1Three exhibitions on Japanese design recently took place in Paris as part of celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and Japan. From 30 September 2008 to 11 January 2009 the Musée du Quai Branly presented The Mingei Spirit in Japan: From Folk Craft to Design. From 22 October 2008 to 31 January 2009 the Japan Cultural Institute in Paris (Maison de la culture du Japon à Paris, hereafter MCJP) presented Wa: The Spirit of Harmony and Japanese Design Today. And finally, from 12 to 21 December 2008 the Museum of Decorative Arts (Musée des Arts décoratifs) in Paris hosted the Kansei: Japan Design Exhibition.
2These three exhibitions were organised independently, without any consultation between the institutions. The Musée du Quai Branly exhibition was developed jointly with the Mingeikan in Tokyo or Japan Folk Crafts Museum. The MCJP exhibition was organised by the Tokyo headquarters of the Japan Foundation. And finally, the Museum of Decorative Arts exhibition was orchestrated entirely by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO). All three exhibitions were thus produced by Japanese people, partly in the case of Quai Branly and almost entirely for the other two.
- 1 Jean Davallon, L’exposition à l’œuvre. Stratégies de communication et médiation symbolique (The Exh (...)
- 2 Benoît de L’Estoile, Le goût des autres. De l’Exposition coloniale aux arts premiers (A Taste for t (...)
3In his book L’exposition à l’œuvre1 (The Exhibition at Work), the sociologist Jean Davallon argues that the organising of an exhibition stems from a fixed agenda and is underpinned by a specific world view. As a medium, exhibitions do not merely show the objects; they also, and above all, indicate how we should view the objects, relying in the process on “communication strategies”. The same idea underpins the thinking of anthropologist Benoît de l’Estoile, who recounts the history of France’s “museums of the Others” in Le goût des autres (A Taste for the Others):2
Because the act of exhibiting implies the spatial and sensory (and in particular visual) translation of explicit or implicit standpoints, it provides an embodiment of world views. Museums are both the expression of artistic, scientific and political movements that develop outside of the museum and a place for producing and disseminating representations, which in no small measure help to define reality and provide frameworks for interpreting and deciphering it.
4Drawing on this observation, I assigned myself the task of examining how the aforementioned exhibitions portrayed Japan, despite them being held in three separate museums with differing objectives in terms of intercultural dialogue, promoting Japanese culture and boosting trade. In practical terms, I propose to examine the images of Japan overseas that were presented in Paris during the winter of 2008.
5Ethnographic analysis of the exhibitions initially focused on a detailed examination of the exhibition space itself. The exhibits, scenography and explanation panels all provide visitors with information; what is more, brochures, maps and other written documentation distributed to the public clarify the exhibition’s message. The views of the French-side organisers also served to reveal certain biases in the exhibitions. Finally, the press releases sent out by the organisers and the resulting press coverage provided an opportunity to assess how the organisers’ messages were perceived and relayed.
6Onsite analysis of each exhibition highlighted the disparate nature of the exhibits: the coexistence of varying types of objects created a sense of confusion that was further intensified by the rather discreet scenography. Nonetheless, what consistently emerged was “one” single Japan presented as being homogeneous. What are the leitmotifs that enabled the exhibitions to establish a consistent identity? Do they replicate a recurrent mode of discourse applied to Japan and by Japan to itself?
7The Musée du Quai Branly’s mission is to illustrate the diversity of world cultures via exhibitions that place a heavy emphasis on the aesthetic appreciation of the exhibits. The Mingei Spirit in Japan: From Folk Craft to Design exhibition focuses on Yanagi Sōetsu 柳宗悦 (1889-1961) and the movement he launched in the 1920s for the discovery and reappraisal of Korean and Japanese crafts. While the exhibition was organised under the guidance of Germain Viatte, curator at the Musée du Quai Branly, the majority of exhibits came from the Mingeikan, the museum founded by Yanagi in 1936.
8The scenography of the exhibition space is extremely understated. The display cabinet bases are white and the exhibits presented on neutral stands. On the walls, a smattering of labels summarises Yanagi Sōetsu’s approach. The neutral final result does not suggest any specific bias on behalf of the Musée du Quai Branly compared to the Mingeikan.
