japanese art, design and culture

Posts from — July 2013

Conic hiragana series made from paper by Makoto Sasao


Each year since 1990 Takeo Paper, a major Japanese paper manufacturer, has hosted a paper art exhibition to select awesomeness in paper. The most recent winner was paper craft artist Makoto Sasao, who wowed the judges with his prize winning entry titled “Togari Hiragana.” Meaning pointed hiragana, Sasao used a single piece of paper to create a 3D representation of each hiragana character that stands up in the shape of a pyramid or cone.

When viewed from the side the objects merely look like paper cut-outs. But when the vantage point is shifted to a birds-eye view, the characters are revealed. “I wanted to create a code,” Sasao said in an interview. “A secret code that looks like nothing but when you follow specific instructions the message is revealed.”



Check out other cool ways people have reinterpreted hiragana.


source: takeo paper

July 31, 2013   1 Comment

Fine Art and Manga Collide in the quirky colorful world of D[diː]

If you’ve been in Tokyo over the last couple years there’s a good chance you’ve encountered the artwork of young, enigmatic illustrator D[diː]. Pronounced simply as you would say the letter D, the female artist chooses to use a pen name because she prefers that her sex, race and age not factor into the way people view her work. However, it’s worth noting that a simple google search reveals almost everything that was intended as obscure.


D[diː] has admitted that she has been a fan of Hayao Miyazaki classics like Laputa and Naussica, and has attributed her interest in art to Studio Ghibli. She began creating manga-style characters in the medium of tempera. Having dropped out from the prestigious Tama Art University, D[diː] went on to create fantastical, colorful prints that are both sweet but also somewhat cynical. Her motifs almost always include animals, or small dolls, which she has explained is an influence from her childhood days when she would talk to her stuffed animals or imaginary friends. But her fantasy friends are now very much real, gracing the covers of everything from iPhones and CD jackets to elevators, t-shirts and bags.





July 31, 2013   Comments Off

Light Valley by Bunzo Ogawa



Hiroshima-based architect Bunzo Ogawa is a master of light manipulation. In what is his latest residential project – Light Valley – the architect and head of Future Studio created a commanding, rounded L-shaped façade that sets the stage for a dramatic reveal of what’s behind. Slits through the rough create skylights that allow rays of sun to enter into the main dining room area. And floor to ceiling windows that wrap around the inside of the structure open up to the luxurious backyard.



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The interior is somewhat mountainous, with the main dining room area becoming the “valley” that is sandwiched between two “cliffs.” The cliffs function as separate rooms whose landings are also made accessible by climbing up a ladder.




source: Bunzo Ogawa’s website

July 30, 2013   Comments Off

Children of Duchamp by Nobutaka Aozaki

“Art is not there to be understood,” said Marcel Duchamp, in a 1968 interview that aired on the BBC just before his death. This prompted English artist Grayson Perry to proclaim: “We are all the children of Duchamp now.”

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In a further exploration into whether artists are best represented by their words or works, Brooklyn-based Japanese artist Nobutaka Aozaki created a series titled “Children of Duchamp.” In a contemporary interpretation of the Dadaist’s philosophy, Aozaki created variations of Duchamp’s famous Bicycle Wheel using readymade/ pre-manufactured products like IKEA furniture, Playmobile toys and Barbie doll packaging.

“In this project I pay attention to technical aspects of Readymade such as artistic labor versus productive labor, educational instructable art making, and displacement of artist’s identity,” says Aozaki.

(happy birthday Mr Duchamp)

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July 28, 2013   1 Comment

a house on stilts | 4n by ninkipen!

ninkipen 4N 02photos by hiroki kawada | click to enlarge

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Here is another home on stilts, completed just around the same time as the previous one. Located in Ikoma City just 30 min outside Osaka is a house for a couple and their 2 kids. “The site had been divided into two levels with a retaining wall, and vehicle access was to the lower level only. We removed the wall, connecting the two levels with a gentle slope, and floated the house above it,” says Osaka-based architectural firm ninkipen! (the exclamation point is part of the name).

By elevating the house on stilts they created a shielded outdoor play space for the kids that also houses the entrance porch. The interior is divided into different living spaces with the kitchen on the second floor and an attic-like multi-purpose room on the third. The home was given the name “4n” for its adaptable characteristics. N coming from the mathematical symbol used to represent a natural number (as opposed to a nominal number), the home was designed for any family of 4.

