Japan’s epic tales and playful pursuits on display at Young V&A

Young V&A
August 17, 2023

Sylvanian families, Transformers and Nintendo were the stuff of my childhood. I listened to mixtapes on a Sony Walkman, watched Blockbuster videos on JVC’s HR-3300, played Nintendo Gameboys and yelled the slogan ‘Hello Tosh, Gotta Toshiba’ across the playground. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, Japanese technology felt ubiquitous and a benchmark for quality. Fast forward several decades and the toys from my childhood are going to feature in Japan: Myths to Manga, the first exhibition at the Young V&A, which opens on 14 October.

Japan: Myths to Manga exhibition is a celebration of Japanese folktales and landscapes and their enduring influence on art, design and technology. Spanning four sections: Sky, Sea, Forest and City, this family exhibition will take you on an inspiring journey through Japan’s sensational natural and urban environments. Each of the sections is underpinned by stories, from the tale of selflessness in The Rabbit and the Moon to the mayhem and mischief of The Night Parade of 100 Demons. The exhibition looks at each myth, and explores how storytelling has shaped Japanese art, design and technology across the centuries.

Sylvanian Families group. Frog Father, Frog Mother, Mouse Mother, Panda Boy and Rabbit Family Figure, Tent, backpack and Camp Fire © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 

We’re bringing together new acquisitions and rarely seen works from across the V&A’s collections, alongside important loans to illustrate the enduring impact of these tales. A snapshot of this variety can be seen in the objects we’re using to tell the story of the Princess Weaver and the Cowherder. Here we have included a unique 18th-century Star Globe from the Whipple Museum in Cambridge, a dynamic 19th-century woodblock print of women dancing at the Tanabata festival by Utagawa Kunisada and a modern plastic Pokémon Jirachi figurine from a McDonald’s meal in Japan. All the objects play a part in supporting the narrative and speak to the continued appeal of these inspirational tales.

We will champion artworks from contemporary Japanese artists and designers who are inspired by their environment and aim to answer some of today’s challenges. In the exhibition, you can see sculptures by artists Keita Miyazaki and Yūken Teruya who re-fashion everyday materials, such as old car parts or shopping bags, to create something new and beautiful.

The Great Wave (In the Hollow of a Wave off the Coast at Kanagawa) from Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai, about 1831. Museum no. E.4823-1916 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This project has been galvanised by the collaboration of teams from Young V&A and the Asia Department. The expertise of each team has enabled us to examine the influence of Japan’s fascinating folktales to their fullest, and to create an exhibition that we hope will be fun and dynamic, where you will encounter Transformers alongside Hokusai’s prints and netsuke with Naruto. Each accompanying activity provides engaging play experiences that connect with the exhibition’s content, with opportunities ranging from manga making to taiko drumming, which we hope will spark creativity and imagination for visitors of all ages.

In Japan, playing is not relegated to a childhood pastime, but continues through life in pursuits like games, manga, robots and kawaii, the culture of cute. The playfulness that fuels Japan’s creativity is also what lies at the heart of Young V&A, which makes it is the perfect pairing for our first exhibition.

Find out more about the exhibition and book tickets.

Japan: Myths to Manga at Young V&A is supported by Toshiba, with further support from Cockayne Grants for the Arts, a donor advised fund held at The London Community Foundation

About the author

Young V&A
August 17, 2023

Young V&A Curator. A collection specialist in children's clothing and childhood material culture and creativity. Exhibition Curator for the Young V&A's inaugural exhibition Japan: Myths to Manga. Online Exhibition Producer...

More from Katy Canales
2 comments so far, view or add yours


Thanks for this engaging overview – I’m really keen to see the exhibition and reimagined gallery spaces. I’m aged 49 and still love play!

Thank you for the charming prologue to the exhibition which sounds fascinating. We have booked our tickets and cannot wait to bring my little one to visit and see her explore and interact with the ‘play’!

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