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[Bookmark] Designing the Face of Japan: Kashiwa Sato, Japan’s Most Unknown, World-Famous Artist

“There can be no faking it in design. The thing is what it is—my job is to find a way to clear everything else away and let that essence shine out.” ー Kashiwa Sato

Jason Morgan, Reitaku University

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Bookmark is a JAPAN Forward feature that gives you long reads for the weekend. Each edition introduces one overarching thought that branches off to a wide variety of themes. Our hope is for readers to find new depths, interests and perspectives to explore and enjoy.

The Anonymous, Ubiquitous Kashiwa Sato

Anyone who has ever been to Japan—and probably anyone in the rest of the world with an internet connection or an urban address—will instantly recognize the corporate logos that make up so much of the Japanese cultural mosaic.

The white lettering on a cherry-red field which virtually defines the “fast retailing” clothing giant, UNIQLO. The slightly fanged “N” heralding one of Honda’s most popular automobile lines. The canary yellow “T” against the cobalt, Rothko blue square indicating that one may use one’s “T-POINT” card at a given location. 

The dignified “7”, almost in the colors of the torii of Itsukushima Shrine, cross-cut by a striding, cursive “i” and together announcing that one has reached a franchise of the giant Seven & i Holdings conglomerate. The jetting, strutting, brimming-with-confidence “R” of the online merchant Rakuten. Two brush-and-ink letters of the Japanese syllabary reading “KU RA,” from the Kura Sushi chain, looking for all the world like a hungry mouth about to devour a delicious maki sushi roll.

Walk around the streets of a Japanese city, go into any Japanese convenience store, and you are bound to see at least one of these trademarks. Taken together, they make up a big part of modern life here. Everyone has seen them. We know them by sight.

But do we know that they were all made by the same person? The six images described above, and dozens more besides, are the work of one Japanese artist with a dynamo of an imagination. Kashiwa Sato, one of the most prolific modern designers with arguably one of the least-recognized names, has spent the past three decades crafting the face of Japan. Without Sato, modern Japan would be quite literally unrecognizable. And yet, the man is so productive, his conceptions so immediate and engaging, that the artist himself recedes behind the aesthetic torrent of his own oeuvre.

A new retrospective was held from February 3 to Saturday April 24 at the National Art Center in downtown Tokyo showcased the art of this extraordinary visionary. (The exhibition was scheduled to continue through May 10, but closed along with the National Art Center incompliance with the state of emergency issued for Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures.) 

Inspired by the KASHIWA SATO exhibition at the National Art Center, Tokyo, I reached out to Sato for an interview. Our conversation about art, design, and Japan unfolded on a recent early spring day in Tokyo. Below, Sato shares with JAPAN Forward readers his views on how design has shaped Japan, and how Japanese artists have shaped design.

Excerpts follow.

Throw Away the Ego’ to Get to the Heart of Design

Kashiwa Sato, portrait.

How did you get started in design?

I attended Tama Art University in Tokyo, and when I graduated I went to work for Hakuhodo, a major advertising firm in Japan.

I was at Hakuhodo for eleven years, but for the first five years or so I couldn’t find my stride. Some of my early projects were criticized for being pretentious and overbearing, which sent me back to square one. I wanted to figure out how to bring out the core of the product being advertised. The designer doesn’t impose, he or she draws out. If an advertised product doesn’t sell, it’s because the designer hasn’t grasped the core.

One of your first major advertising successes came in the late 1990sーwas it the whimsical television commercial for the Honda Stepwgn?

That project was one of the first in which I was able to go outside of myself and draw out the essence of the object I was considering. I was working with a team at Hakuhodo and we were racking our brains—what is the essence of a minivan? 

Then we got it: kids. People use minivans to go on outings with their kids. The commercial developed organically from that insight. We used childlike drawings of dinosaurs and elephants and so forth and emphasized the fun of spending time as a family. Once we found the core of the product, we knew how to sell it.

A Japanese Designer, or a Designer in Japan?