Fig. 1: A display case at the Mingei exhibition, Musée du quai Branly, 2008
Fig 2: Items of clothing presented at the Mingei exhibition are showcased for their design
A card gives the approximate date they were made but no other information. Musée du quai Branly, 2008.
The objects featuring in the first display case hail from a wide variety of places and eras: a 1952 plate by the English potter Bernard Leach, who lived in Japan, sits side by side with Chinese and Korean bowls and trays dating from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, a sculpture from the Jōmon period (tenth century B.C.) and even a twentieth-century funeral urn from Okinawa.
9The next display contains three distinct sets of exhibits: “Japanese Folk Crafts” presents Japanese lacquerware, pottery and clothing from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; a few steps further on, “Folk Crafts from Japan’s Periphery” displays Korean and Okinawan objects made between the sixteenth and the twentieth century; and finally, “Yanagi Sōetsu’s Early Associates” features ceramic items made during the 1930s and 1940s by mingei-influenced artists.
10A large circular room at the end of the exhibition gallery highlights the work of “Three International Artists in Japan” who were active between 1930 and 1950: the German Bruno Taut (lacquerware), the American artist Isamu Noguchi (lamps, furniture, terracotta ware), and the French designer Charlotte Perriand (furniture). The “Yanagi Sōri and the Design Issue” space features the most celebrated works of the designer – the son of Yanagi Sōetsu – created between the 1950s and 1970s: the Butterfly stool, created in 1956, is showcased separately. A coffee table on the way out displays a collection of “bamboo objects”: anonymous pieces from the Edo period sit side by side with works by Bruno Taut.
11Generally speaking, and even within the display cases themselves, the exhibition juxtaposes objects hailing from a wide variety of geographical locations and eras. They also represent a variety of genres: the presence of anonymous objects reflects a conservation-oriented approach, while other objects, whose authors are showcased, stem from an art-oriented approach.
12As an institution, the Japan Cultural Institute in Paris partly depends on the Japan Foundation, whose headquarters are based in Tokyo. It regularly organises exhibitions on a variety of themes in accordance with its mission to promote Japanese culture.
13The exhibition Wa: The Spirit of Harmony and Japanese Design Today features very different objects to those seen at Quai Branly. Visitors enter via a white corridor displaying objects that illustrate the concept of “wa” 和, presented as a “traditional view of harmony”: the objects are described as “combining antagonistic properties”. This category includes a sake barrel, a bubble-shaped humidifier and an electric piano.
Fig 3: Exhibits from the first gallery of the Wa exhibition at the MCJP, 2008
14This corridor leads to a vast, dimly lit room featuring walls draped with black cloth and pieces of white fabric suspended from the ceiling. The leaflet lists 160 items described as providing a representative panorama of the everyday objects used by Japanese people today. The majority of these objects date from between 1980 and 2008, although a few older celebrated works, such as the Butterfly stool seen at Quai Branly, are also on display.
15The objects are displayed in cases measuring approximately 1.2 metres high and whose width takes up virtually all the space, forming corridors in which visitors circulate. The first six rows, as well as the two platforms at the back, display objects grouped together by functional category. In order, the twelve functional categories are: “tableware”, “bath items”, “home appliances and small electronic devices”, “digital technology”, “toys”, “stationery”, “miscellaneous domestic articles”, “clothing and accessories”, “packaging and bags”, “vehicles”, “furniture”, and finally, “lighting apparatus”. The final three display cases present objects divided according to six “keywords” transcribed into Roman letters and then translated: kawaii (cute), kurafuto (craft), kime (fineness of the grain), tezawari (touch), minimaru (minimal), kokoro kubari (thoughtfulness). According to the brochure these words reflect “concepts, sensations or tastes that are particularly present in Japanese design”. Each of the functional categories and concepts is introduced in a very brief text placed at each end of the display cases. For example, the paragraph explaining the notion of kokoro kubari begins as follows: “In the eyes of the Japanese, thoughtfulness is a virtue as well as a kind of wisdom that enables people to live together in society harmoniously and pleasantly”. Finally, a “discovery space” set back from the main room provides visitors with the opportunity to handle a certain number of objects, including a guitar, some notebooks and a basket.
