View from the observation deck on the 52nd floor of the Mori Tower. Photo by Ashley Rawlings for ArtAsiaPacific.


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Tokyo has always been well suited to the role of major hub for the Asian art world, yet has never established itself as such, and in the past decade has been eclipsed by Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore.

This latency is the result of a confluence of unfortunate circumstances that act to inhibit the domestic market. Certainly, the Japanese economy has been stagnant since the 1990s, but more damaging is the paucity of government support for contemporary art. There is no shortage of wealthy individuals, but Japanese society does not have the tradition that exists in the West of private patrons and philanthropists collecting and donating to museums, and the lack of associated tax breaks does nothing to help cultivate a market. Meanwhile, high rents in central Tokyo keep galleries out in the city’s peripheries. Last but not least, a cultural tendency toward modesty rather than overt self-promotion contributes to keeping Tokyo a muted presence on the international radar.

Nevertheless, against the odds, a strong contemporary scene took form during the 1990s. Galleries such as SCAI The Bathhouse, Tomio Koyama, Taka Ishii, Koyanagi, Mizuma and ShugoArts emerged in tandem with the establishment of several major public and private art museums, endowing the city’s already substantial infrastructure with serious potential. While the nonprofit art scene was small, it proved inventive. Masato Nakamura and the commandN collective’s “Akihabara TV” projects in 1999 and 2000, in which they broadcast video art on TV displays in electronics stores, were an icon of grassroots art practices during this era.

Throughout the 2000s, there was palpable optimism that Japan was on the cusp of gaining renewed international importance and could hold its own amid the world’s growing enthusiasm for all things Chinese. The inauguration of the Yokohama Triennale in 2001 was followed by the opening of the privately run Mori Art Museum two years later. Directed by David Elliott—the first non-Japanese to head an art museum in Japan—the Mori sought to be a cosmopolitan beacon for Tokyo on a par with MoMA, the Tate and the Pompidou. The scene grew further as a new generation of galleries opened, run by former employees of the 1990s set. Arataniurano, Yamamoto Gendai, Take Ninagawa, Misako & Rosen, Mujin-to Production and Aoyama | Meguro are the new face of contemporary Japanese art, and have nurtured the careers of Tatzu Nishi, Motohiko Odani, Misaki Kawai, Shimon Minamikawa, Chim↑Pom and Koki Tanaka.

Yet, for all this burgeoning talent and commitment, the scene remains unable to free itself from the economic and political circumstances that shackle it, and the post-2008 global economic downturn killed off much of the optimism there once was. In light of Japan’s 20-year recession, art critic Midori Matsui has described the Tokyo art world as having a “culture of reduced expectations.” This is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, since the scene is not in the grip of a feverish market, there is a refreshing lack of pretension as well as an open-mindedness to alternative approaches. Nonprofit initiatives are as small but as lively as ever. In recent years, Masato Nakamura established 3331 Arts Chiyoda in a former junior high school in Akihabara, playing host to various nonprofits, studios and businesses for below-market rents. On the other hand, the “culture of reduced expectations” can sometimes cause people to slip into the abyss of depressive cynicism.

However, by remarkable contrast, overseas there is now a culture of elevated expectations toward Japan’s artistic legacy. Years of academic and curatorial research into the postwar period are currently coming to fruition. Most notably, two landmark exhibitions made waves in New York this year. “Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde” at MoMA and “Gutai: Splendid Playground” at the Guggenheim were crucial surveys of midcentury radicalism and experimentation—both shows putting Japan at the center of a newly expanded discourse on Modernism as a transnational phenomenon. Likewise, the ambitious “Prima Materia” exhibition at the Punta della Dogana in Venice includes a thoughtful reexamination of Mono-ha in relation to Arte Povera.

Where good scholarship treads, curatorial interest, public enthusiasm and the art market tend to follow. In light of all the excitement generated about the postwar period, one can hope that Western museums will undertake similarly in-depth surveys of Japanese art from the present day. In this vein, “Bye Bye Kitty!!!” at New York’s Japan Society in 2011—aptly curated by former Mori director David Elliott—was a serious step in the right direction. There remains much work to be done, and it is hard to determine how one can bridge the gap between the malaise felt at home and the intellectual and commercial confidence enjoyed abroad, but progress is being made. Nobody in Japan should lose hope.