Japanese Aesthetics and High-Tech Design

Back to Contents of Issue: November 2001


"No other country has brought the principal of the microcosm -- ikebana, bonsai, chanoyu, gardens -- to such profuse perfection. No other has managed to turn so much into something else." - Donald Richie, A Lateral View

by Stephen Mansfield

AS ANY JAPANESE FARMER will tell you, achieving consistently high seasonal yields from pinched, narrow land allotments is no mean feat. An integrated circuit, if you reflect for a moment, is not so different from a set of inter-connecting rice-fields: Flat, tightly compartmentalized, they even somewhat resemble one another from above, each segment of the respective structures precision-balanced and compacted for maximum results.

Miniaturization skills learned and transmitted by Japan's master craftsmen, influenced no doubt by the techniques of an agricultural society, are now being vigorously applied in the design of increasingly smaller, lightweight, high-tech products for consumers who want more functions, less bulk, and a high return on a diminutive but empowered item. Little wonder that tiny products like large-scale integrated circuits in Japan are often called "the rice of the high-tech world," a reference to both minuscule grains of rice, perfect units in an integrated mass, and the traditional practice of rice calligraphy, in which as many as 32 ideograms are brush-written or incised onto a single grain.

The Japanese passion for miniaturization is still with us because, as James Kirkup wrote in his 1966 book Tokyo, "It is still the expression of a state of mind that thrives on the appreciation of infinitesimal detail." Japan's fondness for the microcosm is not just an aesthetic preference but a consumer one. Almost every town in the post-war period seemed to have a mini-Ginza street, because consumers demanded scaled-down versions of the original. Building on this ability to suspend disbelief, to uncritically embrace the replica, Japan boasts, among other theme parks, a Spain Town, a Dutch trading port, and a Shakespeare Village. Even little Hiraizumi in northern Japan has its very own New Zealand Village.

Designers of Edo period kaiyushiki teien, or "stroll gardens" as they are often called in English, assembled a number of popular cultural images -- the hills of Arashiyama near Kyoto and images such as the Yatsuhashi, or mythical Eight Bridges from the classic "Tales of Ise," were especially popular -- and blended them into a horticultural composite that resembled a miniaturized Japan. In this way, guests could view a number of famous scenes without having to visit the original sites themselves. The perfect example, perhaps, of making do with substitutes -- of turning them into a merit, no less -- are Edo's miniature Mount Fujis. Surrogates of the real mountain, using lava rock from the actual site in some cases, were created in many spots throughout Edo to cater to those unable, for reasons of health or lack of time or financial means, to undertake a real pilgrimage.

Novelty, the persistent craving for the new, an urge to replace outdated forms -- such stereotypical aspects of contemporary Japan are by no means recent phenomena. Yoshii Takao, in his book The Electric Geisha, describes how even in the Edo period, the rapid dissemination of information among the townspeople of the capital hastened the replacement of old values and tastes. "In the urban setting," he notes, "social and cultural phenomena would arise one after another, and each new value thus generated might soon be overturned by the next." Haruo Hashimoto, an executive producer at Seiko Instruments, an innovator and world leader in the integration of network technology with wearable electronic devices, corroborates this idea: "The Japanese," he claims, "have always been sensitive to information, to mass communication. In traditional communities, accurate information within small groups was vital. We want to have as much information as possible even if we don't use it. Japan has been an information society for a long time." An obvious modern equivalent of Tokyo's info-cultural adroitness is the speed with which its youth adopted the cellphone's secondary feature of text messaging, generating in the process an almost overnight micro-culture.

Gimmicks, gadgets, and fads, objects that are both innovative and fun, have been around for a long time. Where Westerners tend to anthropomorphize animals, the Japanese have a habit of personalizing objects, superimposing human qualities on them, which promotes a comfortable, almost intimate coexistence in both the workplace and at home. This fondness is evident in Japan's early, spring-operated dolls. Karakuri ningyo (mechanical dolls), first appearing in the 18th century, were made for both pleasure and amusement as well as a design spectacle. Testifying to the excellence of Japan's mechanical technology in the 17th century was the intricate chahakobi ningyo, a tea-serving doll. Besides its novelty value, the fact that the doll was required to carry a bowl of green tea without spilling a drop hints at the exacting mechanics involved in the doll's conception.