16In the brochure’s own words the exhibition is characterised by its desire to present a varied collection ‘representing the multitude of objects’ used by the Japanese every day. This results in the coexistence, in the same room, of musical instruments, scale models of cars, pens and a competition swimsuit. Certain objects are the work of famous designers (such as the Hiroshima chair by Fukasawa Naoto), while others come from less well-known agencies. The collection seems rather random.
Fig. 4: One of the “press visuals” from the Wa exhibition at the MCJP
Three of the six objects shown here are food-related
- 3 METI: Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
- 4 JETRO: Japan External Trade Organization.
17The Museum of Decorative Arts regularly hosts design exhibitions. According to the brochure the Kansei exhibition, jointly organised by the METI3 and JETRO4, united the “private, public and academic sectors in a joint push for industrial competitiveness”. The exhibition’s mission is thus to promote the manufacturing of Japanese-designed goods.
18The Kansei exhibition space is divided into three sections within the Nave of the museum. A large hall in the centre contains nine LED screens broadcasting animated images borrowed from illustrated scrolls of the Tale of Genji. Two vast sculptures occupy the space from floor to ceiling: “Ikebana”, created by the Japanese school of floral art Ikenobō, is a structure made from chopsticks; “Scène de Nō” (Noh Stage) is an installation by the designer Kita Toshiyuki which can be dismantled and transported. The presence of large banners bearing calligraphy for the characters “kansei” 感性, as well as a translation of the word (sensibility), completes the venue’s impressive feel.
- 5 See the list of concepts and their translations further on in this article.
19The left-hand gallery of the Nave proposes an exhibition of 104 objects displayed without cases on white platforms of varying heights. The objects are grouped into three themes – “expression”, “movement” and “heart” – each illustrating “kansei values” and linked to four sub-concepts. The themes and concepts are given in Japanese, in kanji or hiragana, before being romanized and then translated. For example, one of the panels reads: “動作, dōsa, movement”.5
20Just as at the MCJP, the objects exhibited reflect a wide variety of usages and values: from animal-shaped elastic bands to fizzy drink cans, furniture, crockery, jewellery and mobile phones, the exhibition covers all manner of “everyday items”. All of these are recent creations (2000s); however, certain purportedly “traditional” models (kettle, tea ceremony whisks, etc.), which are not contemporary design pieces, are also present.
21The opposite gallery is separated into six rooms, four of which present a “master” artisan (in printing, leatherwork or dyeing) and his or her works; the remaining two are dedicated to the works of Japanese graphic designers. Some of the artists are themselves present in the rooms.
22Here too, the exhibition contains an extremely diverse selection of objects. Those in the first gallery are at least as eclectic as those seen at the MCJP; the presence of art installations alongside a presentation of the work of craft workshops further accentuates the diversity of the items exhibited.
23The overall coherence of each exhibition is not immediately apparent. And yet, let us remember, every exhibition carries a message: what view of Japan did the organisers hope to project by selecting such a wide spectrum of objects? Is it possible to identify a link between them?
24The objects exhibited at the MCJP, presented as being representative of what modern-day Japanese people use, are in reality not all for domestic or everyday use. Amongst the crockery, mobile phones, school notebooks and lamps are a sake barrel, a tenori-on (digital musical instrument) and even a reproduction of a park (Moerenuma in Sapporo) designed by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi: it contains several pieces of play equipment and is represented at the exhibition in the “toys” category using photographs.
25In the Kansei exhibition, chairs rub shoulders with watches, a bike, plastic bottles, a therapeutic robot for the infirm, and a four-stringed guitar, all of which are recent creations. Although the aim is to demonstrate the vitality of modern design, the inclusion of a bamboo tea whisk, a fan and Shintō amulets also introduces a supposedly “traditional” dimension.
26The Quai Branly exhibition also juxtaposes objects from a variety of places and periods. The display method chosen merges contemporary and old under the label mingei.
27The overall impression of a mixture of objects is further heightened by the scenography of the exhibitions: indeed, the juxtaposition of objects is accompanied by few explanations and where given they are difficult to access.
