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May, 2008

CULTURE

Re-Turning Japanese

Sugiyama Tomoyuki, president of Digital Hollywood University, serves as a member of the Japanesque Modern Committee. The Japan Journal asked him for his thoughts on the Japanesque Modern 100 Collection.

The Japan Journal: What is your understanding of "Japaneseness" today?

From the arrival of the so-called black ships and the opening of the country to the rest of the world, the modernization of Japan always tended to follow the example set by the west. For more than 150 years, Japan has had its sights set on advanced nations in the west and Europe in an effort to catch up and one day overtake them.

At some point however, almost without realizing, Japan has switched positions from the imitator to the imitated. In the field of manufacturing in particular, by the start of the twenty-first century there were hardly any examples left in other countries for Japan to follow. Having taken the lead, Japan has started to rediscover its own traditions, history and sense of beauty. A certain Japanese taste has gradually started to creep into manufacturing, with modern-day advanced technology, expertise and knowledge being fused with Japanese elements to create new innovations.

Japanese cars may have grown up imitating their American and European counterparts, but this process has given rise to a uniquely honed interpretation of the world. This worldview has started to be expressed through Japanese style lattice patterns designed into car radiator grills for instance, or through the crisp but softened lines seen in Gundam or other anime series. Such developments represent an attempt to use our own tools. You could say that we have now managed to add something extra to the underlying western essence as we have rediscovered Japanese tradition, culture and beauty. Combined with the advanced technological capabilities that Japan has built up, this has become one of the high added value elements of Japanese manufacturing.

Apart from that basic element of "Japaneseness," what do the products featured in the Japanesque Modern 100 Collection have in common?

I feel that they all share a certain tenderness. That is to say, no matter how sharp the angles cut into the lines or surfaces and irrespective of the coloring and feel, there are no aggressive points or elements.

I think that the members of the Council saw a clear direction along those lines for the concept of Japanesque Modern and a definite Japanese style within the manufacturing process.

So compiling the 100 Collection was a case of seeking out and bringing together those underlying notions and Japanese concepts?

I'm not sure that was necessarily the case.

Japanese culture during the Edo period (1603-1867), before Japan opened up to the rest of the world and spent 150 years following in western footsteps, had a distinctive character in many ways. Needless to say, Japan was an avid importer of culture from China and other countries before the period of isolation. The fact remains however that, even at that time, the country was constantly in pursuit of creativity, combining overseas cultures with its own.

In her book Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, British author Isabella L. Bird, who trekked from Tokyo to Hokkaido in 1878, described Japanese homes as being situated in gardens that looked like the landscape had been expertly shrunk down to resemble a miniature garden. She wrote that it felt just like "stepping into a fairy-tale world."

In spite of this distinctive character, upon opening itself up to the rest of the world, mainstream Japan decided to follow in western footsteps instead. From then onwards, there was no need to go to the trouble of creating unique Japanese concepts as part of the modernization process.

Compiling the 100 Collection was effectively a case of confirming that Japan itself has started to unearth Japanese elements and has started to focus on bringing out that distinctive character. The selection process acted as a source of fresh inspiration. If you throw a stone into water, at the very least it will cause ripples to spread slowly but surely outwards. It has started to have an impact on this year's Good Design Awards too. In that sense, it would be fair to say that the Council has set out a clear direction.

The 100 Collection also demonstrates that Japan's tremendous originality and creativity acts as the basis for a wide range of products and services.

What comes to mind when you think about the current state of Japan and prospects for the future in the context of Japanesque Modern?

Japan is no longer a country that can be summed up through figures alone. Japan always used to be proud of the figures it achieved, just like Asia at the moment, amidst its current period of rapid growth. Modern-day Japan however has gone beyond that phase. It is no longer possible to measure Japan's worth based purely on figures such as its trade balance or GDP. The time has come for Japan to shed its skin.

In 2002, Douglas McGray examined the breadth and depth of Japanese pop culture based on the concept of "cool Japan" in an article entitled "Gross National Cool" (Foreign Policy, May/June 2002). He commented that "Japan looks more like a cultural superpower today than it did in the 1980s, when it was an economic one." This is one of the factors that have prompted an increase in the number of fans of Japanese pop culture around the world, with Japan even becoming an object of admiration.

Japan in the twenty-first century is on its way to becoming a fully matured society. The word "mature" however does not necessarily mean sensible and grown up. I believe that, to bring happiness, a society needs to combine its acquired adult culture with a universal childlike innocence, allowing both to coexist side by side.

Interview by CHIBA Hitoshi, The Japan Journal