A happy symbiosis with tools, machines, and gadgets in Japan is not an entirely new thing either. From dolls to life-like robots is a relatively small conceptual step. The basic ideas, aesthetics, and skills required to develop humanoid robots embodying bipedal ambulation technologies unrivaled in the world were already in place long before Honda's Asimo or Sony's Aibo took to the stage.

Nor are mobile communication facilities an entirely recent, cellphone-driven innovation. In the 12th century, merchants and members of the samurai class, often finding themselves in itinerant situations, resorted to the use of yatate, compact folding cases holding a writing brush and small inkstone -- the equivalent of today's PDAs with their handwriting recognition capabilities. An infinite versatility of representational forms and a fluidity of shape and design can be clearly seen in Japanese origami, in which myriad objects are fashioned from a single sheet of paper.

Ideas proliferate from roots nurtured in a certain kind of cultural humus. In his book Lost Japan, Alex Kerr contends that "The challenge now is how to bring the ancient wisdom encapsulated in the traditional arts into the modern world." More than any other group of professionals, perhaps, that challenge is being taken up by today's Japanese high-tech designers. Mari Matsunaga, who worked as a manager in the planning section of NTT DoCoMo's Gateway business department, has said that the basic concept for the i-mode Internet-compatible cellular service she helped to pioneer was modeled on the idea of convenience stores -- particularly "their ubiquity, convenience, and the utter efficiency with which they utilize limited floor space to provide the goods and services customers need in their day-to-day lives." Japanese style convenience stores, unlike the more leisure-oriented department stores, are the modern equivalent of Edo-period dry goods stores, bright, space-conscious shops that provided a wide range of commodities for ordinary consumers.

The almost unconscious serialization of ideas, a divergent, organic growth in design production combined with the idea that innovative products should be made in manageable proportions, with the technology never overwhelming or dominating the user, is a common thread throughout Japanese culture. In Sony's case, the consumer has been able to enjoy a string of innovations that incorporate these goals, from the transistor radio and Walkman to recordable mini-disks.

Data communication via cellphones, employing liquid crystal displays that appeal to both the analog- and digitally-inclined customer, provides the ultimate user-friendly environment, one that the Edo merchant class, a society driven by the twin engines of commerce and pleasure, would surely have appreciated. For the contemporary urban, merchant, and business class, the seamless process of slipping through mail, Web, and voice by i-mode is the ultimate in work-lifestyle compatibility. Meeting this exacting criteria are wearable gadgets, like a proposed tie-pin style Walkman, designed to fit snugly and smartly into the contours of the body. These may derive, if only unconsciously, from Edo-period kimonos and other costumes that were ornamented with tight obi (sash belts), flat cosmetic compacts, and inro, beautifully crafted medicine flasks hung, like the cellphones of today's youth, with colorful and novel toggles.

Against its better instincts and native good taste, Japan is caught up in a self-destructive cycle of mass production, consumption, and rapid disposal. A more traditional, frugal approach, however, is still discernible in the Japanese concept of mottainai. In the simplest terms, mottainai describes wastefulness. Deeply rooted, though not always applied in daily life, the concept is more precisely defined in the Iwanami Shoten dictionary as "a regrettable situation in which something is wasted without its value being fully utilized." Avoiding waste as a principal by which to live was strongly instilled in the pre-war generation of Japanese. It was applied most rigorously, perhaps, among the common people of the Edo period (1603-1868). Cotton kimonos, for example, would be washed and dyed countless times until, worn or shrunk, they would be re-worked into children's clothes; when those became threadbare, they would be used as working clothes, or cut into towels, cloths, or mats. When their life was at an end, they would be burned, and the ensuing ash spread over vegetable fields as a fertilizer. In an example of the respect and gratitude traditionally conferred on material objects that have served people in some way or another, a dwindling number of matrons in the Asakusa district of Tokyo still turn out at the Sensoji temple in early February for Hari-kuyo, a memorial service that honors broken pins and needles used during the previous year.

