The Rising Son of Alternative Japanese Design

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Koga Hirano defined the alternative graphic design movement in postwar Japan, through literally thousands of posters and book jackets. Before counterculture design movements rebelled against the International Style in the West, in 1962 Hirano became the poster, program, and scenic designer for Japan’s burgeoning underground theater company, the June Theater. The “theater of outside theaters” is how Hirano describes what became the Black Tent Theater in 1968 (the actors played under a big tent as it traveled around the country). Their repertoire included politically and socially confrontational plays and dance, including anti-war, anti-capitalist, and anti-conformist themes, as well as adaptations of vintage Brecht and socio-political Western drama.

Jambalaya, Black Tent Theatre, 1982

The posters and brochures Hirano created between 1968 and 1982 for the Black Tent Theater were stylistically varied, but often consistently designed with transparent layers of color and multiple levels of type. These graphics defined the Japanese underground culture scene of the late ’60s and ’70s, which was known for its radical theater, experimental films, and avant-garde performances. Influenced by the ’50s Gutai group, or Japanese beats, and the early ’60s happenings of the American John Cage, these subversive theater collectives expressed an increasing revolt against Japanese legacy. Western-styled anti-traditionalism was also pervasive among the postwar youth of this otherwise ultraconservative nation. Despite the infusion of Western ideas, however, Hirano did not copy Western design movements but rather tapped into similar historical sources. Hirano translated Berlin Dada into a distinctly Japanese graphic idiom by combining the two conventional methods of everyday Japanese writing—horizontal and vertical—which are usually not combined on the same page; he forced that the reader to come to the texts visually from different angles.

Hongo, book jacket, 1983

In the 1920s, the traditional vertical typesetting of most Japanese text was altered to fit horizontal setting. But as Richard Thornton points out in Japanese Graphic Design (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1991), it was quixotic, without any directional consistency—sometimes left-to-right, other times right-to-left. This setting problem continued until after World War II, when, owing to American influence, the Japanese government adopted the standard that horizontal writing should be read from left to right. Hirano’s intersecting directional typography exploits the complexity and pushes this rather arbitrary typographic decree. In addition, he also customized and contorted Chinese derived kanji characters to create word images and cut and pasted photographs and drawings onto layouts that looked as if they had been designed only minutes before going to press.

The Divine Comedy, book jacket, 1991

Hirano’s approach was more in keeping with other anti-design designers like Tadanori Yokoo, who is the most notable proponent of Swiss-influenced Japanese graphics. Given the many Japanese graphic arts organizations and annuals devoted to exhibiting native and international trends and fashions, it is likely that Hirano saw examples of contemporary work; and some of this may have even been assimilated into some of his work, but his most defining designs actually predated the avant-garde Western styles with which he might be associated.

The World of the Bookworm, book jacket, 1990

Not every Hirano design was slap-and-paste, however. During the period of the Black Tent Theater he did not adhere to a single style. Some of his most exquisite posters combined 19th-century Japanese woodblocks with typographic twists that brought the colorful retro llustrations up to date. Occasionally, he added lines of neutral typography to a powerful black-and-white photograph simply to underscore the force of the image.

Hirano’s closest radical antecedent is the 1925 MAVO group, formed by Murayama Tomoyoshi, an illustrator who spent 1922 in Berlin and upon his return promoted Expressionism, Dada, and Constructivism through its perodical (MAVO), events, and performances. The Bauhaus theories, brought back to Japan by design pilgrims such as Murayama Tomoyoshi and the graphic designer Yanase Masamu, also had an impact on between the war Japanese graphics. The emergence of the nationalism in 1936 put a halt to foreign influences.

Studies on William Morris, book jacket, 1986

The Japanese design scholar Kohei Suguirua asserts that Hirano’s book work is responsible for introducing both late-1960s French improvisation and the German grid to Japanese graphic design. Europe has long influenced Japanese design, and Hirano has extended that legacy. “I’ve never consciously tried to do my work in a European style,” he states. “Nevertheless, I think the European taste was within me before I became a designer.”

