Postcard from Japan : Art Deco in the Land of the Rising Sun

by Craig Stephen

As any tourist will tell you, Japan has a vast array of temples, shrines and Imperial Palaces, often dating back centuries. This isn’t the full story, however, as Japan has a varied assortment of architectural styles including an array from the Twentieth Century.

Some of you may be surprised to learn that Japan had a vibrant and robust Art Deco scene, and the influence of the style radiated out through artistic circles into wider Japanese culture from the 20s through the 40s, just as it did in the West.

An exhibition held in the United States from 2012, Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945, provided me with a glimpse of the ephemera and artefacts of the Art Deco age in Japan. It included some 200 objects from the period: vases, paintings, advertisements, sheet music, cigarette packages, trinkets, metalwork, furniture, sports medallions, lacquer boxes, and ceramics.

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Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945 exhibition via Artsy.net

Japanese Art Deco drew on a broad palate of influences, both ancient and modern: China and Egypt —after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 triggered the “Nile-Style” craze — to contemporary Hollywood.

Japanese Deco designers also drew on progressive European and American art, showing a particular fascination with gears and clocks, the mechanics of the machine age.

Art Deco also served a political purpose: the style fitted the nationalist, anti-communist political undercurrent of the time, with nationalist designers readily using motifs such as the rising sun.

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Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945 exhibition via Artsy.net

Having thoroughly enjoyed the 2012 exhibition, I was keen to track down some surviving examples of Japanese Art Deco architecture, and on a recent visit adjusted my itinerary accordingly.

Yokohama

Japan’s second largest city, Yokohama, has largely retained its Art Deco-era buildings, with a particular standout being the Hotel New Grand. Completed in 1927, the building retains many original features including its magnificent marble staircase. The hotel was dramatically expanded in 1991 with the addition of an 18-storey tower adjacent to the ‘old’ building.

These days, the main entrance is via this tower, guiding you into the older building with its marble staircase and wealth of period features. Look up and note the two lantern-style chandeliers at the top of the stairs, surmounted by an ornamental arch.  Underneath the indispensable hotel clock, framed by traditional Japanese artwork, are three lifts with copper-coloured doors decorated with circular metalware motifs down the sides. Instead of two doors, as on a conventional lift, there are three, giving a fan-like effect.

Opposite the hotel, moored by the Yamashita Park, you’ll find the Hikawa Maru, berthed there since 1961. This beautifully restored cruise liner was built in 1929 and sailed between Japan, Vancouver and Seattle. It was regarded as a state-of-the-art vessel at the time with Art Deco fittings, the creation of French designer Marc Simon, and provided a very comfortable journey for its first-class customers on those long trans-Pacific voyages. It served as a navy hospital ship during the war, surviving several explosive encounters with mines, unlike its two similar sister ships.

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Hikawa Maru – Image from Ocean Liners Magazine 

There are some restricted areas, but visitors can explore all over the ship including the first-class quarters for a modest fee. Perhaps the most impressive area is the first-class lounge with its elegant Art Deco interior and smoking room. No expense was spared, and whereas most people have heard of the Normandie, few have heard of the Hikawa Maru.

The adjacent city centre contains three buildings curiously dubbed the Three Towers, although all are distinct. The King is the Kangawa Prefectural Building, completed in 1928, and apparently influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. The frontage is a three-tiered edifice with many pillars and heavily bricked walls – Art Deco mixed with the Japanese architectural form called Teikan.

Teikan, also known as teikan yoshiki, was developed during the Japanese Empire in the early 20th century. The style can be identified by Japanese-style roofing capping neoclassical buildings, and often features a centrally elevated structure with a pyramidal dome. The Kangawa Prefectural building is one of the finest examples of the style.

The Queen is the Yokohama Customs Building which was built in 1934 and has a characteristic tower with a mosque-like appearance. While lit up at night the design lends the building a noble feminine timbre, hence the moniker. Most of the building is still used as a government office, but one side area has become a museum dedicated to the city’s custom service.

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Queen Tower – photo by Craig Stephen

Lastly, the Jack Tower is the Yokohama Port Opening Memorial Hall, which is neo-renaissance rather than pure Art Deco, with a strong red brick effect.

