Japan lived through a hellish time, but one that was also calm and serene, a time that was once empty and full, a time of despair when everything had broken down, but when people had the feeling that everything was possible. 

                    Nishikawa Nagao1 

      During the Second World War, the government’s control over the arts tightened in Japan as censorship limited the content and style of artistic expression.  After suffering through the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Japanese were faced with the realization of the symbolic death of the empire and the transformation of Japan through the surrendering to occupation of American troops.  At the point of surrender, parts of Japan lay in ashes.2  The postwar period of Japanese art was ironically characterized by an atmosphere of possibility and hope. Professor Nishikawa Nagao describes this phenomenon:  

It was amidst this desert of ashes that the Japanese people made a new departure for new experiences.  In compensation for everything that they had lost, they had the liberty of imagining a new, ideal and at times utopian society.3 

      With the American Occupation, the government’s censorship of artistic expression lifted, leading to a reaction of explosive creativity in Japanese culture.  For the first time, Japanese artists were free to experiment: they soon sought to carry their renewed voices onto the international stage and to aim for world relevance. 

      During the Meiji period (1868-1912) Japan was marked by a distinct dichotomy of the traditional and modern arts, manifested in the development of the painting schools of yoga and nihonga.  While yoga reflected the interest in Western styles of painting, proponents of nihonga sought to a preserve distinctly Japanese traditional art media and styles, such as wood block painting, screen painting, and historic materials such as sumi ink and pigments.4  As artists began to experiment with abstraction, styles such as the French Art Informel in the 1950s, a third category of gendai kaida (‘contemporary painting’)5 emerged.  During the postwar period, two immediate artistic camps emerged:  the Tokyo-based “Reportage” painting in a social realist style, and artists’reinvention and modernization of traditional Japanese arts using more abstract and non-representational styles.  The artists’ re-thinking of tradition established a bridge between nihonga and yoga, which facilitated their eventual achievement of international acclaim. During this period of rich growth, various arts groups emerged: the printmakers, whose work aided the economic reconstruction of Japan because of American consumers’ demand for souvenirs; the re-inventions of traditional Japanese arts such as calligraphy spearheaded by Shiryu Morita, and the new modes of performative expression represented by the artists who joined to found the Gutai Art Association, led by Jiro Yoshihara.  Key figures of the period—such as Yoshihara and Morita, as well as Shuzo Takiguchi, American patrons, and other international contacts—encouraged experimentation and played important roles in the art world development.  Ultimately, during this period, the hierarchical structures of Japanese society loosened in tandem with the liberalization of the arts as various art groups reacted against the art establishment and institutions.  


      Japanese art institutions also underwent transformations before and after World War II. In Japan, an artist’s recognition depended on membership in an established artists’ group.  Communities of artists formed important institutions that brought together artists with common styles, approaches, and philosophies.  Through their particular community, an artist could guarantee exposure in the art world via exhibitions and other forums in which they displayed their works.  During the prewar period, these collectives were strict associations with systems of seniority and leadership, known as bijutsu dantai.6  The locations of exhibitions were frequently gadan (‘painting platforms’), often official, government-supported or semi-official ‘salons’ in which the artists’ exposure was dependent on their status within the bijutsu dantai, and not on the merit of their work.

      After the war there was an effort for the reformation of the bijitsu dantai in the democratic spirit to regenerate Japanese culture.  The Democratic Artists Association, which began in 1951, held an anti-establishment view:  “The spirit of creation is born out of freedom and independence. (…) We challenge the arts organizations and their ability to create freely.”7  Many other small avant-garde art movements, including the Gutai Art Association, Jikken Kobo (“experimental workshop”) and Gendai Bijutsu Kondankai (“Contemporary Art Discussion Group.”) emerged in the 1950s as a response to the democratization of the art world in Japan.  Coinciding with this development was the establishment of independent exhibitions such as the Yomiuri Indépendant, sponsored by the Yomiuri Shinbun, a Tokyo newspaper company.  This exhibition provided an open, democratic space for young independent artists and artist groups, integral to the development of postwar contemporary art.

      The postwar period resulted in other changes in the formation of artist groups.  During the 1950s and 1960s, avant-garde collectives multiplied and became important forums that allowed for female and younger artists to express their visions.8  There was also increasing awareness of art in Japan  because of the circulation of international loan exhibitions and art magazines, which had finally become available after the restrictive censorship of the war period.9 

      One of the starting points of the postwar reinvention of the arts community was the Contemporary Art Discussion Group (Gendai Bijitsu Kondan-kai), or Genbi, a group founded by Jiro Yoshihara, Shiryu Morita and others in Osaka in 1951.  Bringing together artists from diverse practices and disciplines, this group functioned as an intellectual forum and workshop space where collaborative interdisciplinary and intermedia projects were encouraged.  In their monthly meetings, ceramicists, painters, and calligraphers would discuss how to revolutionize and revitalize their art forms in a modernist spirit.     


