Japan’s art history is one of the richest in the world. As in many fields, it’s often the men that get the most press, but it is Japanese women who have always pushed the boundaries of art, while battling for the recognition they deserve.
To really get the full picture of modern art in Japan, here is our selection of 10 of the nation’s most fascinating women artists.
1. Yayoi Kusama
When it comes to iconic Japanese women artists, they don’t get much bigger than Yayoi Kusama, who is perhaps the most famous female artist working today. Most art lovers will be familiar with her polka-dotted pumpkins, which Kusama considers "the most humorous of vegtables"!
Having spent her whole life battling with hallucinations, Kusama took to art to help deal with her internal struggles by putting them in a physical realm. Though almost 90 years old, Kusama is working as prolifically as ever; in fact she recently opened the Yayoi Kusama Museum in Shunjuku, Tokyo, which is so popular that you have to reserve tickets months in advance!
2. Mariko Mori
Born in Tokyo in 1967, Mariko Mori is an artist whose works meld the history of Japan with her fascinating futuristic visions. Working in the fields of sculpture, photography, and digital art, Mori has become the embodiment of Japan’s cultural juxtaposition between being a futuristic society with a rich historic foundation.
In 2010 Mori founded a non-profit organization, known as the Faou Foundation, which celebrates the relationship between art and the natural environment by creating contemporary art installations around the globe.
3. Mika Ninagawa
One woman whose work is emblazoned across the artistic spectrum is Mika Ninagawa. The photographer and film director rose to popularity of the back of her vibrantly colored photos of flowers, which pop with a manic energy brighter than the neon signs of Tokyo. Imagine if you will a Japanese style wedding with an outfit as powerful as this one!
Not one to be held back by sticking to particular mediums, over the years Ninagawa has found great success in the film making and advertizing worlds too.
4. Rinko Kawauchi
Top Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi’s work first really gained a mainstream international success in around 2001 when she ambitiously dropped three photography books: Utatane, Hanabi, and Kanako simultaneously.
Her charmed and delicate style of photography scored her an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society. Focusing on capturing the ordinary moments of everyday life, her work makes even the most mundane appear so beautiful.
5. Chiharu Shiota
The Osaka-born, Berlin-based Chiharu Shiota is one of Japan’s most important and groundbreaking installation artists. Over the years she has become most well known for her immersive, panoramic webs created by threads, hoses or other most abstract objects. For Shiota the links that she forms represent the interconnectedness of people and things, and the complex interwoven nature of human relationships.
Despite living in Germany since 1996, Shiota is widely celebrated at home as one of the Japan’s most famous modern artists, and a role model for women artists everywhere. She was selected to represent Japan at the Venice Bienniale in 2014.
Visitors to England this spring can see her latest installation in the chapel of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
6. Miyako Ishiuchi
Japan has no shortage of talented female photographers, and Miyako Ishiuchi is one name that sits atop that list. Born in 1947 in Gunma and raised in Yokosuka, she was deeply influenced by the atmosphere of Japan’s major ports and cities which were occupied by US military post World War II. Her first book was a collection of images captured around Yokosuka. In 2014 she became the first Asian woman to receive the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography.
Ishiuchi’s heart-wrenching photo collections Hiroshima, documenting the personal and everyday objects found after the atomic blast, was presented to former US president Barack Obama during his historic visit to the city.
To experience Ishiuchi’s vision for yourself, visit the Yokohama Museum of Art, which is hosting an retrospective of her works entitled Ishiuchi Miyako: Grain and Image, until March 4.
7. Makiko Hattori
Ceramics, one of Japan’s most classic art forms is the domain of Makiko Hattori, whose wonderfully textured creations present an illusion of the senses. Covering her creations with tiny bundles of carefully shaped clay shavings, the surfaces of Hattori’s ceramic sculptures are so densely packed that they require a six-month drying period. Check out her contemporary works at the Joan B Mirviss Gallery in New York or Joanna Bird in London.
8. Yoko Ono
As a celebrity, Yoko Ono needs no introduction. For seven decades, Ono has been pushing the boundaries of art and music, often bringing public attention to areas, such as performance art, that had previously been ignored. She has also devoted herself tirelessly to the cause of world peace, which is something we can all get behind.
In this Bad Dancer music video produced in 2013, Ono subverts the myth that the modern art scene is all serious talk and business. We just love how much fun she is having with it!
9. Kimiko Yoshida
The extraordinary series, Painting, Self-portrait, by Paris-based artist Kimiko Yoshida dissects the multiple meanings of nomadic culture and female identity. As she cycles through many different modes of dress and cultural symbols, Yoshida is able to represent innumerable points of view through her artwork. Yet by always using herself as the subject, all theses perspectives are drawn together as one, highlighting the fundamental unity in cultural diversity.
10. Tomoko Konoike
Japanese modern artist Tomoko Konoike plays with traditional and rural motifs to create surrealist sculptures and paintings, but in a recognizably Japanese style. For this piece Donning Animal Skins and Braided Grass, an aluminium frame with shards of mirror creates the ethereal impression of a Japanese wolf. The species, sadly now extinct, held a much more positive cultural role than its counterpart in Europe. It was considered a messenger of the gods, and a protector of travelers. Konoike’s glittering sculpture certainly lends the creature an air of otherworldly power.
Who is your favorite Japanese female artist working today? Let us know if there's someone you think we should have included in the comments below!