Japan’s contemporary artists fare better overseas

Dealers need to participate in international art fairs and have spaces abroad to gain respect back home


Japan readily celebrates its world-renowned fashion designers, musicians, video game designers and other leading creative people. But what about its contemporary visual artists? A quarter of a century after the bursting of Japan’s “bubble asset” economy, it seems tougher than ever to be a young Japanese artist at home and garner the respect you want.

Despite today’s trend among local collectors to buy the work of Japanese artists from the 1950s and 1960s, gaining curatorial acclaim and market recognition in Japan remains a struggle for the country’s younger contemporary artists.

Taka Ishii, the venerable Tokyo dealer who represents Japan’s 70-something art-world stars Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki, among others, says: “I wish that the focus would switch from post-war Japanese art to the vast number of brilliant Japanese artists in their 30s who are already working internationally.” His younger artists from Japan include Yosuke Takeda (born 1982) and Hiroe Saeke (born 1978).

With the economic uncertainty of the past 25 years and budget cuts to public cultural institutions, it has become much more difficult to promote newer artists in Japan through leading museums. Hidenori Ota, the dealer behind the rise of Yayoi Kusama and Yuken Teruya, says: “The educational purpose of art ended with the stagnation of public museums.”

Too diverse at home

It is also tricky commercially. At the tenth edition of Art Tokyo, held in March, a record 55,000 attendees visited the fair. But with so much high-quality art from Japan, contemporary is considered one of many categories—ranging from fourth-century calligraphy to modern-day manga (comics)—competing for public attention. Takahiro Kaneshima, the fair’s programme director, notes a long collecting tradition in various disciplines and says “the Japanese art scene exists in a state of chaos, where diverse perspectives of diverse communities intersect”.

To combat this, many of the most successful Japanese dealers have adapted more global strategies, increasing visibility at key international art fairs as well as opening branches abroad. Art market insiders all agree that Japanese artists’ sales tend to be stronger outside of Japan.

Sueo Mizuma, the influential founder of Mizuma Gallery, who represents Ai Yamaguchi (born 1977) and Makoto Aida (born 1965) among others, launched a branch in Singapore and a joint-venture gallery in Beijing. He says: “I had been feeling the corrosion of the Japanese art market for 20 years in the post-bubble period, so I decided to expand my activities to exploit the market abroad.”

International influence

Once artists are recognised overseas, it seems that Japan’s local buyers are prepared to give them more attention. “Takashi Murakami received recognition outside of Japan before the Japanese art community followed the trend set abroad. The same is true for Gutai and Mono-ha artists. This is the reason why most Japanese dealers want to launch their artists in the key markets abroad,” says Ikkan Sanada, a dealer who moved his base from Tokyo to New York and then to Singapore in 2011.

“I feel stronger attention from abroad than ever before,” Mizuma says. He notes the effect that New York museum exhibitions of post-war Gutai and Mono-ha Japanese art have had on Japanese collectors’ interest. Such works were largely ignored or undervalued by Japanese collectors until high-profile shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Taka Ishii, who opened a gallery in Paris in 2014 and one in New York in March, says: “It has always been the case that only Japanese artists recognised overseas will sell locally. Only when the prices rise will the Japanese buy back the works. Then, when the economy is bad, they will sell works below their value. I wish that the collectors would follow their eyes and sensitivities when collecting.”