Japanese Design Archive Survey


Designers & Creators

Katsumi Asaba

Graphic Designer, Art Director


Interview: 19 June 2018, 16:00 - 17:30
Interview location: Katsumi Asaba Design Office
Interviewed by: Katsumi Asaba
Interviewers: Yasuko Seki, Tomoko Ishiguro
Author: Tomoko Ishiguro



Katsumi Asaba

Graphic Designer, Art Director

1940 Born in Kanagawa Prefecture
1958 Graduated from Kanagawa Technical High School, Department of Design
Joined Matsukiya Advertising Department in the same year
1959 Studied at Kuwasawa Design School, Basic Living Design Course
1960 Entered Sato Institute of Typography
5 years of study in typography and letter design
1964 Joined Light Publicity
1975 Established Katsumi Asaba Design Office
1987 Tokyo Type Directors Club (TDC) established
1996 Awarded the 19th Japan Academy Prize for Best Art Direction for the film "Sharaku" (as art director)
2002 warded Medal with Purple Ribbon
2008 "Traces of Prayer" exhibition
Awarded the Tokyo ADC Grand Prix for the second time for the spatial design of the exhibition and the work "Katsumi Asaba Diary".
2011 Appointed the 10th director of Kuwasawa Design School
2013 The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette

Katsumi Asaba



Katsumi Asaba is one of those rare individuals who has led the graphic world with both art direction and typography. With his insatiable curiosity and keen eye for detail, Asaba, who says that art direction is a combination of the two, has been the first to discover interesting things and has produced many advertisements and designs that have made people's eyes light up. For Seibu Department Store's "Delicious Life" advert, he used Woody Allen, and for Suntory's "Yume Kaido", he was the first person in Japan at the time to shoot an advert on the Silk Road in China. For Nissin Cup Noodles, he had Arnold Schwarzenegger hold the kettle. In fact, when he was a child, he dreamed of becoming an illustrator like Saul Steinberg. It was when he met lettering master Keinosuke Sato that he became deeply involved in the world of letters. As soon as he met Sato, he said, "Pictures last only 500 years. Letters last for 1,000 years," he said, enthusiastically conveying the profundity of typography. Asaba then studied under Sato for five years, learning everything he could about letters, from letter design to the history of typography around the world. It was also during this time that he trained in lettering, using a crowbar to draw ten lines to a millimetre. Although Sato was a researcher, he did not come from a design background and did not have the means to put his theories into practice. Asaba demonstrated his ability as a craftsman to translate the results of his teacher's research into concrete forms, and this led to the development of his talent as a typographer. Asaba's interest in the world of letters accelerated when he encountered the existing hieroglyphic script, the Tompa script, and after the age of 50 he became an apprentice to the calligrapher Kyuyo Ishikawa and studied block style calligraphy.
More than sixty years have passed since he began his career in design, but his enthusiasm for the world of creation has never waned. The "Daily Routine" is an expression of this. Every day he keeps a diary, in which he always thinks of one letter or symbol as a "daily image". He also picks up a brush and writes every morning. He also takes up the challenge of writing the calligraphy of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang, which is housed in the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an, China. He says that when he tries to write in block style while keeping his mind calm, various thoughts come to his mind and images come to him.
He is so energetic that he used to be said to be active 24 hours a day without sleeping. He believes that reading a lot of books, training his body including manual work, and "Asaba's assimilation" of the information he collects is the foundation of his own design.



Advertisements, posters, etc.

Kewpie Mayonnaise "Vegetable Series" Kewpie (1974); Suntory Old the "Dream Road" Suntory (1980); Seibu Department Store "Delicious Life" Seibu Department Store (1982); Alinamin A25 "Oh no, it's a fisherman" Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Limited (1986); Nissin Cup Noodle "Schwarzenegger, Eat. Cup Noodle" Nissin Food Products (1989); Typography in Asia: A View from Tokyo exhibition poster "A happy thing has come" (1990); Self-produced poster "22 Asian Characters", Tokyo TDC "Hot Asia and 89 Typo Directors" exhibition (1991); Art Director of the film "Sharaku" Poster Shochiku (1994); Nagano Olympic Games official poster (1998); concert announcement poster Eitetsu Hayashi meets Yosuke Yamashita (2003); "WATER FOR LIFE" Japan Graphic Designers Association (2005); "Misawa Design Bauhaus" Misawa Home (2009); "Living Ink and Calligraphy" Myoho Nature Exhibition, Taiwan (2011); Atsushi Nakashima's "Character Disasters" special book binding, Ichihara Lakeside Art Museum (2015), and many others.


