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‘Maman’ by Louise Bourgeois (2003), Roppongi Hills .png


The Symbiosis of Art and Business in Japan


Japan is one of the world’s great artistic cultures. Art, craft, design, architecture, and aesthetics permeate everyday Japanese life, from simple daily tasks to sophisticated ceremonies. 


The corporate sector and many of its business leaders have radically shaped this cultural landscape over the past two centuries. More than mere luxury, art and design play a vital role in all aspects of Japanese society, including the business world. 


This unique ‘arts and cultural ecosystem’ is fundamentally different to that of the US, Europe and Australia. It is underpinned by a Japanese view that strong relationships between creative industries, business, the individual and community can be mutually beneficial, arising from a range of complex social and historical factors. 


My PhD research will be the first extensive examination in English of this little-understood but crucially important aspect of the Japanese cultural and business landscape.


Covering the late 1800s to contemporary times, this research is the first of its kind to uncover how and why the private sector has nurtured Japanese arts and design, and illustrate how Japan’s symbiotic model offers cues for Australia’s creative economy in a rapidly changing environment.  


Drawing on 25 years of professional practice and ongoing real-world engagement, I will be interviewing current and past clients, artists and collaborators in Japan and Australia across the cultural, government and business sectors. 


‘Hard but no soft’: Art & design in post-war Japan

Superficially, the Japanese arts sector and creative industries appear similar to the West: public and private institutions of various sizes, individual philanthropy, government funding, corporate sponsorship, marketing and branding, and ‘mecenat’. In reality, the contemporary Japanese cultural landscape contains systems and structures that have evolved over centuries, and are very different to Australia’s.  


The construction frenzy of Japan’s post-war economic boom delivered not only basic infrastructure across the country, but also hundreds of government-funded art museums, performing arts centres and cultural facilities. Japan was playing catch-up and needed the trappings of an ‘art world’. The incredible architectural monuments that emerged in this period, designed by Japan’s leading architects, acted as ostentatious displays of ‘wealth’ and ‘sophistication’ (synonymous with ‘Western’). 


In the late 1990s I visited many of them to forge relationships for Australia’s arts sector and bolster our ‘soft  power’. But what I encountered instead was the Japanese government’s cultural legacy of the economic bubble period – empty art museum after empty art museum. 


The bureaucrats told me: “We have ‘hard’ (buildings) but no ‘soft’ (content)”. After years of trying (mostly in vain) to provide Australian ‘soft’ to fill the Japanese ‘hard’, I understood that the communities surrounding these empty boxes mostly didn’t want them. They were built “by the government”  and for all intents and purposes, “for the government”. They did not arise from a public need or real market forces, and were therefore disconnected and irrelevant. 


Symbiotic corporate and creative culture 

Instead, the corporates were more seamlessly embedded in people’s lives, and trusted to respond to their needs. At this time, US journalist Douglas McGray famously described Japan’s soft power as its ‘Gross National Cool’, observing that the pop-culture and urban life of Japan most resonated with international consumers (Foreign Policy Magazine, 2002). 


In my research, I often suggested Japanese organisations who were funded by the corporate sector, leading to successful projects including: the Australian Chamber Orchestra presented by Yomiuri Newspaper (Japan’s biggest daily newspaper) at the prestigious Kioi Hall (owned by Nippon Steel); and Australian design exhibitions curated by the Australian Design Centre and presented at Spiral, a famous art and design gallery in Tokyo funded by Wacoal (Japan’s largest lingerie company).

This symbiotic relationship between creative culture and corporate culture extends to the full spectrum of the Japanese business community, involving many of the large conglomerates that emerged in Japan during the Meiji (1868 – 1912) and post-war periods (late Showa period 1950 – 1989), as well as those with their roots in the Edo period merchant economy.

Together these companies and business leaders enrich the Japanese community with quality cultural offerings; Suntory Hall (classical music), Nissay Theatre (musical theatre), Bridgestone Museum  (western-style art / now called ‘Artizon’), and Shiseido Gallery (contemporary art), to name a few.

