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Chicago Shimpo
What is Japanese Craftsmanship?
Panel Discussion “On Design and Monozukuri”

• Bento Talks #2 “On Design and Monozukuri (Craftsmanship)” was held on April 25 at the Japan information Center, the Consulate General of Japan in Chicago. The event was co-hosted by US-Japan Council and JET Alumni Association Chicago.

• Moderated by Bob Kumaki, Principal of the Ronin Group, five panelists discussed their product designs and craftsmanship. The panelists were Steven Fischer, Director of Image, Style and Design Studio; Rieko Wada, Chocolatines’ founder and owner; Anna Ninoyu, Architect; Mike Harrigan, Regional Sales Manager of TOTO USA; and Toru Yamamura, President of TOTO USA East Sales Division.

• Moderator Kumaki asked if a good universal design existed, and if so what it meant.

• Fischer said that it existed because of the today’s global society, but regional distinctions would be considered.

• Harrigan said that principle importance of TOTO’s design was based on the fact that a universal design was really a good design for universal humans.
• Yamamura explained that TOTO’s first priority was to pursue comfortability of users and product functions. On the other hand, product appearance such as gorgeousness was a more important factor in Europe.

• Ninoyu said that Mies van der Rohe’s philosophy was “Design is about the space,” and interestingly the universal space had matches to Japanese simplicity such as the concept of “ma (space).”

• Where do Chocolate designs belong, with people, culture, or designer?

• Wada said that she put her ideas together and created her own chocolate designs, which were not from Europe or the U. S. ideas. She was born and raised in Japan, so she expressed the concept of Japan in her chocolate by using Japanese ingredients such as sansho spice or green-tea powder. She also said if the designs were super good, and if the taste was bad, nobody enjoys it. “The taste is the most important element for the people,” she said.

• Should a universal design be available for everyone? How do you bring your universal designs with Japanese concept to a country where the people know nothing about it?

• Harrigan said, “We are truly changing a culture with our products such as ‘Washlet’ for 40 years.” He also said that spreading one culture to change another was exciting challenge and opening your mind into a different culture.

• Regarding the sociological point of view, what do you think about the idea of cultural appropriation?

• Fischer, who has worked for different companies all over the world, said that he could see there was sensitivity, especially, in the present hyper awareness of the world. Especially, the fashion world might cooperate with some cultural aspects and pay respect for the original source culture.
• He also said that there has been a certain opportunity in globalized countries to elevate good designs because everyone could access them. “The sense of aesthetic is becoming more and more universal,” he said.

• Has understanding of the craftsmanship increased? How do you fit monozukuri or craftsmanship with your products?

• Fischer said that craftsmanship has become more prevalent globally in the goods industry over the last 20 years. Paying attention to details has become very critical, and that is expected as a standard.

• Yamamura said that even TOTO’s products were machine made; however, craftsmanship was used to make molds. When the products become final products such as toilet bowls, they shrink 15% to 20% from original volume, “So the experience and knowledge of craftsman are critical,” he said.

• In the 1960s, Japanese goods were cheap things. How did you move beyond that? Was it because of quality, pure design, or understanding target customers?

• Harrigan said that he truly experienced that. When he started working for TOTO 16 years ago and dealing with plumbers, unions, and the environment in general, he was a little nervous because he worked for a Japanese company to sell overseas products. After six months to a year, he said, “I started to realize what actually quality meant.”
• In 1992, a Federal law changed the amount of water used to flush toilet bowl to 1.6 gallons from 3.5 gallons. TOTO already had the technology and prepared to comply with the new regulation. Harrigan said, “From the technology standpoint, TOTO was forefront of water conservation.”

• When you start to design something, do you take into account pure design?

• As an architect, Ninoyu starts with asking questions to her client about functional needs, their daily lives, movements around spaces, intents for space use, context of neighborhood, and more. She said that those questions were the key to making a design.

• For chef Wada, suggesting new tastes to her customers is more important than listening to their opinions. Then she gives out samples to see their reactions. To make an impact on her products, she needs a challenge and patience.
• She created a new chocolate with curry powder. Even Japanese, who were familiar with curry, hesitated at first, but once they ate it, they liked it. In the first year, Americans didn’t want to taste it. In the second year, some Americans liked it, and the third year, she sold many curry flavored chocolates to Americans.
• She said, “We have an opportunity to test our product and get the response sooner. So I can change a trend.”
• She presents different flavored and shaped chocolates in an assorted box, so the customers visually enjoy the chocolates and eating them. In this way, she is able to raise the customers’ curiosity for her chocolates

Panelists from left: Anna Ninoyu, Rieko Wada, Mike Harrigan, Steven Fischer, Toru Yamamura, and Bob Kumaki