      The Yomiuri Indépendant Exhibition was a key institution of the postwar art era in Japan. It provided a space that for unbounded experimentation and media exposure for individuals and artist groups.   Modeled after the French Salon des Indépendents,10 it wassponsored by the Yomiuri Newspaper and held annually at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum from 1949 until 1963.11  Its very existence was a testament to a widespread desire for the rejuvenation of Japanese culture after the Occupation, but even this exhibition was not unbiased.  It functioned   as a means to encourage Japanese national identity, and promoted the Yomiuri Newspaper.  While it was intended as a non-juried, democratic and open space, by 1962, the controversial experimentation evident in the exhibition prompted officials to institute restrictive rules. 

      Shuzo Takiguchi was an important voice in the League of Art Critics, who opposed these restrictions.   Like the artist Jiro Yoshihara, Shuzo Takiguchi was an influential poet, critic and artist.  He believed in artists’ abilities to move from one genre to another and called into question the boundaries between different genres.  For Takiguchi, experimentation was key, because through experimentation, artists avoided falling into predetermined  conventions and conformity    In this sense, his claims echo those advocated by Gutai leader Jiro Yoshihara: that is, to “do something that has never been done before.”  His protests were ultimately in vain, as the attempted restrictions were instituted.  The artists persisted in experimentation, so in 1964, only two months before the next scheduled exhibition, the newspaper announced its end, “citing that its initial goal of fostering new talent had been achieved.”12

      Because the Japanese art world was comprised of  artist collectives, the Yomiuri provided a new space in which both individuals and groups had a voice.  Ushio Shinohara explains the importance of this:  “We young artists in the late 1950s had no money but lots of passion. We entered our works in the Yomiuri Indépendant because that was the only place we could show them.  There were hardly any museums or galleries in those days, and no patrons.”13  While the Yomiuri began showcasing the works of prominent modern artists, in 1955 the atmosphere began to shift as younger artists began exhibiting works in the style of gestural abstraction.  As the years passed, the exhibit space housed increasingly radical works such as innovative paintings, performance events, and “environments.”14 Artists that belonged to the Gutai Art Association, the Neo-Dada Organizers, Kyushu-ha and Hi-Red Center all included their works in these exhibitions. With the discontinuation of the exhibition in 1964, many artists lost a prime exhibition space; however, by that time their anti-modernist art practices were well established and many arranged for alternative exhibitions.15  Artists moved their performance works from inside gallery spaces into the public outdoor arena, in some cases leading to encounters with the law as the boundaries between art and life became increasingly blurred.16 


      In an effort to break from the group system in Japan, and to transcend the limitations of the Japanese art world system, many artists left for Europe or the United States.  At the same time, artists who remained in Japan were influenced by international figures through venues such as exhibitions and art magazines. The relocation to other arts centres was particularly important for women artists, who struggled to develop their careers despite  the male-dominated artists collectives, singled out often as jyoryu (‘artists in the manner of women’).17 The dynamic and liberal atmosphere of New York presented an ideal opportunity for artists to freely develop their practices in different directions.  In the late 1950s and early 1960s, New York City occupied a central role in the art world and was the site of such experimentations as Abstract Expressionism, Happenings, Minimalism, Pop Art and Fluxus.18  Japanese artists became key participants in some of these movements, while there simultaneously emerged in the United States an interest in Japonisme culture and philosophy, such as Zen Buddhism and Japanese artistic forms such as calligraphy.19 New York art dealers began to fund Japanese artists whom they favoured, including Saburo Hasegawa, Kenzo Okada and even some Gutai artists.20 

      In the 1950s in Paris, Art Informel, the movement led by French critic Michel Tapié,was often interpreted as a European form of abstract expressionism..  The movement was defined by Tapié as un art autre, “art of another kind,” and came to encompass a universal style of gestural abstraction in the postwar period, practiced by  American, European and Japanese artists At the time of the dominance of Informel the centre of avant-garde art   shifted from Paris to New York, but for Japanese artists looking for international exposure, French art had a legacy of importance for them because of the stylistic influence of the Barbizon school in Japan, during the Meiji era..21  Two key artists included in this exhibition, Imai Toshimitsu and Domoto Hisao, were both Japanese Informel artists who moved to Paris to work with Tapié. 

      In the late period of the development of the Gutai Art Association, Imai and Domoto were instrumental in introducing Tapié to Gutai leader Jiro Yoshihara and in initiating the fruitful interaction between the two art movements.The dialogue between Informel and Gutai was motivated in part by Tapié’s desire to revitalize Informel and by both leaders’ desires to have their art movements elevated in visibility on the international stage.  The work of Imai and Domoto in Paris also played a role in the development of the “Informel whirlwind” in Japanese painting; many of these Informel-influenced works were exhibited in the Yomiuri Indépendant exhibitions.22