I’ve just returned from Japan, my first trip back since before the pandemic - four years it’s been - my longest absence from my old home since I returned to the UK, so I expected some differences. And there were!
This was my first Springtime visit for very many years, as previous trips were invariably during daughter’s long summer holiday. However the sweltering Japanese summers are becoming unbearable in recent years (even for me), and to relieve the pressure on her grandparents this time we decided on a shorter Spring visit, in much gentler weather.
There have been many changes. Shibuya especially is much transformed with the extensive redevelopment of the station, and major new tall buildings on the East side replacing the familiar old maze. When we alighted from the airport limousine bus it took me a while to find my bearings, so much was new. Tokyo is always evolving, but this was such a big change, my memories of the old Shibuya are slowly, irrevocably fading into the past. Favourite nook & cranny eateries and an art shop in the old station complex are gone, partly replaced by the new Scramble Square shopping centre, or over the West side next to the famous crossing, demolished and awaiting another new gleaming building - Shibuya is a development in progress. The character of Shibuya is changing to something more clinical, it all feels rather impersonal now. However, away from the station the West side is still thankfully recognisable.
The other obvious visual change was that everyone was masked. Though compulsory wearing was lifted before we arrived, in the urban centres the majority of people still wear face masks in the street and virtually everyone on public transport (except the tourists). I’m told this is partly to do with respect - no-one wants to make others feel uncomfortable, or be the one person standing out, there’s also a long tradition of mask-wearing in Japan, so it will be a while before everyone is comfortable without masks. With everyone masked up and absorbed in their phones this made my habitual train sketching somewhat repetitive, however the eyes have it!
This trip was different in many ways, and became a two-stage affair. Usually when I go back to Japan it’s just me and my daughter, I spend most of my time in Tokyo, there never seems enough time to get out explore new parts of the country. But this time part of our trip was set aside for travel in Kansai with my daughter and her first-time-in-Japan partner - we spent three nights in Kyoto and one in Nara, one of my favourite Japanese cities. The last time I was in Nara was around the millennium, it’s been too long away! Early Spring means sakura (cherry blossom), and we arrived at the perfect time, the country was festooned in pink and white blossom, the visual joy was everywhere, but especially on show in Kyoto.
It has to be said the ambience was somewhat reduced by a phenomenal number of tourists with the same idea, the lifting of Covid restrictions it seems opened the floodgates to visitors! But we had a great time.
But enough of my holiday tales (if you've friended me on Facebook I posted more snaps of our Kansai trip). The rest of the visit, for me at least, was strutting around the streets of Tokyo, seeing old clients and friends, re-kindling old contacts, and basically catching up with the creative industry. Japan still remains my most important market, and it was really great to see old colleagues, designers and editors.
It was especially reassuring to see my books on the shelves of Japanese bookstores!
Japan is slowly emerging from pandemic lockdowns and restrictions, but it’s a slow process. Many in the creative industry are still working remotely from home, the tone of conversations with staff at illustration galleries was low key, perhaps reflected by lower visitor numbers and restrained artist budgets. There was a strong indication that for freelance illustrators at least, things are still in the early stages of recovery, if indeed a recovery is in sight. I remember during my last visit before Covid the illustration business was much diminished compared to former days, a process of devolution that simply accelerated during the pandemic. Illustrators in Japan are facing exactly the same challenges as those in other countries, that is: print media being replaced by digital/web; closure or restriction of many businesses, lack of budget, and an art pool saturated with part-time illustrators supported by alternative income from partners or a day job. Like everywhere else, the concept of a full time, fully employed career illustrator living exclusively off art commissions is becoming a rare thing. I’m an endangered species!
What Japan has in bucketloads however, is a root love and respect for graphic media on all levels of society, whether it be anime, manga, mascot characters, sophisticated posters, funky packaging, or picture book illustration. Graphic art and design (as distinct from fine art) is held in immense regard, with a fascination for fantasy, and a broad range mediums. I think this is partly due to the way society in Japan embraces escapism, comics are not seen as things to grow out of, picture books are widely collected by, and sometimes aimed at, sophisticated adult audiences as well as children. Also there is a strong graphic history running from ancient scrolls through nihon-ga, and Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and the graphic power of calligraphy, brush painting, black marks on a 2-dimensional surface, the balance of visual space, it’s all part of the story of Japan.
Though the majority of wider Japanese society that has no interest in graphic art at all, there is still has a fundamental understanding of visual images. Picture books are heralded, comics are read by all ages. I don’t see this same level of absorption in the UK, where the written word is acclaimed, writers lauded, but illustration often sidelined, where graphic art is all too often dismissed amongst the cultural establishment as ‘mere’ illustration compared to fine art. In Japan, the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art is more like two sides of the same thing, it’s much more nuanced.
It’s this that encouraged me to live there for over 20 years, and keeps drawing me back (pardon the pun). Our next trip back will be much sooner, and hopefully quite a bit longer!
A couple more train scribbles to finish, there are more on Instagram @StudioNIB