From the "JPG2 - Japan Graphics 2" compendium, section 'applying graphic design on existing products:' In 2005, Dainippon Type Organization enhanced the Birkenstock sandals with the Kanji characters for 'left' and 'right,' composed of the Katakana for 'sandal.' On the right side, they used the Kanji for 'foot' to compose the Katakana of the Birkenstock brand name. © Actar

JPG2: Japanese Graphic Design
2002 – 2006

For four years, editor Tomoko Sakamoto of Spanish publisher Actar, dug through amounts of artful paper works – to present a wider picture of the Japanese graphic and illustration scene. In JPG2 – Japan Graphics we now happily encounter several old buddies we were accompanying since the beginning of our beloved mag and that were featured here extensively before. PingMag talked to Tomoko to hear about the changes and tendencies in Japan since the first edition, Japan Graphics 1, in 2002.

Written by Verena


JPG2 – Japan Graphics: beautiful looks! The wooden JPG icon glued on the front cover is awesome. © Actar

All that I know about you is that you are Japanese, work at Spanish Actar – and edited many books, among them one about Toyo Ito

I’m an architect working now for the Actar architecture and design publishers in Barcelona. Originally, I’m from Tokyo. I edited also a lot for an architectural “boogazine,” a book and magazine called Verb. Besides Japan Graphics 1 and Japan Graphics 2, I edited a book about Dutch design called “HD,” for ”Holland Design.”

Actar stands for ‘actal,’ for activity and architecture, and all of your output features a pretty interesting range of upcoming designers. Now to the JPG2 compendium that came out late last year…

In 2002, we did the first book called JPG – Japan Graphics which went over very well in sales and reputation. Naturally, we wanted to make a second volume. For the follow-up, we asked all the designers to send us some photos of their favourite places, their studios and a self-portrait. Although we are sharing all information around the world, we wanted to separate Japanese design from other. Because I believe that your local environment – where you walk, what you eat, etc. – consciously or unconsciously affects what you create. For example, Namaiki [more of them here on Ping] are gaijin designers, meaning ‘foreign’, but they are more Japanese than the Japanese because they are enjoying how they find so many things in Japan from their point of view; or Keitarrow,living in NY, and Ryuh Tomoaki, living in Taipei, possibly feel more Japanese than ever when they are in foreign countries – like me or you.

Botticelli’s famous “The Birth of Venus” reinterpreted as Bonsai tree collage! Wabisabi’s Dubon Lounge, 2005: image poster for a lounge event for Homemade Records. © Actar

Oh, one’s identity and its shift in a new cultural context would be a whole issue of its own. Maybe, for today, we’d rather focus on the changes within Japanese graphic design in general over the last years, please…

So, when I started to look around I was very surprised how design had changed: Because when we collected the first volume, very young independent Japanese designers had their own websites and back then computer techniques seemingly had the potential to fuse with graphics. One theme was: How can we distribute design using the computer? Like having your own website, making your own printing, doing interactive design and so on. Together with networking, that seemed to change things regarding design.

Spread of the ‘super fine lines’ section: Taku Anekawa: Umbrella, from 2005, for NEUT magazine. The theme was “splatter,” photographed by Masanori Ikeda. Progressive stitch works! © Actar

We assumed that this tendency would continue and that in several years there would be more digital velocity and far more interactions – we were surprised that things didn’t quite work out like that. Instead, in 2006, we found very manual, analogue design spreading out to add an extra value to the works. Four years ago, things high-tech had a certain value. Now, analogue techniques or handmade design is being valued more because it can consist only of one unique piece or it is customised to suit an existing product. And of course, it’s not like going back to the 70s or 80s – analogue techniques are combined with others in a fusion. That is the main theme of JPG2.


Beautiful! Tsuyoshi Kusano: NO NUKE, from 2004. Commercial graphic for EDWIN with the theme of “Take care of the Earth,” including a nuclear hazard icon. © Actar

Tsuyoshi Kusano: solid, from 2005, for Victor Entertainment, Inc.: jacket motif for the fusion band Gari, re-compositioned of fragmented elements from a render image. © Actar

Yes…I’m listening…

One designer, Taku Anekawa [also featured previously here] is literally sewing his designs: First he does the drawings with Photoshop and Illustrator, then their vector data is translated into sewing machine compatibility and sewn onto jeans or shirts. The result is an original piece of art.

Also, a couple of years ago, graphic design was something designed perfectly and enjoyed as a product. A lot of designers are now doing exhibitions that resemble kind of graphic concerts. For example, there was a recent collaboration of a musician with other designers doing a temporary graphic design performance that only 30, 50 or 100 people could attend and then the only piece they made disappeared. They recorded everything and made a video. This kind of approach seems to be quite recent.

Japanese camp! Enlightenment: Tori, 2004. Digital painting for the movie “Tori” by Tadanobu Asano, Columbia Music Entertainment. © Actar

Who do you think of else?

