In 2000, Japan was virtually absent from the global art market. However, in just 20 years, it has established itself as one of the major players in the Asian market and has been propelled onto the international marketplace. Since 2011, the global art market has remained fairly stable. It is estimated at around $60 billion every year, except in 2020 when it went down to $50 billion, a 22% drop from 2019 (source: The Art Market 2021 Report - Art Basel & UBS). Supported by top of the bill artists like Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, the country has gradually climbed into the global top 10. With an annual turnover of around $23 million, it has now taken the 6th place in the worldwide art market.
The Takashi Murakami exhibition at the Fondation Vuitton, Paris, 2018
Characteristics of the Japanese market
In 2020, Japan accounted for 1% of global art sales, just after Germany. It represents about 2% of the volume of artworks sold in Asia: a small share, but largely compensated by the dynamic and fairly stable nature of the market.
Although they are fond of art sold on the international market, Japanese collectors are also keen to support their domestic market. The rate of unsold works in Japan is about 20%, compared to an average of 34% worldwide: this is one of the best sales ratios. Thanks to this investment in their national art, Japanese collectors manage to preserve a stable, dynamic, and autonomous art market. These buying habits have been particularly life-saving during the COVID crisis. Indeed, unlike other countries, Japan relies primarily on Japanese collectors to support its own market. As a result, it only recorded a 14% decline, compared to more than 30% in countries such as the United States or France.
In Japan, just like in international auction houses, it is contemporary art, and particularly post-war art, that Japanese buyers are the most interested in. Abroad, the Japanese art market is driven by a few very famous artists. Murakami's record sale remains My Lonesome Cowboy, which sold for $15 million in 2008. However, Nara surpassed that record with Knife in the back, sold for just over $25 million in 2019, making him the most expensive Japanese artist.
These artists tend to diversify and adopt more and more new technologies. For example, Murakami had considered selling NFTs before changing his mind a few days later, in order to better think about the best way to exploit this technology. Blockchain companies are also trying to resolve the remaining legal issues in order to reassure Japanese collectors, who are increasingly interested in these new art forms.
One Japanese collector stands out from the rest: Yūsaku Maezawa. The 18th richest Japanese man is known for his eccentricity, and he is expected to make a trip to the ISS with SpaceX in December this year. But he is also the man who made Basquiat break records, buying one of his paintings in 2017 for $100 million.
Yoshitomo Nara’s studio, photograph by Takako Oishi
Tokyo, the future capital of Asian art?
In the early 2000s, galleries were established in Tokyo, such as Tokio Koyama, or the well-known KaiKai Kiki Gallery, the gallery of Takashi Murakami founded for his eponymous collective. Since then, many foreign galleries have set up shop in Tokyo: this is the case of Perrotin, which developed its Tokyo branch in 2017.
There are many art fairs in Tokyo, but the best known is Art Fair Tokyo, which is both the oldest and the most important of all. It has a particular advantage over European and/or American art fairs. Unlike these, it does not specialize in one particular artistic movement. It includes all types of techniques, some dating back centuries, and others using very modern technology.
These new technologies have a great chance to develop well in Japan, a country very advanced in this field, and it is with this ambition that CrypTOKYO was developed. This physical exhibition of NFTs, a first of its kind in Japan, will take place in July 2021 in Tokyo.
Art Fair Tokyo 2011, photograph by Héctor García
5 Japanese artists you absolutely must know
Murakami and Nara are certainly very famous, but they are not the only artists to know when talking about the Japanese art market.
1. Yayoi Kusama
Kusama draws her inspiration from hallucinations, which she has experienced since childhood. She uses several media such as painting, sculpture or writing and likes to represent dots or spots. Her works are very colorful and vivid, and her recognizable style has made her the most highly rated Japanese artist in the world. With an annual sales revenue of approximately $103 million, she is also the top-performing woman at auctions.
2. Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita
Foujita became known for his style of black ink lines on a milky white background, allying, according to him, "the rigor of the Japanese line with the freedom of Matisse". He was friends with the greatest names of the Roaring Twenties, such as Picasso and Chagall, and drew his influence from masters like Michelangelo and Rodin. Foujita is also a multidisciplinary artist. He used many different techniques: engraving, drawing, painting, photography, fashion, and many others. His record? $9.3 million in 2018 for The Birthday Party. And to get one of his works, it's best to go to Japan, which accounted for 38% of transactions for Foujita's works in 2020, compared to 26% in France.
3. Hiroshi Sugimoto
A photographer known worldwide for his excellent technique and themed series, Sugimoto explores the proximity of photography to reality and the human perception of it. Through his art, he reproduces an illusion of reality and brings historical figures to life. He still collaborates with major brands and is exhibited in the most important museums (Met, Moma, Tate, etc.).
4. Kazuo Shiraga
Like Kusama, Shiraga was deeply affected by the Second World War. An avant-garde artist, he began in the "zero-kai" group. This group rallied behind a motto: "Art must start from the absolute zero point and develop according to its own creativity." He then joined his successor group, the Gutai. He painted in surprising positions, standing, tied to a rope, and often used his body as in mock fights or chopping trees. He thus became one of the first famous performance artists. Very popular in Europe in the 2000s, his first work to exceed $1 million was sold in Paris in 2007. One of his record sales was also in Paris in 2015, with one of his paintings going for over $5 million.
5. Chiho Aoshima
A protégé of Murakami, Aoshima took her first steps in the Kakai Kiki Collective. Inspired by Japanese animation, manga and Japanese popular culture in general, she uses digital drawing to modify her sketches and then prints them on various materials. She sometimes even animates her works and creates videos to stage them. Her colorful universe draws from Japanese folklore and current modernity to reflect on human beings and progress. She is represented by the Kakai Kiki Collective and the Perrotin Gallery.
Building Head Chameleon, Chiho Aoshima, KUMI Contemporary gallery
With how it resisted the crisis, the Japanese art market has shown that, despite its size, it is a significant worldwide player. Japanese artists are increasingly popular abroad. Iwamoto Masazaku, Seiki Kuroda, Matazo Kayama, Taikan Yokoyama, Tetsumi Kudo, there are many Japanese artists whose works are sold for hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars. And the leading artists continue to sell but also to collaborate with exhibitions in Western fairs and museums. For example, all available tickets for Kusama's exhibition at the Tate have been sold out until October 2021, and Murakami has been chosen to build an impressive sculpture for the New York Outsider Art Fair.