Saturday, April 10, 2010

Those Uncreative Japanese

paddy1For decades -- ever since World War II -- the rap on the Japanese has been that they're great imitators but not creative. A famous piece of (untrue) anti-Japanese propaganda had the US designing a badly flawed ship and allowing the plans to be stolen by the Japanese, who built it, whereupon it immediately sank. During the fifties, when Japan was going through its economic reconstruction, most of their economy did come from creating inexpensive copies of Western consumer goods, which reinforced the stereotype.

But these days, I see more creativity in everyday Japanese life than I do in most American formal art. The Japanese have a genius for whimsy and for taking an artistic approach to the stuff we in the West don't even look at.

Dating the meat in a supermarket, for example. (I wish I had a picture of this.) We put a little sticker with a sell-by date on the package, usually hard to read, requiring the shopper to paw through a cold case looking for something that expires later than, say April 14. The Japanese have recently begun using an hourglass printed directly onto the plastic-wrap on the meat. The hourglass is black on top and clear on the bottom, and the bar code is printed in the bottom half. A time-sensitive ink gradually alters the hourglass so that the top becomes lighter and the bottom becomes darker. The shopper can spot relative freshness without even bending over. But here's the touch of genius. When the bottom of the hourglass is completely dark it obscures the bar code so the package literally can't be sold.


And what about the bar code? Well, the Japanese have taken this lowly piece of computer info to new heights. Since the damn things have to be on packages, the thinking seems to go, why not make something out of them?

I mean seriously, is this creative or not? Why don't we think of stuff like this? Why are we content to be surrounded by the utilitarian, making so little effort to transform the necessary into the interesting? Why doesn't it occur to us that every object, no matter how humble, is an opportunity to do something creative?

barcodes 2

To the left, a few more. These are from the absolutely brilliant site

The green samurai at the top of this piece is rice crop art. Japanese farmers plant rice of three different colors to transform their paddies into enormous canvases. It doesn't give them a better harvest or chase away birds or insects that harm the crop; it just looks nice. Here's this big flat space that could be all green, but why not turn it into something? I could put up a dozen pictures of rice crop art that would knock your eyes out, but there isn't room, so here's one more, of the same samurai, that will give you an idea of the scale involved. Those tiny figures at the top picture are people


Last but not least, consider the lowly manhole. The Japanese certainly have. To us, manholes are ugly, heavy pieces of iron meant to be mass-produced as cheaply as possible and and dropped on top of holes. To the Japanese, they're a surface for adornment.

Here are three examples.

manhole4manhole 3

manhole 1I think this kind of thing speaks more to quality of life than all the elitist concert halls and opera companies, with their $300 tickets, in the world. We need to look at the things we use every day and find a way to make them reflective of the human spirit. Otherwise, we'll be living in the Age of the Concrete Slab.

Tim -- Sunday


  1. While it's true the products of a bombed-out post-war Japan were poor and poorly received by Westerners, there were also Americans working in Japan to help the Japanese correct the situation, most notably the innovative W.E.Deming who is honored in Japan today. That does not diminish Japan's creativity we see today.

    On a separate note, I introduced Murder is Everywhere to The Mystery Place. Would you be interested in collaborating on an article for Criminal Brief introducing Murder is Everywhere?

  2. Fascinating. These are examples of finding beauty in the smallest things in life. Things upon which everyone could enjoy, not just the elite. (Hugs)Indigo

  3. Hi, Leigh -- Yes, and Deming is a fascinating example of a Western thinker on whom the Japanese seized, because he emphasized excellence. He is, in fact much more honored in Japan than he is here.

    And thanks, Indigo. BTW, I didn't mean to denigrate classical music or opera, both of which I enjoy immensely, only to say that I think it's stupid to invest tens of millions in elitist art forms and nothing in bringing creativity to the everyday. And hugs back atcha.

  4. As a nation, the United States is still, at heart, a puritan country. The Puritans removed all decoration from churches because it was a distraction from worship. (Having been to St. Peter's Basilica, I can see their point). Color and design were papist and no one wanted any of that.

    Utilitarian is the offspring of puritanism. It is the code word that seems to have been the guiding principle of the period after the Industrial Revolution right down to the present. The architecture of more that a few colleges and government buildings built since WWII has been described as as 20th century warehouse. Has anyone seen Boston's Government Center?

    Whimsy is anti-American; it represents the counter-culture. Why that is bad, since it is countering a culture that has created ugly on a massive scale, is beyond me. The British make fun of Prince Charles and his architecture rants but on this he is correct.

    As to the manhole covers, Americans don't want to waste financial resources on something that no one sees. Americans stand tall, looking forward, never looking down. We are a country which, today, sees the iPad as the pinnacle of creativity. Tomorrow, the pinnacle will likely be the next generation of iPad that Apple will release as soon as Generation I is sold out.

    (Manholes in Rome are labeled SPQR, the Senate and People of Rome. Somebody had a sense of humor).

  5. Please work harder on researching your history. The number of errors I have found in the few books of yours which I have read are a complete turn off.

  6. Tim -I didn't realize you were writing history. I thought it was fiction.


  7. Eeeek. A heckler. Exposed at last.

    I guess, Beth, some deservedly anonymous people can't tell the difference. But I'll tell you, it's a relief that I'm not the Timothy Hallinan who writes historical novels.

  8. Hi Tim - I love the manhole covers, the Icelandic ones are grim in comparison. Regarding the barcodes I remember that Mad magazine did similar things to them on their magazine cover (incorporated them into cartoons) when bar codes were introduced. In their case it was some kind of protest against having to place it on their product. Didn't work though, the barcode prevailed.

  9. Hi, Yrsa --

    Thanks for the comment. I love the manhole covers. If I could put a graphic into this response I'd show you the wooden laptop, complete with an old typewriter keyboard, some Japanese steam punks have made. Just amazingly beautiful, and also funny -- and it works.