25 Must-See Japanese Artists Who Have Nothing to do with Anime or Manga
Because of the ever-burgeoning (some would argue bloated) prolificacy of anime and manga in American society, the first things many individuals immediately think of when the subject of Japanese art pops up are the doe-eyed, snub-nosed schoolgirls with pink pigtails, impossibly proportioned cleavage, and fetishistic uniforms typically associated with anime and manga. While even those genres in and of themselves are far broader than the disturbingly sexualized hyper-cute stereotypes let on – as the timeless works of Osamu Tezuka and Hayao Miyazaki with undeniable crossover appeal will attest – Japanese art and artists are just as varied, eclectic, and nuanced as those from other nations. On the other end of the spectrum, many of the more extreme anime and manga fanatics entirely dismiss other works of art simply because they are paintings or sculptures instead of acetate cells or pages. The following men and women prove that there is much more to understand and appreciate about Japan’s creative output than its animation and comic books exclusively:
1. Katsushika Hokusai
While the name itself may not conjure up too many images outside art history enthusiasts, Hokusai’s iconic woodblock print (or ukiyo-e) The Great Wave Off Kanagawa is immediately recognized all over the world. Practicing during the Edo period (1603-1868), the highly popular, respected, and gifted artist changed the face of ukiyo-e forever. Where once the domain of portraiture, Hokusai stretched the technique to include natural scenes as well. Prolific and passionate until his death at the age of 88, his impressive output of prints, sketches, and paintings reflect a proficiency in a wide variety of stylistic preferences. Some remain elegant in their simplicity, while others display a keen eye for intricate and lovely details.
2. Utagawa Hiroshige
No doubt influenced by Hokusai, with whom he shared an overlap, Hiroshige’s stunning ukiyo-e prints carried on the master’s use of subjects beyond the usual actors, actresses, and prominent members of society. His interesting blend of vivid colors, excruciating detail combined with minimalism, and visually striking compositions earned him a number of accolades and followers in his lifetime. Most of Hiroshige’s more celebrated works focus on the landscape and everyday life during the Edo period of Japanese history. He tended towards producing multiple series depicting one scene or area from several different vantage point, much like his influence Hokusai.
3. Shinji Turner-Yamamoto
Award-winning environmental artist Shinji Turner-Yamamoto incorporates a number of different techniques into one stunning portfolio. His abstract expressionist paintings play with color and texture, with their unique materials playing a major role in the composition. Turner-Yamamoto combines unusual media in bold ways, with naturals and synthetics marrying together to create subdued, aesthetically pleasing works. He looks to the art of the past as well as the bounty of nature for inspiration, never content to resign himself to only one venue of design. The Round Thoughts series blends rocks from Mount Etna with clay to create geometric forms evoking both the natural state of the rocks as well as handmade craftsmanship and humanity’s delight in order and smoothness. He brings this philosophy into the achingly beautiful Global Tree Project as well – a masterful visual treat that even the most jaded critics of contemporary art must explore.
4. The Gutai Group
An artist’s collective founded in 1954, The Gutai Group expressed an interest in stripping away manufactured artifice in order to find the true honesty of an object. Having survived World War II, they grew intrigued with the concept of beauty rising Phoenix-like from the confines of death, destruction, devastation, and other horrors. Their eloquent, haunting, and provocative manifesto, available in English via the Ashiya City Museum of Art and History, stands as a work of art in and of itself. The collective drove home these themes through conceptual installations and abstract expressionist works forecasting future movements and iconic international artists such as Andy Warhol.
5. Akira Kurosawa
Rightfully considered a film auteur whose stunning career still inspires and impresses film aficionados and experts alike, editor, screenwriter, director, producer, and all-around Renaissance man of the screen and studio Akira Kurosawa is easily the most recognizable name on any listing of Japanese artists. In his lifetime, he directed 30 films – many of which contain a number of stunning images both still and kinetic. A consummate storyteller, he could compellingly segue from winding dramas with intersecting and conflicting narratives (Rashomon) to bittersweet character studies (Ikiru) to epic action (The Seven Samurai) to Shakespearean adaptations (Throne of Blood). Even detractors of foreign or classic cinema may find something to their liking in his eclectic oeuvre.
