avant Garde.

Moreover, Japanese Modernity was just as much a self-initiated endeavor, not mere contextualization of foreign influence. This is a simplistic (and by that, I mean neither ‘simple’ nor ‘simplified’) misconception that has dogged the perception of Japan internationally for centuries. To pigeonhole “Japanese Modern” as merely design in Japan that aped the visual styles of Avant Garde movements abroad is both a disservice and a misstatement2. The Modern age in Japan started well before overt Western elements began appearing in posters, matchbox covers, book covers and signage country-wide in the 1920s. A movement toward posters and printed materials with reductive compositions with a pointed, streamlined deployment of imagery and typography/lettering was well underway two decades prior.

Japan had a fully-formed culture of printing prior to the 1860 arrival of the first lithographic press from overseas and the founding of Japan’s first lithographic printing company in 1872. “Japan’s Gutenberg”, Motoki Shozo developed Japan’s first sustainable system of moveable type technology for printing (and Japan’s first typography school) in 1869, with the assistance of Irish American missionary William Gamble. Shozo went on to form the Shinmachi Kappan Seizosho in Nagasaki, and his student Hirano Tomiji the Tsukiji Type Foundry in Tokyo, Japan’s first true type foundries. Both were innovators in creating multiple sets of type and introducing movable Latin types into the Japanese printing industry. The Tsukiji Type Foundry provided lithographic and typographic printing services as well as layout services, printing a number of books in both English and Japanese that looked at Japan as subject3 prior to 1903.

Integrated printing, design and typographic services proliferated around the turn of the century, most notably in the formation of Shueisha (later the Dai Nippon Printing Company) in 1876 and the Toppan Printing Company in 1900. Both of these companies still dominate the contemporary printing industry in Japan. These companies’ initial rise, along with the peak of the Tsukiji Type Foundry’s influence in the beginning of the 20th Century, helped create and form public conceptions of graphic design as a pro-social activity that holistically engaged all aspects of commerce. Design departments at the Mitsukoshi and Takashima department stores opened in 1909 and 1912, respectively, each providing promotional advertising with streamlined visual messaging that showed an economy of form and directness in consumer appeal that can only be described as “modern” —free from visual frippery, excess ornament of earlier times and direct, to-the-point advertising copy.

Ironically, it was this incorporation of design departments that would lead to the rise of Japan’s first “design stars”, most notably Sugiura Hisui, chief designer for the Mitsukoshi department store from 1910 onward and a member of the editorial committee of Gendai Shogyo Bijutsu Zenshu (The Complete Commercial Artist). The journal was Japan’s most important graphic design publication at that time, providing commercial art and design in all its forms from both Japan and the world. Individual volumes focused on one or more disciplines, including poster design, advertising, package design, shop signs, billboards, flyers and broadsides, page layout and design, and typography, as well as other related subjects. Each edition was replete with substantial explanatory texts, profusely illustrated, and had many color plates reproduced within. Hisui would later go on to form the Shichinin-sha, an independent design research group that focused on applied typography, the effect of color and the economy of visual style, as well as producing an annual poster exhibition.

Yamana Ayao, Japan’s second notable graphic designer established himself at a young age, designing and illustrating covers for magazines like Josei (Woman) and Kuraku (Joys and Sorrows) for the publisher Platon, as well as earlier designs for his self-initiated journal Chocolate while attending university. Ayao departed Platon to join the cosmetic company Shiseido’s design department at the end of 1928. At Shiseido, Ayao defined the company’s early house style —a tendrilled, Aubrey Beardsley-influenced illustration-driven series of advertisements and publications that focused on slightly abstracted female forms, delicate gothic lettering, geometric elements, and arabesque calligraphic flourishes. In two scant years, Ayao became Japan’s first full-fledged graphic superstar, jettisoning his employment at Shiseido (though returning sporadically throughout his career) to take up the gauntlet at assorted design departments throughout Tokyo.

The decade prior to Ayao’s initial time at Shiseido brought an onslaught of assimilation of distinctively foreign elements into Japanese graphic design.4 Mirroring the European avant garde’s search for a streamlined purity of visual expression, the form of kanji and kana would be subjected to both hyper-decorative and ultra-reductive tendencies at the hands of designers. Foreign-designed avant garde art and design books were easily available from the early 1920s through 1938, most notably in Tokyo from Kaiser, a German bookstore in Kanda and the nearby book retailer Sanseido. Each stocked Gebrauschgrafik, the renowned German design periodical alongside a wide array of exhibition catalogs and photography annuals from around the world. Soviet art and design publications were available from Nauka, a bookshop in Jimbocho that survives today.

