From soy sauce to bullet trains, the man whose designs shaped modern Japan

You’d know his work even though you might not know his name, but on Sunday, the famed Japanese industrial designer, Kenji Ekuan, died aged 85 from heart failure after spending the past few months in a Tokyo hospital.IMG_0101

His career, which is widely thought to have shaped the products that now define modern Japan, was inspired by the devastation he witnessed after an atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima, his hometown, during world war 2. The blast, which killed first his younger sister, was also responsible for the death of his father a year later from a radiation-related illness.

In an interview for an exhibition in the city last year, he said the debris had spoken to him and expressed regret that they had not been used for longer. “Faced with that brutal nothingness, I felt a great nostalgia for human culture,’ he said, ‘I needed something to touch, to look at. Right then, I decided to be a maker of things.

‘The existence of tangible things is important; it’s evidence that we’re here as human beings.”

This belief stimulated Ekuan to start designing things, including the lean, long-nosed ‘Komachi’ bullet train used as part of the Shinkansen high-speed rail network, and the instantly recognisable red-capped Kikkoman soy sauce bottle which became one of the country’s most well known post-war exports.

ekuandesignThe dispenser – a product which took Ekuan’s company ‘GK Industrial Design Associates’ three years to make – struck a particular cord in me due not only to my love of sushi, but also its simplified and easy-to-use design being the solution to a traditional Japanese issue.

Inspired by watching the difficulty his mother had in lifting and pouring the large cans of soy sauce that were common prior to the 1950’s, Ekuan’s design of a smaller bottle for Kikkoman was aimed at being easy to stock but also acceptable on the dining table. Thanks to the prevalence and popularity of sushi in its native country, it was incidentally a design that proved to be instrumental in the development of packaging design in Japan.

To me, however, what resonates most about Kenji Ekuan was his simple philosophy and approach to design. He stated this philosophy best, I think, when he said, “Design to me has always meant making people happy. Happy in the sense of creating items that provide comfort, convenience, function, aesthetics and ethics.”

Rest in peace, Ekuan-San. Though the general public may not know your name, the impact of your work not only shaped Japanese society, but also brought happiness to the world.

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