Does America Need More Wa?

The 2011 Tōhoku, Japan, earthquake and tsunami killed thousands of people and damaged more than one million buildings, including the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant. The initial crisis of rebuilding that region quickly became a question of how to rebuild, including how to rebuild the fractured spirit of the place. “This spirit and awareness of the importance of collective memory and the risk of losing that ‘capacity for making,’ which is an expression of social cohesion,” Rossella Menegazzo writes in the introduction to Wa: The Essence of Japanese Design turned Tōhoku into a center of design as “social interaction.” The fallout of that terrible crisis was a purposeful turning back to the idea of Wa, the Japanese cultural idea usually translated as “harmony” in English, and away from the more rational, individualist ideas of the West. Wa takes form in everything from a building to a chair to a kitchen knife. As American society faces its own ideological upheavals and tidal waves of unrest as political races begin to go nuclear, it’s worth asking: Does America need more Wa?


In Wa: The Essence of Japanese Design, Rossella Menegazzo (an Associate Professor of History of East Asian Art at the Università degli Studi of Milan) and Stefania Piotti (an independent Italian scholar specializing in Japanese textiles and the development of kimono design and patterns) team up with Japanese designer Kenya Hara to give an overview not just of the history of Japanese design, but also its vibrant present and promising future. “Our aim was to draw out the delicate thread that identifies the essence of the Japanese spirit,” Menegazzo continues in her introduction, titled “Reinventing Tradition,” “without reference to a particular time or to the characteristics of individual personalities.” This Japanese spirit “manifests itself in shadow, silence and empty spaces, in irregularities and asymmetry, and in the perfection of the most minute thing, as if that thing represented the whole universe.” Whereas William Blake asked you “to see a world in a grain of sand,” these scholars invite you to see a world in a Kikkoman Soy Sauce Dispenser (designed in 1961 by Kenji Ekuan), just one of the more than 250 objects in the book that may amuse or bemuse the Western-minded reader at first, but will eventually open eyes to a wholly different way of designing and living.

Before giving you visual examples of Wa through the ages, however, the book provides an essay on Japanese design by Hara. Like the flavor Umami, Wa is one of those Japanese ideas that’s so based in cultural tastes that something’s inevitably lost in translation. Hara, however, boils down the distinction between Japanese and Western design as an opposition between Japanese emptiness and Western rationalism. Hara sees the modern versions of both ideologies striving for simplicity, but whereas Japanese design stresses the transitory nature of existence, the emptiness at the heart of all material things, Western design stresses the mind and hand of the individual artist transcending time through the legacy of materials things. Hara illustrates the difference using two simple kitchen knives, the German Henckels knife and the Japanese Yanagiba knife. When you pick up the Henckels knife, Hara writes, “the grip settles perfectly in your hand” in a triumph of mind-over-matter design, but when you pick up the Yanagiba knife, it’s “just a stick… Both where and how to hold it are up to the chef”, thus making it “receptive to any and all of the chef’s exceptional techniques.” “This,” Hara concludes his knife analysis simply, “is emptiness.”  Hara includes a few graphics that have an “Ah, young grasshopper” feel to them initially (seven deities on a grain of rice?), but they coalesce by the end into one of the most coherent explanations of this very difficult (especially for us reason-blinded Westerners) idea of Wa.

It’s in the sections in which Menegazzo and Piotti break down Japanese design by materials that you get a full idea of what Wa has been and what it is becoming. As Hara puts it, “Tradition is handed down in the same way that living things evolve.” Just as living things evolve in response to a changing environment, the tradition of Japanese design has always evolved in response to change—even in response to the introduction of Western ideas to their previously insular culture. “What is striking, even in more technically complex products, is the survival of a close connection with the craft traditions,” Piotti adds. For example, juxtaposed with more traditional wooden tables is Naoki Hirakoso’s Kai Table (shown above), which forms a smooth cube when closed, but when opened “can be transformed (like a robot in the best-known manga and anime series) to reveal inner compartments and secret drawers that open or slide,” Piotti writes. Just when you think Japanese design is predictable or lost in the past, works such as the Kai Table reveal secrets easily missed by the uninitiated. The metalworking behind the legendary samurai sword finds modern counterparts in sashimi slicers and origami-influenced furniture, but with metal folded as effortlessly and beautifully as paper. Modern designers take items as small and seemingly insignificant as the tea whisk from the Japanese tea ceremony and transform it into chairs and even a lamp. When Piotti gets to her specialty of Japanese kimonos, we can see how modern Japanese designers “disarrange, deconstruct and liberate,” thus taking a modernist turn that has reversed the direction of influence to where Japanese designers are now influencing their counterparts in the West.

Perhaps the most significant use of Wa in design comes in the use of new materials such as fiberglass and plastics—innovative materials that have challenged designers to be equally innovative. Modern materials, with their capacity to support more with less substance, offer a kind of minimalism that is ecologically and socially responsible. Piotti sees the promise of lighter new materials as the start of a new “floating world,” harking back to the first “floating world” of the Edo period but also looking forward to a bright future. Japan’s current struggle with the Fukushima situation serves as a continual reminder that, as Piotti puts it, the only way out is “contemporary Japan’s key asset, its inexhaustible capacity for adaptation, transformation and creativity.”

On a simple stone basin used for ritual cleaning of the hands and mouth (and low enough to which one must stoop in humility), the inscription reads, “What I have is all I need.” The message of Wa: The Essence of Japanese Design by Rossella Menegazzo, Stefania Piotti, and Kenya Hara for Westerners, and especially Americans, is that we hold the key to solving all our problems and fulfilling all our needs right in our hands now. Distracted by political infighting and rampant materialism, Americans fail to see the answers right in front of them. To recognize the transitory nature of existence and appreciate life right now (including good ecological stewardship of the Earth right now) could help us reprioritize the goals of our society and give it some good old Wa. As Dan Harris’ current best seller 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Really Work—a True Story modestly proposes, just a little more mindfulness can go a long way. Even the physical design of this book—printed on craft paper and bound in the traditional Japanese manner—makes you mindful of the importance of its contents. Wa: The Essence of Japanese Design will make you more mindful of the things around you and open your eyes to a whole new way of seeing them, yourself, and your world.

[Image: Naoki Hirakoso. Kai Table, 2003. Plywood, coated tilia japonica.]

[Many thanks to Phaidon for providing me with a review copy of Wa: The Essence of Japanese Design by Rossella Menegazzo, Stefania Piotti, and Kenya Hara.]

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.