Designs That Defined Modern Japan

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have attended a number of webinars (e.g. Tokyo: Art & Photography, Suicide and the COVID-19 pandemic: Trends in Japan and Around the World, ‘We Japanese are more polite than others’: Intercultural Communication and Stereotypes, and An Insight into the Mechanism of the Roles of Antiheros in Manga and Anime under the Context of Japanese Society). As I have mentioned before, one of the positive aspects of the pandemic has been the fact that it’s become easier to attend seminars without the need to travel. The downside is the relative lack of interaction and I hope that we will see a return to more physical seminars in the future, albeit with an option for those who cannot travel to the venue to also be able to participate.

Back in June I attended an excellent webinar on the topic ‘Designs That Defined Modern Japan’ by Professor Hiroshi Kashiwagi, which was organised by the London Office of the Japan Foundation.

In the seminar Kashiwagi discussed how, in the decades leading up to the turn of the 21st century, Japan saw an unprecedented amount of growth and development, with the nation spearheading the way in pioneering technologies, art, and designs. While some cross-referenced existing global design movements, according to Kashiwagi, Japanese creators have focused on the needs and preferences of their society, creating many ground-breaking products with new conceptions that revolutionised not only the fields of design in Japan, but also provided key inspiration for future designs in the Western world. From fashion to ceramics, transportation devices to objects used in the daily lives of the average person, Japan offered new directions to explore original ideas.

But are there any tangible items in particular which can be said to stand out as the game changers in the history of Japanese design?

This is one of the things that Kashiwagi addressed in the seminar. Unfortunately, there is no recording of the seminar available, but Kashiwagi spoke really well on the topic and picked out eight designs (not necessarily in priority order) that he sees as being particularly significant. I have provided links to the relevant external web pages and an image below for each of these so you can see them.

  1. Vase – Toyochika Takamura, 1926
  2. Honda Super Cub 50cc, 1958
  3. Butterfly Stool – Sori (Munemichi) Yanagi, 1956
  4. Sony Walkman, 1979
  5. Sony TV monitor ProFeel, 1980
  6. Pleats Please – Issey Miyake, 1993
  7. Maruni Hiroshima Arm Chair – Naoto Fukasawa, 2008
  8. Barrier-free (also known as ‘universal design’)

During the seminar, Kashiwagi also asked the audience what 8 things they would choose, and this formed part of the discussion after Kashiwagi finished his paper. The answer to this for me (although I also contributed to the discussion), which ties in with the update to my book Japan: The Basics as well as my other research on symbolism, will form the part of a new series of posts on Designs That Defined Modern Japan over the coming days.

UPDATE 21 October 2021: I have now completed the posts in the series. Here is the index to them:

Cover image taken from

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