An essay on entering the Japanese art scene

by Monty DiPietro

To tag the Tokyo art scene as ‘unique’ doesn’t really give you much information, and this is supposed to be an informative essay.

But I have to say it - The Tokyo art scene is unique.

So, foreign artists, especially westerners, who have a yen to show in the world’s largest and most expensive metropolis are advised to put everything they know about gallery and museum shows aside.

The aim of this essay is to outline the lay of the land, art-wise, and help you determine whether an exhibition of your work in Japan is worth the trouble.

The approximately 1,500 galleries here, over half of which are situated in the capital, can be roughly divided into two categories; ‘kashi-garo’ and ‘kikaku garo’ [‘garo’ is Japanese for ‘gallery’].

‘Kashi-garo’ are rental galleries - the artist pays a fee to rent the space for an exhibition.

This type of gallery first appeared in the 1960s, and exploded in popularity in response to skyrocketing real estate prices experienced during Japan’s economic ‘bubble era’ of the 1980s. In contrast to the high bids at auction from Japanese collectors who secured blue chip Impressionist and Old Master pieces during the period, the market for contemporary art was slow, and the ‘kashi-garo’ scheme allowed gallery owners to stay in business without taking any risks.

There are no curators at a ‘kashi-garo’ - anyone who puts up the cash can show, and the gallery does not take a commission on sales.

At first glance, ‘kashi-garo’ seem refreshingly accessible - as a western artist who wants to show here, you need only make a phone call, book a date, and ‘Voila!’ you’ve arranged your Tokyo debut.

But let’s take a closer look.

About half of Tokyo’s galleries are located in the Ginza-Yurakucho-Kyobashi district of the city’s upscale Chuo-ku [‘ku’ is Japanese for ‘ward’]. Most of the roughly 400 galleries in this area are ‘kashi-garo,’ and the average weekly rental fee is a hefty 300,000 yen, or about 3,000$US.

So, what do you get for your money?

Typically, a mere 20-30 square meters of exhibition space. The ‘kashi-garo’ will send a postcard invitation to the people on its mailing list, and hold an opening party - you must supply the food and drink. There will be a staff member on hand through the week, but don’t expect any assistance with customs, transportation, installation, interpreters, accommodations, etc. - this is your responsibility.

Will critics and buyers show up?

Probably not. Of the 200 or so exhibitions I have covered this year, less than twenty were at ‘kashi-garos,’ and this sad ratio holds among my Japanese colleagues. Your opening will likely draw no more than a dozen freeloaders - regulars who come by to gulp down the wine, schmooze a bit, then split. Expect little drop-in traffic through rest of the week - the lack of any selection criteria produces shows of such low quality that critics and collectors will seldom waste their time visiting.

Still, Chuo-ku ‘kashi-garos’ are usually booked for 12 to 18 months in advance, in part because they have traditionally been the only way for young artists to establish themselves in a country where they will not be invited to show at a ‘kikaku-garo’ until they are regarded as an artist, yet will not be regarded as an artist until they have exhibited.

No more than one hundred contemporary western artists are sufficiently well-known here to leapfrog the ‘kashi-garo’ swamp and show at a respectable ‘kikaku-garo.’

‘Kikaku-garos’ are curator-run galleries that work on a commission basis [usually from 30% to 50%]. ‘Kikaku-garos’ resemblance their counterparts in major western cities in that they present a mix of well-known and up-and coming contemporary artists. A key difference can only be explained in terms of the Japanese ‘senpai - kohai’ [master - underling] relationship. Aside from top-drawer foreign artists, the only shows ‘kikaku-garos’ generally present are those by recent graduates of major Japanese art universities - gallery and buyers having been neatly lined up by the university professors [senpai] for their favorite students [kohai].

Unless your reputation proceeds you in a big way, you can forget about getting a show at a ‘kikaku-garo.’

And unless your name is Jasper Johns, you can forget about Japanese museums.

In fact, ‘Forget it!’ was the response I got from most of the Tokyo-based artists, and gallery and museum people I queried on how a North American might arrange a Tokyo exhibition.

"Tell them to go to Berlin instead," was a common response.

In the face of almost zero government support for the development of grass-roots spaces here, and the publicly-funded municipal and prefectural museums’ reluctance to look beyond the best-known of Old Masters, Impressionists, Fauves, Cubists, Abstract Expressionists or Pop artists to fill the September to May exhibition season, I have to agree - costs are too high and the market for contemporary art remains slow - maybe you should forget it and go to Berlin instead.

But if you feel lucky, send slides of your work anyway. As fewer than 20% of gallery and museum people here can read English well enough to evaluate proposals, send your bio and exhibition history in both English and Japanese - the translation fee is a necessary investment.

Don’t give up altogether - there is some good news.

Over the last several years, I have noticed a subtle shift in the Tokyo art scene, away from the high-priced Chuo-ku ‘kashi-garo’ and towards lower-priced, artist-run rental spaces in the Aoyama and Omote-Sando neighborhoods of the city’s Shibuya-ku and Minato-ku. Examples of this new breed of gallery include Aki-Ex, Mizuma, P-House, Rontgen Kunstraum, and Gallery 360. At these spaces, it is possible to mount a modest painting or photography exhibition for 50,000 yen, or about 500 American dollars per week. Some of these galleries double as a bar or restaurant, but even so are more highly regarded than the ‘kashi-garo,’ in that the shows are curated.

Another encouraging development occurred in 1996, when a gang of local artists established the city’s first loft district in a number of disused warehouses in Tachikawa, situated about one hour west of central Tokyo. While not yet anything approaching the scale of those found in western cities, the Tachikawa artists have definitely started something, and are getting a fair bit of attention.

Know that there is little ‘art media’ to work with here on promotion. You should, however, attempt to get mainstream coverage if you are going to show. A Japanese art journalist I consulted suggested that visiting artists - "Try to deal with subjects that would attract public attention in contemporary Japanese society, such as gender, intercultural communication, antinuclear sentiment, Japan's wartime barbarism, homage to Japan's esoteric traditional culture, etc. - only if you put being spotlighted by the media prior to real artistry." Some of the most successful Western artists here are those who engage the Japanese in a new perspective on their own culture.

Photography and Media Art seem the hot ticket for the late 1990s in Japan. Against declining interest in painting and sculpture, The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography has seen a 25% increase in attendance this year, and ‘kikaku-garos’ and museums are presenting more and more photography shows. You might want to put away your brushes and pick up a camera or get software-smart if you want to get ahead of this trend.

I know this seems condescending, but image is very important here - if you come to Japan to arrange an exhibition or to show, paint-splattered jeans and an ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude just won’t cut it - I advise you to be clean, patient, polite and professional. Set up any meetings well in advance, bring loads of ‘meishi’ [business cards], and give small gifts typical of your country to the people you meet with.

Playing the game in Japan means making and exploiting contacts. The Canadian, French, and German embassies seem to be leaders with government-sponsored art events and spaces in Tokyo - use them to your advantage if you can.

Embassy staff could be of immeasurable assistance in helping introduce you to prospective galleries and museums - introductions lead to contacts, and it cannot be overstated that contacts are everything in Japan. I strongly advise you not to come in cold.

In conclusion, I must again caution you to seriously evaluate whether you feel that a Tokyo exhibition is worth the trouble.

I suggest that it is not, but I’d love you to prove me wrong.

So, if you do set up a show, contact me and I’ll do what I can to assist you with your exhibition.

‘Ganbatte!’ [‘Ganbatte’ is Japanese for ‘go for it’]

Montreal-born Monty DiPietro, 38, is an artist, performer, and writer living in Kabukicho, Tokyo.
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