They promote and enliven their businesses with exhibitions and research projects that expand customers’ appreciation of the culture surrounding the products they consume. While traditional Japanese sweets maker Toraya curates exhibitions of decorative arts, Mori Building property developers showcase international art and radical European urban planners (Le Corbusier).

Around the corner at Tokyo Midtown, Design Sight 21_21 (the late Issey Miyake’s passion project), Suntory Museum of Art and Mitsui-sponsored public art play a central role in the newly-gentrified Roppongi district.

Further afield—responding to the environmental degradation and depopulation of regional areas—educational publishing giant Benesse (and its leader Soichiro Fukutake) has created the ‘art islands’ of the Seto Inland sea, now a mecca for contemporary art lovers.


Private influence on Tokyo’s urban space

The private sector also significantly shapes urban space through a commitment to  exceptional architecture and private / public partnerships. Over the past 15 years in particular, it has rebuilt huge swathes of major cities, embedding them with art and design in the process.

Most famously, Tokyu Corporation’s Shibuya redevelopment, which extends to Harajuku and is still underway, incorporates public art and mixed-use buildings such as Hikarie, featuring theatre and gallery spaces.

The ongoing revitalisation of Tokyo’s Marunouchi and Nihonbashi districts is another striking example. Predominantly owned by two former ‘zaibatsu’ – Mitsubishi and Mitsui respectively – the rebirth of these two areas can best be described as a showy corporate competition, fought along historical lines, with art and design as its main weaponry.

For Marunouchi, Mitsubishi draws on its Meiji-era origins to reference Victorian-England architecture and art nouveau aesthetics. In recent years, it has built a replica of its headquarters ‘Ichigokan’ as an art museum for late-19th century European graphic art and artefacts, and commissioned an extensive collection of public art and cultural facilities.

On the other side of Tokyo station, Mitsui is reviving the artistically-rich, merchant-led popular culture of the Edo period in Nihonbashi. With its roots in the 1673 ‘Echigoya’ department store (now Mitsukoshi), Mitsui nurtures traditional arts and crafts in a contemporary context through interior design, architecture and cultural events.

Learning opportunities for Australia’s arts sector

Since opening to the West in the mid-19th century, Japan has remained one of the most enduring and well-loved artistic cultures in the world. But our understanding of how and why its creativity continues to flourish remains rooted in a Western perspective. 


If Australia can break out of its elitist attitudes towards art as a luxury, and embrace a broader definition of design and creativity, we may understand that a vibrant arts culture and vibrant business culture can be seamlessly intertwined and mutually beneficial. Calls for ‘increasing arts engagement’, ‘encouraging philanthropy’ and ‘supporting the struggling arts sector’ will be turned on their head by considering how all are predicated on the assumption that arts and design are not fundamental to our lives. 


My PhD will deliver an unprecedented level of bilingual research that reaches deep into the Japanese business and creative sectors. I will particularly focus on ‘big business’ and companies whose main economic activity is not the production or supply of ‘cultural goods’ (for example the entertainment or fashion industries). 


Ultimately, this research will be a wake-up call for Australia’s corporate and creative industry leaders, contributing to the wider debate around creativity’s importance – not only to our community, but to all of humanity.

Image credit

‘Maman’ by Louise Bourgeois (2003), Roppongi Hills

Toraya Akasaka Main Store

Kusama Yayoi’s pumpkin sculpture on Naoshima Island: Wikimedia Commons

Mori Building Digital Art Museum: Wikimedia Commons

21_21 DESIGN SIGHT Exhibition Poster: ‘Design Anatomy: A method for seeing the world through familiar objects’ from October 2016

Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (Takahiko Yanagisawa): Wikimedia Commons

Yokohama Museum of Art (Kenzo Tange): Wikimedia Commons

Sugiura Hisui, Ginza Mitsukoshi opening 1930

Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum: Wikimedia Commons

Marketing website for the Mitsubishi-led redevelopment of Marunouchi and Tokyo Station Precinct

PhD Research by Kathryn Hunyor, UTS School of Design

Mori Building Digital Art Museum.jpg
21_21 DESIGN SIGHT Exhibition Poster ‘Design Anatomy A method for seeing the world through
Sugiura Hisui, Ginza Mitsukoshi opening 1930.jpg
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