Photo/IllutrationExhibition booths line up at the Art Fair Tokyo event held in the capital’s Yurakucho district in March. (Photo by Yosuke Takeda, provided by the Art Tokyo Association)

Japan’s art market is in the midst of a boom with exports at a three-decade high, driven by demand for works by contemporary superstars such as Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami, as well as classical Chinese pieces.

In 2016, the value of art exports rose to 39.6 billion yen ($357 million), the highest in the last 30 years and comparable to the level of imports.

Tomio Koyama, a longtime art gallery owner who is familiar with market trends, said Kusama, who is famous for her polka dot designs, Murakami, who combines Japan’s traditional painting technique with pop culture, and Yoshitomo Nara, who is known for his paintings of girls with slanted eyes, have been growing in popularity overseas since 2000.

Also popular outside Japan are avant-garde artists of the Gutai Bijyutsu Kyokai group, which was active between the 1950s and 1970s, such as Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008), who painted with his feet.

Some of those artworks that fetched only several million yen 10 years ago in overseas markets are trading at prices north of 100 million yen.

In March, a record 60,000 people visited the Art Fair Tokyo, one of the largest art fairs in Japan. Twenty percent were from overseas, underlining the recent popularity of Japanese artists.

Hiroaki Sumiya, a director at the Art Tokyo Association, the event's organizer, said the Japanese capital is drawing increased international attention for its broad range of art offerings.

“Directors from other countries say they feel envious of the intriguing Tokyo market,” said Sumiya. “It is largely because a wide variety of artworks are available here, from those created during the Jomon Pottery Culture (c. 8000 B.C.-300 B.C.) to contemporary pieces and Oriental antiques.”

According to the Art Tokyo Association, Hong Kong accounts for the largest proportion of art exports from Japan at 30 percent.

“In China, a number of paintings, calligraphic works and ceramics were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution,” said Yasuaki Ishizaka, former president of the Japanese subsidiary of art broker Sotheby's. “Chinese deem Japan a gold mine because many pieces produced in ancient China still exist.”

The Finance Ministry’s trade statistics show art imports have shrunk sharply after reaching 600 billion yen during the nation’s late-1980s asset-inflated economic boom.

On the other hand, exports, which were long worth several billion yen a year, rose above 10 billion yen in 2007 and topped 30 billion yen during the past three years.

Imports still remain larger than exports due to the enduring popularity of Western artworks in Japan.

Yusaku Maezawa, CEO of the operating company of the Zozotown major fashion site, purchased a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat for 6.2 billion yen in 2016 and another Basquiat for 12.3 billion yen the following year.

Without such exceptional acquisitions, exports could soon surpass imports in value.