In another part of the city, is a smattering of other 1930s buildings including one called the British House. Designed by the Shanghai branch of the British Office of Works it was built in 1937 as the consular residence. Typically British, it has a separate entrance for the servants.

Tokyo

Tokyo is known as a city of skyscrapers and startling modern architecture; but occasionally the designs hint to the past. The Prefecture Building – a 48 storey metropolitan government tower completed in 1990 – has echoes of Lloyd Wright’s fleeting dalliance with Japanese architecture, the sadly lost Imperial Hotel.scan0002-2.jpg

The Imperial was the American architect’s best-known building in Asia, in which he combined his western design principles and a fascination with Japan.scan0002-300.jpg

Completed in 1923 with the aim of showcasing Japan’s modernity, the complex was arranged around a large courtyard and pool with wings containing hotel accommodation flanked either side. It was one of the earliest examples of Mayan Revival. Its foundations were set above ground to “float” on the mud; and this probably ensured it survived the Great Kanto Earthquake on the day of its opening. It also survived wartime bombing, but not Tokyo’s expansion as it was razed in 1968 to make way for a high-rise structure (though some of its most striking features are preserved at the Museum Meiji-Mura outside Nagoya).

Japan’s Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, introduced in 1950, wasn’t enough to protect this particular building but it has preserved many more. The law contains a ‘designation system’ under which selected important items are listed as cultural properties, a status which imposes restrictions on any alterations and repairs; or their  export if they are  designated objects. As of 1 February 2012, there were about 16,000 nationally designated, 21,000 prefecturally designated, and 86,000 municipally designated properties. It is understandable that the law protects foremost centuries old and culturally significant temples, shrines and pagodas rather than more modern structures.

Many pre-and post-war architectural survivors are scattered around this vast city of many millions.

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Hilltop Hotel – photo by Randy Juster decopix.com

One unusual Deco example is The Hilltop Hotel which sits on Surugadai Hill, an obscure spot visitors may have difficulty finding without the smartphone map app. The hotel was built in 1937 by philanthropist Keitaro Sato and was originally an institute devoted to a new lifestyle in food, clothing and shelter.

After World War II, the hotel was converted to housing for US military personnel, opening in 1954 as a hotel, retaining many of its original 1930s features. It is popular today with writers, scholars and journalists.

Department stores, popular in Japan during pre-war times as in many other countries, remain standing throughout Tokyo. The Waco store in the trendy Ginza district is a standout, prominently sited at the busiest junction of the shopping district. The Isetan Department Store in Shinjuku, meanwhile, is an equally brash invitation to shoppers, at a busy junction; its exterior is adorned with magnificent Deco metalwork.

Official Japan’s endorsement of the Art Deco style is exemplified by the former Royal and prime ministerial residence and state guesthouse. This is now one of Tokyo’s most stately museums, in a city of many. The Teien Art Museum stands amid spacious green lawns in Minato-ku. It was once the home of Prince Yasuhiko Asaka and his wife Princess Nobuko, who became so enamoured with Art Deco while living in France in the 1920s they constructed their home in the style upon their return to Japan. Completed in 1933, the house was one of the most impressive examples of Art Deco architecture in Japan. French artist and designer Henri Rapin was commissioned to create the interior of seven of the rooms in the residence.

Although the Royal couple and the youngest two children moved into their new home upon its completion, their family’s happiness was short-lived as Princess Nobuko died later that same year of kidney disease, aged 42. The Prince, on the other hand, lived to the age of 93. Following the war, he lost his royal status , living out his later years in Shizuoka Prefecture with an active interest in golf and the development of golf courses.

One does not travel all the way to Japan just to see Art Deco architecture. Japanese culture offers a vast array of possibilities to tourists. However, it would be a mistake for the discerning Art Deco enthusiast not to seek out these treasures. There are almost certainly more Art Deco gems out in provincial Japan, still waiting to be discovered; but no Art Deco society as yet. I hope other members who visit Japan will also share their experiences.

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We greatly appreciate being granted use of Randy Juster’s photographs to illustrate this article. Please visit his website decopix.com to explore his work further.

For further  information on the 2012 Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920-1945 Exhibition, visit Artsy.net, or track down the accompanying book by Kendall H. Brown. 

Deco Japan Catalogue

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