In Japan Good Design is Everywhere!

Boyé Lafayette De Mente


TOKYO—In the 1960s and 70s a number of Japan specialists and media pundits predicted that Japan would become the world’s largest economy—bypassing and overshadowing the United States.


  Those predictions were naïve to say the least, but Japan has in fact become a world leader in a number of key areas that include technological advances in several scientific fields, particularly in the creation of new materials.


    This development is especially remarkable because invention and innovation were virtually taboo in Japan from the mid-1600s until the last decades of the 19th century, putting the Japanese some 200 years behind the Western world in scientific research and technology.


  But there is one area in which the Japanese have been more advanced than Westerners—intellectually as well as technologically—for well over a thousand years, and that is in the world of design and in the creation of arts and crafts that are superior in both design and quality.


   As far back as the 7th century Korean immigrants began bringing sophisticated Chinese art and craft technology to Japan. During the golden Heian period (794-1185) this technology and the accompanying master/apprentice system of training were integrated into Japan’s common culture.


     Each generation of artists and craftsmen raised the bar on the standards of design and quality until they reached the level of a fine art. When the first Westerners showed up in Japan in the 16th century they were astounded at the technological ability of the Japanese and the quality of their crafts.


     But it took the Japanese almost exactly one hundred years—from the 1860s to the 1960s—to get out from under the influence of foreign importers and to begin incorporating these traditional design and manufacturing skills into their export products—and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.


   Today, the philosophical and ethical principles that are the foundation of Japanese design and product quality are being adopted worldwide, creating what is now being called a new era of design.


  I have been promoting the traditional elements of Japanese design since the 1950s, and in 2006 published a new book on the subject entitled Elements of Japanese—Key Terms for Understanding & Using Japan’s Classic Wabi-Sabi-Shibui Concepts.

   The book identifies 65 concepts that constitute the heart of the Japanese design process and the products that result—beginning with the terms honshitsu (hone-sheet-sue) and seizui (say-zooey), which refer to the essence of Japanese design, and ending with Zen, which teaches one how to distinguish reality from all of the illusions that become embedded in our minds.


   The book offers new insights into the historical and cultural developments that are at the roots of the new international aesthetic movement—from wa (wah), harmony; kaizen (kigh-zen), continuous improvement; and mushin (muu-sheen), empty mind, to mujo (muu-joh), incompleteness.


  Despite the inroads that have been made in Japan by Westernization and modernization since the 1860s the traditional design and quality concepts are alive and well, and they are tangible and visible for all to see.


     Even in crowded Tokyo and other Japanese cities the evidence of good design and quality are visible on subways and trains and in the streets—on advertising posters, on storefronts, in product displays, in the architecture and interior furnishings of shops and restaurants, in buildings and offices.


  For the discerning foreign visitor in Japan, just a few days can be an extraordinary aesthetic and cultural experience that is the highlight of the trip. If you look closely, the whole country is a virtual museum of modern and traditional art that adds an emotional, intellectual and spiritual ambiance to daily life.


    And it is possible for those who are more highly tuned to both the beauty and functionality of Japanese design to literally step back in time before the appearance of Western concepts in the country, when only Japanese designs existed, by simply going through a door—into a traditional inn, restaurant or home.


Boyé Lafayette De Mente has been involved with Asia since the late 1940s as a member of a U.S. intelligence agency, journalist and editor. He is a graduate of Jōchi University in Tokyo, Japan and Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona, USA. In addition to books on the business practices, social behavior and languages of China, Japan, Korea and Mexico he has written extensively about the moral collapse of the U.S. along with books on his home state of Arizona. To see a full list of his books go to: Recent books include: CHINA Understanding & Dealing with the Chinese Way of Doing Business; JAPAN Understanding & Dealing with the NEW Japanese Way of Doing Business; AMERICA’S FAMOUS HOPI INDIANS; ARIZONA’S LORDS OF THE LAND [the Navajos] and SPEAK JAPANESE TODAY – A Little Language Goes a Long Way!