In terms of high-tech, the value concept of mottainai has transmuted more into design itself: an economy of line and form, an elimination of non-performing space that suggests a Zen aesthetic or orientation. It is tempting, in fact, to draw analogies between high-tech and Zen. Japanese Zen and culture have blended over the centuries to create multiple art forms that include gardening, archery, the tea ceremony, haiku, and calligraphy. Those sufficiently attuned to Zen, or those designers adapting its wisdom and self-discipline, may even come to share the occasional bursts of insight successful practitioners claim to be privy to. The aims of high-tech designers square with advocates of Zen to the extent that both seek to rid themselves of distractions in order to reduce the self (the product) to its purest form. Zen, if it does indeed manifest itself in high-tech design, has advanced the goal of minimalism, adding features but not embellishments, incorporating stillness and fluidity, form and function in the single object.

The Zen affinity for shibui (astringent beauty) suggests, among other things, discerning taste, an elimination of the unessential, and a self-discipline of form. Shibui also implies a management system where everything is in its correct or ordained place, an indispensable principal to designers of high-tech objects rightly concerned with spareness of form. Whether in the perfection of a new card-type optical disc, an ultra-light image compression system for portable phones, or an energy-saving rotary solenoid, one senses the precision that comes from full engagement and mindfulness.

Zen is often wrongly assumed to be non-material. It in fact makes a point of drawing attention to the presence of objects in our lives, heightening an awareness of their texture, shape, and surface, thus promoting an appreciation of the created, even manufactured forms we live amidst. In a recent book, Living with Zen, Ou Baholyodhin writes, "Because there is no real division between the external and the internal worlds, Zen also finds beauty in the perfection of the man-made artefact." The value of work, however mundane -- Zen monks are taught to sweep leaves, clean toilets, and prepare vegetables with sincerity and gratitude -- applies to objects that function well and acquire a special place in the user's esteem. Objects are valued not only for their form, but also for their intrinsic characteristics.

The so-called Zen garden is epitomized by rocks surrounded by light, raked gravel, a core amidst swirling lines, with the notion of a solid object set in an ocean of infinite fluidity. It would be no exaggeration to say that the idea of fluid circulation, the maintenance of unimpeded flows, is as common to the dry landscape designer as it is to the people at NTT DoCoMo dealing with system overloads. The famous garden of Ryoan-ji in Kyoto is classified as a mutei, or "garden of emptiness." Emptiness, however, is not synonymous with barrenness or infertility, but is perceived to be a starting point, the blankness from which form can emerge. Japan's old master painters believed that emptiness became apparent only when the first well conceived stroke was put on the paper. Empty space thus plays a procreative role and, through its subtle mastery by artist or designer, achieves meaningful presence. This effect is lost if emptiness is too richly furnished, if simplicity is replaced with opulence and clutter.

To the Western mind, tradition and change are essentially antithetical. Japan scholar Edward Seidensticker has shrewdly observed that "The relationship between tradition and change in Japan has always been complicated by the fact that change is itself a tradition." The comment hints at the mutability implanted in Japanese culture, its ability to metamorphose and absorb change within the framework of established patterns. Whether in the construction of a new temple, the table setting for dinner at an inn, or the dying of a silk brocade, a pattern exists for everything.

Jun Tanaka, general manager in Seiko's planning and development department, contends that design goals, once accomplished, do not necessarily have to undergo more radical change. "Like art, high-tech design involves the search for perfect form. Once that form has been discovered, we are satisfied to stay with it. Like the tea ceremony which the master Sen no Rikyu refined until a perfect form was achieved -- that form has been maintained ever since. In Japan, there is a form for everything."

The easy coexistence of the traditional and contemporary is an enriching feature of today's Japan. In the land of the capsule hotel and the high-tech neophyte, one also finds the puppet master who devotes years to perfecting a single hand gesture, or the follower of the tea ceremony who prepares his implements in a manner that may be traced back to the practices of Sung dynasty China. In order to accomplish their ends, whether in life itself or technology, the Japanese have demonstrated a rare syncretic genius in learning how to borrow and adapt from their own culture and elsewhere, and then to retool these materials into something uniquely Japanese. When Japan embarked on a committed experiment in modernization in the Meiji era, acquiring new expertise and technology from the West, it was perhaps prescient that a Kobe-based newspaper ran a series on Herbert Spencer, whose philosophy, as one Japanese commentator pointed out at the time, "reduced the universe to a simple system and made a synthesis of all knowledge."

