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Hiroshi Nagai: Paintings for Music


September 25, 2020 – January 23, 2021

Hiroshi Nagai: Paintings for Music surveys the relationship between Japan’s city pop music and the paintings of esteemed illustrator Hiroshi Nagai. This is the first international solo exhibition of Nagai, whose cover art for Eiichi Ohtaki’s A Long Vacation and numerous other iconic record jackets spearheaded Japan’s city pop music culture. Since then, Nagai has collaborated with musicians and brands around the world, leaving his mark on contemporary culture and style.

This exhibition explores an era that encapsulated the new young urban lifestyle in Tokyo through the lens of Nagai’s paintings. His dreamy visual palette and associated city pop hits epitomised the cultural reverberations of Japan’s economic boom, providing a soundtrack and aesthetic for young urbanites lusting after endless summers by the poolside and an indulgent city nightlife. 

Hiroshi Nagai: Paintings for Music presents 20 of the illustrator’s original works spanning his career, as well as a collection of record jackets made for a variety of music styles from Japan and around the world, including soul, funk, pop, reggae, boogie and more.

View the online catalogue below. Please view on a desktop or laptop computer for the best experience.

A brief history of Japan’s city pop

City pop arose in the late 1970s as a subgenre of the Western-inspired Japanese pop music and hit the height of its popularity in the 1980s. With Japan’s postwar ‘economic miracle’ reaching its zenith in the 1980s and the rapid changes to the social and cultural landscape, artists took many different music genres such as disco, soul, R&B and funk and threw them into a musical melting pot. 

From this, a new style of music called ‘city pop’ emerged to become the soundtrack for the life of Japan’s suddenly-wealthy working-class city-dwellers. City pop is closely associated with not just the economic bubble, but also Japan’s technological growth, including the development of Sony’s Walkman and inbuilt cassette systems for cars, all of which allowed music to be created with the intention to be listened to on the go. 

While city pop has been predominantly focused to Japan, in recent years it has found an international audience through the internet and as an influence on modern microgenres such as neo city pop, future funk and vaporwave.

As the aesthetic for the glitzy genre, Hiroshi Nagai’s blissful billboard appeal transports viewers to urban living in 1980s Tokyo, a time of optimism and hope for the future.


Born in Tokushima City in 1947, Hiroshi Nagai first gained experience as a graphic designer before launching his career as a freelance illustrator in 1978. His work is distinguished by his illustrations of crisp urban landscapes and tropical motifs, as seen on album covers such as Eiichi Ohtaki’s A Long Vacation and Niagara Song Book. Nagai’s publications include A Long Vacation (1979, CBS/Sony Publishing), Halation (1981, CBS/Sony Publishing) and Niagara Songbook (1982, Shogakukan). He was awarded the Golden Disc as a special album cover prize for his work on A Long Vacation. Nagai’s style has gained iconic status and his work adorns album covers for numerous artists, including Naoya Matsuoka, Hiroshi Fujiwara/Hiroshi Kawanabe, Kiyotaka Sugiyama, Teen Runnings, ikkubaru, Sunny Day Service, and Kashif as well as the AOR breeze compilations. Today, he works not only as an illustrator but also as a designer, DJ and music critic.

Photo © shimboyuki


September 25 (Friday), 2020 – January 23 (Saturday), 2021

Mon–Fri: 10am–6pm
Sat: 10am–4pm

All visitors are required to wear a mask at all times and check in upon arrival.

Closed on Sundays and the holiday period of December 22, 2020 – January 3, 2021.

The Japan Foundation, Sydney
Level 4, Central Park
28 Broadway, Chippendale NSW 2008



(02) 8239 0055

Header image: Hiroshi Nagai, Downtown Sunset Poolside, 2009, acrylic on canvas board, © the artist

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