Culture, No.8  Nov. 30, 2011


Viewing 3/11 as an intersection

HAMANO Yasuki: A number of people have suggested that the Great East Japan Earthquake, or “3/11,” has provided an ideal opportunity to take a fresh look at Japan. You have summed up the issue very elegantly with the phrase “reassessing Japan from an aesthetic perspective.” What exactly did you mean by that?
Photo : Hamano Yasuki
Hamano Yasuki

HARA Kenya: I would just like to start by saying that 3/11 was a terrible disaster, so we need to make sure that we talk about it with the utmost respect. With that in mind however, I personally feel that 3/11 was a key intersection, or turning point. I’ll come back to this in more detail in a moment, but there have been other major events that have become turning points in the past. The one that particularly comes to mind is the Onin War, which broke out in the then capital Kyoto during the latter part of the 15th century. The Onin War was a civil war that began in 1467 and lasted ten years. The ravages of war created a sense of hiekareta, meaning cold and withered, a concept that is at the root of modern-day Japanese culture. That aesthetic essentially developed into a national culture throughout Japan. Rather than leaving the country depleted in some way, the civil war actually served as a starting point for the creation of something even better. The world in which we live these days isn’t as straightforward as it was at the time of the Onin War. With so many complex factors interlinking with one another, we are unlikely to see any immediate or obvious changes in Japan as a result of 3/11. Even so, I get the feeling that people will look back on 3/11 in the future and regard it as a key turning point every bit as important as the Onin War. Basically, I think we should regard 3/11 as a new intersection from which to reassess Japan from an aesthetic perspective.
Photo : Hara Kenya
Hara Kenya

Hamano: What aspects of pre-3/11 Japan should we be reassessing?

Hara: In many respects, Japan had already reached a turning point prior to 3/11. Postwar Japan established itself as a country built on industry, underpinned by manufacturing. As manufacturing is essentially based on science however, it can be recreated anywhere in the world. Japan was never going to be able to keep manufacturing for itself and continue exporting products indefinitely. Having clung to the notion that economic growth would continue unabated for over 60 years since the war, people had started to realize that might not be the case. Even an airplane levels out once it has reached an altitude of 10,000 meters. With the Japanese economy having similarly leveled out as it reached maturity, we were already reaching the point where we would have had to reassess how we view Japan.

The days when we could rely on cheap labor and sell industrial products in huge quantities are over. I believe that we need to adopt a new approach, tapping into the Japanese aesthetic as a key resource instead. Japan has adapted and preserved its culture for well over a millennium, in terms of both the traditional and the everyday, and has developed its own unique aesthetic. There aren’t many countries around the world that have done that. Take Singapore for example. From a geopolitical standpoint, it has a clear view of everything from the Middle East to the Pacific Rim, enabling it to calmly assess where to invest, bring in money and create a thriving economy. With a history dating back just half a century however, it has yet to develop its own culture. China on the other hand has a history dating back four millennia. With one regime continually overthrowing another however, the country’s culture has always been somewhat fragmented. Even if China wanted to recreate its culture from the Song Dynasty, or the Ming Dynasty, it’s easier said than done.

In contrast, Japanese culture and traditions have a real sense of consistency. I believe that reassessing Japan will enable us to open up industries with great potential for the future, from food and other aspects of everyday life through to fashion and tourism.

Values that epitomize the craftsman’s spirit

Hamano: Are there any other countries that use their aesthetic sensibilities as a resource?

Hara: France is one example. Despite essentially being an agricultural economy with a relatively modest GDP, France nonetheless has a certain presence within the world. It has taken one of its agricultural products – wine – and created a value system based on an extreme hierarchy, with wines costing up to thousands, or even tens of thousands, of yen per glass. That value generates enormous potential from grapes, the basic agricultural product behind wine. It’s a classic case of using an aesthetic to add value to a product’s intrinsic value, coupled with an operating system that skillfully controls the difference between the two.

If France uses grapes to make wine, then Japan should be able to do something similar with rice. A bowl of rice however is worth little more than 25 yen. The value of rice is roughly the same, whether it has been painstakingly grown and cared for or not. The fact that rice is safe to eat and readily available to everyone is a sign of a country at peace. After the war, Japan would have been happy to settle for that. Now that the Japanese economy has matured however, we need to create a value hierarchy like that in France, extending to other foods apart from rice, as well as areas such as fashion and tourism.

