Businesses and brands can learn from other cultures. Every month we look to other countries to see how they do visual design.


Do you know to which companies these logos belong?

Actually, they are 14th century Kamakura Japanese crests and emblems for the Maruni Chigai Takanoha and Kikuchi Clan.

Japan is a progressive part of the world, especially in design. Their appreciation for spiritualism and harmony makes Japanese culture unique, deep and profound. Because of these circumstances, the visual culture is elegant and intricate. However harmonious and spiritual, the island culture is a multi-layered and complex system that has been developing within itself, forming new layers for thousands of years.

What do you first think of when I say Japan?  Geisha? Technology? Teatrading? Cars? Tamagotchi? and perhaps opium houses? We are ignorant of the multifaceted culture which, like any other country, has developed over millennia. We do not pay attention to how this complexity affects their elegant and minimal art and design. It seems that we value its beauty at face value and perhaps that says more about western attitudes to aesthetics than how we perceive other cultures.

This article will briefly take a look at some early artefacts and objects created by natives, then we will move on to look at how other crests from the middle ages resemble contemporary western logo design.

We’ll then briefly visit some of the other periods, including the 20th century and we will finally take a look at how the rest of the world has influenced the island’s current 21st century visual culture.

The country’s prehistoric Jōmon period ran from 14,000 – 300 BC. At this time the people were hunters and gatherers, but soon reached a considerable degree of sedentism and cultural complexity. This was followed by the Yayoi period 300 BC – 250 AD, where new technologies introduced from Asia made it possible for this strange object to appear:

 Dancing Girl, Copper, Location: Mohenjo Daro.

Dancing Girl, Copper, Location: Mohenjo Daro.

Many more periods followed, including the Kofun period 250 to 538 AD, which is characterized by a Shinto culture which existed prior to the introduction of Buddhism. Here are some interesting artefacts produced during this era:


Haniwa (Hollow Clay Sculpture)of a Boar with Bound Feet – Earthenwear

of a Boar with Bound Feet – EarthenwearThe Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Asuka period 538 – 710 introduced Buddhism from China which marked a change in Japanese society. This period is also distinguished by the change in the name of the country from Wa 倭 –  meaning harmony, peace, balance to Nihon日本 – meaning “State of Japan”).


During the Kamakura period, 1185–1333, before the emperors, Japan had a system of clans, each made up of people that were related to each other by either blood or marriage, and a common ancestor.  Shinto was practiced by the people of Japan, and is based on love for the beauty of nature and ancestors. During this time the Mōri and Hōjō clans were identified by these emblems:


It wouldn’t be surprising to see similar visuals in modern Western contemporary art  and some forms of commercial design .

Before the Azuchi–Momoyama period (1568–1600), Japan had very little contact with the outside world. In 1543 three Portuguese travelers aboard a Chinese ship drifted ashore on Tanegashima, a small island near Kyushu. They were the first Europeans to visit Japan. In 1548 Francis Xavier, a Jesuit, arrived from Goa to introduce Christianity to the Japanese.

Thereafter streams of Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries came to Japan. The Japanese called them nanban (southern barbarians) because they sailed to Japan from the south. Portuguese merchants brought tin, lead, gold, silk, and wool and cotton textiles, among other goods to Japan, which exported swords, lacquer ware, silk, and silver. Evolving in a closed, beautiful island, untouched by the rest of the world could have influenced the strikingly beautiful visual culture. 

  Arrival of a Portuguese ship, one of a pair (Nanban screens), Six panel folding screen, 1620-1640. Japan. Ink, colors, and gold on paper,   The Avery Brundage Collection  .

Arrival of a Portuguese ship, one of a pair (Nanban screens), Six panel folding screen, 1620-1640. Japan. Ink, colors, and gold on paper, The Avery Brundage Collection.

In 1600 – 1868, during the Edo period, the shogunate was officially established and brought with it even more economic growth, strict social order, foreign policies, and popular enjoyment of arts and culture. These new circumstances brought new materials such as ink from the West, allowing for The Great Wave Off Kanagawa to be produced by the ukiyo-e artist Hokusai.

 The Great Wave off kanagawa,  Hokusai

The Great Wave off kanagawa, Hokusai

By 1870, during the Meiji period, labelled as the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ the Japanese flag was created.

A year later in 1871, R.A. Patterson created the lucky strike logo.

The Shōwa period 1926–1989, for Japan was chaotic, disastrous but also influential on Japanese design.

Pre-1945, Japan moved into political totalitarianismultranationalism and fascism, culminating in Japan’s invasion of China in 1937. This was part of an overall global period of social upheavals and conflicts such as the Great Depression and the second World War.

Defeat in the Second World War brought about radical change to Japan. For the first and only time in its history Japan was occupied by foreign powers, which lasted seven years. Allied occupation brought forth sweeping democratic reforms. It led to the end of the emperor’s status as a living god and the transformation of Japan into a democracy with a constitutional monarch. In 1952, with the Treaty of San Francisco, Japan became a sovereign nation once more. The post-war Shōwa period also led to the Japanese economic miracle.

 Lady in Western Costume,  Ito Shinsui , 19th–20th century.

Lady in Western Costume, Ito Shinsui, 19th–20th century.

Illustrations from the late Showa period:

Modern, contemporary Japanese culture is an industrialized, built-up mess and is the result of the redevelopment after WW2 and influence from the West. This provides a fascinating contrast to its minimal and delicate design aesthetics which give the impression of simplicity and tranquillity.

Japanese popular culture not only reflects the attitudes and concerns of the present day but also provides a link to the past. The escapism found in modern Japanese cultural activities such as virtual partners, films and games all provide an escape from the industrial world.

More reading:

A Comparison of Traditional Japanese and Western Aesthetics can be found here.

In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizak is an essay on Japanese aesthetics.

Another good one: Japanese Aesthetic by Donald Keene

ありがとう、またね !


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