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Fall and rebirth of Japanese graphics

Posted by Alberto Bertolazzi on
Caduta e rinascita della grafica giapponese

24 July 2015. Olivier Debie is sitting in his studio overlooking the Meuse, in the heart of Liège. On the flat screen they broadcast the most awaited event of the year: the presentation of the logo for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Everyone has the beautiful symbol of the 1964 edition in their eyes and is expecting great things. The selection process was particularly rigorous and transparent, and the announced winner, the Japanese designer Kenjiro Sano, is highly respected in his homeland. As soon as the winning drawing is revealed, Debie jumps up and starts making calls. Three days later, he files a complaint for plagiarism. The outcry is immense and incredulous comments arrive from Japan. On the other hand, the resemblance of the new logo to the one created by the Belgian designer four years earlier for the Théatre de Liège is impressive. The design of the Olympics contains a "T" (for Tokyo) shaped by a white circle and made up of two staggered irregular triangles and a small red roundel: apart from this last detail, which recalls the Rising Sun, the "T" seems to be taken from the Debbie logo.

Sano's logo and Debie's logo

Sano's words of justification and the obligatory defense by the Japanese Olympic Committee are not enough to stem the wave of indignation coming from the rest of the world. A little over a month passes. In September, the clients were forced to withdraw the logo and launch a new competition. Finally, after a long and tormented selection process, on 25 April 2016 we proceed to the new vote: the winner is the artist Asao Tokolo, with a checkered ring colored in the traditional indigo blue.

The new logos for the Tokyo 2020 Games designed by Tokolo

A modernized version of the motif known in the Edo period (1603-1867) as ichimatsu moyo and which suggests a message of conservation to the rest of the world: “We got it, we were wrong, let's go back to tradition”.

2018 “Catastrophe and the Power of Art” Exhibition (left) and 2017 Hachiōji Used Book Fair (right)

Many Japanese observers identify this moment - of fall and immediate rebirth - as the turning point of graphic design in Japan. In previous decades, oriental artistic expressiveness was placed on an ideal pedestal thanks to five conceptual pillars: the cult of kawaii , floral symbolism, the artistic use of text characters, the legacy of calligraphic aesthetics and the management experimental color. Since the Olympic "failure" onwards, a process of rapid renewal has become necessary.

Best Wallpaper Award 2018 (left) and Cultural Architecture Week 2019 (right)

Hirokazu Abeki, founder of the Abekino Design studio and author of the preface to the book Originality of Japanese Graphics , published by NuiNui, also thinks so: "The work I have done has been an attempt to explore new things, detached from current values... Since the days of 'incident' of 2015, when the Olympic symbol for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics designed by Kenjiro Sano was accused of plagiarism, upsetting the entire Japanese graphic sector, I prefer to look as much as possible in myself for hints of new values, rather than being inspired to existing ones".

New Year's greeting card 2018

The images accompanying the article are taken from the book Originality of Japanese Graphics , which illustrates 110 recent projects created by Japanese designers, representing the new expressive tendencies of the creatives of the Land of the Rising Sun.

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