Looking at the range of your work, one of the things that’s striking is that, while you have designed so many of the logos for world-famous Japanese corporations, much of your artwork does not seem consciously to participate in the rich artistic tradition of Japan. Take your 2000 advertising campaign for the pop band SMAP, for example. It uses big blocks of color, like Piet Mondrian might have designed. Your 2004 album cover for the rock band Mr. Children is edgy, aggressively po-mo. Your 2000 ad campaign for the department store Parco is chaotic, even a little wild. Do you see yourself as carrying on a Japanese artistic tradition?

I’ve spent a lot of time in the city of Arita, in Saga Prefecture. Arita is famous for a kind of pottery called Arita-yaki. Starting in 2016 I began participating in a project to revitalize Arita-yaki as part of the 400th anniversary of porcelain-making there. Working mainly with local students, I was trying to help the people of Arita bring out the essence of the city and its famous ware.

In this sense, culture is also an object of design, also something that can be accentuated and brought to the foreground. In the Arita-yaki project, our goal was to visualize—and then to make visible—the essence of four hundred years of artistic production in Arita, but in a modern, up-to-date way. I don’t see myself as having worked in a Japanese artistic tradition in any particular way, but by finding the essence of Arita-yaki I think I found a gate, a doorway to knowing Japanese culture.

Design Is Imagining a New World

Some of your designs from the Arita-yaki project remind me of American mid-century artist Jackson Pollock’s work. One plate in particular is splashed with a circular riot of electric blue. Is Pollock your favorite artist, by any chance?

My favorite is the French artist, Marcel Duchamp.

Duchamp was a consummate designer. He wasn’t painting things, but an entire concept, a whole other way of looking at the world. In Duchamp’s paintings we see his conceptualization, not just his representation of this or that object or idea.

This is what I want to do in my own work. Like Duchamp, I want to grasp the essence of an experience, to design by working with the deep-down truths of things.

As an artist working with commercial products, do you feel constrained by the dictates of the market and of marketing?

In the past, there was no real distinction made between artistic work and design work, between creating and marketing. The Impressionists were the first to really think of themselves as being purely artists, unsullied by questions of selling their work.

But take Michelangelo, for instance. He was, above all things, a creative designer. He worked in big-picture concepts, and he produced wholes, not parts. He had creative control over how an array of things fit together and appeared to the person who saw the finished work.

In this way, the tea master Sen no Rikyū was like Michelangelo and Duchamp. Sen no Rikyū was the innovator of “wabi-cha,” of rustic simplicity and the tumbledown look of studied unstudiedness. His teahouse, Tai-An, which I had the chance to visit, has a tiny door, which required the warriors of the day—who were essentially shell-shocked by constant warfare and hardened into a martial mindset—to bow low and remove their swords before entering. Once inside that space, the air was one of equality, welcoming, unpretentiousness, respect.

Sen no Rikyū didn’t only design the implements and the teahouse and so forth—the parts. He designed the entire experience. He was like Duchamp, or like Michelangelo and the artists of old. He worked in imagination and strove to envision a new way of looking at the world.

It’s All About Communication

So when you work with corporations to brand their products, you’re creating a new concept altogether?

Yes. Branding is the art of controlling context. The whole of society becomes the designer’s canvas. The artistic designer needs to find what a thing is, and then work up a new array of contexts around that discovered essence.

The underlying premise of all this is communication. We live in a world that is saturated with information. You mentioned the market and marketing—everywhere you turn in a modern city, you are bombarded with advertising. Most people don’t give ads a second thought. The designer has to speak to people, has to find a way to communicate with them in a milieu which is teeming with images and signals.

Can you give an example of communicating through design?

About fifteen years ago I was commissioned to design a new cell phone, the N702iD from NEC. I discovered that a lot of people designing cell phones hadn’t really thought about what they were doing. The colors were the same as the ones used in refrigerators and washing machines, really unsavory purples and greens. And the developers kept packing in more and more features, making the phones unwieldy.

I thought about what a cell phone is. I decided I wanted to make a pure, straightforward, forthright device, an “isagiyoi” cell phone, one that was honest and even bold in being itself. And I wanted the perfect shade of red. I spent time at the factory working with the engineers until we got what I envisioned.