The willingness to accommodate any number of seemingly conflicting ideas, beliefs, and aesthetics, drawing strength from apparent polarities, partly explains why it is so easy for Japanese consumers to simply move on to the next product or development so quickly, without any apparent regret or sentimental attachment to older models. There is, of course, a willing collusion between the consumer and designer of high-tech objects: The latter presents a new product or model as definitive, but both sides know it is only provisional, soon to be superseded. This is not exclusive to Japan, but it exists to a greater degree here. Durability is not being marketed; a transient perfection is. Impermanence, as anyone who has experienced the strange intensity of Japan's cherry blossom season will attest, is held in high esteem. At the very moment the Japanese are celebrating the glory of the blossom, its imminent passing is being both mourned and savored. This intermingling of simultaneous realities is a thread that runs through Japanese life, dignifying it on the one hand and imbuing it with a sense of urgency on the other. In the first of many delectable paradoxes, the newcomer quickly learns that in a land where every minute seems to count, Japan can seem at certain moments a singularly timeless place.

The link between the visible surface and the invisible interior, enforcing that delicate and fragile sense of the ukiyo, the floating world, is embodied also in traditional Japanese architecture. In many Japanese homes, sliding panels made of opaque paper form inner partitions which can be screened off or opened to expose more space. These interior divisions, creating clever optical illusions with limited space, can be arranged at will according to practical as well as aesthetic needs. The layout, with sliding walls and moveable screens, produces an interaction between the inside and outside of the house which allows it to be both exposed and sealed off, to be manipulated at will by its occupants.

Design as a response to real constraints has an obvious precedent in this type of home. If you have half the space, then double the functionality seems to be the mantra. One room, with its removable doors and minimum amount of furniture and decorative trappings, could thereby become both living room, tea room, guest room, and bedroom, changing its role according to demand and the hour of the day. Japanese homes, without the luxury of space common to the West, were always prototypes of a sort for today's so-called connected home. Space conservation naturally collates with convenience: Design follows suit. A networked home with Web-enabled air-conditioners, wall-hanging TVs, motion sensors, humidifiers, washing machines, and microwave ovens that download recipes is not quite the same as a traditional Japanese residence, but there are design parallels that may be more than mere coincidence. For the gadget-loving Japanese consumer, networked homes equipped with all manner of Internet-enabled devices are likely to spread rapidly, as many key cultural components, as well as the requisite fluidity, are already in place.

A similar principal to multi-functionality can be seen in Japan's micro-cities. Tokyo's Shinjuku quarter is perhaps the ultimate all-purpose district, offering all things to all people. Japan's natural propensity to shed old skins is nowhere more evident than in the perpetually changing appearance of its major cities. In his book The City at the End of the World, Peter Popham hinted at the kinetic nature of Tokyo when he wrote that, "in its endless, anarchic shifting and shaking down, it sometimes captures some aspect of the process of change with a fidelity hard to match with mere words." The reasons for the city embodying this "process of change" in this way can be traced in part, perhaps, to the Japanese aesthetic called mujo -- nothingness. More precisely defined as a state of mutability and inconstancy, it is evident in several art forms, including modern architecture and design. Tokyo, in fact, is hardly a city at all in the Western sense, but rather a metamorphic environment perpetually responding and adapting to change and the expediency of the moment. The same could be said of the high-tech industry, with its ability to jettison the past and move on remorselessly.

"The Japanese," cyber-novelist William Gibson has commented, "are the ultimate Early Adapters, and the sort of fiction I write behooves me to pay serious heed to that." If you believe that cultural change in Japan is essentially technology-driven, as it does seem to have been for a good century or more, then the Japanese are indeed a people one should pay attention to. It is not surprising, then, to hear talk of communication unit implants in the human body from designers who see only a gossamer divide between the works of science fiction writers and the application of their ideas in the real world. Japan is, after all, in both the real and fictive sense, the global imagination's proxy setting for the future. @

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