Twenty-three Posters
  1981 / 2017

In 1981, twelve of Japan’s top graphic designers came together to create a suite of

posters under the curation of legendary art and design critic Masaru Katsumi, best

known around the world today for having pioneered the concept of a sleek, stylized

system of pictographs representing each Olympic sport for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The posters commemorated an extraordinary series of lectures, masterclasses, and

performances both live and televised that began at UCLA and radiated outward as far

as New York, Washington D.C., and Honolulu. Five of the greatest living masters in five

genres of traditional Japanese theater, dance, and music spent five weeks on campus

and performing across the country as part of the annual UCLA Asian Performing Arts

Summer Institute. The group of performers called themselves the Classical Performing

Arts Friendship Mission of Japan.

The graphic designers Katsumi chose to participate in what was at the time an utterly

unprecedented collaboration reads like a who’s who list of the most innovative artists in

the field: Katsumi Asaba; Kiyoshi Awazu; Shigeo Fukuda; Takenobu Igarashi; Yusaku

Kamekura; Takahisa Kamijo; Mitsuo Katsui; K2 (Keisuke Nagatomo & Seitaro Kuroda);

Kazumasa Nagai; Makoto Nakamura; Ikko Tanaka; Tadanori Yokoo.

The posters themselves, which give visual form to their creators’ sense of five

performing arts—gagaku, hayashi, kyogen, nagauta shamisen, Nihon buyo, and

noh—exhibit a striking range of styles and sensibilities. Some capture an excitement

particular to the 1980s, and a sense of the joys and the riskiness inherent in conjoining

the classical and the current; others seem imbued with a desire to transcend their

moment, and still look, thirty-five years later, as if they have only just come off the


Incorporated immediately upon their release into the collections of major art museums

across the country, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Fine Arts

Museums of San Francisco and the Art Institute of Chicago, these posters have gone

on to inspire other designers and artists. In 2016, fashion designer Issey Miyake used

Ikko Tanaka’s poster from this series—which is often cited as the best representative of

his work—as one of three motifs to structure a collection devoted to Tanaka’s career.

Thirty-five years later, as I was conceiving a plan to bring Mansaku Nomura, who had

first visited Los Angeles as part of the 1981 UCLA Asian Performing Arts Summer

Institute, back to campus along with Mansai Nomura, Yukio Ishida, and other members

of the Mansaku-no- Kai Kyogen Company, I had an almost ridiculous thought. Would it

be possible to create a second set of posters, featuring the seven original artists who

were still with us, together with five newly chosen artists who would bring the number

back to twelve? Could we make a remarkable event in the history of Japanese graphic

design even more special, by doing it again more than three decades later?

So I wrote a letter to Katsumi Asaba, who since 2012 has served as President of the

Japan Graphic Designers Association. I explained my idea, tried to communicate how

exited I was about it. And something extraordinary happened. He said yes. He offered

to contact the other designers from the first suite, and choose five new participants.

Thus it was that the first suite of posters, curated by one Katsumi, came to be followed

by a second, curated by a another, that marks the inauguration of a new project called

the Yanai Initiative Japanese Performing Arts Program.

Among the participants in the original poster project, six created works for the new suite:

Katsumi Asaba, Takenobu Igarashi, Takahisa Kamijo, Mitsuo Katsui, Kazumasa Nagai,

and the two-person team of Keisuke Nagatomo & Seitaro Kuroda. Keisuke Nagatomo

passed away in March, so this poster was one of his final projects. Tadanori Yokoo

hasn’t yet come up with a design, but with luck he will sometime between this preview

and two formal exhibitions of both sets of posters that I hope will happen soon, one in

Los Angeles and one in Tokyo. The five designers whose work appears for the first time

in this double collection include Kenya Hara, Kazunari Hattori, Kaoru Kasai, Masayoshi

Nakajo, and Taku Satoh.  I won’t comment on the new set of posters. Just go look at them.

Michael Emmerich

Director, Tadashi Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities

Associate Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures, UCLA