6. Shinoda Toko
Blending together “Eastern” and “Western” concepts, Shinoda applies her fluency in the art of calligraphy with an appreciation of abstract expressionism to create elegant paintings and prints with ink. She seeks to capture transient concepts on paper, such as emotion and the inevitable ebbs and flows of nature, preferring to stick with a neutral palate with occasional instances of muted browns. However, some works include vivid shades of red as well. Shinoda incorporates quick, fluid brushstrokes alongside broad forms and geometric constructs.
7. Maruyama Oukyo
Considered one of the National Treasures of Japan, Oukyo founded his own influential art school in Kyoto during the late 18th century. His paintings, which generally emphasized animals, plants, and landscapes, reflected both European trends in naturalism as well as his own personal convictions. The results ended up as stylized – yet undoubtedly realistic – depictions of the subjects at hand. Most of his elegant paintings featured an entirely absent background, or one comprised of a few minimalistic, faded washes. Though favoring elements of nature over all other topics, Oukyo occasionally delved into the realm of the mythic as well, creating stunning paintings of dragons and other fictions. He also challenged popular perceptions of decency at the time, learning how to draw the intricacies and subtleties of the human figure directly from live nude models – a practice that was, at the time, considered inappropriate and pornographic, even when no actual sexual content factored into the poses.
8. Takako Saito
Formally trained in psychology before launching into the academic study and practice of art, Saito infuses elements of her original discipline into every one of her painstakingly crafted conceptual pieces. She is best known for constructing a series of chess sets involving variances of taste, smell, and texture introduced into the game pieces and rules alike – mirroring the philosophies of Dada icon and chess aficionado Marcel Duchamp. Spices, liquor, wine, books, and many other objects replace the traditional kings, queens, pawns, rooks, etc., with the different properties of each denoting their value to the game. It involves the senses beyond the tactile and visual usually required with chess, and stimulates the mind with figuring out the ways in which the pieces and board interact with one another.
9. Soufu Teshigahara
Japanese-style flower arranging, known as Ikebana, enjoys a considerable amount of international renown – thanks to the efforts of Soufu Teshigahara. Seeing the artistic and self-expressionistic potential of floral design, he opened the Sougetsu School in order to nurture this message. He taught students all the formalities to give them a solid foundation in the medium, then encouraged them to explore all its possibilities. Soufu himself took great pleasure in creating arrangements that transcended the decorative and became living sculptures, incorporating scrap iron and other unexpected but not unwelcome departures from tradition. This opened up Ikebana to areas beyond Japan’s borders, piquing the curiosity of creative types across the world and leading them to view floral arranging as a truly limitless art form rather than merely one aspect of interior design.
10. Shigeo Fukuda
A master of optical illusions and clever applications of light and shadow, Shigeo Fukuda created multitudes of paintings and sculptures created exclusively to fool the eye and mind alike. Clamps, for example, looks from all sides a rather haphazard application of simple metal office clips. But shining a light on it reveals a near-perfect rendition of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker using the structure’s positive and negative space. He applied the very same technique to Lunch with a Helmet On, which consists of 848 different types of flatware to create the image of a motorcycle once placed in front of a large enough light source. Fukuda held a special love of sculpting absurdist, Escher-esque “impossible objects” as well as creating stunning anamorphic murals and illustrations.
Working in the 12th and 13th centuries, Unkei formally practiced as a Buddhist devotional sculptor under the Kei classification. Frequently considered one of the best practitioners of the style, he gained renown in his own period creating dramatic works with an impressive air of realism for the samurai and shogunate castes. He channeled his passion for and belief in the Buddhist faith into heavily detailed sculptures of important religious figures that grew to influence devotional works for centuries to come.
12. Yayoi Kusama
Eclectic artist Yayoi Kusama does not limit herself to any one specific genre. She sculpts. She paints. She writes. She designs fashions. She organizes happenings. With an eye for the avant-garde, Kusama channels the hallucinations and depression she suffers from into cheerful explosions of colors and patterns. Polka dots are one of her hallmarks, and she is most known for her experimentations in a wide variety of media. Kusama garnered a bit of controversy due to her penchant for public nudity in many of her performance art pieces protesting the Vietnam War.