Logo mark

Yokohama Museum of Art (1977); DPJ (1998); STOP AIDS (1992); Toppan Printing "Blood Mandala Project" (2002); 132 5. ISSEY MIYAKE・IN-EI ISSEY MIYAKE (2010); GOOD GOOD GOODS ISSEY MIYAKE (2018), and many others.



Graphic Design in the World 18: "Katsumi Asaba" Ginza Graphic Gallery (1995); "Please Give Me the Power to Live, Tompa. (coauthored by Takashi Nakahata), Best Sellers (2002); "Chikyuu Monji Tankenka" (Explorers of Earth Characters), Nigensha (2004); "Tompa no Asa Bible" (2008); "Katsumi Asaba Design Diary 2002-2014" (2015), and many others.



"The Seven Faces of the ASABA Exhibition" GINZA GRAPHIC GALLERY (2005); "Whispered Prayers" exhibition at 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT (2008); "ASABA'S TYPOGRAPHY." GINZA GRAPHIC GALLERY (2015); "Asaba's Assimilation: Katsumi Asaba Exhibition" Kyoto ddd Gallery(2016); " Asaba: Katsumi Asaba & Dean Poole" Objectspace (Auckland, NZ, 2018), and many others.

Katsumi Asaba works



I want to create a typography museum.
Direction is important for the archive.

The prints are traces. I keep them all.

 In 2016, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Eishi Kitazawa of DNP Cultural Foundation and heard that about 1,300 posters by Mr. Asaba were donated the previous year. What was the process?


Asaba In 2015, I held a typography exhibition "ASABA'S TYPOGRAPHY." at DNP Dai Nippon Printing's Ginza Graphic Gallery (ggg). The catch copy was "60 years of design life, 40 years of table tennis life, 20 years of calligraphy life". I have called myself an art director and a graphic designer, but my core is typography. I planned this exhibition to let out everything that I have carried on my back. I searched for the works to be exhibited from a warehouse in Harumi that I have rented for many years. The posters, as well as all of the old prints, were stored there, and this led to the organisation of the archive, which led to the donation of about 1,300 posters, part of the work, to the DNP Cultural Promotion Foundation.


 It's precious that the prints are still there. From the interviews I've conducted, I've found that many graphic designers have thrown away their prints, partly because of storage space issues, but also because they think that the printed product is all that matters and they don't care about the process.


Asaba I've always cherished my prints. Because what I do as a job is a print shop itself. I've always thought that since there are traces of me here in the first place, I have to leave them behind. However, when I was done with my work, I just packed it up in the warehouse. I kept each piece of work and each printing block together in pieces. I've also found sketches and prints from when I wrote the Tompa script. I wanted people to be able to see the real thing at the exhibition, so I made 10 collages based on these prints and displayed them. I took out the advertising poster "Delicious Life" that I had framed before, and I also cut other materials from the prints and paper-burning materials and used them to make collages. I was up all night for about three months. The work and the prints are still kept in the warehouse.


 It's wonderful to be able to touch those traces. In this day and age, everything is done by computer, so we don't feel the texture at all.


Asaba Yeah, it's boring. Nowadays, graphics can be done quickly and at great speed. I feel that it's getting lighter. Expressions and thoughts are lighter.


 Did you notice anything new during the process of reconstructing the print?


Asaba When I face something that I've worked on with my hands, I think it's amazing how it breathes.


 In addition to your design activities ranging from typography to advertising, you have been researching and collecting letters as a researcher. You have held many important positions, such as president of the Japan Graphic Designers Association (JAGDA) until 2017 and director of the Kuwasawa Design School. Do you still have all the books and other materials related to various organisations?


