The Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art
Originally opened in 1986, the Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art reopened in November 2015 after a full redisplay and refurbishment as part of the V&A’s ongoing FuturePlan scheme. The gallery showcases highlights from the V&A’s internationally important collection of Japanese art and design, which the Museum has collected since it was founded in 1852.
With over 500 pieces newly on display including a Hello Kitty! rice cooker, toaster and kettle and an ensemble from Issey Miyake’s A/W 2015 collection, the Toshiba Gallery illustrates the extraordinary craftsmanship and artistic wealth of Japan from about the 6th century up to the present day. The modern and contemporary objects shown in the gallery - not just studio crafts, but interior design, product design, electronics, photography, graphics and fashion, both high-end and kawaii street – complement historical objects presented in themed displays such as theatre, gift giving and tea drinking.
Room 45 is on Level 1 of the V&A South Kensington.
Highlights from the gallery
The Mazarin Chest
This beautiful and incredibly well preserved 17th-century lacquered chest is arguably the most important piece in the V&A’s Japan collection, thanks to its size, exceptional quality and comparative rarity. However, it was not made to suit to the tastes of the Japanese. In fact it was never meant to stay in Japan at all.
The chest is known as the Mazarin Chest, after the French aristocratic family whose coat of arms appear on its key. While we don’t know for sure how it came into the Mazarin family’s collection, its design tells us that it was made specifically for export to Europe. Japanese craftsmen at the time feared that Westerners wouldn’t understand the popular Japanese styles, and so created a hybrid style that combined Western forms with decorative techniques from Japan, China and Korea. Unfortunately, consumers in the West may not have known enough about East Asian traditions to fully appreciate that a new style had been created specifically to appeal to their tastes.
The chest is decorated with scenes from Japanese literature, including the Tale of Genji, a masterpiece written in the 11th century by court lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu. The epic story spans almost three-quarters of a century and follows the life and loves of Prince Genji, and it is considered by some to be the world’s first novel.
Between 2004 and 2008, a global project took place to conserve the Mazarin Chest.
Hello Kitty Rice Cooker
This apparently humble object represents a watershed moment in Japanese domestic life. Rice is a staple part of the Japanese diet and its consumption is an important part of the country’s national identity, however, its preparation used to be very time consuming. In 1956 Toshiba produced the first commercially successful rice cooker, which allowed rice to be perfectly cooked without supervision. The lives of Japanese housewives were transformed forever.
This particular cooker also gives us an insight into an important area of Japanese popular culture: the cult of the cute, also known as kawaii. Hello Kitty is one of many kawaii characters, and is perhaps the best known outside of Japan. Her image appears on an enormous range of consumer goods. Hello Kitty was launched in 1974 by Sanrio and was originally aimed at pre-adolescent girls. Her presence on this rice cooker, a domestic appliance made for adults, is a perfect example of how kawaii has now gone beyond the realm of the child and is enjoyed by people of all age groups.
Six-fold screen with the Nakamura-za Kabuki theatre
This screen from the late 1680s is notable for its spectacular detail of a very popular 17th century Japanese pastime: a day at the theatre. The screen recreates a bustling scene in Edo (now Tokyo) at a time when the most popular form of theatrical entertainment was shifting from Nō to Kabuki. Kabuki is a type of stylised drama and dance that is still performed today. It is known for the lavish costumes and extensive make up worn by performers.
Through the detailed illustration on the screen, we can see a stylised snapshot of 17th century Edo society. The story is read from the street on the right to the play underway on the left, and people from all walks of life are depicted. On stage, the actors dance while musicians play from the back of the stage. The audience includes a feudal lord in a tall hat, a group of well-off theatregoers picnicking from their seats, and a mother at the front nursing her child.
This life-sized ceramic shell was produced by one of the best-known artists in Japanese ceramic history: the 17th century master craftsman Ninsei Nonomura. One of the things for which Ninsei is renowned is his development of a colourful style of overglazing, so this piece, with its muted and lifelike shell tones, is very restrained. Its shape, however, holds a playful secret.
While in English, we would usually ‘smell’ something aromatic, in Japan the appreciation of incense is referred to as ‘hearing’. This means that the shape of this burner is not just decorative, it is also an ingenious pun. Conch shells were traditionally used as musical instruments by Japanese mountain priests known as yamabushi. The user of this burner literally and metaphorically ‘hears’ the shell’s musical incense.
Kimono for a young woman
The term kimono literally means ‘the thing worn’. The garment has a long history, and by the end of the 16th century, it was worn by men and women of all classes in Japan. While we do not know the full story of who owned this beautiful 19th century furisode (long-sleeved) kimono, we can deduce much about its wearer from its design.
Firstly the furisode shape tells us that this was almost certainly worn by a young, unmarried woman. This is backed up by the colour: red was traditionally associated with youth, and this particular red dye made from safflower and known as ‘beni’ red is characterised by its bright colour that quickly fades, characteristics that are also symbolic of youthful passionate love.
We also know that this garment must have been extremely expensive. Safflower was a premium dye and it is rare to find a kimono that is completely red. The pattern of white dots and flowers on the fabric was produced using an intricate and labour intensive tie-dying technique known as shibori. Each dot shows where the cloth was carefully tied up before being submerged in the red dye. A delicate and very time consuming practice. This was clearly a very special garment indeed.