28Visitors are provided with few explanations at the MCJP. Aside from a few lines at the entrance under the title “Wa: harmony”, and the brief wall labels introducing each category, the display cases give no indication as to the function or origins of the objects. Only a number refers visitors to a brochure distributed at the entrance and which provides further explanations. However, the brochure is a 40 x 60 cm document folded in eight and featuring photographs of the 160 exhibits with the name of the object, the date it was made, the name of its creator and its function. The font chosen is small and the printing in shades of blue, while the order of the objects occasionally differs from that seen in the exhibition. Needless to say, reading the brochure in the dim exhibition space is no easy task. Furthermore, confusion seems to exist as to the boundaries of the exhibition space: certain items are displayed without cases, notably an oven and a washing machine, and are frequently touched by visitors, who are quickly called to order by museum attendants.
29Signage at the Musée du Quai Branly is not any clearer. Let us remember that the objects are displayed together without distinction, against a white background and under neutral lighting. They are placed at different heights within the display cases. The labels specifying their name, the date they were made and their origin are extremely brief and are placed at the foot of each display case. They carry numbers which in turn can be found on a diagram placed on the floor, in the centre of the display case. The diagram reproduces the layout of the objects in order to link the object with the relevant label. This system renders the information featured on the labels, already brief, even more discreet and difficult to access, as reading it involves bending down. Differences in period, geographical origin or approach (conservation-oriented, art-oriented) are not apparent. Three tiny 10-inch screens showing a series of photographs complete the scenography. A few paragraphs describing the life and intellectual views of Yanagi Sōetsu appear on signs but their contents also appear virtually word-for-word in the small four-page, A5-format brochure. This brochure also carries an interview with Germain Viatte, the only text to place the Folk Crafts Movement in a historical context from the Meiji modernisation to the 1930s. No information is given as to the purpose of the objects.
30In contrast, the scenography of the first gallery of objects at the Museum of Decorative Arts creates a luxurious impression. Lighting is abundant and the objects are displayed without cases on shiny black-and-white stands. The exhibition space is adorned with white calligraphy on black panels which highlights and explains the concepts used. Each object is numbered and given a Japanese title, a date and an origin. However, the objects’ use is not explained in the exhibition itself. For this information visitors must refer to an extensive 53-page brochure, which carries all the exhibition texts in addition to explanations from the organisers. For each exhibit a colour photograph accompanies a paragraph explaining the object’s use and its connection to the associated concept. The sheer quantity of information provided for each object means that visitors are highly unlikely to refer to it systematically.
Fig. 5: Description of animal-shaped rubber bands
These objects are presented in the catalogue in the category mottai. Kansei exhibition, Musée des Arts décoratifs, 2008
31Moreover, Japanese writing, whether syllabaries or Chinese characters, is omnipresent in all three exhibitions, and particularly at the Museum of Decorative Arts. The “concepts” that define the objects are calligraphed in the brochure and on the large vertical panels that hang in the exhibition space. This display technique is used repeatedly throughout the exhibition: each object is associated with a Japanese concept, which is calligraphed and then romanized before possibly being translated and finally explained.
Fig. 6: Presentation of the “value” karoyaka
The brochure associates it with the concept of kokoro. Kansei exhibition, Musée des Arts décoratifs, 2008
32However, this Japanese writing is incomprehensible to the vast majority of French visitors, for most of whom it represents a “silent” script that is more of an obstacle to understanding than a supplementary source of information. Its role is primarily to ensure the visual unity of the exhibitions.
33The confusion of genres and lack of accessible information combine to create an impression of uniformity between the exhibitions, an impression that is supported by the rhetoric employed. The exhibitions continually refer to the entire Japanese population, and reference to a supposedly characteristic “spirit” is recurrent. The MCJP’s press release describes harmony as “a Japanese virtue par excellence” – and thus shared by all Japanese people – that pervades all Japanese-designed goods. The MCJP’s aim is to show what “the Japanese” use on a daily basis. This habit of referring to all Japanese collectively is particularly evident in the case of the Museum of Decorative Arts: for example, kansei is embodied in the sculpture Scène de Nō (Noh Stage), intended to illustrate “the sensibility of the Japanese, who consider the Noh stage to be a profoundly sacred space”. The concepts set out in this exhibition are expressed even more bombastically and stress that these notions are shared by all Japanese people. For example, the word hyōjō 表情 is tortuously described as “what the Japanese refer to as the “expression” of an object”.