13. Yuko Nii
Yuko Nii garners so much attention and respect for her philanthropic actions promoting artistic endeavors all over the world – though especially in New York City – that many also forget her talents as a well-rounded practitioner of the visual and literary arts. Everything from costuming to printmaking serves as an outlet for her generous imagination. Her paintings play with color, line, perspective, and texture to create constructs simultaneously alien and familiar. Surrealism and realism collide in scenes where craggy rocks float reverently towards the heavens and sand dunes sport eerie curves and unsettling, yet beautiful, cool color pallets. While not explicitly science fiction, they radiate the aura of a time to come, of places beyond the known world yet to explore.
The intellectual poet and monk Kuukai gained significant renown as one of the greatest calligraphers ever to practice in Japan. So revered are his writings that legend states he formed the phonetic kana alphabets, though this has yet to be proven factual. Kuukai founded the Shingon philosophy of Buddhism. He wrote extensively on the subject, earning praise for his ideals as well as his painstaking calligraphic works. With smooth, expert strokes, he revealed the aesthetics lurking beneath language. Many overlook the beauty inherent in the written word, how letters and pictographs merge to communicate ideas at once useful and yet possessive of an under-recognized elegance. Kuukai’s simple, classy, and timeless works remind viewers that, no matter the alphabet, culture, or language, that the venues through which thoughts enter the world still hold their own understated beauty.
15. Tadao Ando
Colorful award-winning architect Tadao Ando never actually received any formal training in his chosen profession, thus making his accomplishments all the more impressive. He works primarily with concrete cast in-place and finds particular inspiration in the modernist movements. Most of his works, which include houses, commercial buildings, chapels, temples, and museums, work harmoniously with the surrounding landscape and take advantage of natural lighting. He loves playing with pathways and dimensions to create visually striking geometric forms with the positive and negative space.
16. Kineo Kuwabara
For over 50 years, Kineo Kuwabara wandered his home city of Tokyo to document the stories to be found there. He practiced in a very unique era, chronicling life in the area before and after World War II. International critics and historians alike particularly appreciated his honest street photography, which would grow to serve as a record of destruction and rebirth. Though the majority of his portfolio involves black and white prints with stunning attention to the interplay between light and shadow, later photographs incorporated and experimented with color. At one point, he even served as a photographer for the military as the war raged. Afterwards, much of his career was devoted to editing Camera magazine and providing opportunities and exposure to passionate and upcoming young photographers in Japan.
17. Akane Teshigahara
Granddaughter of Ikebana master Soufu Teshigahara and fourth headmaster of his world-renowned school, Akane Teshigahara has expanded upon the ideals of her predecessor to create her own personalized style. She tries to infuse current design and artistic trends into her flower arrangements, using the plants themselves as natural geometric forms interacting with synthetic. Abstract expressionism factors into many of her works, with sprays of flowers emulating bursts and splashes of paint and shape and texture using three-dimensional space as a canvas. Like her grandfather before her, Teshigahara keeps no boundaries when it comes to what materials she includes in her stunning floral designs.
18. Jun Kaneko
Prolific ceramicist Jun Kaneko enjoys experimenting with the almost limitless potential of the medium. He delves into painting, drawing, bronzes, glass, performance art, and textiles as well, but is better known for his explorations of the possible sculptural applications of ceramics more than anything else. However, no matter the medium, Kaneko deconstructs and reconstructs familiar forms into something new, original, and aesthetically striking. His series of giant bronze heads lightly play with the myriad shapes inherent in the human face. One hauntingly hypnotic piece entirely devoid of the expected eyes, nose, and mouth in favor of a black and silver spiral – drawing the viewer ever inward, always searching for the humanity within an unsettling inhuman interpretation of the body.