Asaba I keep everything, so I'm always getting angry. My secretary organises my library, but I don't have much space, so I ask her to tell me if she has any archival know-how on how to organise it. As for the track of my activities, I write everything in my diary, so I pull it out from time to time and refer to it. I spend about an hour every night before I go to bed and write in my diary. There are times when I write in drunken handwriting. I combined the diary with related works and published it as "ASABA'S DIARY: Katsumi Asaba's Design Diary 2002-2014" from Graphic Publishing at the timing of the exhibition. This is also a kind of archive. Normally, diaries don't come out until a hundred years after death, but I published it while I was still alive.


 Looking back at this diary, we can see a whole range of your past work. You have visited many uncharted and unfamiliar places in your advertising work.


Asaba Shooting a commercial set on the Silk Road was also my first encounter as a Japanese. I've been to so many remote areas that I've been nicknamed the "backcountry explorer". I've been to 250 areas and met many ethnic minorities. I take small pieces of information and go on location scouting, and if it looks interesting, I go back to shoot it.


I don't dare create my own shape.


 Why do you seek the unknown, Mr. Asaba?


Asaba  I think I am a lifelong traveller. I guess I'm like Basho Matsuo. There are interesting discoveries to be made in remote areas. First of all, it is interesting that customs and habits are different. The Tripandla people in South India have different customs from us, and they shake their heads when they say "yes". Such discoveries are very interesting.


 Perhaps because such surprises and discoveries are at the root of your works, your works don't have a "form" that clearly indicates Asaba's works.


Asaba Yes, it has no form. It's "Kuu". It's "form is emptiness; matter is void; all is vanity".


 It is a phrase found in the Heart Sutra. It means that everything in this world has a form, but it is a temporary form, and the essence is empty and not unchanging. Is this something that you are aware of, or is it something that comes naturally to you?


Asaba It's a conscious thing. I chose the path of not creating my own form, but developing it through various things. That's because I thought it would be more interesting.


 That's why you can be so transformative. Do you have any daily manners to keep it empty?


Asaba I think it's calligraphy. I do it every morning. I started to study block style calligraphy with Mr. Kyuyo Ishikawa when I was over 50 years old, and more than 20 years have passed since then. The history of calligraphy is a long one, and Mr. Shizuka Shirakawa took it all the way back. I once listened to his lecture and shuddered at his wealth of knowledge. The transcript of his lecture is still available, so please read it. Mr. Shirakawa is a person that even editors don't get to meet very often, but I met him five times when I was working with him on an NHK programme, and he fell in love with me. He had a wonderful cuneiform script, but it broke when I was touching it. After that, I looked for it every time I went to China, but I couldn't find such a good cuneiform script at last.


Encounter with letters


 Graphic design and letters are inseparable, but what triggered your interest in letters?


Asaba  I met lettering master Keinosuke Sato, and joined the Sato Typography Institute. At first I wanted to be an illustrator. I studied design at Kanagawa Technical High School and then went to work as a designer in the advertising department of Matsukiya, a department store in Yokohama. One day, Mr. Torao Tomii, who belonged to the advertising department, he was a famous designer before the war and also my senior in high school, took me out to a coffee shop. The man who appeared there was Mr Keinosuke Sato. They were colleagues who had worked together in the Intelligence Department of the Occupation Forces. He invited me to come visit him, so I did. It was like a nest of letters, and there were beakers and things like that, so it had the atmosphere of a mysterious laboratory of a mysterious doctor. Dr. Sato talked passionately about letters, and I thought that the world of letters was deep and that it would be good to learn about letters while drawing illustrations. For the next five years, I studied letter design under Mr. Sato. I also quit Matsukiya and joined Kuwasawa Design School. Masuteru Aoba and Keisuke Nagatomo were my classmates, and I taught lettering to them.


 In Japan, we have kanji, hiragana, and katakana, but did you first become interested in kanji?


Asaba It's hiragana. When I was writing hiragana, Mr. Sato once surprised me by saying, "You're good at it". That's when I decided to learn calligraphy, and I went to a school run by Shunso Machi at the Yokohama Takashimaya Department Store. I quit after one year and threw away the inkstone I was using, but in the 1990s I came to know about Kyuyo Ishikawa at an exhibition and started learning again.


 You showed your talent even before you learned to read, was it because you were familiar with letters from a young age?