34Next I propose to examine the objects themselves and the way they are presented: how is this feeling of unity brought about? What clues point to this?
- 6 Quote taken from the wall text displayed in the “bamboo objects” area.
35The first source of unity in the exhibits is provided by the materials used to make them. The space dedicated to bamboo objects at the Mingei exhibition is revealing. It features pieces of furniture, in particular stools, and combines anonymous items from the Edo period, bought by Charlotte Perriand, with creations by Bruno Taut. The unifying element in this space is thus bamboo, which “seems to embody the archetypal Japanese material for foreigners”6 and unites the objects through its Japaneseness. Similarly, the Japaneseness of objects at the other two exhibitions also seems to stem from the materials in which they were crafted. For example, the MCJP displays a coat “made from rice”, a lacquered speaker, a basket in lacquered stainless steel and crockery made from kimono fabric cast in resin; while the Museum of Decorative Arts displays, among others, a bag made from rice straw, a lacquered telephone and paper lanterns: so many natural materials that are reminiscent of Japan. This phenomenon is echoed in the scenography: the information signs at the Mingei exhibition seem to be made from washi paper and the pieces of fabric hanging from the ceiling at the MCJP have also been designed to resemble this type of paper.
36Japaneseness also seems to be visible in the use of food-related objects. The prevalence of objects belonging to this genre is striking: bowls, soy sauce bottles, rice cookers, teapots, kitchen knives, radish graters, tea whisks, sake cups, cutlery, chopsticks, and so on. The essence of Japanese identity would appear to be linked to what the Japanese eat and how they eat it. Food-related objects thus provide the perfect medium for conveying the exhibitions’ message (Figs. 3 and 4).
37Through the materials used, which constitute partial sources of unity, and the references to food, the Japanese identity of the objects is shaped by elements that make reference to nature; in other words, their identity is presented as being natural.
38The exhibitions echo each other on several points, including the theme of a timeless Japan, the use of the Japanese language to convey specific concepts, and the emphasis on harmony as a value responsible for the quality of Japanese design. All of these point to a “spirit” that appears to reside in the Japanese “heart” or kokoro 心. The brochures and press releases display a real convergence in their discourse on these themes.
- 7 Extract from an introductory speech given at an exhibition in Tokyo at the department store Takashi (...)
39At the Musée du Quai Branly, this timelessness is emphasised from the moment visitors enter the exhibition through the juxtaposition of objects from a variety of periods. Presented in this manner, the Folk Crafts Movement appears to draw inspiration from a “spirit” presented as having travelled down through the ages and being visible in objects rooted in Japanese culture, regardless of their period. In fact, this impression is created by the use of the term “rediscovery” to describe Yanagi Sōetsu’s attempt to promote folk crafts: the use of this word suggests that Yanagi merely brought back to the fore a character (“spiritual” in this case, according to the brochure) that had always distinguished these objects and had simply been forgotten. Finally, the area dedicated to Charlotte Perriand emphasises this continuity between crafts and design by quoting the designer’s words on the subject of mingei: “the spirit of truth that pervades these works is an eternal spirit”.7
- 8 The term wakotoba appears in the documentation for this exhibition but is unattested in Japanese, u (...)
- 9 According to the wording of the press release.
40Similarly, at the MCJP the repeated use of expressions such as “today as in the past”, “since long ago” or “traditional” is striking: they appear in each explanatory text – despite them being brief – and stress the continuity between past and present. The objects and their production methods “retain something of these bygone crafts”. The main concept in the exhibition is that of “wa”, or “harmony”. This concept derives its legitimacy from its old age, particularly as it is often used to refer to Japan, appearing in words such as washi (Japanese paper) and wakotoba (sic, Japanese words):8 the press release reminds visitors that wa first appeared in 604, in the first “Constitution” of Shōtoku Taishi. Modern design is defined by the phrase: “Manufacturing in Japan: when the past enters the future”. Finally, according to the same press release, the scenography designed by the Japanese agency Tonerico “perpetuates the tradition” of the Japanese home by proposing a “minimalist architecture of space”.9
41As for the Museum of Decorative Arts exhibition, it presents the notion of kansei as having been born with the Tale of Genji in the year 1000 and which, having travelled down through the centuries unaltered, has reinvented itself in contemporary design as a “collection of Japanese traditions shaped over time”: it is this that justifies the coexistence in the same space of illustrations from illuminated scrolls and objects from the 2000s. These illustrations presented using modern technology (large LED screens) show animated images in a style that brings to mind the old cinematic film. The style of calligraphy, known as reisho, seen on the panels and in the brochures is archaistic and non-standard. The anachronistic visual effects are designed to strengthen the exhibition’s message, the aim being to show that kansei was “handed down from Genji’s era”, and “has survived throughout the generations until today”. The unchanging nature of Japaneseness thus appears to be one of the main points on which all three exhibitions agree.
