When the Bauhaus Went to Japan

Mariko Tagaki teases out the threads of a tightly woven relationship between Bauhaus and Modern Japan

By Google Arts & Culture

Mariko Tagaki

Nigatsudō temple, Nara, from the series Souvenirs of Travels, Second Collection (1921) by Artist: Kawase Hasui, Publisher: S. Watanabe Color Print Co. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

When the Bauhaus movement was founded in Germany in 1919, Japan was in a state of awakening. 

Japan's strict isolation from outside influences, which started in the first three decades of the 17th century, continued almost 250 years. 

LIFE Photo Collection

The Japanese government decided to open their country under pressure from the Americans. 

Komagata Embankment, from the series Twelve Scenes of Tokyo (1919) by Artist: Kawase Hasui, Publisher: S. Watanabe Color Print Co. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Although its traditional arts were refined during this long period of isolation, Japan missed out on taking part in the industrial revolution.

After the opening of Japan began a period of rapid modernization involving the import of Western knowledge and goods, from clothing to medicine.

In order to catch up with the rest of the world as quickly as possible, the Japanese government invited international experts from various fields to Japan from the late 1860s onwards. At the same time, many young Japanese people—including artists, writers, and architects—proceeded to visit Europe and the USA to satisfy their desire for knowledge and inspiration. Some of them studied abroad, while others travelled the globe. 

By John DominisLIFE Photo Collection

After the opening of Japan began a period of rapid modernization involving the import of Western knowledge and goods, from clothing to medicine.

In order to catch up with the rest of the world as quickly as possible, the Japanese government invited international experts from various fields to Japan from the late 1860s onwards. At the same time, many young Japanese people—including artists, writers, and architects—proceeded to visit Europe and the USA to satisfy their desire for knowledge and inspiration. Some of them studied abroad, while others travelled the globe. 

Bild II. Gnomus (Painting II. Gnomus) (1928) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

By the same token, art critic Sadanosuke Nakada (1888–1970) and architect Kikuji Ishimoto (1894–1963) visited the Bauhaus in Weimar in November 1922. Their main goal was to meet artist Wassily Kandinsky who had invited them there. Although Kandinsky's works had already been featured in publications, Walter Gropius and the school for design and architecture he founded in Weimar in 1919 were still unknown in 1922. 

Following their travels, Ishimoto and Nakada wrote about the school and expressed their enthusiasm about the workshops and products, as well as the artists who were masterful in their teaching. The articles attracted more visitors, and the Bauhaus then became a popular landmark for Japanese architects. There were also bookshops in Tokyo which specialized in imported titles and sold Bauhaus publications soon after they had been released in Germany. This helped spread awareness about the Bauhaus movement in specialist Japanese circles as early as the 1920s.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Hiroshima

One of Japan's Bauhaus-inspired modern buildings. 

Impression III (Concert) (1911) by Wassily KandinskyStädtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus and Kunstbau

The extent of the exposure to the Bauhaus movement took on a new quality when Takehiko Mizutani (1898–1969) registered as the first Japanese student at the Bauhaus in the 1927 winter semester. The lecturer received an architecture scholarship from the Japanese Ministry of Culture to study at a forward-thinking university in Germany and later apply this knowledge in his teaching in Japan.  

After arriving in Berlin in the summer of 1926, Mizutani first visited the Reimann School, a private art and design college. That fall he visited the Bauhaus for the first time, and he switched to Dessau for the 1927 summer semester. 

Material studies created by Mizutani during a foundation course taught by Josef Albers, as well as a folding table he designed in Marcel Breuer's furniture workshop, were already being featured in Bauhaus publications at the time.   

At the end of 1929, Mizutani left the Bauhaus and returned to Japan, where he spread Bauhaus ideas through publications and participating in exhibitions. He incorporated exercises from the foundation course taught by Josef Albers and Kandinsky's theories on abstract painting in his own teaching.

