japanese art, design and culture

Category — Graphic Design

How a TV show inadvertently made a miraculous historic discovery

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Sakamoto Ryōma ( 1836 – 1867) was a prominent figure in the movement to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate during the Bakumatsu period in Japan

Totsugeki Atto Home (突撃!アッとホーム) airs every Saturday at 8:00pm. Each week the family-themed show revolves around several households across Japan and the small, intimate inner workings that make them function. One of the segments is called “Family Treasure Hunting,” a sort-of-reverse Antiques Roadshow in which hosts randomly go up to strangers and ask them what their household’s most prized possession is. The show’s producers were expecting to find small mementos of deceased family members, but they ended up finding much more than what they bargained for.

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“A letter by Ryoma Sakamoto,” replied Hata when asked if she owned any treasures

A Lost Letter

On last week’s episode the comedy duo Viking were interviewing residents in Yanaka, a neighborhood just north of central Tokyo, asking people to share their family’s treasure. “I have a letter from Sakamoto Ryoma,” offered Yuko Hata, a middle-aged Japanese woman. Laughter ensued from both the show’s hosts and Hata herself as no one truly believed that such a valuable historical artifact – from a major figure in Japan’s transformation from feudal military rule in the 1860′s – was lying around someone’s home in Tokyo. And lying around it was. Upon visiting Hata at her home, the comedic due found that the document in question was haphazardly stored away in a box underneath the family’s coffee table.

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Hata removing the box from underneath a cluttered coffee table. Inside the box is thought to be an authentic letter written by Ryoma Sakamoto.

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The letter, in the form of a scroll. Sakamoto’s unique style of radically shifting character sizes was observed.

An Incredible Discovery

With Hata’s permission, the show’s staff whisked away the letter to have it officially verified, first at the Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum. “I’m extremely surprised,” said head curator Natsuki Miura, confirming the letter’s authenticity. There are about 140 letters written by Sakamoto in known existence and “each year we get several inquiries regarding letters, but rarely have any turned out to be real,” added Miura. Upon closer observation, scholars discovered that the letter was written to Shojiro Goto, a samurai and politician, and detailed Sakamoto’s visit to Echizen Province (currently Northern-Fukui) to recruit Hachiro Mitsuoka into their new government. The letter, it turns out, was written just 10 days before Sakamoto’s assassination in 1867 and may be the last known letter before his death.


At the Shimonoseki Museum, which houses 11 authentic letter – the most in all Japan – by Ryoma Sakamoto, the show’s producers received additional confirmation. A side-by-side comparison revealed identical strokes and tendencies in characters.


Proceeding with caution, the show’s producers finally delivered the document to researchers at the Kyoto National Museum. “It’s almost a miracle,” exclaimed researcher Teiichi Miyakawa. “Discoveries likes this happen only once every hundred years.” Not only did the letter back up various speculative historic claims but it also detailed Sakamoto’s hopes and expectations for a new government.

From Trash To Treasure

According to Hata, the letter was purchased by her father roughly 30 years ago. He paid 1000 yen (~$10) for it at an antique shop. The show’s producers asked appraiser Masaji Yagi how much he thought the letter was worth. He assigned a value of 15 million yen (~$150,000).

And just like that, in incredible discovery. And all they had to do was ask. The letter is currently on loan, from Hata, at the Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum for all to see.

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the letter in its entirety

Note: all quotes translated from Japanese to English by the author

April 16, 2014   No Comments

Comical Animated Gifs by Hama-House


人助け (A Helping Hand)

A Tokyo-based illustrator, who goes by the moniker Hama-House, has created a series of charmingly comical Gifs. As a cat-owner myself the ones featuring our furry feline friends are my favorites. They were created for an animated gif contest hosted by our friends at Loftwork (previously). The international competition is accepting entries through the end of this month. The only real criteria is that they should loop and be less than 3 seconds.

You can keep up with all of Hama House’s new work over on his blog.