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July 25, 2013   Comments Off

Casa Sakanoue | a house on a slope

casa sakanoie (8)photos by hiroshi ueda | click to enlarge

Casa Sakanoue is much more than a house. It’s a gallery, a community center, as well as an event space. It was roughly four years ago when Yuko Manago first had the idea to for a space where people could come look, listen, smell, taste and touch. Having grown up around art and music, Manago’s vision began to take form after she got married gave birth to a child. She decided to reach out to architect Kazuhiko Kishimoto, who she had seen on television once and admired ever since.

This is how, back in May of 2013, on a sloped backstreet just off a busy road, Casa Sakanoue quietly opened. From afar the structure, where Manago also lives, appears to be just a large wooden box. But as you approach the structure, they dynamic architecture becomes more apparent. The stilts appear to lift the box into the sky and a large staircase welcomes visitors as it offers glimpses of the inner courtyard.

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Casa Sakanoue (literally, at the top of a slope) is just off Hiyoshi station, which is about 45 minutes south of central Tokyo. Its strategic location allows access not only to the lush forest behind it, but also views of Mt. Fuji. They’ve hosted everything from Rakugo storytelling to aroma therapy workshops. If you’re looking for a unique space to host your next event, this might be it.

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A courtyard with a carved out circular bench allows for a more intimate setting.

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July 25, 2013   2 Comments

Playful t-shirts that let you wear your iPod

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inink, a small company based out of Kanagawa, Japan, created a series of playful t-shirts that let you “wear” your iPod, or any other small device/object.  Specifically, the “pocket series” comes with a translucent, sealable pocket that holds an iPod, a handkerchief, a notebook or any other small object.

Three years ago the company was founded under the concept of creating “playful” t-shirts that you can wear, touch and have fun with. In addition to the pocket series, inink also has a liquid series and a reflection series.

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source: rocketnews | inink

July 24, 2013   Comments Off

Logo and packaging design for Hagiwara Butcher

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photos by Tsunehiko Okazaki

Nestled amongst the shopping streets of old town Kamakura, just steps from the station, is a butcher shop unlike any other. The 60-year old shop was renovated last year and, as part of the facelift, received a new logo and packaging design by creative duo SPREAD — Hirokazu Kobayashi and Haruna Yamada.

As we briefly noted in our original feature, the fantastic logo has just won a 2013 red dot award in communication design. It’s encouraging to see a small butcher shop receive such a prestigious award; one that is typically reserved for large corporations with mega-budgets.

hagiwara butcher packaging design (1)

hagiwara butcher packaging design (1)

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source: SPREAD

July 23, 2013   1 Comment

Three Studio Visit

P1230790all photos by kaori sohma © spoon & tamago | click to enlarge




The smell of burnt rubber pierced the air. And it only intensified as we climbed the steps up to the Japan Society gallery space where three were busy at work. To be clear, three is the name of the art group but it also represents the number of members in the trio. Heat guns hummed, air purifiers roared, and a fan spun as we entered the gallery. “We usually work with the windows open,” explained one of the members, powering down all the motors and removing his face mask. “we’re just not in our normal workspace.”




Indeed, this is the first time three have set foot on American soil, much less New York. Invited by gallery director Miwako Tezuka to participate in Japan Society’s inaugural residency program, three arrived in New York from Fukushima in late June to complete what will be one of their more ambitious pieces using 555 toy figurines – their way of paying homage to New York and its 5 boroughs. “We immediately ran into trouble at customs,” they say, explaining to us that they had been carrying with them a large bulk of their material. “We had a hard time explaining to the customs officers why we were carrying boxes of 500 figurines with us.” (The plan is to purchase the remaining 55 in New York.)



P1230831a number of American figurines that have been melted down and are waiting to join their Japanese counterparts


On Group Mentality and Anonymity

The anonymous group is comprised of three individuals in their late 20s with backgrounds in engineering, arts, and advertising. When asked about their anonymous persona, which often becomes associated with counter-culture or protest tendencies, the three glance at each other and chuckle. “It was actually something that was sort of pushed upon us, rather than something we initiated. We’ve always admired the work of industrial design units like Nendo or Tokujin Yoshioka, which are a group of people operating under a single name. It’s common in the design world but not so much in the arts world. So we thought, why not?” And as three learned, people are curious about secrets and tend to pay attention more when there is an implied promise of revelation.







