From scroll to screen

Japan's culture of calligraphy and illustration informs a unique language of graphic design. Tom Dennis traces its development.

Like Japanese popular culture at large, the history of Japanese graphic design and illustration is a melting pot of traditional heritage combined with selective Western influences and savvy, inimitable humour and style.

This, after all, is an ancient country that witnessed a cultural and political rebirth not more than 70 years ago. A rebirth that both reasserted age-old traditions while offering a clean, creative space, within which Japanese graphic design burst into life after the curbs of wartime propaganda under Imperial rule. The likes of Mighty Atom and manga, Studio Ghibli, 60s pop art, Keiichi Tanaami and Muji, Nagi Noda, Hello Kitty, anime and the inexorable Pok©mon phenomenon have all been born and flourished in post-modern Japan.

But it was through the post-war period that Japanese culture and its economy flourished under Allied occupation. Here, for the first time, billboard adverts for American consumables entered the Japanese way of life, with the likes of Coca-Cola and others selling US-of-A consumerism to a commercially hungry and culturally malnourished society.

But this wave of graphical advertising wasn't necessarily new - just culturally distinct; Japan's history of graphic design is deeply entwined within its art history.

The development of graphic design in the West came about in the late 19th century as both a clear and separate movement from the established art world. With the large growth of popular newspapers, combined with widespread increases in literacy levels, static advertising and graphic design emerged as a distinct visual language, independent of - yet not necessarily immune to - contemporary art trends.

In Japan, however - a country of three written languages and traditionally established visual arts - art functioned as a form of graphic design well into the beginning of the 20th century.

By the time of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), wood block printing and calligraphy were being used to tell stories of epic battles to the largely illiterate masses, while large-scale calligraphy promoted messages of propaganda during the war between Japan's Taira and the Minamoto clans. Kamakura art typically entwined illustration, simplistic storytelling and a core, moral message - nearly always of patriotic allegiance. It combines passages of text written in simple, single-phrase syllables with illustrated dialogue between characters - a forerunner of manga comic strips with a clear, often propagandised message.

But it is the use of calligraphy within art that defines the birth of Japanese graphic design. The tradition of calligraphy is a core element of Japanese artwork and remains a popular art discipline in schools and colleges across the country even today. At primary education level, calligraphy is mandatory, and has a recognisable effect on contemporary art and design.

"Calligraphy is taught in most schools in Japan, but it's taught within both a historical context and an art-based one," says Haruko Boot, an illustrator based in Osaka who has been commissioned by advertising agencies for localised campaigns for the likes of Nike and MTV as well as several Japanese television channels. "Calligraphy and graphic design aren't necessarily seen as a separate practice to art and illustration, as they are in the West," Boot explains. "Our culture of scroll painting and scripture is a form of traditional art that has a lot of calligraphy and what you would call graphic design in it. Basically, it's pictures and message combined in one practice to give information."

Such realism was hugely informed by the need to communicate to both literate and illiterate classes. Thus magistrates courts, saki houses and brothels alike advertised their respective trades through Ukiyo-e style paintings and woodblock prints that combined calligraphy and illustration into a form of graphical advertising.

With the advent in 1764 of the Harunobu polychrome print machine, famous print designers such as Torii Kiyonaga and Utamaro created elegant and often astute visual descriptions of courtesans and other public figures. While not quite the Heat magazine of the day, these silkscreen designs twinned text and story-driven illustration to depict message and meaning. Works by artists like Utamaro, Kiyonaga and Hokusai are all typical of the Mieji period, which blended illustration with subtle captioning; explaining the illustration and the story it was attempting to tell.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the Western cultural values had permeated traditional Japanese art and design. Forms of advertising became more forthright within the daily newspapers, with examples from the time subscribing to a very Victorian British edict of clarity of message first and foremost.

Such Western influence also extended to the realms of architecture and art as well, but it was the arrival of English and French political cartoons that had the greatest influence on Japanese art and design.

Kibyoshi illustrated stories - or scroll paintings - are undoubtedly the forerunners of manga comics, but there remains a significant and noticeable separation between pre- and post-war manga. Contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami insists that the division is a direct result of WWII: before August 6 1945, Japanese manga was proud and aggressive, full of strong male figures, samurai and martial arts. Post-war - and particularly due to the US occupation - manga became more consumer-orientated and colourful, ignoring topics of military superpower and concentrating on fantasy, science fiction and myth.