And then I presented my idea for the advertising campaign. No words. No catch copy at all, not a single syllable. Just the cell phone, up close, against a white background. The product was speaking for itself.

At first, the corporate side was perplexed, but the campaign ended up being a huge success.

So often, advertisements end up distracting from what is being sold. There are famous people holding the product, or people dancing around the product. But people aren’t buying the famous face or the catchy dance. They’re buying the product. I am a designer, and I want to stand or fall on the concept, the whole-picture design.

Design, in that sense, is a bit like the martial art of aikido. I use the pre-existing facts presented to me by the client, to the maximum degree. I use their momentum, but I apply that momentum toward perfecting the concept, the design. Like in aikido, I cooperate with what is already there, but I never force things. I let what is naturally present come forth.

‘You Can’t Fake Good Design’

This sounds a lot like Japanese traditional arts, after all. Does it have commonalities with washoku, in particular, Japanese food?

I suppose so. Japanese food is the art of letting the naturally-there come through. One has to become supple and humble before nature, and refrain from imposing one’s will. The best one can do is to change the angle of perspective. But it is a waste of time, and against the nature of the product, to try to change the essence of the thing itself.

For me, design is this, the battle between the way I think a thing should be, and what it really is. 

Whenever I am faced with a design dilemma, I always choose the most difficult of the paths that lie before me. It would be easy to fake things for a while, but that would not be being true to the object’s essence. 

There can be no faking it in design. The thing is what it is—my job is to find a way to clear everything else away and let that essence shine out. I point to the core, but I don’t change it or make it in any way.

How Will Design Change in a Virtual, Post-Pandemic World?

Especially with the virus outbreak this past year or so, we have increasingly been living in a virtual world. Can design still work if our contact with the physical world becomes less frequent?

I think that design will develop along with virtualization, and that eventually the virtual and the real will blend into one, such that it will be meaningless to try to distinguish between the two. The designer’s job gets much harder as this happens, but in many ways the virtualization of life presents new opportunities, too.

One of the biggest opportunities comes in the area of environmental awareness. Design is simplicity, and simplicity is ecological. With virtualization and an increasingly online life, it may become possible to get rid of packaging or to keep it to a bare minimum, which is something I have already been working on for quite a while. Whittling down a product to its bare essence is actually conducive to doing away with excess packaging, although of course, at the same time, this will lead to packaging designers’ having to come up with new ways to introduce a product to buyers.

The Future of Design, Japan, and Planet Earth

One of your most famous design projects is the Fuji Kindergarten, which uses an innovative circular layout and preserves the natural environment to a great extent, including having trees poking up through the roof. What role do you think education plays in the future of Japan and of design overall?

I was a visiting professor at Keio University in Tokyo and I’ve spoken to high school and other students around Japan about my design work. One of the things I wanted my students to do is to think big. The world is facing a grave environmental crisis, and there are also problems facing Japan as well. Design is a way of thinking across time and space, of seeing solutions to things that overcome limitations which are often taken for granted.

The Fuji Kindergarten project is a good example of how education and design go together. When designing the kindergarten, my team and I asked some basic questions. What do kids like to do? One thing kids love is running around. So we made a circular kindergarten with an open roof design so kids could run, and we kept trees in place so kids could play in them, which also comes naturally to kindergarteners. 

Growing up with a sense of community, freedom, and connection to nature will help future designers in Japan think through the problems that we are all going to face together.

Living in harmony with nature—wasn’t that more or less the motto of Heian period Japan?

Adapting Heian sensibilities to the modern world—that is part of what we must do for there to be a future for design, or for the planet. I’ve been working with architect Kengo Kuma to reconceptualize the block apartment development known as “danchi,” for example. There are a lot of good ideas in danchi, and by returning to our roots, in both the near and distant past, we can find clues about how to move forward.

RELATED READ: New Sights on the Horizon: Interview with Kengo Kuma

Interview by: Jason Morgan