Now, through last year's tsunami, the power of the sea has reasserted itself as a key influence on the country's artists.
The wave that tore into the coast of northern Japan and the ensuing nuclear disaster washed away the Japanese people's faith in a benevolent government and benevolent corporations.
Japan's art world is focused not just on the disaster but on the more cynical world-weary Japan that is emerging from the rubble. These grim times -- with rising fears over radiation and atomic energy, the economy and the ever-present possibility of another devastating quake -- seem almost tailor-made for six-member activist art group Chim Pom. The young provocateurs who make up Chim Pom (the name alludes to the Japanese slang for penis) got their start with works they say symbolised the battle for survival of youth (such as them) who didn't fit Japan's rigid corporate and social structures. They already had an anti-nuclear bent to their work, so it's no surprise that what happened at Fukushima is one of the key influences on their latest exhibition, Turning Around.
Chim Pom's Ryuta Ushiro shows us through the exhibition at Tokyo's Watari Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo's hip Shibuya area. He brings us first to a piece comprising several stuffed rats dyed yellow-green and mounted in glass cases in heroic poses. Ushiro says it's a reworking of Super Rat, a video work the group did in 2006 that involved catching rodents on the streets of Shibuya. Chim Pom viewed the rats as a mirror of itself back in 2006, but in the later piece Ushiro says they represent survival.
"This time around they were much harder to catch. It just goes to show they are great survivors," he says "We wanted to present a vision of how Japanese people will have to go on living surrounded by radioactivity."
Soon after the tsunami, and at the height of fears about the nuclear plant, Chim Pom produced another typically subversive piece combining shock value and a political message. It painted a panel depicting the wrecked Fukushima reactors with black clouds styled as demons hovering above them in the same style as Japanese painter Taro Okamoto's anti-nuclear, post-atomic bomb mural The Myth of Tomorrow.
The mural is displayed in Shibuya station and is notable for the small rectangle cut out of the bottom right corner, a legacy of the space for which it was originally designed. At 9pm on April 30, Chim Pom entered the station and placed their panel into the gap in the original work. It took less than minute but people in the station saw it happen and snapped pictures on their phones.
"The rumour exploded on social media as soon as we installed our painting, and the following day the police came to remove it," Ushiro says. "But ever since we did our installation, people have come to view The Myth of Tomorrow with our piece on Fukushima attached."
Other works in the exhibition shaped by the tragedy on March 11 last year, include a mural depicting an emergency exit burned on to a wall with gasoline fumes and an installation with a falling
glass arrow. Both relate to the heightened quake risk in Tokyo.
Since the disaster, Chim Pom's members, like many Japanese artists, have visited affected areas and met victims. Red Card (2011), the piece used on the brochure for the group's Turning Around exhibition, took this a step further.
Chim Pom's Toshinori Mizuno got a job among the thousands of day labourers toiling at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant. He used the opportunity to photograph himself dressed in a radiation protection suit, holding up a red card against the backdrop of a mangled reactor building.
Ushiro believes the March 11 disaster will shape the group's art for a long time, and says Chim Pom is planning new versions of one of the more moving pieces in the exhibition, Destiny's Child. The work consists of a doll of a child in a gas mask and nuclear protection suit that sits in the corner of a lift, fingers locked in the V pose young Japanese adopt in pictures.
Ryuji Enokida's volunteer project, the Recovery Assistance Media Team, sought to directly involve the victims of the disasters in the creation of art.
Enokida, a musician and visual media lecturer, gave cameras to children in tsunami-affected areas, where tens of thousands of homeless victims were staying in evacuation centres for months after the tragedy, to document their experiences.
"I thought by giving the children the opportunity for interaction and the chance to tell this story to people outside, it would lessen their mental burden," he says. He expected to experience despair when he first visited northern Japan, but came away with admiration for the strength of character of the victims.
Sixty of the images shot by the children, including those from Kamaishi East Junior High, will be displayed in Messages for Our Children -- 3/11: a New Beginning on display at the Japan Foundation Sydney's gallery from this week.
The pictures will be displayed with comments that Enokida says make for a form of visual haiku. "By combining picture, caption and title, it gives us a very interesting sensory effect," he says.
This is the first time the pictures have been shown outside Japan.
Just as budding young artists have been moved by the tragedy, so too have some of the big names of the Japanese art world.
Yoshitomo Nara lives near Fukushima and spent the months after the disaster volunteering with relief organisations. He told The Wall Street Journal that he abandoned art for a time as the whole enterprise felt "superficial" after what had happened.
Nara says he had to go back to his old art school in Aichi prefecture and work alongside students to rekindle his enthusiasm. He has returned to the fray, albeit with a slightly new style.
His trademark pastel-hued comic-style portraits, according to the WSJ, have also changed, with the recent work featuring children with softer and more natural facial expressions.
"It's weird to admit this, because I'm already an adult, but I feel I've just grown up," he says.
Messages for Our Children -- 3/11: a New Beginning is at the Japan Foundation's Sydney gallery from Thursday.