Devastated by the 2011 earthquake and the tsunami which followed, Tohoku, a region of outstanding natural beauty, was home to a thriving community of manufacturers, designers and craftsmen. As it fights to recover, the area is becoming a testing ground for exciting partnerships between Japanese designers, craftspeople and the manufacturing industry and overseas businesses, organisations and individuals.
This July a dedicated exhibition, re:new Tohoku: a Tradition of Perfection Brought to Life for You (11-15 July, Asia House, London), will bring an astonishing array of products from the area affected by the disaster to a British audience – from furniture, fashion, cookware and technology to traditional craft items unique to the region. Together they showcase an extraordinary kaleidoscope of creativity and the quintessential Japanese drive for perfection in craftsmanship – as well as the importance placed on creativity and innovation. Individually each object embodies a belief in the future of the region and commitment to overcoming the daunting challenges of the 2011 disaster.
Highlights of products on show at Asia House include:
Calligraphy watches from Iwate – Designed by Japanese artist Yukiko Takahashi, these unusual watches feature Japanese poetry or a representation of the four seasons in calligraphy in place of roman numerals. They were commissioned by Anglo-Japanese partnership Japanese Greats. Tohoku is famed for its accuracy in craftsmanship and the region’s workshops supply movements for watches for major fashion and other global brands.
Seiza Picnic Seats from Iwate – These exquisitely crafted traditional seats are designed for sitting seiza style, the traditional formal way of kneeling on a tatami floor, as for a tea ceremony. Made by Ryohei Kido, one of Japan’s top furniture artisans, they also appeal to Western buyers as stylish picnic seats – a ‘broad bean’ version for sitting cross-legged even has a hidden compartment for storing sandwiches.
Music box-inspired handbags from Miyagi – The unique style of these beautifully crafted handbags was inspired by the workshop’s tradition of making handcrafted music boxes. Made using wood from local forests in various natural grains and textures, no two bags are alike.
Architect-designed smart scissors and kitchen gadgets from Niigata – Created by architect Mitsunobu Hagino with local metalwork businesses for international design company FD, these beautifully-made precision scissors and kitchen tools offer a rare level of craftsmanship, elegance and attention to detail for the modern kitchen.
Bitowa Lacquerware from Fukushima – The city of Aizu-Wakamatsu is renowned in Japan as a source of excellent lacquerware. This fascinating craft has been given a bold, modern twist by the creative minds behind the Bitowa initiative. Their products take a completely fresh look at the Aizu-nuri lacquerware tradition, upholding a traditional insistence on quality and craftsmanship while bringing it to life in contemporary applications such as bags, tableware and even iPhone cases.
400 year-old cookware from Iwate – Nanbu Tekki cast-iron cookware, which has been continuously produced in the Iwate region for 400 years, is already world-famous among professional chefs. The products on show are for everyday use and range from pots to kettles. The metal and its production are said to make for products which produce better-tasting, easier-to-cook food – and even offer health benefits to its users.
Out of the devastation comes design: as well as products on sale to the British market the exhibition will tell the story of the role design and manufacturing is playing in helping on-the-ground recovery in the region. This includes information on the Ishinomaki Laboratory initiative, which has designed products specifically to meet the needs of residents in the areas worst affected by the tsunami and Fukushima disasters. Simple wooden benches, created so elderly refugees could reach the washing lines in shared accommodation and which can be assembled in 8 minutes with minimal training, are now the basis of a sustainable business. Likewise exquisite and unique tote bags by Tokyo designers are now made in Tohoku, providing valuable work to women in temporary housing. (Note: Ishinomaki Laboratory products themselves will not be on display but form part of a section of the show exploring the themes of recovery and resilience in the region).
Smartphone game and tour: visitors to the London exhibition will be able to access an online guided tour of the show structured as an interactive game. In addition to providing a guide to the re:new Tohoku products, craft workers, companies, and local culture, users will be able to win points that they can redeem for prizes, or against future purchases.
A full list of products relating to the re:new Tohoku initiative will be available online at www.renewtohoku.org by 1 July 2012. Visitors can find out more about re:new Tohoku and the stories behind some of the products on Vimeo:https://vimeo.com/channels/329418.
Adam Fulford, Founder and CEO of Japanese Greats, an organisation which supports business initiatives involving outstanding Japanese products, says: ‘The Japanese approach to perfectionism is not a matter of self-satisfaction: you do your best to do a job perfectly in the belief that the customer will share an understanding of the effort, experience and expertise that the work demands. It’s a survival strategy. People in Japan have found that putting heart and soul into everything they do offers the greatest likelihood of sustainable success in a country where lives have been repeatedly turned upside down by a vast range of human and natural disasters throughout the course of history. One theme of this event will be the nature of “value”. And the message from Japan will be that lasting, universal value comes from putting “you” first. If the world learns that one lesson from the 2011 disaster in Japan, then we may all be able to start believing in a slightly brighter future.’
David Lee, Founder of Into Japan Specialist Tours, one of the British companies working to bring the re:new Tohoku exhibition to London, says: ‘Japanese design is famed throughout the world for its commitment to perfection and astonishing – and distinctive – craftsmanship. While we hope to drive interest in the devastated areas, we’re not looking for the sympathy vote. The emphasis is on looking forward and showcasing the astonishing nature of Japanese design to an international audience.
‘At the same time, it is hoped the exhibition will open the door to all forms of trade and exchange, from distribution of individual items or product lines to collaboration in developing new products, and from hands-on tourism and TV coverage to licensing agreements. We’re approaching buyers, designers, museum curators and media representatives. Anyone with an interest in products of genuine value will be encouraged to see these items for themselves.’
11-15 July, Asia House
photo:Bitowa Lacquerware from Fukushima Credit: © re:new Tohoku