Hamano: France provides aspirational products that people all over the world want, combining high quality with high culture, but they are not products that just anyone can buy. In Japan, we have products of exceptional quality that are accessible to everyone. It’s a bit off-topic, but about 20 years ago I was at a UNESCO conference for members of staff from Asian universities. In response to one person at the conference who was heaping praise on Europe, the head of a Southeast Asian university commented, “I was born in extreme poverty and, as a child, set myself the goal of owning a wrist watch before I died. I quickly achieved that goal by buying a Japanese watch. I never did manage to buy an expensive European watch though.” High-end products made in Japan offer outstanding value whilst remaining within a certain price range. That really says something about the strength of Japan’s output, don’t you think?

Hara: Definitely. I would say that it’s the national character that makes that possible. Every time I come back after traveling overseas, I always notice how exceptionally clean airports are in Japan. The floor tiles have been cleaned so well that they seem to sparkle! Nobody has been forced to clean the floor that well. It’s down to the sense of pride and aesthetics shown by the cleaning staff. There is obviously a certain artisan spirit in Europe, but on the whole, people tend to drop tools and go home as soon as it’s time to clock off. Japanese people on the other hand tend to keep going until they reach a good place to stop. It’s not just cleaners either. That same sensibility is found in all workers, whether they work on a building site or in a kitchen. The essence of that craftsman’s spirit is all about being considerate, delicate, meticulous and concise. It’s not about being glamorous. I think those values and that aesthetic are resources that Japan should use.

Discovering emptiness

Photo : mujirushiryouhin

Poster image of MUJI2003
AD: Kenya Hara
PH: Tamotsu Fujii
D: Kenya Hara, Yukie Inoue, Izumi Suge
Coordinator: Aoi Advertizing Promotion Inc./ Kumiko Kitamura, Maho Ikeda
CL: Ryohin Keikaku Co.,Ltd

Hamano: That’s true of your designs too. When I saw the tsunami washing everything away on 3/11, it changed my entire outlook on life. I had already been thinking that I needed to stop relying on “things” for a long time, so that settled it. The image that came to mind was of the simplicity of your designs. I don’t know whether you’re actively aware of this, but your designs seem to capture the impermanence of things and their susceptibility to change. Muji is a prime example. It reflects the Japanese psyche and sense of impermanence. I guess that’s why it has stuck a chord with people in other countries.

Hara: Muji illustrates that point very clearly. It came about as a result of a meeting between the designer Tanaka Ikko and Tsutsumi Seiji, one of the leading lights in the distribution industry at that time. Tsutsumi Seiji was keen to streamline distribution and provide consumers with better quality products at lower prices. If you over-simplify however and strip away everything, you start veering towards poverty. The aim of Muji isn’t to create a dreary world in which things don’t not look very good but taste great on the inside, like an orange wrapped in newspaper. By tapping into the Japanese aesthetic to create the sense that simplicity can be preferable to glamour, Tanaka Ikko came up with the concept “simple is better.” This radical concept is not just something thought up by an individual designer however, but something that is underpinned by aspects of traditional culture common to all Japanese people. Simplicity won out over glamour and countless people have responded to that concept.

Hamano: So you’re saying that simplicity has the power to counterbalance glamour, and is the root of the Japanese aesthetic?

Precisely. I believe that the roots of Japanese design can be traced back to the late Muromachi period (1336-1573) after the end of the Onin War, as I mentioned earlier. Essentially, Japan’s location in the Far East meant that it was the final destination for western culture along the Silk Road. Japan was influenced by Rome, by India, and by China, almost like a funnel for other cultures. With so many glamorous cultures being imported, Japan was a surprisingly extravagant country in those days. You can tell just by looking at items such as the Shosoin treasures. A large proportion of the things that were brought over to Japan or influenced by such trends however were destroyed by fire during the Onin War. Having held such items in high esteem, the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490) was so shocked that he retired and handed power over to his son. He built Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) in the Higashiyama area of Kyoto and spent the rest of his days there. Despite being an elaborate building, there is nothing showy about the interior of Ginkakuji. Even the residential buildings are very refined. It was the ultimate in simplicity, as if the aftermath of the war had opened his eyes to his previous extravagance and overindulgence. This was where many of the cultures so typical of Japan originate, including tea ceremony, flower arranging, noh theater and linked verse. That expression of nothingness was the origin of open spaces in Japan, allowing the imagination to flourish. I regard this not as simplicity but emptiness, a sort of blank canvas that calls forth different images.
Photo : Image of Tea room
Image of Tea room
Photo : Image of takigi noh
Image of takigi noh