- 10 As a reminder: kawaii (cute), kurafuto (craft), kime (fineness of the grain), tezawari (touch), min (...)
42Reliance on the Japanese language represents a further similarity between the three exhibitions, all of which promote concepts presented as being specifically Japanese and difficult to translate. This phenomenon begins with the exhibition titles, which feature Japanese words followed by a colon (:) introducing an explanation that is not necessarily, or not merely, the exact translation of the Japanese term. The title of the exhibition is thus presented from the outset as untranslatable. In order to introduce its classification of the exhibits into six “Japanese” concepts,10 the MCJP’s exhibition brochure states that “just like words, objects reveal our sensibility”. Similarly, the Museum of Decorative Arts presents the terms that convey the “kansei” design sensibility as being uniquely Japanese notions expressed by “words peculiar to the culture and everyday life of the Japanese”. These words are particularly numerous: with four concepts associated with each of the three themes, a total of fifteen Japanese words are presented as the keys to understanding Japanese design (cf. table 1).
43This exhibition also stresses that the fifteen concepts conveying the essence of Japanese design are expressed in purely Japanese words, or “yamato kotoba […], as opposed to kango, or Sino-Japanese words borrowed from classical Chinese”.
44The use of words that are incomprehensible to visitors creates the impression that the concepts themselves are unfathomable. The two are intimately linked: the general curator of the Kansei exhibition hopes that “by the end of the exhibition, the French public will have discovered a new approach to Japanese design and learned a new word: kansei”. Japanese design is presented as being the product of an exclusively Japanese sensibility, an understanding of which can only be achieved by employing the Japanese term.
Table 1: classification of objects by theme and keyword for the Kansei exhibition
keywords associated with the
To go from shadow to light
To eliminate the superfluous
45Presenting Japanese design in this way via concepts that are impenetrable to non-Japanese speakers projects the image of an elusive Japan: sensitive and spiritual, any understanding of it is necessarily intuitive. This Japanese “spirit” visible in the exhibits is characterised by the theme of “harmony”, or wa.
46Harmony is promoted as being a uniquely Japanese concept in all three design exhibitions and in particular at the MCJP, which takes the term as its title. The MCJP defines it as one of the “most highly prized values for Japanese people”. As we saw earlier, the press release quotes the opening line of the 604 Constitution in an effort to support this claim: “Harmony is to be valued and avoidance of wanton opposition is to be honoured”. This historic line refers to a notion of social harmony, yet the exhibitions associate it with the idea of aesthetic harmony. Indeed, this conception of wa enables a fusion of old and modern elements, or even industry and crafts, and is presented as being responsible for the characteristic high quality of Japanese design. The exhibition’s scenography is inspired by the same idea, with the organisers describing the understated black-and-white exhibition space as “extremely Japanese”, in that it is characterised by “beauty, order and harmony”.
47The Museum of Decorative Arts exhibition also mentions harmony, describing it as “an element of Japan’s spiritual and traditional culture” and a spirit of fusion that distinguishes Japanese design. As for the Musée du Quai Branly, although it does not explicitly stress the term, the idea of a fusion and symbiosis between folk crafts and modern design once again underpins its message, allowing the museum to feature the works of famous designers alongside folk objects.
48The essence of the “spirit” portrayed in the three exhibitions resides in the “heart” of the Japanese people. This notion of kokoro was promoted in the eighteenth century by so-called “national studies” or kokugaku. The result of a backlash against Chinese influence, this search for a native Japanese essence led – through reinterpretations of eighth-century texts such as the Kojiki or the Man’yōshū – to the emergence of the concept of kokoro as an intuitive understanding of things, with rational understanding a feature of Chinese logic.