Foreign and domestic application of design trends and theories were catalogued domestically in periodicals like Gendai Shogyo Bijutsu Zenshu, and the intensely Modern-focused Kokoku-kai (Publicity World), a wide-ranging commercial art journal that mixed dynamic multi-color illustrations of lettering, page layouts, signage and proposed kiosk designs with halftones imagery of graphic design, interior design and architecture from abroad. A pronounced influence from the Russian and German left is evident in all three of these publications, as well as lesser journals such as Belarto, a short-lived art and design journal whose operations began and ceased within the span of one year, 1933. Just a few years later, with Japan shoring up for war, these modes of graphic design were actively discouraged, leading to the jailing of a handful of leftist graphic designers who refused to convert to the state- approved style, a less architectonic, yet still Avant Garde-influenced amalgam of traditional and progressive design styles.5 Photomontage still had its place, but the leftist notions that drove (some of) the style’s early deployment in Japan were displaced with the ideology of a nation preparing for war.

Perhaps the most notable examples of efforts at design reform that helped to define Japanese early Modernism are efforts that ultimately failed. The orthography of the Japanese visual language would be called into question time and time again, as well. An adventurous attempt was made by Itto Kojima in 1886, reducing the Japanese syllabary down to a scant base of 24 characters, 4 horizontal snap-on bars that denoted inflection, and an encapsulating box to create variants of each syllable. In total, the result was a compendium of 204 characters that represented 609 different sounds. 1919’s New Japanese Script, designed by Shokichi Toru, reduced the thousands of kanji and hundred-plus kana required to read Japanese down to a mere 125 syllabic glyphs, their form influenced by a mix of Latin, Cyrillic and Kana letterforms. When compared with the kanji/kana/romaji-based orthographic system that has survived into contemporary times (though with reforms of it’s own in 1900 and 1946) these syllabaries were infinitely easier to memorize (versus the 2,00–3,000 kanji needed for fluency), though broke near-completely with the morphological development of a visual orthography that had been in progress for millennia.6 Internationalist in intention for their attempts at communicative efficacy, though wholly domestic in nature, it is these types of reform initiatives which define Modernism in the greater bounds of the canon of Japanese design, typography and type design.
In contemporary times, we see Japan continually saddled with the accusation that it’s cultures and people (particularly popular culture) are mere hyper- aggregates of pre-existing culture. Sadly, the design press both domestically and abroad has done little to question these fast and loose definitions in terms of
Japanese design history. The notion of “Japanese Modernism” has continually been slapped on past Japanese graphic design7 that incorporated elements of the Western Avant Garde without looking closer at what truly constitutes a modernizing force in the history of Japanese design culture. While World War II left so few remains of graphic design culture and ephemera, there is enough to assemble a history that is more than piecemeal.

It is with this in mind that I ask readers to be critical when writers bandy the term “Japanese Modern Graphic Design” about, though a rare enough occurrence in languages other than Japanese. The best analogy I can trot out is chocolate: Americans love Hershey’s chocolate, a concoction that tastes more or less akin to plastic when compared with chocolate from most other regions of the world.


  1. The focus is even more myopic – I am looking at typography, a subset of graphic design.
  2. and something that has been actively taken up both abroad and domestically.
  3. This self-awareness and self-analysis of nation is a key ingredient in what can be defined as Modernism: the recognition of nation precedes socially progressive trends of thought that affirm the power of human beings to create, improve and reshape their environment with the aid of practical experimentation, scientific knowledge or technology.
  4. The Japanese graphic design work informed by foreign elements of the two decades prior to World War II is continually collected today, reprinted in cheap volumes by publishers like David and Seigensha.
  5. Of note, conversion-wise, was Yamana Ayao’s shift from increasingly Western- looking illustrations of women to more traditional Japanese-looking subjects as depicted on the covers of the first two issues of the state-approved Nippon Magazine published in 1935 and Takashi Kono’s move from a Tschicholdian use of “typo-photo” to a more subdued style of photomontage that had distinctly Japanese elements at its core for Nippon Magazine.
  6. Kojima and Toru’s revisionist syllabaries are discussed in brief in Zerro, a compendium of dead visual languages that was self-pubished by Yukimasa Matsuda for his excellent and adventurous Matzda publishing imprint.
  7. The industry was imbued with the moniker “graphic design” and acknowledged as a term and specialized practice by American William Addison Dwiggins in 1922.

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