19. Leiko Ikemura
As an award-winning sculptor and a painter, Leiko Ikemura has carved a permanent niche for herself on the international art scene. Paintings such as beach girl with blue bird peek inside mankind’s capacity for both kindness and vulnerability. It uses a cool color scheme of several blues and highly muted yellows to create a gentle mood, though the shadows obscuring the human figure’s face speak of isolation, more a connection with nature than other people. Other series experiment with color and how it relates to the overall emotion of the piece, speaking of the subject’s inner life and thoughts with only the minimum of visual clues.
20. Tetsunori Kawani
Bamboo – sturdy, strong, and symbolic of both the elegant simplicity of nature and minimalist Asian design – is sculptor and installation artist Tetsunori Kawani’s medium of choice. His beautiful structures either exploit or manipulate the natural shape and structure of the popular plant. Some leave them perfectly straight, juxtaposed with one another to create veritable sprays of line, giving off the visual impression of transience and fragility with one of the sturdiest gifts of nature. Others bend and shape the stalks into giant flowing constructs, redolent of the majestic movement of water. With these, Kawani uses nature to reflect nature, creating an artistic loop linking two of the four elements.
21. Takehisa Yumeji
Takehisa Yumeji may be considered one of Japan’s more visible outsider artists. Shunned by art critics and contemporaries alike due to his lack of formal training, he found his niche among everyday people at home and abroad who appreciated his earnest style. Yumeji painted many postcard-sized works inspired by traditional, pre-Hokusai ukiyo-e prints. He typically focused on lovely women clad in colorful kimono, mimicking the compositions of his predecessors. Though wrongfully scoffed at in his time, Yumeji offered viewers honest works entirely without pretense – a true folk artist, with all the accompanying compliments inherent to that label.
22. Shouji Hamada
During his lifetime, Shouji Hamada was considered a Living National Treasure in Japan. His pottery swelled to influence his contemporaries, making him one of the most recognized names in 20th century Japanese art. A leading figurehead of the mingei movement, Hamada embraced anonymous, outsider, and folk artists and the concept that form must follow function. As a potter, he particular favored art that proved useful in everyday existence but still added an aesthetic flair and pushed the limits of the medium. He also appreciated low expenses and a “quality and quantity” approach that meant a much broader audience could appreciate his handiwork.
Ever the devotee of the avant-garde, Ay-O constantly searches for his own outlets of creativity and originality in a world increasingly full of homogenous art. He adores rainbows and gradients, usually combining the two together in seemingly simple compositions. While they may appear as merely faded strips of color upon initial viewings, closer inspection reveals carefully juxtaposed stripes purposely placed to create smooth transitions between shade and hue. In many ways, this deceptive minimalism sums up how the avant-garde movement and conceptual art alike are oftentimes far more than their artifice may initially let on.
24. Junpei Satoh
Junpei Satoh finds inspiration in “Western” painting conventions, shunning the minimalism more expected of “Eastern” art. He favors portraiture, landscapes, and the natural sciences as his subjects and oil paints, watercolors, pen, and charcoal as his conduits. No matter who or what Satoh elects to portray, it will become fully realized in a naturalistic style concerned with accuracy accompanied by only the minimum of personal creative deviance.
25. Tachuu Naitou
Tokyo Tower dominates the skyline of one of humanity’s most populated metropolises, serving as one of the architectural icons of Japan and a source of pride for its citizens. It serves as a broadcast and observation station and, thanks to Tachuu Naitou, will survive any brutal earthquakes which may come its way. Naitou synthesized a flair for engineering with a keen creativity to create a series of simultaneously functional and aesthetic structures, with Tokyo Tower as his undeniable magnum opus. Because of Japan’s placement along a devastating fault line, architecture related to essential communication must remain as resistant as possible to earthquakes and tremors. Thanks to Naitou’s diligence, buildings in Japan and across the globe may withstand these horrifying natural disasters and help governments and aide workers better reach those affected by the resulting tragedies.
Because of pop culture’s preoccupation with anime and manga, the contributions of other Japanese artists may go unrecognized by mainstream American audiences. Likewise, impassioned fans of these cartoons and comic books may find themselves missing out on other creative contributions coming out of Japan that are just as worthy of their attention. These artists make for a great starting point for those hoping to learn more about painting, architecture, printmaking, sculpture, pottery, and ceramics originating from Japan and expatriate Japanese artists.