- 11 I will return to this vague turn of phrase later.
49This “heart” is present more or less explicitly in all three exhibitions: it can be found in the “kokoro kubari” of exhibits at the MCJP, conveyed through the “thoughtfulness” of the designer towards the user. According to the Kansei brochure, to understand an object’s design one must perceive “the movement that takes place in the gesture or heart”11 of the creator: hence the concept of dōsa or “movement”.
50When touching an object “it is not rare for the user to begin to feel an emotion”: kokoro is an emotion that passes between creator and user. In its description of a reed-shaped lamp, the brochure states that “for the Japanese, seeing the pale beige Eulalia grass gently swaying in the breeze evokes autumn and creates a feeling of transience with regards the passing of time”. The Kansei exhibition’s repeated use of yamato kotoba to refer to “representations that are perceived by the five senses” and which, according to the brochure, are written solely in the hiragana syllabary and not with Chinese characters, also stems from the concept of kokoro, the purity of which is associated with its native origins.
51Although the kokoro seen in these exhibitions relates to aesthetic considerations, it also evokes the physical dimension of the heart as an organ. It is the physical place where the “Japanese spirit” takes shape. Indeed, the Musée du Quai Branly carries on the work of Yanagi Sōetsu by striving to “show the beauty of everyday objects and their spiritual dimension”, which reveals “the spirit of the people”. Kansei is a “rich sensibility”, a kind of “philosophy” on which the exhibition attempts to “lift the veil”. The MCJP’s brochure also presents this spirit as being extremely mysterious, questioning “why at first glance we perceive a design as being typically Japanese, without knowing exactly why”.
52Both the Wa and Kansei exhibitions were designed by Japanese people; as for the Quai Branly exhibition, although organised by a French institution, it originated in the Japanese museum that supplied the exhibits along with their inherent message. When all is said and done, the messages relayed by the three exhibitions resemble each other and are based on the same arguments. Where does this discourse fit in to the panorama of images of Japan produced by the Japanese themselves?
53All three exhibitions are consistent in disseminating the idea of an ahistorical Japan, a Japanese language that alone is capable of conveying exclusively Japanese concepts, and a Japanese “spirit” characterised by the notions of harmony and heart. These references echo the theories put forward in so-called “Nihonjinron” 日本人論, in which the same arguments can be found.
- 12 Jacqueline Pigeot, « Les Japonais peints par eux-mêmes » (The Japanese as Portrayed by Themselves), (...)
- 13 In particular Iki no kōzō by Kuki Shūzō, published in 1930, in which the author defines a specifica (...)
54A body of culturalist works written by the Japanese about themselves, Nihonjinron are defined by Jacqueline Pigeot as “essays that, since the war, the Japanese have devoted to analysing their unique national characteristics, their society and their culture”.12 This genre, which is identified and labelled as such in bookshops, emerged after the war and experienced a boom in the 1960s, spurred on by the post-war economic miracle. It should been noted, however, that similar literature in terms of both form and content has existed since the beginning of the twentieth century.13
- 14 Harumi Befu, Hegemony of Homogeneity: An Anthropological Analysis of Nihonjinron, Melbourne, Trans (...)
55Still buoyant today, this genre comprises thousands of titles: Harumi Befu has identified diverse forms running the entire gamut of literature from scientific studies through to popular essays: books, academic papers, magazine and newspaper articles combine to constitute a mass cultural phenomenon.14 Befu has also established a typology of the main ideas upon which these treatises on the Japanese rely. It transpires that they are identical to the ones I identified in the three Paris exhibitions.
- 15 Pigeot, op. cit., p. 23.
56First of all, the ahistorical nature of the Japanese essence is a central tenet of Nihonjinron discourse. Any historical rough patches are passed over in silence. Pigeot quotes authors such as Umesao Tadao and Nishio Kanji, whose literature “preaches Japanese immutability”.15
- 16 Befu, op. cit., p. 35.
- 17 Ibid., p. 36.
