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21st-century Japanese Design Combines Harmony and Innovation

February 12-March 19, Korea Foundation Cultural Center; jountly sponsored by the Japan Foundation, Public Information and Cultural Center of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, and the Korea Foundation



At the opening ceremony of WA: The Spirit of Harmony and Japanese Design Today, Noriko Kawakami (associate director of 21-21 Design Sight) explained about how the concept of Wa (harmony) helps to breathe life into Japan’s contemporary design. “At first glance, concepts like natural–artificial, Japanese-international, entertaining-practical, and emotional-rational seem to confront each other. The spirit of Wa makes these elements interact with each other and create harmony,” She said.

Noriko Kawakami believes that the creativity of 21st-century Japanese design lies in the efforts to integrate traditional local artifacts with the concepts of contemporary industrial design, based on a spirit of harmony, in order to create new values and shapes. Thus, designers in Tokyo set out to search for local artisans who were willing to embody their ideas, and the ateliers of well-known local producers who might join hands with enterprises in large cities to create new products.



Unique Japanese Designs
While listening to this explanation, I found the concept of Wa(和) to be aligned with my own mindset. After thinking for a while, I realized that the Japanese people use the wa prefix quite often when they discuss their way of life. When I first visited Japan in the early 1990s, I wondered why the Japanese called their cuisine washoku, and local beef wagyu. The ancient name of Japan is also Yamato(大和). According to the exhibition guidebook, Wa, or harmony, has been treasured as the supreme virtue and merit of the Japanese people since it appeared in their first constitution, proclaimed by Prince Shotoku in 604.

Rediscovery of Practical Beauty
Looking around the exhibition hall, which resembles a mini department store, you can get an idea of how the spirit of harmony permeates Japan’s product design, while emphasizing functionality and efficiency. The exhibits show how the spirit of Wa is used to integrate traditional aesthetics with cutting-edge technology. The 161 exhibits are grouped into 12 categories, by function, which include tableware, bathware, stationery, furniture and lighting fixtures; their characteristics are described by six keywords: minimal, thoughtful, cute, fine-grained, delicate, and crafted.
The essence of the Wa concept, which blends differing elements into one, is rooted in the philosophy of Yanagi Muneyoshi (1889-1961), who founded the mingei (folk craft) movement in the 1920s and 1930s in an effort to rediscover the practical beauty of traditional artifacts used in everyday life. Mingei, which means “handcrafted art of the ordinary people,” refers to the practical yet aesthetic objects used in our daily lives. The philosophy of Yanagi Muneyoshi, who had a keen interest in Korean folk art, was passed on to Sori Yanagi (1915-), his eldest son and a pioneer of Japanese industrial design.
One of yanagi's representative works, Butterfly Stool, is included in this exhibition. It is regarded as a prototype of Japan’s contemporary design and a classic icon of the Wa style. Amid a feast of colorful tableware in the tableware section, one humble item with a simple design caught my eye: a Kikkoman soy sauce bottle. First released in 1961, the bottle has been consistently beloved by the Japanese public over the past 50 years. Its design came from an effort to do away with the need for families to pour out soy sauce from large 1.8-liter bottles into smaller containers for the dinner table.



“Neo Japanesque“
Behind the Japanese designers who opened the new mingei era, seeking to bring together traditional producers and modern designers, was the Japanese government. In 2005, the Japanese government launched efforts to promote a new national brand, “Neo Japanesque,” to integrate Japan’s traditional culture with high-quality products. It thus embarked on a project to foster Japanese product brands so as to invigorate the local economy and energize small and medium-sized enterprises, through the export of local products.
Then, what about the state of Korea’s design efforts? At the opening ceremony, Kim Byung-kook, president of the Korea Foundation, remarked: “If the spirit of Wa, which can integrate opposing ideas into one and create something of a higher level, is a Japanese virtue and characteristic, there is the spirit of ‘us’ in Korea, which can accept differences and deficiencies within the concept of ‘us,’ in order to persevere them together.”
This led me to wonder, if you were to organize an exhibition of “Korean Design Today and Our Spirit,” what kinds of items would there be on display? An array of industrial products, such as cell phones, MP3 players, home appliances, cars, and furniture instantly came to my mind, but I couldn’t think of more than 10 time-honored objects for our daily usage. Is it because I am ill-informed? Or, is it our modesty, which tends to overlook our own traditions? Pottery jars for of red pepper sauce or soybean paste, spoon and chopstick holders, A-frame carriers, bath towels… please try to think of some more, readers! The exhibition includes free lectures on contemporary Japanese design on Saturday afternoons.