For 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?
To the left, a few more. These are from the absolutely brilliant site darkroastedblend.com.
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.
I 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