On September 27, the Tropenmuseum opened its door to a new exhibition: “Cool Japan.” For centuries, the Japanese culture has had a strong influence in the Netherlands. From the “Van Gogh & Japan” exhibition to the Japan Fair Festival in December, 2018 seems to be a year of re-discovery and brings a new appreciation for Japan’s iconic kawaii world.
The first contact between Amsterdam and Japan dates back to the 17th century when a Dutch ship called De Liefde (love in Dutch) anchored on the Japanese island Usuki. With the many merchant ships that followed, Japanese paintwork and porcelain came along as well. The prints and paintings served as a representation of far-away Japan. Now, four hundred years later, Japan’s culture still captures our attention and more than ever its arts and sciences are opened for the public to see.
In the “Cool Japan” exhibition, the hypermodern gadgets and the century-old traditions from the island are put next to each other and offer the visitor a completely new way of looking at the culture of Japan.
Amsterdam’s Obsession with the Kawaii World
The exhibition had already been displayed in the Volkenkunde Museum in Leiden. However, the the current one in Amsterdam had a larger variety of artworks, such as “Colorful Rebellion – Seventh Nightmare” (2014) by Sebastian Matsuda. The Japanese artist, known for being a kawaii pioneer, aims to unite the kawaii community worldwide. Kawaii is the culture cuteness of Japan. In this, Matsuda has already one part of his job done: kawaii is probably one of the best known Japanese words worldwide.
In the 1930s, kawaii was a type of illustration, but was shortly transformed in the 1950s by illustrator and designer Naito Rune (1932–2007). He converted it into the lifestyle it is still known for today.
Kawaii style originated as a protest against growing up, working hard and the strict demands of society, but in the contemporary world, it serves mainly as a commercial concept. The style has almost disappeared in Harajuku but is becoming more and more popular worldwide such as Hello Kitty and certain genre of manga, especially through social media.
Between September 16 to October 7, NPO2 broadcasted the documentary “Tokidoki” (sometimes in Japanese). The four-part documentary was presented by Paulien Cornelisse, a Dutch writer and comedian. In every episode, Cornelisse examines a specific Japanese word that is untranslatable in Dutch. In the second episode “Otenba” (which roughly means impetuous woman), she interviews a woman that dresses up in kawaii style from the Harajuku neighbourhood, where the trend once started. The women put on long blonde wigs and wore voluminous dresses with frills, coloured lenses and even fake teeth to look like dolls.
Yokai: Back to the Roots
Nevertheless, Japan is not just a bright, pink, kawaii world. One of the rooms in the “Cool Japan” exhibition is dedicated to the monsters, ghosts and other frightening creatures, that live in the Japanese visual culture, which are called y?kai. Consequently, that illustrates how intertwined the past and present is. When someone pushes the button next to the glass showcase, the print by Kawanabe Ky?sai (1831–1898) made in 1883 appears. The painted ghost with long hair and white gown has a strong resemblance with a well-known movie character – the girl, that climbs from the well in “The Ring” (2002). Y?kai does not only serve as an inspiration for western movies but also has central roles in Japanese films.
Furthermore, y?kai was emphasized in the “Camera Japan” festival, that took place in Amsterdam from September 27 until October 7. Every year since 2006, the festival displays a selection of Japanese movies in Kriterion and the EYE Filmmuseum in the capital city. This year being the 13th edition of the festival, the theme was superstition. A lot of films were centred around the manifestation of y?kai and other spirits from different ages. The oldest movie shown was “The Adventure of Tobisuke” from 1949, as a part of the Nobuo Nakagawa Retrospective. Mostly active in the 1950s and 1960s, Nakagawa (1905-1984) was one of the founders of the Japanese horror film genre, also known as J-horror. Four of his movies were shown in the Eye film museum during the festival. Also, on October 7, there was a Japanese brunch in Kriterion, prior to the movie ‘Destiny, the Tale of Kamakura’ (2017). The brunch was fully booked and the food served at the brunch was plant-based, prepared by Marika Groen. Groen served all fifty guests with homemade Japanese food, combining Dutch ingredients with traditional Japanese rules of cooking.
Japanese Influence on the Netherlands’ Most Influential Painter
Earlier this year, Amsterdam’s most widely-known museum, the Van Gogh museum, presented the great influence Japan had on the Dutch painter, known as Gohho in Japan, in the much-attended exhibition “Van Gogh & Japan.” Nevertheless, van Gogh’s love for the Asian island was not unusual at the time.
During the second half of the 19th century, Japan began to participate more in world trades, which caused Japanese art, fashion, and architecture to become popular in the European elite. The Japan-hype was called Japonism and spread from Paris to the rest of Europe. However, after Japan’s loss in the Second World War, the country tried to improve their economy and restore their reputation by distributing their pop-culture around the world. The concept was used by the Japanese government and trade organizations to define Japan’s status as a growing cultural superpower and named it: Cool Japan.