Provoking the city

Here every discovery is intense and fragile
Roland Barthes

Tokyo in the late 1960s was a city on the brink of crisis. Rapid growth since the late 1950s had resulted in housing shortages, environmental pollution and traffic problems. Old buildings, including some major landmarks, were torn down, and the city’s first skyscrapers began to appear.

A spirit of discontent led to the election of Marxist economist Minobe Ry_kichi as the city’s governor in 1967. Student revolts erupted the following year, converging with a series of protests against the renewal of Anpo, the treaty that allowed the United States to use Japan as a base for military operations in Asia. Radical artists focused their anger on the upcoming 1970 Japan World Exposition, Expo ‘70. Critics on the left maintained that, with its theme ‘Progress and Harmony of Mankind’, the Expo was merely an arrogant display of the nation’s economic might. 

Cultural practitioners began to question received values and artistic traditions. Some designers expressed doubts about the morality of working within a mass consumerist society. Architect and theorist Isozaki Arata wrote a series of articles arguing for the ‘dismantling of architecture’. Artists who considered modernism to be institutionalised, and tainted by its tendency to glorify technology and progress, sought new ways of making – or, in some cases, of deliberately ‘not making’ – art.

Curated by Reiko Tomii, an art historian, curator and writer based in New York

Tokyo circa 1970

The building boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s was marked by big construction projects executed with little regard for environmental or social consequences. However, some architects were prompted by the mounting problems of overpopulation to focus on residential housing. A slide presentation Constructions: A Pedestrian’s View is a survey of that architectural landscape as it stands today, including Azuma Takamitsu’s Tower House, designed to accommodate his family of three on a cramped twenty-square-metre lot.

Countering the triumphalism of Expo ‘70, the Tokyo Biennale of the same year brought together examples of post-minimalist and conceptual art from around the world as well as Japan. One of the key works was Matsuzawa Yutaka’s My Own Death – an imposing sign that hung across the entrance to a gallery, inviting visitors to reflect on questions of time and mortality.

The Art of not making

The Mono-ha movement was originated by artist Sekine Nobuo and artist and theorist Lee Ufan. Sceptical of the act of making painting and sculpture, they advocated artistic gestures and ways of engaging with materials to reveal ‘the world as it is’. This might be achieved through digging, moving or arranging materials. By the early 1970s, Lee had come under attack from the more politicised Biky_t_ group, who criticised his theories as a ‘mystification of art’. Biky_t_ had emerged from the student protests, and included artists Hikosaka Naoyoshi, Yamanaka Nobuo and Hori Kosai. Like Mono-ha, the group opposed traditional ideas of ‘art-making’, giving priority to process rather than the physical production of art objects. However, they believed that art existed only as an integral part of society, and aimed to expose its institutional workings. Another much-contested work was Horikawa Michio’s project of gathering stones to send through the post. The Shinano River Plan 11 was conducted at the same time as the gathering of lunar samples during the Apollo 11 mission. Horikawa felt it was more important to gather the stones of the earth, which he posted to eleven luminaries of the art world.

Individual voices

Not all artists were affiliated to groups. There were brilliant individuals, like Kusama Yayoi, who had produced public and performance-based art in New York during the 1960s. With the exception of her elongated, crawling sculpture A Snake, Kusama’s work in the mid-1970s, when she returned to Tokyo, consisted primarily of poetry and small but intense works on paper. Yamashita Kikuji was another important figure. Using the image of the emperor, he examined the imperial legacy that continued to underpin post-war Japan, and particularly its collusion in the atrocities of the Second World War.


The radical spirit of the times brought artists into the streets. The photographers of Provoke magazine took disquieting, often grainy or blurred images of the city as part of their attempt ‘to provoke thought’. A growing feminist movement tried to raise awareness. From New York, Yoko Ono added her own contribution to the debate, including writing an article ‘Japanese Men Sinking’ for a women’s magazine.

Radical theatre groups eschewed traditional venues in an effort to develop a closer communication with society at large, organising performances in small spaces, tents or even the street. Posters produced by like-minded designers became public manifestos for the theatre company, and were regarded as an integral part of the performance. However, the most subversive attempt to interact with the public came from Akasegawa Genpei. He invited people to send him real money in exchange for his privately printed zero-yen notes with the ultimate aim of putting the state’s currency out of circulation.