The world-wide fascination with Japanese culture and design spans centuries. Today, Japanese design permeates many aspects of our visual culture, from Manga comics, to kawaii, or cute in Japanese, fashion from the streets of Harajuku. Designers from across the globe have been inspired by Japanese design, combining elements of its iconic aesthetic with their own vision.
Last weekend, the Tropenmuseum and Mono Japan joined forces to celebrate Japanese design. The event was held at the Tropenmuseum, running alongside the ‘Cool Japan’ exhibition currently being displayed in the museum.
The Cool Japan exhibition is inspired by popular culture today, and the hype that surrounds Japanese aesthetics. Exhibition creator Rik Herder explains that the number of tourists in Japan has doubled in the past few years; the manga, the video games, Hello Kitty and kawaii fashion have all become a part of our “daily diet”, a primary reason for their worldwide popularity.
Throughout the weekend, exhibition curators Daan Kok and Rik Herder provided tours of the exhibition itself, focussing on key elements of the displays. Alongside this, visitors were given the opportunity to participate in design workshops, making all-in-one suits with kawaii master Sebastian Masuda and designer Bonne Reijn, as well as unique kimonos with Lisa Konno.
Exhibition curator and Japanologist, Daan Kok, explains that the exhibition focuses on the ‘cool Japan phenomenon’, how the world is fascinated by Japan. The exhibition opens with the centerpiece, a four-metre high painting ‘Uki Uki’ by artist Matsuura Hiroyuki. The painting of the young girl wearing a Kimono exhibits typical features associated with Japanese design, from its pastel palette, to its anime aesthetic. Reflecting the exhibition as a whole, Hiroyuki’s painting embodies the old and the new, incorporating various elements of Japanese tradition.
So, why is it that people around the world tend to fetishise Japanese design so much? Rik Herder explains that Japanese design is instantly recognisable as Japanese, from traditional horror stories to popular anime. Japan has a long history of artists and skills of the highest level, with works produced by specialists from many generations. Rik explains that these deep-rooted traditions result in highly recognisable shapes and symbols that have become associated with Japanese design.
Downstairs in the museum, a workshop was being held by Sebastian Masuda, a creative director and pioneer of the kawaii movement. Sebastian teamed up with designer Bonne Reijn, creator of the ‘poor man’s suit’, giving visitors the opportunity to create their own strange and wonderful suits. Sebastian explains that “Japanese fashion takes a lot of inspiration from all over the world”, combining it in a recognisable Japanese way.
A pastel palette is present throughout the exhibition, from Matsuura Hiroyuki’s painting to the Hello Kitty and Kawaii objects. These colours have become strongly associated with Japan, and Sebastian explains that the reason for this could be because of two dominant cultures in Japanese history. The first, ‘Wabi-Sabi’, expresses a more toned down, demure aesthetic, whilst ‘Kabuki’ tends to be more outspoken and colourful. The pastel palette associated with popular culture today sits between these two movements, combining the old and the new.
The Cool Japan Design weekend was a huge success, attracting hundreds of visitors. Whilst there is a tendency to gloss over Japanese heritage in pop culture, Rik Herder explains that the exhibition aims to reveal the “deep working relations” between Dutch designers and the craftsmen behind the original work. The Netherlands and Japan have a shared heritage, and the Dutch interest in Japan spans centuries. It is essential to keep this relationship going, in order to give credit to the talented designers behind the works that we see and love.
Although the Design Weekend is now behind us, the Cool Japan exhibition is being held at the Tropenmuseum until September this year. The carefully curated exhibition combines elements of Japan’s rich heritage with the pop culture we know and love today. Whether you are an expert, or are simply interested in finding out more, there is definitely something for everyone.