本当の世界 (The Real World)


理想と現実 (Dream and Reality)


永遠の夢 (Endless Dream)


回転寿し (Kaiten-zushi)


ウマい話 (Too Good To Be True)

source: design made in Japan

February 12, 2014   Comments Off

Nekofont | A Typeset Made From Cats

neko font

Don’t speak cat? Not a problem. Now you can write in cat. Well, sort of.
Nekofont is a Japanese website that lets you write words in a typeface made entirely of cats. Unfortunately, special characters like the “&” are a bit too contorted, even for cats.

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Nekofont is made from 2 cats – Raizo and Mondo -  who were picked up off the street when they were kittens. Their cat-loving owner started photographing them after realizing that some of their ridiculous sleeping positions actually resembled letters. Their owner set up a simple website that became so popular, it was turned into a book late last year (available on Amazon JP).

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neko font book-5

source: lostateminor (thx Masako!)

January 24, 2014   Comments Off

Japanese Designer New Years Cards 2014

Every year around this time we share with you a selection of Japanese designer Holiday/New Year’s cards (all previous years). Here is the 2014 edition, which should also serve as a reminder that this year is the year of the horse. Happy New Year!

This first card is from Tatsuo Horiuchi, the Excel spreadsheet artist. And yes, this card was created entirely in Microsoft Excel.


A cute illustrated card from Nagoya-based graphic design firm creun, inc.

2014 NYcards - creun

Each year Tomoko Azumi of TNA Design Studio uses her prized stamp collection to compose a card.

2014 NYcards - TNA design studio

Visual artist Tabaimo came up with a rather morbid New Years greeting. The bones and hear spell out the characters for 2014.

2014 NYcards - tabaimo

Botanic artist Makoto Azuma put together a floral arrangement that resembles a horse.

2014 NYcards - makoto azuma

A horse-themed card from Spoon & Tamago friend and illustrator Naho Ogawa.

2014 NYcards - naho ogawa

This one is from Japanese Techno-pop group Denki Groove.

2014 NYcards - denki groove

Creative Director Kenjiro Sano used a mathematical formula based on the numbers 2014, to create an image of a horse.

2014 NYcards - Kenjiro Sano

Creative Director Keisuke Unosawa opted for the cowboy/cowgirl motif.

2014 NYcards - keisuke unosawa

It’s not a New Year’s card, but it was too good to pass up. Twitter user @jj_akichan made this otoshidama envelope based on one of Japan’s most popular memes of 2013: O-MO-TE-NA-SHI

2014 NYcards - jj_akichan

Tokyo-based photographer Irwin Wong created a movie poster featuring his team. They drove down to a farm in Chiba and even rented a real horse for the shoot. Talk about going the extra mile!

2014 NYcards - Irwin Wong

Also not a New Year’s card, but Hiroshima-based Hyphen Design created a gorgeously minimal 2014 calendar as a greeting. It’s easy to use and free for anyone to download and print. Grab yours HERE (PDF).

2014 NYcards - hyphen calendar

A colorful greeting card from felt sculptor Hine Mizushima.

2014 NYcards - Hine Mizushima

January 7, 2014   1 Comment

Cheat Sheets | Tokyo Metro Map Printed on the Back of Neckties


Here is a picture of Tokyo’s complex underground metro system. And here is another perspective. As you can see, it’s arguably one of the most complex in the world. Even seasoned straphangers need the occasional cheat sheet to get them through a full day of business meetings all around Tokyo.

Enter the Tokyo Metro Map Necktie, a seemingly simple print but with the metro map printed on the inside. It’s manufactured by ARA, a Tokyo-based maker of men’s ties and comes in a Tokyo and Osaka version. Never get lost again!



k2143481290source: rocketnews24

January 3, 2014   1 Comment

Embroidered Japanese middle-aged mom brooches


When you’re going to create an embroidery you usually do it of something special, like your pet, your favorite car or pretty flowers. And then there’s this: embroideries of middle-age Japanese moms engaged in incredibly dull activities. And there’s something oddly amusing about the absurdity of it all.

