Made in Japan 20th Century Poster Art

The evolution of poster art in post-war Japan

A new exhibition is exploring how poster art shifted the image of Japan during the 20th century. We hear from its curators about how Japanese culture, history and linguistics offered ripe inspiration for designers and artists

Poster House in New York is hosting a new exhibition that sheds light on the role of poster art in Japan during the 1900s, illustrating how it echoed society as well as shaped it. The show is called Made in Japan: 20th Century Poster Art, though it really gets going midway through the century. The nation had just been through World War II, overlapping with the Second Sino-Japanese War around the same time. During this period, design – as is often the way with mass conflict anywhere around the world – was seized on for propaganda and other schemes in the nation’s interest, like rationing.

If that was the primary role of design in wartime Japan, it had several functions in the aftermath. Design was an asset to the state, which was keen to reconfigure how it appeared to the population and the rest of the world. The museum describes how the nation had an image of “both an aggressor and a victim of war”, neither of which would serve Japan’s economic and cultural ambitions well. During the seven-year Allied Occupation of Japan following World War II, the US “imposed an agenda of demilitarisation and democratisation”, explain the curators, Nozomi Naoi and Erin Schoneveld. “Japanese wartime propaganda was replaced by themes promoting recovery, peace, and prosperity, and commercial poster design played a crucial role in transforming the popular international image of Japan through the lens of cultural exchange.”

The curators say that designers Tadanori Yokoo and Keiichi Tanaami were among the artists who embodied Japan’s changing relationship with the world. Both drew from movements that were born hundreds of years and thousands of miles apart, sampling from a smorgasbord that includes Surrealism, American Pop Art, Dada, and Japan’s own ukiyo-e genre of art – a key source of inspiration even for this new future-facing generation of creatives.

Made in Japan 20th Century Poster Art
Top: Five Seasons by Kōichi Satō, 1988. Courtesy Merrill C Berman Collection; Above: The Mitsui Store at Suruga-cho in Edo, from the series 36 Views of Mt Fuji by Hokusai Katsushika, 1832. Courtesy The Ronin Gallery