How Japanese Culture influences their Designs

I stumbled over a really interesting interview of Kenya Hara by Oliver Reichenstein from iA or information architects. This interview was part of a New York Times feature on a new fad in the US, making Japanese Bento boxes. Kenya explains that Japanese culture has a craftsman inspired sense of aesthetic that is so focused that they miss the impact of the bigger picture.

The craftman’s spirit, I think, imbues people with a sense of beauty, as in elaboration, delicacy, care, simplicity (words I often use). Obviously, this also applies to bento-making and the pride people take in making them as beautiful as they can.

There is a similar craftman’s spirit (“shokunin kishitsu” or “shokunin katagi”) in Europe. Yet in Europe I can see it coming alive only from a certain level of sophistication. –In Japan, even ordinary jobs such as cleaning and cooking are filled with this craftman’s spirit. It is is common sense in Japan.

While Japanese are known for their particular aesthetic sense, I would say we also have an incapacity to see ugliness. How come?

We usually focus fully on what’s right in front of our eyes. We tend to ignore the horrible, especially if it is not an integral part of our personal perspective. We ignore that our cities are a chaotic mess, filled with ugly architecture and nasty signage. And so you have the situation where a Japanese worker will open a beautiful bento box in a stale conference room or on a horrendous, crowded sidewalk.

I never really saw it, but now that he brings it up, I have to agree. The last time I was in Tokyo, I encountered exciting avant-garde architecture (like the Prada shop at Ayoman, Omotesandō) nestled within a bunch of drab buildings. It stuck out like a sore thumb!
Kenya goes on to explain the difference between Japanese vs. Western forms of simplicity by comparing the design of two chef’s knives. He implies that the Japanese prefer simple, designs devoid, of any frills as it means the product can be used in as many ways as the user desires. It is interesting to see that by going with simplicity as an aesthetic approach does not necessary result in boring single use products but actually encourages products to be applied in many situations. I’m convinced.

Check out the full write up and the original interview transcript in Japanese at iA.

1 Comment
  • Emmanuel - wat

    November 20, 2009 at 3:06 am Reply

    I could talk about for hours but to make it short, I also think that Japanese culture is one of the oldest source of “good design” with the principles of simplicity etc. (love this spirit)
    And that culture should inspire us for long time 🙂

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