Even his book jackets for Japanese reprints of European and American titles may borrow an illustration or some other element of the original design—but his work is rarely a direct translation. “Turning Western idioms into something Japanese is not part of his approach,” James Fraser noted in a 1993 catalog for an exhibition of Hirano’s work at Fairleigh Dickinson University Library. “Yes, there are influences, but more in that subtlety in which a master draws the viewer’s eye into the unfamiliar by giving an illusion of the familiar.”

Koga Hirano was born in 1938 in Seoul, where his father lived and worked until the end of the war. His family returned to Tokyo in 1945. As a teenager, Hirano aspired to be an architect; however, when he was 19 he entered the design department of Musashino Art University to study graphic design instead. One of his earliest student posters, a proposal for an advertisement for a book titled Jump Before Seeing by Kenzaburo Oe, was awarded the grand prize by Nissenbi, the leading association of Japanese Advertising Designers and Artists. In the rigidly hierarchical Japanese business system, this prize was the key to a career. In 1961, Hirano was hired by the advertising division of the prestigious Takashimaya department store, where he designed newspaper ads.

He entered the field at a time when Japanese industry began competing seriously in the world market, and when Japanese design emerged, by corollary, as a respected and commercially vital profession. Although the mid-’60s had become a golden age for Japanese designers, Hirano was cautiously rebellious: “Still a newcomer in a designer’s world, I told myself not to fall into the trap of people’s admiration,” he relates. “I wanted to avoid becoming popular so I could do things my own way, and not be in a situation where I was always thinking about meeting expectations.” One method of avoiding popularity was to tinker with the Japanese language in ways that other designers had not yet
attempted, including the stylistic mixing of type styles and faces, as well as using verbal puns as a counterpoint to pictorial images. Nevertheless, he insists that he was no reformer: “I accepted the Japanese typesetting systems as they were,” he says. And despite years of typographic experimentation, he still believes that the goal of design must allow for the content of a book to be read.

Book publishing is preferred because he does not want to be outside the editorial process. “An ideal system for book designers is one where they are the exclusive designer for the publishing company. I say this because I myself cannot be merely a designer. I have to be in the working group of people who know the plan.” As an intimate member of this group-the one who gives the project a visual identity—Hirano insists that he tries not to reflect any “personal matters” in his work. Within the group, which comprises an editor, assistants, marketing people, and others, everyone must have an ideal image of how the book is supposed to look. The editor, however, is in charge of “coordinating” the members so that everyone shares the same ideal. Sometimes, of course, this is impossible. In such cases, Hirano draws his image from the conceptions of different members, and “from there I create my own design.” This seemingly contradictory procedure, says Mari Hyodo, a design scholar, stems from the “typical mentality of Japanese groupism where public and private affairs cannot be completely separated.”

I Ro Ha Ni Ho He To, typeface design as lithograph, 1991

“Designing a character is almost like awakening the original soul in it,” says Hirano. He recognizes in kanji, the Chinese ideograms that compose one of the three principal Japanese writing systems, a tool without visual equal. “As a rule, each Chinese character is a picture. People from cultures using the Roman alphabet often say that a Chinese character is like a well composed abstract painting. That may be true for them, but for us these characters are given an all too concrete picture. . . . One would be amazed by its descriptive and symbolic impact, but also experience a moment of bliss in which shape and meaning coincide and reveal themselves simultaneously.” This precisely describes what Hirano hopes will happen when he does his job well: “One would no longer need to wonder which came first, the shape or the meaning. It becomes a composition demanding that the reader receive it with all five senses.” Hirano does not to choose to make his typography look “too soft or beautiful,” but rather he wants it to “force people to think and wonder when they look at it.”

For more Steven Heller, check out Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility—one of the many Heller titles available at