To casual observers, Japan’s creative and technological might is a decisively modern development. Rooted in the rebuilding efforts that followed World War II, it spawned fuel-efficient cars, manga, and electronics and robots in spades. But a recently concluded exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization shows a much deeper history: Japan was a hive of innovation long before the advent of either the Walkman or the Wakamaru.
Wakamaru is a domestic robot designed to provide companionship to the elderly and disabled people. Its historical precedents are the tea-serving mechanical dolls--karakuri ningyo--of the Edo Period.
The Edo was a peaceful era. As a result, warrior clothing, such as the Daimyo iron suit shown above, was largely decorative and reserved only for ceremonial occasions.
Another fact of life in a nonwarring nation: It was safe for Japanese citizens to travel around the country. That created a demand for personal transportation vehicles like the Movos bicycle pictured above. Bicycles proliferate today, thanks to a similar set of circumstances.
JAPAN: Tradition. Innovation revealed how artifacts from the Renaissance-like Edo Period (1603-1867) inspired many of the inventions synonymous with contemporary Japan. The compact cars of today are descendants of Edo-era handcrafted Palanquin sedan chairs. USB drives and mini music players have echoes of the portable lacquered boxes full of ink, brushes, and writing paper that kept yesteryear's leisure classes occupied on their travels. Even the most sophisticated modern technological feats, robots, have a historical precedent in Japanese society of yore: karakuri ningyo, small mechanical dolls used to serve tea.
Peace also meant more time for leisure activities, like picnicking. The gold-lacquered wood picnic set shown above dates to the 1800s.
Today, designers and craftspeople use traditional techniques--including Origami paper-folding--to create new objects like the Origami pleats shown above.
Softbank worked with Zohiko, a Kyoto-based lacquer company founded in 1661, to produce the above iPhone covers. Each design was inspired by a famous warlord of the pre-Edo civil wars.
The eras’ common factor? “Both are prolonged periods of peace that unleashed an enormous amount of creativity,” museum president and CEO Victor Rabinovitch says. Let that be a lesson for countries everywhere to make stuff, not war.
The exhibit ended in October, but the accompanying website is still up and has lots of great information. Have a look-see here.
COMMENTARY: I have always loved the beauty, lines, shapes, colors and tranquile designs of Japanese artwork and products. I still use my Sony Walkman Sports CD player religiously. It dates from the mid-1980's, yellow and black and was even waterproof (see above).
Courtesy of an article dated November 22, 2011 appearing in Fast Company Design