Asaba Now that I think about it, it's the influence of Kanazawa Bunko. I was born in Kanazawa Bunko in Kanagawa Prefecture. Kanazawa Bunko is a National Diet Library from the Kamakura period (1185-1333), and it manages national treasures and important cultural assets. The adjacent Shomyoji Temple was the family temple of the Kanazawa-ryu Hojo clan, and I used it as a playground from my childhood. I grew up looking at the calligraphy of Nichiren and the sculptures of Unkei and Tankei on the temple gate. When I woke up in the morning, I would take up a position in the middle of the Unkei and Tankei sculptures and watch them with trepidation, thinking, "I'm going to beat this". Even when I went to sketch at elementary school, I knew where to draw because it was a place where I knew how to play every day. I would get a sheet of paper and draw quickly, and the teacher would praise me and say, "You're good". That's when I started thinking about becoming a painter. By the way, my family lineage has always been Kanazawa Bunko for my ancestors, and apparently I was a scribe for the Hojo family.


 The DNA from those ancestors may be connected to the present. How did you come across the Thongpa script (Naxi hieroglyphs)?


Asaba In the 1990s, I stopped by a bookstore in Paris and my eyes fell on a Japanese book titled "Sekai no Monji wo Tazunete" (Shokado, 1982). The book was written by Akira Nakanishi, who runs a printing company in Kyoto. The letters collected inside were included in the book. Mr. Nakanishi is a collector who visited 108 countries and spent his life collecting letters that were being lost. After I founded the Tokyo Type Directors Club (TDC) with 89 friends in 1987, this book stimulated my interest in letters even more. I once visited Nakanishi at his home in Kyoto to see the letters he had collected, and borrowed some of the materials he had stored there (the Nakanishi Collection is now housed at the National Museum of Ethnology). The work "22 Asian Characters," which uses 22 typical Asian characters, was created based on those materials. When I asked Kohei Sugiura who was the leading authority on the subject, he told me that it was Dr. Tatsuo Nishida. At the time, Dr. Nishida was the director of the library at Kyoto University and a prominent researcher who had deciphered the Western Summer Script. Since he was an old acquaintance of Mr. Nakanishi, I persuaded him to plan a trip, and a group of six people, including Dr. Nishida and Mr. Nakanishi, went to Lijiang, Yunnan Province, China, for 17 days in search of the Naxi people's Tompa script. We were told that searching for the characters would be an act of espionage, so we changed our name to the "Minority Friendship Group". It was a long journey, travelling by car from Kunming, passing through Dali, and finally arriving at Lijiang after two full days. The person who writes and reads the sutras is called a Thongpa, and we talked to a Lao Thongpa and obtained the sutras. In the 17 years since then, I have visited Lijiang five times to conduct research. The scriptures were invented by human beings, but now they are rapidly disappearing, so it is important to conduct research and study them.


 We can understand the thinking of a people by the way they create their letters.


Asaba Yes, in Japan, the Edo script is unique. They are characters created by the people. Calligraphers deny it, but it's interesting. Kabuki signs, yose characters, sumo characters, and the baskets used for Senja-fuda, for example. It is said that the characters used in Joruri are made from the sound of the shamisen. I sometimes go to second-hand bookstores in the countryside to find such materials.


 The collection including the Tompa script that you collected is really valuable. Similarly, I think the photographs of unexplored areas in Africa and other countries that you visited during your research are also a valuable resource.


Asaba If we talk about valuable things, the wide-lux camera manufactured by Pannon Camera Industry and Commerce in 1964 is one of them. I've been shooting with it for 55 years now. It was made in Japan and I bought it at the last Tokyo Olympics. Today, there are only a few of these left in Japan. In addition, I also write in my own handwriting, so I have left behind some manuscripts.


Future Archive Concept


 You were appointed as the 10th director of Kuwasawa Design School in 2011. Are there any movements regarding archives at Kuwasawa Design School or Tokyo Zokei University, which is also part of Kuwasawa Gakuen?


