When crusty bureaucrats intervene with campaigns that are aimed at highlighting the cool side of a country to encourage tourism, it’s rarely a pretty ending. Particularly not in Japan, where politics is famed for being populated by octogenarians who are about as up to date with the times as your grandparents’ old broken antique clock in the loft gathering dust. Their idea of “Cool Japan”—androgynous boy bands or barely legal schoolgirl idols—promotes an image of Japan that is outdated and laughable more than it is appealing; basically, exactly the opposite of what “Cool Japan” really is. So what should Japan be promoting to engage with those abroad to ignite interest in Brand Japan? Over the next few weeks, we will explore five ideas that we think are more in tune with what really makes Japan outstanding.
Japanese design has been globally admired for years, with its subtle lines and minimalist approach, yet always keeping in mind the principle that truly outstanding design also adds to the functionality of the item. Since post-war times, Japanese package and product design has been both influenced by the West and, in turn, become influential in global design. From the first Sony Walkmans to the classic Honda Cub, Japan’s designs are renowned for stripping products back to the minimum whilst creating the maximum amount of impact.
Intricacies in design are exemplified in its monozukuri roots, literally “make something,” where unlike craftsmanship in the West, emphasis is placed on the thing that is made and the process of making it, rather than the individual. Craftsmen spend lifetimes learning the art of their trade before becoming what they consider a master, and it is this patience and attention to the finest detail that shines through. The item becomes stripped down from the excessive, more showy forms of the West, to a “less is more” focus.
Recently design companies such as Nendo have taken monozukuri to the next level, creating products influenced by modern day life that have become internationally renowned for their simple yet striking forms. “Very small ideas, very small designs are important for me,” says Nendo founder Oki Sato. “I guess that comes from my design inspiration, which is everyday life. Small moments can give a large surprise or something really different or really new. I really enjoy those ‘Aha!’ moments, and I want to share those moments with people.”
Japan’s packaging is an extension of what it contains. Focus has always been as heavily placed on the design of what the item is contained in as the product itself.
From complicated folding patterns that open in a certain way, reveling an encased sweet, to forms that reflect the contents of the package itself, Japanese packaging has what designer Kenji Ekuan has termed “furoshikibility“. A Japanese design principle, this means, “inventing various modifications of a simple tool or technique in order to adapt it for as many different forms of usage as possible – complexity created by simplicity or ‘complex simpleness.’”
Japanese design is globally respected and recognized as producing some of the world’s finest examples. It is precisely this presence that could be harnessed to push brand Japan away from its tired image of wacky “otaku” and kooky stunts, to something a lot more substantial. The home of Manga and idols has its place for a certain audience (mainly in Asia), but globally, a push towards the more refined, respected parts of Japanese culture could have far more reach.
In the next post we will look beyond product and packaging at another sector where Japan is truly at the forefront, and that really exemplifies a “Cool Japan.”