Untitled (Bauhaus buildings in Dessau, architect Walter Gropius, photo of preliminary design drawing by Carl Fieger, west elevation) (1925) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

In the summer of 1930, married couple Michiko and Iwao Yamawaki arrived in Germany. They were the first Japanese citizens to have traveled abroad in order to study at the Bauhaus. Iwao Yamawaki (née Iwao Fujita) was a student of architecture and had already worked at a Tokyo architectural firm for several years. He was disillusioned with the ongoing practice of Japanese architectural firms of basing the designs of facades and internal spaces strongly on Western examples in terms of their formal aesthetics. 

Iwao made a pledge to discover new approaches to architecture at the Bauhaus. In Dessau, Iwao was enthusiastic about the foundation course led by Josef Albers and Wassily Kandinsky, and reported about it in his articles.  In this course, Iwao came to the realization that the fundamental studies of architecture in Japan needed thorough reform. He later assigned the exercises he received from Albers to his own students in Japan. In Dessau, Iwao discovered photography and the collage technique as a means of expressing himself artistically.

The famous collage "The Attack on the Bauhaus," which depicts the closure of the Bauhaus in Dessau by the Nazis, was created by Iwao. Back in Japan he ran an architectural firm alongside his lecturing activity. Today, only the home and studio of painter Kotaro Migishi (1903–34) in Tokyo built in 1934 remains from his work as an architect.

National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Designed by Le Corbusier, Junzo Sakakura, Sutemi Horiguchi

Kokusai - Kenchiku (Japanese architecture magazine) (1932)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

Michiko Yamawaki didn't just accompany her husband Iwao on his visit to Germany; she also registered at the Bauhaus. In complete contrast to many other Bauhaus members, Michiko was a blank slate when it came to art, design, or even architecture. She engaged in the Bauhaus experiment, studying under Albers, Kandinsky, and Joost Schmidt, and finally in the weaving workshop. At the Bauhaus, Michiko discovered parallels between traditional Japanese tea culture and the Bauhaus movement. In particular, Michiko found that the material properties, simplicity, and function of objects were equally important in both worlds.

After returning home at the end of 1932, the married couple embodied the popular modern Western lifestyle. At the same time they also supported bringing traditional Japanese products into the modern era, and not simply replacing them with Western products. During their stay abroad, the Yamawakis had gathered together a collection of objects which they also made available to other researchers and exhibitors in Japan. 

The last and by far lesser-known Japanese Bauhaus member was Tamae Ohno (1903–87), who only studied at the Bauhaus in Berlin for a few months until its permanent closure. 

Astatic (1944) by Josef AlbersMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston

When architect Renshichiro Kawakita (1902–75) opened his Bauhaus-inspired evening school Shin Kenchiku Kogei Gakuin (School for New Architecture and Design) in Ginza, Takehiko Mizutani was the inspiration during the planning stage. Mizutani also taught at the school, which was strongly focused on the Bauhaus example shortly after its foundation, alongside the Yamawakis. Kawakita, who had not seen the Bauhaus for himself, freely interpreted the teachings of Josef Albers and Wassily Kandinsky. 

In the final semesters of the school's existence, Kawakita turned the foundation course into the focus of the studies. He saw the teachings of the foundation course as fundamental lessons that were not only relevant for emerging artists, architects, and designers, but also as an essential part of education in general. The school eventually closed in 1936. Its "students" included numerous teachers, who later incorporated the Bauhaus methods interpreted and further developed by Kawakita into their art lessons at their schools.

Kawakita's evening school produced two important figures in the history of design in Japan: graphic designer Yusaku Kamekura (1915–97) and fashion designer Yoko Kuwasawa (1910–77). Kuwasawa herself founded the Kuwasawa Design School in 1954. Like the Bauhaus, she wanted to link research and production at her school. The Kuwasawa Design School still exists today.

Exhibitions on Bauhaus themes are regularly curated in Japan. Many publications are available in Japanese. Alongside the private collection of the Yamawakis is the Misawa Bauhaus Collection in Tokyo belonging to prefab house manufacturer Misawa which includes approx. 1,500 objects in total. The Bauhaus movement is still hugely popular in Japan today. It is a guarantee of a high-quality design that is also, above all, modern. 

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