I personally believe that it was that same era that gave rise to Japanese designers. They started out as attendants called doboshu, who would assist with entertainment and other miscellaneous tasks as instructed by the shogun. Prominent doboshu included gardener Zenami (1386?-1482?), noh masters Kannami (1333-1384) and Zeami (1363?-1443), and flower arranger Ryuami (unknown). In fact, Noami (1397-1471), who was an expert in sumie (ink wash) painting, tea ceremony and linked verse, was responsible for keeping a list of antique works of calligraphy collected by Ashikaga Yoshimasa and invented the practice of displaying suitable pieces as the occasion demanded. It was around that time that Japanese culture began to exert itself, whilst at the same time taking on board imported cultures. I like to think of the doboshu as digital files with the extension .ami. They were the first Japanese designers and we have continued to uphold their sensibilities right through to the present day. I regard them as the roots of what has become the Japanese aesthetic.

Photo : Rock garden, Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto
Rock garden, Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto

Experience design

Hamano: So that’s the aesthetic perspective through which we need to reassess Japan?

Hara: Yes. We need to start reclaiming everything we sold off during the Meiji period (1868-1912) so that we can rebuild Japan at the cutting edge of culture. For instance, Japan is probably the only country in the world that has an accommodation network that is able to bring in higher rates than three or even five star hotels in Western Europe. Having said that, established ryokan inns in Kyoto aren’t exactly welcoming from a foreigner’s point of view. They tell their guests that dinner will be served at 6:30 and get mad if they turn up late. Japan’s ryokan system may be old fashioned and awkward, but what if we promoted them in a global context and got people asking, “Have you ever stayed in a Japanese ryokan?” If we focus on the Japanese view of nature and spirit of hospitality in the future, rather than treating ryokan like western-style colonial resorts, we could present them as amazing resort hotels offering tourists an experience untouched by the modern world.

Photo : Image of traditional Japanese inn called Ryokan
Image of traditional Japanese inn called Ryokan

The entire area along the coasts of the Kanto, Chubu and Hanshin regions, and across the Seto Inland Sea to Kitakyushu, is lined with factories. I know that is due to the fact that Japan has always specialized in industrial exports, but perhaps we should think about changing the way in which land is used in Japan. In terms of its tourist industry, Japan has a great deal of technology that could potentially be used to welcome visitors. What we need is to create a genuinely user-friendly environment for visitors from around the world. In order to revitalize the tourism industry, I think that we need to reassess how land is used in Japan from the standpoint of experience design.

We may not have realized the potential of our own culture when things were on the up, but I am sure people will start to appreciate it now, in the wake of 3/11.

Revitalizing Japan from the home outwards

Hamano: You have commented that Kyoto is overflowing with the very finest in aesthetics, in its buildings and gardens, but as soon as you step outside you’re confronted with ugly streets. On the flipside of that delicate Japanese aesthetic is an ugly city that appears almost abandoned.

Hara: I think that the chaos that ensued when Japan first encountered western culture after the Meiji Restoration (1868) has stayed with us right through to the present day. We are caught in a vortex, where Japanese culture and western technology collide but can’t quite gel with one another. The resulting confusion has persisted for more than a century now. That’s why Japan is often said to be sensitive to small fragments of beauty but oblivious to beauty on a larger scale.

I personally feel that the home is becoming an increasingly important factor and offers a great deal of potential. If we were to seriously reassess the basic concept of the home for the modern era, post-3/11, I think we would find common ground between various different aspects of our culture.

Hamano: What do you mean?

Hara: Take a bowl for example. A traditional wooden bowl crafted by a skilled, experienced woodworker is obviously better than a manufactured plastic product. Lacquered bowls cost as much as 30,000 yen apiece, but there are still people who will buy them because they are moved or impressed by their beauty. If you take such a bowl home and place it on a table strewn with remote controls and magazines however, its beauty is lost. If you place it on a table on its own however, you can really appreciate the quality. During Japan’s sustained period of rapid economic growth, everyone started to live in similar homes and cram them full of things. Aesthetics don’t enter into it when you’re living in an environment like that. Even homes themselves were reduced to real estate value, doubling in price just a short while after being purchased. Now that the economy is leveling off, I think the financial industry’s estate-based business model will start to crumble.

The fact that people are starting to open their eyes and reassess how they live their lives, rather than focusing on investment potential, has sparked a boom in home renovations. People are starting to create their own aesthetics, drawing on experiences to mold their lifestyles so that they meet their needs more closely. Maybe the time has come for people to throw out all the things they have amassed, once and for all, and restructure the way they go about their lives. That’s why I think the impetus is there for people to start changing their homes.