Manga's two most famous faces, Mighty Atom/Astro Boy and Sazae-san, are clearly indicative of such a shift. They demonstrate the way in which manga moved toward a 'kawaii' style - literally meaning harmless and cute - and to the more descriptive shojo manga.

Post-occupation Japanese manga and graphic design as a whole boomed as mass consumerism was wholeheartedly embraced. Figures like Ikko Tanaka came to the fore in the early 1960s, creating logos, branding and a new visual language of pop-iconography within graphic design, for corporations such as Mazda and international institutions like London's V&A Museum.

Tanaka's work was radical and bold, but often described as blending deeply rooted Japanese traditions with Western modernism to produce a new kind of contemporary visual expression. Core to Tanaka's work was the sense of internationalism, or - if you prefer - globalisation. His ad campaigns almost always featured mixed-race couples in futuristic-looking environments. The message was always one of peace, advancement and of a hopeful future - all in stark contrast to pre-war Japan's chest-beating patriotism.

Tanaka was joined in the 1970s by Koichi Sato, who went on to found the Tokyo Art Directors Club and is the current director of Japan Graphic Designers Association (JAGDA). His style also blended traditional calligraphy with modern colours and bold visuals to create a new type of contemporary Japanese visual identity.

Elsewhere, Japanese graphic designers were making their names taking Western ideas outright and localising them. They included the legendary Keiichi Tanaami - who, having worked at Andy Warhol's Factory building during the late 60s, returned to Japan to launch and art-direct a Japanese version of Playboy. Tanaami's subsequent work in the late 1960s and 1970s came to stand for the new visual language of Japanese graphic design. His work can be read as a pattern of seemingly incompatible neon colours, sexualised graphics and cute pop-culture references, which came to embody Japanese advertising and pop art well into the economic and cultural boom period of the 1980s.

If Tanaami invented contemporary Japanese graphics, Nagi Noda came to perfect it. Throughout her career, which spanned illustration, graphic design, filmmaking and photography, she playfully prodded at the boundaries that defined Japanese creative culture.

Her work is identified in the kawaii mode of cuteness, but underpinned by a dark, subtle humour; while Hello Kitty and Pok©mon took over the world, Noda produced quirky music videos and darkly humorous manga before sadly dying earlier this year. Noda's photography and graphic design work for b+ab's 1998 campaign mixed an Alice in Wonderland feel with Emily the Strange, while her campaign for the Laforet Spring 07 saw pop group Scissor Sisters in various states of undress, clad only with roses; all hyper-sexual and hyper-real.

Such a trend for hyper-reality and fantasy is obvious in contemporary Japanese graphic design. Ad campaigns across the country rely on this heady mix (when not relying on the services of A list Hollywood actors keen to cash in without losing their Western kudos), and it's a trend that has permeated other areas of design including web design and motion graphics.

"What's so amazing about Japanese contemporary visual culture is its juxtaposition to traditional Japanese culture," explains Akitoshi Kin, former art director at Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo and London. "Japanese culture is very reserved, very polite and very calm and gracious - all highly caricatured, but all true. But then we have the craziest TV shows in the world! The same is true for our visual design; advertising, web design, new motion graphics work and music videos - all are highly sexed, very energetic and very bold. It's not even subtle."

Kin pinpoints an oft-cited criticism of Japanese pop-culture - that it's not particularly Japanese. The same can be said of its graphic design.

Japan's design is as confusing and as contradictory as the country itself: a country where women are objectified in advertising far more frequently (and intensely) than in the West, while at once producing some of the most advanced creative design and motion work seen on the planet.

Japan's visual design is fascinating because its development has been so different to the West's. While the West associates graphic design with medium and message, with a visual image that calls us to action or explains, traditional Japanese calligraphy, scripture and illustration combine to form a single unifying visual language, which is as contradictory and frenetic as it is beautiful. Japan is famed for its business-savvy and can-do attitude, but it's also a culture of advanced creativity, which is utterly distinctive and utterly unique.