F aced by competition in Asia, Japan’s industrial design supremos geared up for a global counter-offensive on Friday with a Paris show introducing the planet to Tokyo’s latest designer concept — kansei.
From humdrum rubberbands bent into cute colored animals no one would want to throw away, to cans that bend into shape once opened, the exhibition at Paris’ Decorative Arts Museum underlines how the spirit of kansei — blending sensitivity and oneness with nature — permeates products designed in Japan.
Organized by the country’s ministry of economics, trade and industry, the 10-day Kansei Japan Design show is to travel to New York next year before probably going on to China in 2010.
With Japan determined to maintain its cutting edge on the global designer front, the exhibition is part of a three-year plan to boost industrial design both at home and abroad, officials said.
Products from China, Korea and Singapore are providing increasingly stiff competition for Japan, Kimihiko Inaba, trade fair director at the Japan External Trade Organization, said.
“We can maintain our lead over the next five or 10 years but unless we take action we will lose our edge.”
Over the last 50 years, he said, “our products remained competitive for three reasons; they were functional, reliable and economic. Now we have realized we need to develop a fourth value — sensitivity, or kansei.”
There was no exact translation of the term, said curator Kanji Kawasaki. “Kansei is a philosophy,” he said in an interview. “I think there is a specificity of design in Japan and that this has a strong relationship with our identity, our tradition.”
To explain kansei to the rest of the world, Kawasaki designed a show eight months in the making that brings together traditional crafts, high-tech innovations and 3D installations harking back 1,000 years in Japanese history.
Japan’s relationship to nature and to crafts, he said, could be traced to a 1008 tale backgrounding the show — the Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, the Japanese novelist and lady-in-waiting behind one of the earliest novels in human history.
To further hammer home the point, the 104 designer objects on view are grouped according to their kansei, which can be part of their inner being, or sensed in the way they were made, or the way they are used.
Touching, feeling and enjoying the aesthetics of an object all come into play. A wooden computer keyboard feels good while a minimalist flat-screen TV on a one-legged stand looks good and saves space.
“These are products among the millions made each year in Japan that have kansei,” Kawasaki said.
An illuminated bathroom basin has inner kansei because like Japanese theater it plays with light, as does a robot dummy that twists and turns to window-shoppers, because it corresponds to the nation’s taste for things that stand upright, said the organizers.
A bamboo umbrella, a fold-up lamp and a stark four-chord guitar illustrate the makers’ kansei because they save space and can be folded, thereby creating harmony. As for the animal-shaped rubberbands, they are blessed with kansei of the heart because the user will never have the heart to throw them away. A pair of robot cuddly toys for seniors that make people happy likewise are obvious bearers of the concept as they correspond to the tradition of hospitality.