Sweet Lolita ensemble
This elaborate outfit is an example of the cult street fashion style known as Sweet Lolita, the most widely recognisable look of the Lolita fashion movement. It is based on an old fashioned, Alice in Wonderland-style little-girl look. The trend emerged in Tokyo in the 1990s, and while still very much a sub-culture, in recent years the internet has made Lolita fashion a more global phenomenon.
While to Westerners, the term ‘Lolita’ may suggest inappropriate sexualisation of young women, this look is actually rooted in modesty, elegance and a child-like innocence. In fact the style is partly a reaction to overly sexualised women’s fashion that was popular in Japan in the 1990s.
As a subculture, Lolita fashion’s non-conformity was originally viewed with derision by mainstream Japanese society. However its rise to international popularity has now led to its inclusion by the Japanese government as an element of their ‘Cool Japan’ initiative, aimed at promoting the country overseas.
Cloisonné VasesThese vases are decorated with cloisonné, a traditional enamelling technique that uses fine metal wires to separate the decorative areas into which enamel paste is applied before firing. As enamelling technology advanced over the centuries, artists became able to produce pieces that did not need wires. However beautifully intricate pieces such as these show that wirework is more than just a practical necessity, it is an art form in itself.
These examples were made around 1880-90 by Namikawa Yasuyuki, a former samurai, and one of Japan’s greatest cloisonné enamel artists. He worked for the Kyoto Cloisonné Company before setting up his own workshop. His work is distinguished by the use of extremely intricate wirework and painstaking attention to detail. He won numerous prizes at international exhibitions. His former workshop in Kyoto is now maintained as a museum.
The three vases here are not actually a set, however they are so similar in design, they are displayed together as a group. Cloisonné of this standard would have taken a huge amount of dedication and skill to produce. It is estimated that objects as meticulously decorated as these would have taken 3-6 months to make. Namikawa’s skill is so exact and lifelike that our colleagues at the Natural History Museum have been able to identify the delicate flowers he depicts as hollyhock, ash and aster, all prominent Japanese plants.
In post-war Japan, many artists were attempting to position themselves in a country whose circumstances had dramatically changed. Some looked to the past, while others sought to break free from traditions and attempt something that was shockingly different.
One such group of artists was known as the Sōdeisha, and among its founders was Yagi Kazuo, the hugely influential creator of this untitled sculpture. The group aimed to expand the horizons of ceramics and push the boundaries of what the medium could do. Did ceramics always have to be vessels? Or could they in fact become sculptures in their own right?
The piece is intriguing and almost disturbing in its design. While clearly an abstract piece, its sinuous curves seem organic, possibly human. However the long sharp spike at its centre introduces an unnerving hint of violence.
This tiny object is an inro, a small container that would be suspended from a man’s sash and secured with an intricately carved toggle known as a netsuke. Originally inro were used to carry medicines or seals, however in a short space of time they lost their practical purpose. Where women’s kimonos were beautifully decorated, men’s were plain, and so the beautifully decorated inro and netsuke enabled Japanese men to show off their taste and status.
This is one of a set of 12, representing the months of the year. The set was created by one of the most famous lacquer artists of the 19th century Shibata Zeshin. It is not immediately obvious which month each inro represents, but they all hold clues. This, for instance, is in the shape of a temple lantern with an inscription to the Rice God Inari. The main festival dedicated to Inari was held on the first day of the second month.
What makes this set of inro so special is that each is a different shape and showcases different lacquer techniques. Sets of 12 were not uncommon, but they would usually all be the same. This set represents a master craftsman showing off the very best of his skills.
You can see all 12 inro displayed together in the newly refurbished Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art.
This large and imposing bamboo basket known as 'Aun II' was made by Tanabe Shōchiku, the fourth generation head of a family of basketmakers that goes back to the 19th century. He is known around the world for his sculptural and imaginative designs.
Traditionally, bamboo baskets would be used to decorate Japanese homes as functional vessels for displaying flowers. However, in this structural piece, the bamboo has been let loose, breaking free from the traditional shapes and forms of weaving. It curves around itself as if alive. The piece was made using tiger bamboo, which is known for the stripes on its surface, and this unusual pattern adds even more depth and movement to the woven texture. Pieces such as 'Aun II' show that the basket is no longer a functional object; it can in fact be a sculpture in its own right.
This 1930s women’s kimono represents a marriage of eastern and western design. By the early 20th century, Japan was swiftly modernising and European and American influences were affecting many aspects of life. However, while some women began sporting Western clothes, most continued to wear kimono. The shape of the garment remained unchanged, but abstract motifs inspired by European modernism became increasingly popular. Changes in the techniques used to pattern silk, including the use of chemical dyes, meant that brighter, bolder patterns could be produced.
This particular kimono is made of meisen, a type of silk known for its durability and lustre. The abstract pattern was not dyed onto the finished fabric. Instead it was stencil printed onto the threads before weaving. While still time consuming, this method was a speeding up of traditional techniques and meant that affordable, fashionable kimono could be produced in batches and bought off-the-peg in department stores.
Find out more about this kimono on Search the Collections
Issey Miyake Dress
Issey Miyake, has been one of Japan’s leading designers for decades, having first appeared on the fashion scene in the 1970s. He is renowned for his use of technology in the design of his clothes.
As with many of Miyake’s pieces, there is more to this this dress from the 2015 ‘132 5.’ collection than meets the eye. Made from recycled PET plastic (the kind used to make drinks bottles), the garment is in fact made up of a single piece of fabric. The designer used complex algorithms to create a flat geometric shape that, when lifted from the centre and placed onto the body, transforms into a dress that falls in origami-like folds. Each piece in the collection begins as a different flat shape.