Writing about any city is inevitably a quixotic project, but Tokyo presents a special challenge. Depending on who you ask and where you choose to draw the line, this is possibly the largest of megacities, with a population of 37 million and counting. It was this excess, this sense of sheer inexhaustibility, which hit me when I first visited, aged 11, with my Japanese-speaking mother. It was spring 1995, two months after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, and just a day after the subway sarin attack. Primed by the apocalyptic visions of cyberpunk and manga, I was all too ready to associate Japan with disaster, but this was a little much.
Travelling around Tokyo in the mid-90s—still a decade before the advent of smartphones, before Google Maps or Google Translate—we were continually lost. Happily, this left space for serendipitous encounters and discoveries that could not have been scripted or planned. In the several decades since, I have been lucky to return to Tokyo on a semi-regular basis, the itinerary continually morphing, keeping time with my own shifting interests. For a while, it was about folk crafts. Then the outer extremes of noise music. Then radical post-war architecture or photo books, fermentation or the perfect pizza toast. The list goes on.
Any guide to a city should be treated as, at best, a jumping-off point. When that city has a population equal to Greece, Belgium and the Netherlands combined, unreliability should be assumed. So what follows should be taken as a series of impressions, written-up versions of scribbled recommendations and addresses. One more caveat: Tokyo’s exhibitions landscape is more complex to map, for me at least, than that of many major cities. This is partly because boundaries between public and private institutions are harder to parse, and gallery locations can feel unexpected. You might find a Dara Birnbaum exhibition nestled at the top of the Prada store in upscale Aoyama, or—in the case of the popular Mori Art Museum—a developer-backed contemporary art institution on the 53rd floor of a skyscraper.
Galleries of all shapes and sizes
Down at ground level, commercial galleries are among the more visible drivers of the art scene. They range from Tokyo Gallery + BTAP, the oldest contemporary art gallery in the city, founded in 1950; to progenitors of the current scene, such as SCAI The Bathhouse in the leafy Yanaka district; to internationally known stalwarts such as Taka Ishii, Misako & Rosen and Take Ninagawa; and out to a burgeoning gallery cluster on Tennozu Isle.
In the last year I have often been drawn to small-scale and experimental spaces. Asakusa, currently on hiatus, is one such project space, particularly dynamic during the 2010s. A younger generation includes The 5th Floor, an alternative space by Ueno Park, which opened in 2020 and is run by a revolving cast of young curators. Close by is Datsuijo, a name that roughly translates as “a place to be naked”, based in an artist’s apartment. In the nightlife district of Kabukicho you will find Whitehouse, a freewheeling space housed in a studio said to be the first building designed by the architect Arata Isozaki, who died last year. It was once a base for the Neo-Dada Organizers, the influential artist collective active in the early 1960s, and it is affiliated with another collective, ChimPom from Smappa!Group, the subject of a survey exhibition at the Mori Art Museum last year. They are also involved in yet another nascent and occasional venue nearby, housed in an old Noh theatre.
My own route to working with artists was through music, and I still tend to return to art that intersects with sound and composition. This feels like fertile territory in Tokyo, exemplified by artists such as Yuko Mohri, a former collaborator of the musicians Otomo Yoshihide and the late Ryuichi Sakamoto, who will present her kinetic installations in the Japan Pavilion for the 2024 Venice Biennale. The city has countless clubs, performance spaces and listening bars where you will find electronic music, avant-jazz and everything in between. Some of my personal favourites are Forestlimit, Lion and Ftarri, but best to trust your instinct.
At the institutional level, there are relatively few places dedicated to emerging or mid-career practices. But it is worth mentioning Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, located in a large cultural complex, which has recently presented a string of significant solo shows, from a winningly unhinged presentation by Taro Izumi to the current exhibition by Mao Ishikawa, an Okinawan photographer. Elsewhere, Mori Art Museum presents a triennial survey of the Japanese art scene, titled Roppongi Crossing; the most recent edition, in 2022-23, notably gave more space to Ainu and Okinawa-based artists. At the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT), there are regularly rotating collection displays of new acquisitions. This spring I was happy to catch a strong joint presentation of Lieko Shiga and Kota Takeuchi, winners of the Tokyo Contemporary Art Award. Takeuchi is part of the Don’t Follow the Wind collective, doing important work in the radioactive Fukushima exclusion zone.
The story of post-war Japanese art
The past couple of years have seen a steady stream of English-language publications that trace developments in post-war Japanese art. The Art Platform Japan initiative has done invaluable work in publishing new translations of key texts such as History of Japanese Art after 1945: Institutions, Discourse, Practice and of the art historian KuroDalaiJee’s 2010 opus Anarchy of the Body: Undercurrents of Performance Art in 1960s Japan. For a personal account of developments in Japanese art, there is also David Elliott’s quirky essay collection Art and Trousers: Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Asian Art (2021). I have also appreciated a number of recent exhibitions that have reframed avant-garde post-war practices. These have ranged from the intimate, such as SCAI Piramide gallery’s artist-selected overview of previously unseen photographs by Genpei Akasegawa, to a vast survey of ceramics by Sodeisha (or the “crawling through mud association”) at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto.
Indeed, another of Tokyo’s pleasures is how dozens of museums and galleries are an easy day trip away. Kyoto and Osaka are both little more than a two-hour bullet train ride from the capital. A few recent favourites include the serene Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura & Hayama, split between the two coastal towns. The Kamakura branch opened in 1951 as the first public museum of modern art in Japan, and is nestled behind a Shinto temple. A little further down the coast is the scenic Enoura Observatory, an architectural and ecological project designed by Hiroshi Sugimoto, which opened in 2017. Overlooking Sagami Bay, the complex encompasses a gallery, stages and viewing platforms, as well as gardens punctuated by antiquities from the artist’s own collection.
Beyond Tokyo, Japan has a surprising number of art festivals and biennial-type exhibitions scattered across the entirety of the country. It is a place where the now relatively unusual triennial model still flourishes. In recent years, the selection of curators for these presentations reflects a commitment to developing networks beyond the Europe-North America axis. The 2022 Okayama Art Summit was curated by the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, while for the 2024 edition of the Yokohama Triennale, the Chinese artistic directors Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu will take the reins from the Delhi-based artists Raqs Media Collective. Aichi Triennale 2025 will be curated by Hoor al Qasimi, the director of Sharjah Art Foundation. I am looking forward to seeing what emerges.
Tokyo continues to shift and evolve—conclusive proof that, as the architect Toshiko Mori once said, “city” is not a noun but a verb.
Sam Thorne is the director general and chief executive of Japan House London