Of Place and Wind 0: A new decade dawns

Tetsuya Kaida introduces his series of articles titled「場」と「風」“Of Place and Wind” which explores various distinctive cultural characteristics of Japan and shows his opinion about creativity.

Today is January 3, 2010. Having just returned last night from a ten-day trip abroad, I spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve, then the countdown and the first days of the new year away from Japan.

The New Year season offers glimpses of Japanese culture in its most diverse manifestations, each of them infused with a distinct Japanese feel.

On such a day, amidst the winter winds of Western Mikawa, I decided for no special reason to start the year off by writing a Book. Sure enough, I am not a writer, nor do I profess to be an expert in literary text production. I just go about my days as a normal employee of a big corporation – what you call in Japan a ‘salaryman’.

Most of the people who know me will probably shake their head in doubt at the word ‘normal’. But, since I consider myself the product of an existence spent ‘normally’ and in all honesty to who I am, I assume I qualify as normal.

I have traveled abroad a lot over the last ten years. At the beginning, my travels were quests for the Source, aiming to elucidate simple questions like: what is Japan? what places, objects and attributes define it? Much like a fish that had swum its entire life in the water called Japan, I was totally unable to appreciate just how good the water felt.

For about two years I visited cities and met people, some of whom were invited to engage in interviews and round-table discussions. I slowly became able to discern the real nature of the water in which I lived and to recognize what differentiated it from the rest of the world.

It was around that time that I wrote a short book titled Japanese Originality as Global Value. The book was centered around five concepts, each of them hardly translatable into languages other than Japanese.

Ma no wa – the harmony of empty spaces.
Chō 5 kan no utsuroi – transformation beyond the five senses.
So to sō no takumi – the craftsmanship of simplicity and decoration.
Majikaruna nijūsei – the magical double.
Asobigokoro – the spirit of playfulness.

I can hardly hold back a smile of embarrassment when I think now of the pretentiousness of the title.

Over the years that followed, I often headed out of my harbor on voyages of encounters and discoveries. It was a trial-and-error exploration of what sort of Value we could create based on our own background and cultural experiences. Unexpected learning opportunities emerged one after another as we interacted with people from walks of life as diverse as film, animation, music, architecture, space design, gastronomy, electrical appliances, fashion, the academia, government and entertainment.

There was a year when we asked elementary school kids in cities around the world to draw cars of the future and we talked to students in secondary schools about their perceptions of everyday life. We convened discussion groups with representatives of the so-called LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) creative class, who shared their ideas on what they considered ‘wasteful’ or ‘just right’. They watched the experimental promotional videos we had made and were asked to comment on their responses. On several occasions, the conversation got so lively that, as we chatted and laughed, time flew by without anybody noticing we had gone well past the initial two-hour schedule.

It was as a result of this accumulation of experiences and interpersonal bonds that I came up, three years ago, with what I call the ‘five directions’.

So = Simplicity: living within the bounds of appropriateness; towards 1/X.
Sei = Silence: living healthily with a beautiful mind.
= Movement: enabling human interaction.
Ten = Change: enjoying transformation.
Wa = Harmony: fostering family love.

At last, I seemed to have some pretty good idea of where I was coming from and where I was heading to. Of what my Source and Direction were.

These things are too closely related to what my work is about, so I will not go into details. But I believe there is something truly thought-provoking and intriguing about these five themes, a potential to spark insights and impact future creativity. Each of them embodies a view of the world and of what it means to be human.

More recently, I have shared such reflections with various people and have even been invited to speak at foreign universities and other gatherings. Once I start talking, I forget about time and get carried away by the story, as it meanders into the most unexpected worlds. I sometimes return to these places for a follow-up workshop or other form of mutually enriching exchange. Some of the lectures are later developed into television programs. On such occasions, I remember with wonder that public speaking used to intimidate me and was definitely not one of my strengths.

How has this change come about? Each of these opportunities and encounters would have been beyond the reach of my imagination without the exceptional skills of a few foreigners working in my team. Even if I had gone as far as to imagine them, they would have been impossible to realize. And yet, whenever I start talking to an audience gathered to listen to me speak, I cannot help asking myself, why am I here? Somehow I never seem able to come up with a satisfactory answer.

The very fact that I am now all absorbed in writing, despite not having a clear idea of the story line, is an attempt to look for some kind of answer.

As I write, I am sitting in a certain café in Japan. What sort of place and atmosphere does the word ‘café’ suggest to you? My guess would be that the images it conjures vary from one city and country to another, according to cultures and trends.

The café I am talking about is located in Miyoshigaoka, a relatively new town somewhere in central Japan. Called ‘Lamps’, it was built about two years ago. The woodwork inside, including the floor, wainscoting and table, is a deep dark brown hue. Above the wainscoting, the plaster walls are painted in a light beige color, which surrounds the latticed windows evocative of the early twentieth century. Antique-looking lamps hang gently from the ceiling, giving off a pale light. Soft piano music fills the air. The atmosphere reminds of romantic trends popular in Japan around the beginning of last century, fitting perfectly with the trees in the European-style patio, as they sway in the winter wind outside the window.

Inside the U-shaped café, the partitions, carved walls, architectural accents of the pillars and glass screens with enigmatic Latin inscriptions combine to prevent excessive eye contact and allow some privacy. Social interaction and seclusion are blended to a ‘just right’ degree.

Coffee and other drinks are served in cups of different shapes, materials and textures, together with a bean mix or cinnamon toast – my favorite. And thus, a unique pattern of sensations colors each winter holiday morning, each spring afternoon of moist new leaves, the rains of late autumn nights, or the warm noon sunshine of the month of May in this shelter that I have found for my heart on a hill in western Mikawa.

So far, I have tried to describe a scene from my everyday life in Japan. I wonder what you might think of it. Many of its constituent elements were brought from across the sea at some point or another. Nevertheless, there is something about the ‘place’ and ‘wind’ experienced here that is intimately linked with a Japanese worldview. Nowhere in the world can you find an identical café. Of course, the ‘places’ and ‘winds’ associated with the practice of drinking tea or coffee in Japan are diverse. Some of them are the product of a long history and numerous transformations, while others are newly created by mixing in a few ingenuous details. The moment spent there, a single unrepeatable page, is the result of all these past and present processes.

Right. Cafés are one of the many embodiments of Japaneseness. And this is exactly the subject that I would like explore. Although not a scholar, a writer or an expert in any field, I am setting out to write about contemporary Japan: a Japan of fleeting moments that weave together casual, yet unique and slightly unusual impressions of ‘place’ and ‘wind’. Another discussion of ‘Japan as seen from within’. I hope you will enjoy the flow.

By Tetsuya Kaida

(This article originally written and published in 2010.)

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