For example, Takora Kimiyoshi Futori did a performance in Tokyo and Sapporo where his graphics were projected onto the wall while he kept drawing onto these projected graphics. Mustone / Iseneehihinee [more about them on Ping] do the same: They spray black graffiti on the wall and and digitally paint onto the sprayed graphics via a projector. The image we have in the JPG2 book looks like their computer crashed…

Again, from the ‘super fine lines’ category, Japanese fine finishes by Hideki Inaba: spread art for RELAX magazine, 2005. © Actar

You also feature two of our recent guests: Dainippon Type Organization and Namaiki!

For Namaiki, it was their second time participating in our project. Four years ago they made the perfect kind of works with Illustrator. Since then, they did a lot of performances, concerts, illustrations, and parties. Dainippon Type Organization are now doing live painting, making letters in front of an audience.


From Hideki Inaba’s solo exhibition “New Line” in 2004. © Actar

Again, from the ‘applying graphic design on existing products’ section: Sunday-Vision: 2006, from 2005. Customised Adidas sneakers for TITLE magazine. © Actar

Yes, their toypography! They had such a nice installation at last year’s DesignTide

We did a book with them, a collection of cards. The reader could make a sentence or name and you could play with the letters. Actually, we love Dainippon and try to make their work more known more internationally! Four years ago they weren’t so famous, yet. I didn’t understand all of their work before because it’s written in Chinese and Japanese Kanji. However, now, we completely like their new concept of designing graphics not to be read or used. They are using the theme of letters to describe something completely else.

More Enlightenment! Detail of “Mosslightenment” from 2003. Digitally painted invitation for fashion brand Mosslight. © Actar

The book info talks about “How the work of young professionals have been affected by Japan`s economic, social and cultural changes.” In what way can graphic design reflect Japanese society?

Four years ago, we selected graphic designers who happened to work for big clients. However, now we intentionally selected independent designers with very small customers. In 2002, everything was about commercial work. Now we get to see more and more of the designers’ own intended, original works of the artistic kind. For example, they are doing exhibitions or customising products in small quantities instead of producing 5,000 copies. Maybe it’s because four years ago the economic situation was better and with less big clients they are dedicating themselves to this…

From ‘JPG2,’ introductory images of Tokyo. Tomoko explains: “According to the concept of ‘making clear the difference of Japanese graphic design between 2002 and 2006,’ we made all the layout of this book just onto the first JPG book. Maybe you will be a bit surprised when you open the follow-up now, because there are a lot of images below the layers…” Photo by Oriol Rigat. © Actar

Living in Barcelona, can you make out some obvious differences between Japanese and European graphics – if such a generalisation is possible at all…?

Right now we are making a Dutch graphic design book; I would think that European design is more concept-based or on the messages behind the graphic treatment. Of course, there is a message and concept in Japanese design as well, but they do seem to care a whole lot about the superficial treatment and the extra fine finishes. For example, in JPG2 – Japan Graphics there is one chapter on super fine lines. And Hideki Inaba contributed with design in some very high resolution, more than enough. It’s not that European design doesn’t care as much about fine resolution and detail, it’s just more about the impact.

Street art styles aren’t missing either: spread of Buddha Productions’ street zen #0, from 2005. Stencil work on board. © Actar

Is that still the approach of the younger Japanese designers?

They are using traditional culture, like Ukiyo-e and kimono, and remixing it like DJs, using work of any old, as well as contemporary, culture. Moreover, Japanese designers are now very conscious to be seen as Japanese graphic designers…so it’s very natural for them to return to traditional styles in a country with such a cultural background and reimport those influences again.

Talking graphics: spread of Tsuyoshi Hirooka’s collage works – POP UP from 2006 (left) and chom from 2003 (right). © Actar

Interestingly, these traditions left Japan, went all over the world, and then people in the country realised how important they are…

It’s kind of a double-edged sword if it was exported once and then we found it again. From the outside of Japan, things look very Japanese. But it’s very difficult to recognise these things when they are so close around us. For example ten or fifteen years ago, besides traditional art in Japan, subcultures like manga used to something which we felt ashamed of to present as artwork. But only after it became a success around the world we know how to use this influence.

Tsuyoshi Hirooka: So many men, so many minds, from 2003, for Beams T – “imagining an image from familiar landscapes in Tokyo.”© Actar

Sadly, we have to come to an end for today: So, what`s next for you?

The Dutch design book, its title for the moment is “Super HD” as follow-up on the one we did in 2001. By the way, Harmen Liemburg will be in this, too. He was the one who sent me the link for PingMag before to let me know about the mag – and I really loved it!

Oh, that’s nice! Thanks Harmen, and especially thank you, Tomoko Sakamoto of Actar for you rich JPG2 – Japan Graphics! In the final Who’s Who section of the book, all the designers introduce themselves, including website, e-mail, post address or even telephone number. Helpful!

Something to look forward during the approaching Tokyo Designer’s Week: Actar are doing the catalogue and the graphics for an exhibition called Spain Playtime – fresh air in Spanish design at the Spanish Embassy in Tokyo…

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