Photo : Image of entrance of modern house. You have to take off your shoes here.
Image of entrance of modern house.
You have to take off your shoes here.

Hamano: So what “common ground” would we find by reassessing our homes?

Hara: The days of exporting individual appliances, such as TVs and fridges, are coming to an end. We are going to see more and more high-tech appliances being integrated into the home. Lighting will be integrated into ceilings, and TVs into walls. As people take their shoes off whenever entering someone’s home in Japan, floors come into contact with people’s bodies and will be able to sense physical data such as your pulse, weight and blood pressure. The practice of taking your shoes off is likely to be crucial to living environment operating systems in the future. Direct contact between your body and your environment will pave the way for dialogue between you and your home, making life more interactive. In much the same way, facilities such as baths and toilets will also incorporate more advanced technologies and evolve in response to the Japanese people’s unique sense of cleanliness, refinement and precision.

If we strategically reassess living environment operating systems in Japan, I’m sure we could market the mechanisms behind Japanese homes to the rest of the world. I’m not just talking about smart houses either. I believe that there is real potential for an entire series of industries, from mechanisms in the home to fine aesthetic details.

The age of group intelligence

Hamano: While we’re on the subject of homes, I’d like to ask you about buildings in relation to the reconstruction process. Concrete has always been the material of choice for disaster prevention, but the tsunami left behind a lot of rubble. It brings to mind Makeru Kenchiku (submissive architecture) by architect Kuma Kengo. It’s about the concept of moving away from concrete and actively utilizing the weakness of materials such as wood, paper and soil, so as to incorporate their gentle, familiar nature into buildings themselves. We’re talking about earthquake reconstruction at the moment, so it’s not the same as Kuma’s weakness-based architecture, but a certain level of weakness would definitely make it easier to rebuild after an earthquake on the scale of 3/11. It makes you think that maybe we should take into account weakness as well as strength.

Hara: I agree. A previous tsunami on a similar scale, some 80 years ago, wiped out entire streets of houses made from wood and straw so that there was nothing left. This time however, the tsunami left a huge amount of rubble behind. In other words, the fact that buildings were of medium strength resulted in massive devastation, causing problems from start to finish. This is an area in which we need to show a little delicacy. Japan’s concise nature coexists perfectly alongside impermanence. We have a sense that all things will end up being lost one day. The notion of building things so that they can withstand tsunamis once every 80 or 100 years is misguided. Wouldn’t it be better to design buildings that can sustain damage from a major tsunami but at the same time allow it to flow through? For example, we could build a seven or eight storey building on manmade foundations, and design it so that waves would flow through the bottom three floors. People would be safe as long as they got up to the fourth floor or higher, effectively making the building tsunami-proof. If everyone had just one building like that within 15 minutes walking distance, we would be fine.

Hamano: That’s similar to the concept behind the chinkabashi sinking bridges on the Shimanto River in Shikoku. When it rains heavily, the water level rises and the bridges just sink! By leaving out the parapets, they were able to build plenty of bridges cheaply.

Hara: Those bridges are beautifully molded too, and they look stunning when they sink. I got to study them once, and it really is impressive how well they sink! They also allow the water to flow through cleanly and safely under normal conditions, when there hasn’t been much rain, and they’re just the right height for children to jump into the river. Chinkabashi really are the ideal example. The government wants to protect everything, but that’s just not possible. The days of government based on top-down decision making are over. We are gradually entering an age of group intelligence. These days, people talk to one another via media such as the Internet until they agree on the best possible solution. That’s the sort of thing that we are capable of as a society.

Photo : Chinkabashi sinking bridges on the Shimanto River in Shikoku
Chinkabashi sinking bridges on the Shimanto River in Shikoku

Hamano: That’s because everyone around the world is paying attention, especially online.

Hara: Just as anime is no longer a subculture, the entire world is trying to envision a new post-3/11 future for Japan. It’s made even harder by the added complication of the nuclear accident, but the area worst affected by the earthquake was already suffering from depopulation, so it may end up being rebuilt on half the scale it was prior to 3/11. Having said that, the fact that Japan’s elderly society continues to shrink, due to the country’s dwindling birthrate and aging population, is precisely why we need to come up with as many ideas as possible.

With ideas for the future coming out of East Japan thick and fast, this is an era in which everyone is thinking about reconstruction together. We need to carefully reassess ideas from people across the board, put them all together, and make them available to everyone in Japan, and the rest of the world, as well as those in the affected area. We need to start viewing Tohoku as a tremendous source of ideas for the future.