By Sue Kiyabu
Special to The Advertiser
By Sue Kiyabu
The red-capped Kikkoman shoyu server that sits on dining tables throughout Hawai'i may not strike you as a designer object, but that's precisely the point of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i's latest exhibition, "Japanese Design Today 100."
"We chose products that represent modern Japanese design," says Hiroshi Kashiwagi, professor of design history at Musashino Art University by phone from Japan. "We could have just concentrated on cameras and cell phones, but we chose to have this broader perspective to really represent modern Japanese design."
Speaking through a translator, Kashiwagi says that objects such as the carafelike shoyu bottle (which has been around since 1961) are more than utilitarian solutions. They provide a snapshot of a culture. And in today's global marketplace, that remains significant.
In a statement for the Japan Foundation, which is sponsoring the global traveling show, Kashiwagi says "when technology is shared between countries and capital investments are structured multinationally, production bases are moved across national borders. As a result, cars and electrical appliances are no longer manufactured with the technology or capital of a single place, so design is less culturally specific than it used to be."
Kashiwagi selected the show's objects with a committee of three design heavy-hitters — designer Makoto Koizumi (his 9tubohouse is in the show), Nobuko Shimuta of the Nippon Design Center, and Masafumi Fukagawa, curator at the Kawasaki City Museum. The group culled 105 objects from more than 1,000.
Familiar big-ticket items, such as the Toyo-ta Prius and Canon video camcorder, will be displayed alongside low-budget gadgets such as "Ala," a felt pad that folds into a writing instrument and high-concept designs such as Issey Miyake's A-POC clothing line and Kosuke Tsumura's coat-cum-shelter called "Final Home." But this isn't a simple superficial grand altar of cool.
The wide-ranging exhibition attempts to put modern Japanese design in perspective. By drawing theoretical lines to cultural practices, the show offers examples of Japanese designers embracing forms based in tradition. Simple, clean lines found in modern furniture and ceramics follow the ideological principles of the tea ceremony. Miniature digital cameras and cell phones can be seen as a continuum of the practice of bonsai. The sensation of sitting in a paper chair or the feel of a bamboo spoon in your mouth relates to the aesthetic sense found in traditional Japanese cuisine.
"A long time ago ... Japanese designers tended to not pay attention to traditional design or the traditional sense of Japanese aesthetic," Kashiwagi says. "But for the last 20 years, more designers are paying attention to Japanese aesthetic sense. For example, Mr. Miyake's A-POC (which stands for A Piece of Clothing). And I think this idea of taking one piece of cloth and covering the body with just one piece comes from the traditional sense of Japanese kimono."
The show's title reflects contemporary choices, but Kashiwagi and the selection committee also included a handful of items from the postwar period, an era that extends into the 1960s, and established Japan's modern design lexicon.
"The modern culture in Japan really began to take place in the 1960s," Kashiwagi says. "We began to see rapid changes in society that were far different from the Japanese culture of the past and so we wanted to showcase this change."
The postwar items include a Nikon camera, a Sony TV, a Toshiba rice cooker and a Subaru car — representatives of industries that the Japanese would soon dominate through design. They reflect the infancy of modern Japanese design and, ironically, are outgrowths of products designed for Americans, not for the Japanese, Kashiwagi says.
Between 1946 and 1948 the General Headquarters of Allied Powers sought Japanese companies to produce appliances, furniture and everyday objects for 20,000 military households stationed in Japan and Korea, Kashiwagi says.
"These objects and some of the electrical appliances were made by the companies that we now call Toshiba and Mitsubishi," Kashiwagi says. "These products were very much influenced by the American way of making things. That kind of Americanness in the everyday object carried over. And Japanese people started to think that these Americanized everyday products were wonderful as well. That's the kind of cultural power that design has on people. And people have on design."