The Japanese artist Takehiko Mizutani, whose preliminary course work was featured in a chapter of Corresponding With exhibited in Kyoto in 2018 and as promotional material for the exhibition at the Zentrum Paul Klee, was a student at the Dessau Bauhaus from 1926 to 1929. Other representatives of the Japanese avant-garde had visited the Bauhaus before him. Such trips from Japan to Weimar and Dessau are, in fact, remarkable in themselves: in the early 1930s, after their time at the Bauhaus, Michiko and Iwao Yamawaki had to travel clear across the Soviet Union and sail the Sea of Okhotsk to return to Japan. What lured Michiko and Iwao and many of their generation to journey across the world was not only the novel Bauhaus curriculum. The couple came from a Tokyo where the Moga and Mobo (modern girls and modern boys) movement had taken root. Their travels to Berlin, which had become notorious for its nightlife and transgender scene, were motivated by a desire to experience this new way of life. They had first heard of the Bauhaus from Sadanosuke Nakada, a fellow artist of the radical avant-garde artists’ group to which they belonged in Tokyo, who visited the Weimar Bauhaus in 1922. They also learned about the group of Japanese artists then residing in Berlin, some of whom taught calligraphy with Johannes Itten at his school there. A desire to move to Germany and study at the Bauhaus thus grew out of their exposure to the influences of these various avant-garde movements. Upon arriving in Berlin they founded the design studio Tomoe with Koreya Senda, a politically active socialist involved in Berlin’s underground theatre and transgender scene, spending their nights with friends in the gay and lesbian bar El Dorado. The aesthetic movement of modernism had created a place for an entire generation to question how life might be lived.
Understanding modernity as a multifaceted transnational movement—as the above example illustrates—also means recognizing the creative surplus produced by such artistic journeys, relationships, local translations, and the migration of people and design concepts across national borders. The Japanese architect and journalist Renshichirō Kawakita never visited the Bauhaus, but was in close contact with Japanese artists who visited or were themselves students at the Bauhaus. His understanding of the new school was also shaped by the numerous German-to-Japanese translations he undertook as a publisher. Kawakita founded his own design school in 1931, mixing Bauhaus teaching methods with a distinctly Japanese conception of art and life. He understood the Bauhaus as an experiment in mutually contradictory educational approaches, a description that came very close to the reality of the school as a process of west/east cultural transfer. By developing new teaching methods based on Bauhaus precepts Kawakita aimed for a total renewal of Japanese culture. To do so, he drew on Johannes Itten’s teaching philosophy (which corresponded with Franz Čižek’s ideas on the liberation of the child) and engagement with Eastern thought, and also appropriated elements of Bauhaus master Gertrud Grunow’s synesthetic teaching method. The Tokyo-area workshops he held in the craft disciplines provided new methods for materials-based design and learning, primarily in the spirit of Constructivism. In 1934 he documented these pedagogical approaches in the publication Kōsei Kyōiku Taikei (Handbook for Design Education). In retrospect, it is widely considered a manifesto for the renewal of art education in Japan. However, while the term “Kōsei” is a cognate of the English term “design,” it refers more to a Japanese philosophy of lifestyle design than to the design of objects.
Within a scant few years Kawakita was no longer able to withstand the rising climate of nationalism and militarism and was forced to close his school after the Japanese Ministry of Education refused to renew its license. Although only in existence for a brief period, the school influenced numerous Japanese designers, such as graphic designer Yusaku Kamekura and fashion designer Yōko Kuwasawa, who founded their own design school after the Second World War, which was to have a decisive influence on the future development of Japanese design.