Asaba Nowadays, archives are certainly the focus of attention nationwide, aren't they? Recently, Kyushu Sangyo University asked me to send 20 poster works to them because they got a budget. The parents of Choki, who is one of the members of the GCP (Goo Choki Par) creators, are professors at Kyushu Sangyo University, and that's how I got the request. The poster is also in the collection of the Toyama Prefectural Museum of Art and Design. As for the Kuwasawa School, we are working on an archive about Yoko Kuwasawa, the founder of Kuwasawa Design School. Kuwasawa Design School was founded on the model of Bauhaus. Its educational philosophy is to cultivate the driving force of design. Schools that inherited the spirit of Bauhaus were established in various parts of the world, but it is said that there are three main schools: Black Mountain College in North Carolina, USA, New Bauhaus in Chicago, and Kuwasawa Design School in Japan. Today, the former two schools are no more and only Kuwasawa Design School is left. Now, Kuwasawa Design School sends its students to Bauhaus every year. The Bauhaus is a residential school, and there is also a school for architecture and theatre. It's like a tour, but it's a good experience for the students to see the place. I encourage them to stand under the BAUHAUS logo and take pictures. I tell them, "If you stand under the logo, the design will come down from heaven".


 It is also an archive activity that has continued from Bauhaus to the present. In Japan, the Japan Institute of Design (D-8) and other organisations have started to conduct research on archives.


Asaba Actually, I would like to create a typography museum. It's been 30 years since I founded Tokyo TDC, and there is also the Japan Typography Association, which has been in existence for 50 years. I would like to be able to see printed materials and award-winning works at any time. In addition to that, I want to preserve the knowledge about letters that I have been exploring. Mr. Shirakawa is greatly respected in China because of his deep knowledge of Chinese characters and letters, which even the Chinese did not understand. That's why designers in Hong Kong and China are interested in me, because there are not many designers who also do calligraphy. In fact, I was once approached by Alan Chan who wanted to archive my work. He has a gallery. Last year, he came to Japan for a printing experiment with Toppan Printing. Speaking of Toppan Printing, the company invested 300 million yen to restore and reproduce the Mandala of the Two Realms (commonly known as the "Blood Mandala"), an important cultural asset owned by Kongobuji Temple. That technique is unique to Japan, and it can be said to be one of the methods for preserving and archiving. Toppan Printing also has a museum, and I think it would be a good idea to investigate it.


 Listening to your story, it seems that for you, living is equal to expression. If we thought of it as a job, we couldn't do all these things. If you want to keep your overflowing energy and imagination as an archive, you have no choice but to use this office.


Asaba This building was designed by Aldo Rossi, and Shigeru Uchida and Ikuyo Mitsuhashi worked on the interior. At first, we put a ping-pong table in the centre.


 Everyone is interested in archiving, but when the artist himself passes away, it is often difficult to set a direction even if it can be organised.


Asaba Direction is probably important. I have to be specific, too.


 I think that people like you, Mr. Asaba, speaking out will help to boost the archive activities. Thank you very much for your many interesting discussions today.





Katsumi Asaba's archive location contact information (for inquiries) (e.g. corporate phone number)


DDNP Cultural Promotion Foundation


Kyushu Sangyo University



Toyama Prefectural Museum of Art and Design Seibu Department Store's poster "Delicious Life"; Musashino Art University Museum & Library poster official poster "Nagano Olympic Games";THE MIYAKE ISSEY FOUNDATION Hanging scroll "1, 2, 3";Mino Washi no Sato Hall Hanging scroll "3, 4, 5"; Niigata Prefectural Museum of Modern Art and The Ad Museum Tokyo poster "Misawa Design 2009 Bauhaus"; Hofu Tenmangu Shrine (Yamaguchi Prefecture) Stone Monument "LOVE Shrine"; Nitta Shrine (Ota-ku) Stone Monument "LOVE Shrine", Stone Table "Tennis Table Tennis Table "; Aoyama Stone Shop (Ehime Prefecture) Stone Monument "Stone Table Tennis Table", Kakudahama Beach (Niigata Prefecture) Stone Monument "Hieroglyph"; Bauhaus Museum Berlin Poster "Misawa Design 2010 Bauhaus", Shigeo Fukuda Design Art Museum, Taiwan, posters "Kamekura Award Commemorative Exhibition", "Katsumi Asaba and Misawa Bauhaus Poster Exhibition", "Heaven and Hell.