Created by freelance designer Junichi Chiba, the embroidered brooches feature typical Japanese housewives doing things like watering the patio, sweeping the floor, dancing, eating rice crackers and airing out the family futon.





source: @sheishine

December 30, 2013   3 Comments

Book Clock by Masaaki Hiromura

The graphic designer Masaaki Hiromura (previously) has installed what is perhaps the most analog, digital clock ever. It’s comprised of an ever-repeating video loop featuring 3 books, each representing the hours, minutes and seconds of a single day. A hand neurotically and relentlessly flips through the pages as if to remind us that time never stops moving.

It’s currently on view at MUJI in Shibuya, which just underwent a major renovation and reopened at the beginning of this month.

book clock 2

book clock 4

source: @zaki48

December 15, 2013   Comments Off

Noramoji | Fonts made out of retro Japanese storefronts

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These Japanese fonts won’t be found in textbooks or typography journals. You have to go looking for them on the streets of Japan: your local barber, an old florist, or an outdated toy shop. Finding beauty in these unsophisticated yet nostalgically charming fonts, 3 friends set out on a hunt to capture, fontify, and give something back to the community.

Obtaining permission from the store owners (many of whom have no graphic design background but were heavily involved in the creation of their unique fonts), Rintaro Shimohama, Naoki Nishimura and Shinya Wakaoka recreated the fonts and have made them available for download. The resulting project was titled Noramoji, a combination of the words nora (meaning stray) and moji (text).

All proceeds from the Noramoji project are given back to the store owners.

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H/T @jeansnow

December 2, 2013   3 Comments

Good Design Awards 2013 | 10-Mikan

Preliminary results from the 2013 Good Design Awards were announced last week. I’ve stated how I feel about the awards (spoiler: they’re overly dispensed) many times in the past so I won’t bother you with that. Instead, I’m going to dive right in showcasing some of my favorites.

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Ehime Prefecture is one of the largest producers of mikans in the country. Just 2nd to Wakayama, the Southern prefecture supplies Japan with roughly 20% of all their succulent supply. Their prefecture flower is that of the mikan and they even have their own state-funded mikan laboratory. But there’s a problem – the average age of mikan farmers are now over 65, meaning that they are a dying breed.

To appeal to a younger generation of consumers, but also potential producers, a local company unveiled a major overhaul of their visual identity. A collaboration between Upsetters Architects and Artless, the modern, simple and elegant new look was applied to their product linup, 10 Mikan, but also to their shop in Ehime.





this post is part of our review of the 2013 Good Design Awards. Click here to view the full series.


October 14, 2013   1 Comment

brewed with purpose | Ipponmatsu Beer inspired by Japan’s miracle pine

ipponmatsu beer (2)Ippon Matsu stands vigilant as clean-up efforts come to a halt for the night. Photo by Tsuyoshi Endo.

ipponmatsu beer (3)The devastation of the city is a stark contrast to Ippon Matsu’s green branches. Photo by Fumie Suzuki.

A single pine tree became a symbol of hope after the March 11th tsunami wiped away 70,000 pine trees in its path. The 88ft tall “miracle pine” survived for nearly 18 months before its roots died from high levels of saline. However, donations from across the country and world raised enough funds for experts to preserve the tree by inserting a metal skeleton into its trunk and adding replica branches.

Now the pine tree is being immortalized in a different way. Brooklyn-based designer Kota Kobayashi created a minimal yet elegant packaging design for Ipponmatsu Beer. “This beer’s design represents charity and hope, says Kobayashi. “A scroll-like, handwritten label seals the top with the story of Ippon Matsu written on the inside. The front label is a solitary pine made of three triangles that are facing up, symbolizing the wish for progress towards Japan’s brighter future.” Ipponmatsu means one pine tree.

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The beer, which comes in 2 flavors, is all hand-brewn by Kobayashi and his friends. They are donating all profits to the recovery effort in ravaged Rikuzentakata. For now the beer has yet to make its way into shelves but Kobayashi is currently looking for a brewery to help expand his charity brew.

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ipponmatsu beer (4)

Ippon Matsu Beer : Brewed with Purpose from Ippon Matsu Beer on Vimeo.

(thanks Juri!)

September 16, 2013   Comments Off