Poster of Bauhaus Imaginista, an exhibition that explores Bauhaus influence around the world with partners in eight countries

In the early 1930s, Iwao Yamawaki and Michiko Yamawaki arrived at the gates of the Bauhaus in Dessau all the way from Japan. The two designers—Iwao is best known as an architect, and Michiko studied in the weaving workshop—sat through lectures in German, despite only having a basic knowledge of the language. As Michiko would recall years later, Wassily Kandinsky and Josef Albers were both especially kind to the young couple, dedicating time after class to explain the more complicated aspects of their lectures in English.

Takehiko Mizutani, Study on simultaneous contrast (class of Josef Albers), 1927; Gouache on cardboard, 80.4 x 55 cm; Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin

The Yamawakis’ time in Dessau was short-lived: the campus closed in 1932, and the couple opted to go back to Japan instead of attending Mies van der Rohe’s privately operated Bauhaus in Berlin. Though perhaps the most famous Japanese students of the Bauhaus, they weren’t the only ones. They were preceded by architect Ishimoto Kikuji, painter Mizutani Takehiko, and artist Nakada Sadanosuke in Weimar, and followed by architect Bunzō Yamaguchi and textile designer Tamae Ōno in Berlin. Back in Tokyo, they became acquainted with the person most responsible for bringing Bauhaus ideals and pedagogy over to Japan, though he never attended the Bauhaus himself: the architect Renshichirō Kawakita, who in 1931 opened the Seikatsu Kōsei Kenkyūsho (Research Institute for Life Configurations), or what’s come to be known as the “Japanese Bauhaus.”

Kawakita didn’t have the same Bauhaus training as the Yamawakis or the other few Japanese Bauhaus students, but he did have a fascination with Bauhaus teaching from afar—and, crucially, a mastery of the German language. He read Walter Gropius’s book, International Architecture, in German, and was influenced by Hannes Meyer and Kandinsky’s musical visuality (Kawakita studied music, and thought of architecture as “frozen music”). He translated László Moholy-Nagy’s Von Material zu Architektur to Japanese. When students started trickling back to Japan from Weimer, Dessau, and Berlin, he became the connective glue that brought them all together under one roof. The progressive school—later renamed to Shinkenchiku kōgei gakuin (School of New Architecture and Design)—turned out some impressive graduates, among them the design journalist and educator Yōko Kuwasawa, and graphic designer Yūsaku Kamekura, famous for his 1964 Tokyo Olympics design. It also had a lasting influence on Japanese modernism.

In the 1920s, Kawakita founded Seikatsu Kōsei Kenkyūsho with early Bauhaus students, Mizutani and Sadanosuke, and also began publishing the magazine Architecture and Design, I See All. The publication promoted his new institute to the interwar Japanese design and architecture scene, but it also did a lot to convey new ideas about international design and modernist lifestyle—much of it gleaned from former Bauhaus students and the German texts he could get from abroad. Students of the college would use I See All as a sort of textbook, while the publication would use the college as a source of its interviews and articles, completing a kind of feedback loop that reinforced the school’s pedagogy on Japan’s design world. “For its readership,” writes architect and professor Hiromitsu Umemiya, “this arrangement offered the benefit of answering questions on one page and offering discounts on college courses on another.”

In 1931 Kawakita and Mizutani put on an exhibition in Tokyo that combined the ideas behind the Bauhaus Vorkurs, or preliminary courses, with the Japanese craft and modernism movements. “Kawakita was picking up, through the narratives of students coming from the Bauhaus, what they knew about the Bauhaus, and then trying to reconstruct that for the exhibition,” says Grant Watson, one of the co-curators of the sprawling new exhibition project Bauhaus Imaginista, which this year reimagined the 1931 exhibition at MoMAK in Kyoto for the Bauhaus centenary. According to the Bauhaus Imaginista exhibition website, Kawakita and Mizuntani’s exhibition also included a curriculum proposal for a new, experimental institution. The Shikenchiku Kōgei Gakuin opened in the Ginza district’s Mitsuki Building the following year.

Poster of Bauhaus Imaginista, an exhibition that explores Bauhaus influence around the world with partners in eight countries

Shikenchiku Kōgei Gakuin became the most direct link between the Bauhaus and Japan, employing as professors many of the former Bauhaus students who had returned (including the Yamawakis and Mizutani). As a passage in an issue of I See All, published just before the new school’s opening, explained it, “This is a free al fresco school, liberated from the stiff and formal schoolroom and all old restrictions.” Kawakita described his form of pedagogy as “kōsei education,” a term that alludes to the Vorkurs preparatory course the Bauhaus is known for.

Kawakita’s kōsei method adapted various teaching approaches that Mizutani encountered during his time in Weimer, combining Josef Albers’ “material form education,” Wassily Kandinsky’s “abstract form education,” and the materials-oriented approach of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Watson notes that Kawakita was also interested in the idea of synesthesia— a condition in which one sense is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses—an influence that may have come from musician Gertrud Grunow, the Bauhaus’ first female teacher. “He would tap and make these noises in his class, and his students would have to reproduce those sounds with visual images,” says Watson. “This is something that I think was picked up from Grunow.”

Kawakita’s concept of kōsei at the heart of his school involved sharpening the senses and observing daily life. He intended for kōsei education to address the structures of everyday life, and reclaim the authorship of these structures from architects, designers, and other professionals and return them to the everyday people who relied on them. In practice, his students would examine human activity through natural science and social science, with the idea that doing so makes it easier to discover and solve everyday problems. On the Bauhaus Imaginista site, Hiromitsu Umemiya breaks it down like this:

In the example of the kōsei of housing, they actually experienced and investigated middle-class housing, lower-class housing, slums in Tokyo, and critiqued and investigated the structure, ventilation, hygiene, sunlight and plans (“natural research”) and furthermore made critiques and compared them to other countries. Thus, all kōsei education started from reality. From this vantage human actions could be viewed holistically, “all living things, not abstract and not isolated from life.”

Much like the Bauhaus, Kawakita’s school was shut down too soon. Amid a rise in Japanese militarism and nationalism in the mid- to late- ’30s, the school’s international ethos and its connections with schools and teachers abroad began to be regarded with suspicion. The Japanese Ministry of Education refused to grant it a permit, and it was forced to close in 1936.

Bauhaus Imaginista exhibition; Luca Frei, installation at MoMAK in Kyoto

Still, it had a profound cultural impact on Japan, and its students carried on the Bauhaus influence through other means. Yōko Kuwasawa, the pioneering fashion designer and design journalist, for example, went on to open up her own Kuwasawa Design School, which taught functionality and practicability as essential elements to design. Yūsaku Kamekura combined Bauhaus influences with a minimalist Japanese approach not only for his famed designs for the Olympic logo and the 1970 Expo in Osaka, but throughout his corporate logo work. He’s credited with inventing the term “corporate identity graphics,” and co-founded the Nippon Design Centre with Ikko Tanaka, which would go on to be deeply influential for mid-century Japanese graphic design.

At the Bauhaus Imaginista exhibition in Kyoto this year, Luca Frei, the artist tasked with reimagining Kawakita’s 1931 exhibition, also draws a link between the school and Jikken Kōbō, a postwar artist group active in Tokyo in the 1950s that once described itself as “a Bauhaus without walls.” From Weimer to Dessau to Berlin to Toyko—and of course, to the many other places around the world that students landed during and after WWII and the closing of the school—the Bauhaus lives on.