From Dessau to Tokyo

Japan and the Bauhaus

The long-standing ties between the Asian island nation and the old world are not only political in nature, but also cultural. Let us therefore take a look at some of the protagonists, who, in direct interaction through their travels, their work and their contacts, built bridges between Japan and the Bauhaus.

Nachlass Michiko Yamawaki, aus: "Frauen am Bauhaus", Verlag Knesebeck 2019
Studentenausweise von Iwao und Michiko Yamawaki, Bauhaus Dessau

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After the opening of Japan to the West, from the mid-19th century an image of Japan was conveyed to Europe by means of presentations in major world expositions, travelogues and photography. This was received with great enthusiasm by the European avant-garde searching for new forms of expression. In the early 20th century, contacts between artists, stays abroad and a mutual receptiveness intensify the exchange of knowledge between Europe and the Japanese avant-garde.

Henry van de Velde was one of many artists who were preoccupied with the arts and crafts of Japan and he regarded these as a source of inspiration for his own work. Claudia Delank has set out in great detail how the Japanese aesthetic was received in some instances at the Bauhaus, too [1]. Its influence is most obvious in Theodor Bogler’s 1923 design for a combination teapot with side handle – a classical Japanese teapot design (Kyuzu).

Japanese individuals at the Bauhaus

In 1922 the painter and critic Nakada Sadanosuke became the first Japanese person to visit the Bauhaus Weimar. At this time Nakada was living with a group of Japanese painters in Berlin and, after visiting Weimar, he was one of the first to report in the Japanese press on the objectives and work of the Staatliches Bauhaus[2].

The first Japanese student at the Bauhaus was the painter Takehiko Mizutani. After completing his studies at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, in 1926 he received a bursary to study in Germany and initially attended the Reimann School in Berlin. In 1927 he enrolled at the Bauhaus Dessau, where he attended the preliminary course taught by Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy and subsequently worked in the furniture workshop and the building department. Mizutani left the Bauhaus in 1929 and returned to Japan in 1930.

The most well-known of the Bauhaus’s Japanese students include the married couple Iwao and Michiko Yamawaki. Iwao Fujita, as he was called before he married Michiko Yamawaki, the daughter of a Japanese tea master, had been trained in architecture at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts and, after completing his studies, moved in avant-garde circles. In 1930 Iwao and Michiko Yamawaki headed for Germany and studied at the Bauhaus Dessau from 1930 to 1932.

Here, Iwao not only trained in architecture under Mies van der Rohe and Ludwig Hilberseimer, but also increasingly turned his attention to photography, attending classes with Walter Peterhans. After completing the preliminary course, his wife Michiko trained in the weaving workshop under Gunta Stölzl and Anni Albers. When the political pressure on the Bauhaus intensified in 1932 and the move to Berlin was imminent, the Yamawakis returned to Japan. They took with them not only numerous pieces of work, furniture and books, but also two looms, which Michiko subsequently used in her Tokyo studio in her work as a successful textile and fashion designer.

Iwao established his own architecture office and, in projects such as his studio building for the painter Kotaro Migishi or the villa he designed for himself and his wife, combined modern forms with traditional Japanese interior design[3]. As ‘moga’ and ‘mobo’ (modern girl and modern boy), the Yamawakis presented an image of the Westernised fashions and lifestyles that they had picked up in Europe[4].

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The architect Tetsuro Yoshida also travelled to Europe between 1931 and 1932, where he met many of the leading modern architects. Yoshida found that his architectural colleagues in the West were hugely interested in Japanese architecture – so much so that he wished to have detailed drawings of the Japanese dwelling sent from Japan. On 7 November 1931 Yoshida visited the Bauhaus Dessau and gave a short lecture. Encouraged by Hugo Hugo Häring and Ludwig Hilberseimer, in 1935 he published his book “Das japanische Wohnhaus” (The Japanese House) with the Ernst Wasmuth Verlag. This soon became a classic that, according to the architectural theorist Manfred Speidel, after 30 years finally disclosed to European architects the secrets of the Japanese house[6].


Back in Japan

Back home, the paths of the Japanese Bauhauslers converged around the architect Kawakita Renshichiro. Despite not having studied at the Bauhaus, Renshichiro had a great interest in the Bauhaus design concept and gained a deeper understanding of it through Nakada Sadanosuke and Takehiko Mizutani. Because his German language skills were good, he also had access to German-language publications. He eventually translated, inter alia, László Moholy-Nagy’s 1929 book “Von Material zu Architektur” (The New Vision. From Material to Architecture), setting down in Japanese the latter’s educational concept at the Bauhaus.

In 1931 Kawakita, together with Takehiko Mizutani and others, established Seikatzu Kosei Kenkyujo (the Research Institute for Life Configurations). A year later he founded Shinkenchiku Kogei Gakuin (the Institute of New Architecture and Industrial Arts) and employed Mizutani and Iwao and Michiko Yamawaki as teachers in order to pass on the teachings of the Bauhaus to a new generation of designers [7]. Kawakita’s primer on education in the arts, published in 1934, was strongly influenced by the Bauhaus concept and well-received in Japan.

Much like the Bauhaus, Kawakita’s progressive school was short-lived. It stands as an example – but by no means the only one – of how the Bauhaus concept was disseminated in Japan in the education of artists, architects and designers.

[NO 2017]

Migishi Atelier, Architektur: Iwao Yamawaki, 1934
Migishi Atelier, Architektur: Iwao Yamawaki, 1934
  1. [1] Delank, 1999
  2. [2+3] vgl. Weber, Avantgarde im Dialog, S. 10
  3. [4] Čapková 2014
  4. [5] Hyon-Sob Kim, S. 53
  5. [6] Ebd., S. 48
  6. [7] vgl. Čapková 2017

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