P1240031a notebook filled with hand-written notes on each figurine

Figurine Meta Data

Watching three at work, it’s clear that each has a task – a purpose, if you will, that feels natural and unforced. Their process involves multiple stations where various tasks are performed, each with a scrupulous attention to detail. It begins, of course, with the same thing we all do when we come into possession of a figurine: we assemble it. But this is where the similarities end. The assembled figurines are then taken to station 2 – often the most time-consuming yet invisible step. The figurines are photographed from various angles. Then the name, make, model and other data are logged on a laptop. This data is often aggregated from multiple sources including their own vast knowledge, manufacturer’s websites and, when all else fails, 3rd party fan blogs.

P1240013All of this meta data is typically displayed as part of the artwork. But for the first time, the group will be generating QR codes for each figurine that will eventually be combined into their work, enabling viewers to scan the code with their cellphone and immediately pull up all the data on each figurine.

P1240023one of the members demonstrating a QR code that will pull up data on each figurine



Arranging bits and pieces

“This is a ‘bit’,” says one of the members, holding up what is the result of the final station. “It’s the smallest unit of the figurine.”

After their data is logged the figurines move on to the final station where they are sliced into small pieces and melted, but with recognizable features like faces or eyes preserved.


Surprisingly, the process is entirely an act of non-violence. It’s somewhat of a contradiction, but one that makes complete sense: “we cut the figurines because we like them so much,” explains three. “We want to see them reborn into something new and beautiful.” And watching them at work, each slice is gentle, almost ritualistic. And an important part of the ritual is anime, which is usually streaming on their laptop as they work. There’s a serendipitous moment of joy when a character that they’re cutting appears on screen. “Yea, we just get really happy,” they say, laughing.

What remains is an elongated cubic rectangle, which the artists refer to as a “bit.” Just like the cubic “bit” is the smallest unit, the QR code they produce is also comprised of cubic dots, each representing the smallest unit of information. The weight of all the bits are added up, often manifesting themselves in the title of the work (ie: “7825g” or “14.2kg”).




In an ideal world

Three often create rectangular panel works based on the dimensions of a TV screen. “The 2D world of TV anime is ideal,” they explain, referring to how anime fans perceive the figurine characters. “If they could, the fans would live inside these 2D worlds. But instead they accept the 3D figurines as the next best thing.” The TV screen represents the final frontier – a monumental, immovable force the separates the 2D and 3D worlds. When you think about it, it’s a fascinating cycle: a 2D character is turned into a 3D figurine, which is then once again reduced into fundamental, raw material. Or, to borrow the words of three, “the smallest unit of information.”



The Harshest Critics

Despite the often political and cultural critiques embedded in three’s work, their harshest critics have emerged from an unlikely place – an online community of anime fans who view three‘s work as defacing their beloved dolls. When their work began circulating on 2ch, a popular online posting board whose community is often perceived as introverted otaku, the barrage of hate comments were immediate and toxic. “You’re crazy. You’re stupid. You should die. When we used soy sauce containers people commended us for turning garbage into art. But this time they told us that we’re turning art into garbage.”

But as most online scuffles go, the confrontation was limited to the computer screen. “It’s almost as if they [the haters] view these figurines as their own wives. So when they see us cutting them up they are naturally upset. But I would love for them to come to our gallery opening so we could have that talk. I would try to explain to them that I like them so much and that’s why I cut them.”








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There is a certain child-like honesty in the work of three. Watching them assemble, study and then disassemble the figurines is like watching a child work through a puzzle. At times they appear to be in search of a larger answer — in search of their true selves.  And at other times they seem merely focused on the task at hand.

If you happen to be in New York, you can come meet the artists at Japan Society on Saturday, July 27 at noon. Also stay tuned as the group plans to reveal their work in an exhibition slated to run from August 27 – October 13. It will be the first time that America and Japan will come together in a melting pot of figurines.




As usual, my son Huey had a few questions for Three:


This post is part of an ongoing series in which we visit NY-based Japanese artists in their studios. The complete collection can be found here.

all quotes have been translated from Japanese to English by the author
(many thanks to Masako and Kaori for making this visit possible)

July 23, 2013   3 Comments

Yoshi Bar | a pop-up bar constructed with reed grass

yoshi bar by naoya matsumoto (1)photos by takeshi asano | click to enlarge

Naoya Matsumoto, along with students from Seian University of Art and Design, constructed a pop-up bar this summer using Yoshi, a type of reed grass. Yoshi grows freely around Lake Biwa, where the University and pop-up bar is located. Each year students are asked to design objects using Yoshi grass but this year was different. “With just 2 days for construction the students decided to create a functioning bar where people could come and hang out,” explains Matsumoto. “The most important point was how to create a simple yet attractive space for the user.”

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July 22, 2013   Comments Off