Nine Japanese Artists You Should Know About

ByMark Guthrie
Sep 24, 2019

Nine Japanese Artists You Should Know About

When we think of Japanese art our minds probably go straight to the two dimensional, Chinese-influenced pictures of cranes and floating castles or the lurid and grotesque kabuki characters of ukiyo-e woodblock prints.

But there is so much more to the broad scope of Japanese artwork than that. From sculpture to photography to graphic design, the country has spawned so many great artists that it would be impossible to list them all here.

So, what you have below are a selection chosen by myself and my art-loving friends (a reason  that something should go some way to explaining as to why there is such a long chronological jump from ukiyo-e to contemporary) that should hopefully provide you with a good jumping-off point to explore the Japanese art world for yourself.

Toyo Sesshu (1420-1506)

If you close your eyes and imagine classical Japanese landscapes, there is a good chance that you are thinking of a piece by Sesshu Toyo. Perhaps the most prominent Japanese master of ink and wash painting of the middle Muromachi period, Sesshu eventually came to be considered one of the greatest Japanese artists of his time, widely revered throughout Japan and China.

View of Ama-no-Hashidate (c. 1502–1505)

With that said, although many paintings survive bearing Sesshū’s signature or seal, only a few can be confidently attributed to him.

Katsushika (ca. 1760-1849)

Perhaps best known for pushing colored woodblock printing away from the entertainment districts and into landscapes, Hokusai is particularly well celebrated for his Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji, with the print ‘The Great Wave’ renowned both at home and abroad. His dalliances into the erotic ‘shunga’ genre, are particularly infamous, especially his image ‘The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife‘ depicting an ‘ama’ female diver involved in a sexual act with a pair of octopuses.

The Great Wave (c. 1829–1833)

The influence of Hokusai in the West can be seen in the works of Degas, Monet, Gauguin, and Whistler, as well as in the development of Art Nouveau in Europe

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)

Perhaps something akin to the punk rocker of the ukiyo-e world, Kuniyoshi often covered kabuki actors and beautiful women in his work, but it is his depictions of mythical creatures, historical samurai battles, and cats that really make him stand out.

Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre

Having fallen on hard times, a chance meeting with the vastly more successful, yet equally less able Kunisada caused him to redouble his efforts, expanding his artistic style into heroic triptychs. His warrior prints were interesting in that they depicted legendary figures with an added stress on dreams, ghostly apparitions, omens, and superhuman feats, thematic styles that satisfied the public’s interest in the ghastly, exciting, and bizarre that was growing during the time.

Kiyoshi Awazu (1929 – 2009)

Osai Gonzu (c. 1970)

Legendary Japanese graphic designer Kiyoshi Awazu was famed for, among other things, his contributions to poster and urban design, and is considered one of the greatest graphic designers Japan ever produced.

Breaking convention away from Japanese modernism, Awazu was greatly influenced by pop culture as he branched out into film and theatre design. Tokyoites may know him best for the dramatic design on the side of Kabuki-cho’s eight-story Nibankan building which featured a “supergraphic” of red, yellow and white lines and concentric circles splashed across its concrete and metallic-sheeted sides.

Yayoi Kusama (1929 – )

Red of hair and bright of clothes, Kusama is perhaps not only the best-known female Japanese artist but is also recognized as being one of the country’s most important living artists. While she often works in painting, fiction and performance among others, her primary focus is in sculpture and installation, with her ‘Pumpkin’ installation on the island of Naoshima the most famous among foreigners visiting Japan.

Pumpkin installation on Naoshima (2006)

Inspired by American Abstract Impressionism, Kusama was a part of the New York avant-garde and pop-art scenes throughout the 1960s, and her conceptual artwork saw a massive revival in Japan in the 1980s making her a household name.

Nobuyoshi Araki (1940 – )

Known simply as ‘Araki’, this photographer blends eroticism and bondage scenes into the realm of fine art and has published over 500 books, making him one of Japan’s most prolific artists.

Shoot for Vogue Hommes Japan, staring Lady Gaga (2009)

Sex and death are central themes in Araki’s work with a fascination in female genitalia and women’s bodies in Japanese bondage as well as flowers, food, his cat, faces and Tokyo street scenes. As is perhaps to be expected of this controversial artist’s themes he has been scandalized in recent times, with models speaking out as part of the #metoo movement, though feminist artists such as Bjork and Lady Gaga are avowed fans and have worked with him in the past.

Yoshitomo Nara (1959 – )

Sleepless Night (2007)

Coming to prominence during Japan’s pop art movement on the 1990s, Nara’s sculptures and paintings generally feature almost childlike, seemingly innocuous subjects, often animals or children. However, these cartoonish characters are not as cute as they appear as they regularly brandish weapons, their faces twisted into accusatory expressions.

Citing the punk rock of his youth as a primary influence, Nara is often at pains to explain that though the subjects of his work often look violent, taken in the context of the danger of the wider world, they, in fact, remain vulnerable.

Takashi Murakami (1962 – )

Cosmos Ball (2000)

Known for blurring the line between high and low arts, Murakami produces both fine arts media, such as painting and sculpture and commercial media including animation and fashion, cementing a  long-lasting collaboration with French fashion house Louis Vuitton.

Murakami is the pioneer of the “Superflat” theory that acknowledges the unique legacy of flat, 2-D imagery that runs from historical Japanese art through to modern-day manga and anime. The theory is also extended to the flattening of Japanese post-war class system that has brought about the collusion of low and highbrow art into one.


Mariko Mori (1967 – )

Referencing traditional Japanese culture and ancient history infused with futuristic themes and characters, Mariko Mori’s works – layered photography, digital imaging, sculptures, videos, installation, and performance – often juxtapose Eastern mythology with Western culture.

Mariko Mori, Rebirth Exhibition (2013)

Surrealist themes surrounding sexuality, spiritualism and technology are often explored with the artist herself at the fore the work, whether as a mermaid, a cyborg and, commonly, an alien arrived from another planet.

Image: via wikicommons [Public Domain]
Image: via wikicommons [Public Domain]
Image: via wikicommons [Public Domain]
Image: by Roger Walch via [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Image: by ak47* via [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Image: by Rain Rabbit via [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Image: by Gabriela Márquez Lara via [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Image: by Mark Guthrie [Own Work]

About the author

Mark Guthrie editor

Novelist, copywriter and graduate from the most prestigious university in Sunderland, Mark whiles away his precious time on this Earth by writing about popular culture, travel, food and pretty much anything else that is likely to win him the Pulitzer he desperately craves. Find some more of his musings at and on instagram @markguthriewrites