57Secondly, a language-based argument emerges which Befu deems to be inevitably at the heart of Nihonjinron texts, for the fundamental Japanese traits they highlight are expressed in Japanese using concepts that are purportedly difficult to translate16. Driving this argument of uniqueness through language is the idea that Japanese is spoken only by the Japanese, and by all Japanese: Befu describes this as the perfect isomorphism between linguistic area (native Japanese speakers), land (inhabitants of the country) and culture. The resulting suggestion is that the logic of the Japanese language differs from Western languages and, consequently, that its speakers’ pattern of thinking must also be fundamentally different.17
- 18 Pigeot, op. cit., p. 30.
- 19 Befu, op. cit., pp. 32-33.
58Finally, the essence of Japanese identity, according to Nihonjinron discourse, is intuition and is correlated with the use of themes such as harmony and the heart. Pigeot describes harmony as a “dogma” around which Japan’s social structure, as depicted in Nihonjinron, is organized.18 As for kokoro being the cradle of the essence of Japanese culture, Befu describes it as an immanent notion, a “substance” in the quintessence of Japan and which reflects a feeling of nostalgia for a pure and original Japan.19
- 20 For example, the Nihonjinron of Suzuki Hideo contrasts the forest landscapes of Japan with the dese (...)
59Given that these exhibitions draw on Nihonjinron rhetoric, they may be described as adopting the same approach. Nihonjinron have a uniform structure and paint a conventional picture of Japanese culture: a uniquely Japanese paradigm is identified (environmental, linguistic or psychological, for example) which subsequently allows the author to give an “impressionistic” description of various aspects of Japanese culture rather than a dialectic presentation.20 The same process underlies the three exhibitions, which construct similar discourses on Japan using concepts established as paradigms: mingei at Quai Branly, wa at the MCJP and kansei at the Museum of Decorative Arts.
60Although the homogeneous character of the exhibitions is presented as stemming from the objects exhibited, it is simply the product of a scenography and rhetoric that draw on Nihonjinron discourse and bring together a miscellaneous collection of objects.
61This rhetoric is supported by standardised turns of phrase and a strenuous hammering home of the museums’ arguments. At the MCJP, variations on the theme of “harmony” appear in every sentence; the rhetoric of symbiosis and fusion (of values, manufacturing processes, etc.) proves to be fertile ground for most of the articles written by the curators and also features in the press release. The Musée du Quai Branly hinges its explanations (of the scenography and brochure) on the semantic fields of anonymity, spirituality and the folk. As for the Kansei exhibition, the large number of texts used to support the exhibition’s message renders the standardised wording particularly obvious: keywords such as sensibility, spirit, nature, tradition and philosophy abound in the brochure. They are occasionally combined in phrasing that verges on abstruse: take the earlier example of dōsa, described as the “movement that takes place in the gesture or heart [of the creator]”; or “aesthetic sense [is] developed within a culture that is intensely present”. Furthermore, the paragraphs describing the exhibits systematically employ the related Japanese concept and are thus particularly repetitive. The exhibition brochures do not appear to be designed to be read extensively by visitors. Accordingly, repetitive and standardised wording serves a communicative purpose: whatever passage is read, the essence of the exhibition’s message is sure to be conveyed.
62However, the exhibitions, and thus the accompanying texts – at least in the case of Wa and Kansei – were developed by Japanese institutions. The Museum of Decorative Arts exhibition was entirely orchestrated by the METI and is part of a wider initiative – launched in May 2007 and entitled “Kansei Value Creation” – to promote Japanese industry overseas. The Museum of Decorative Arts does not appear to have been involved in the process of developing the Paris exhibition. As for the MCJP, it usually presents exhibitions that have either been developed internally in Paris or partly in advance by the Japan Foundation. However, in the case of the Wa exhibition, the Japanese headquarters were responsible for virtually all decision-making, since Wa is a “travelling exhibition” designed to be presented in several countries. All of the exhibition curators were therefore Japanese and even the scenography, which is usually entrusted to a French agency, was on this occasion developed by a Japanese agency. From the objects selected to their transportation and contact with the companies who made them, every detail was managed by the Foundation’s Tokyo headquarters. The texts used in exhibitions are generally based on a Japanese outline provided by the Foundation, which leaves the French team the task of translating, expanding and adapting the content to the French public. However, on this occasion the MCJP was instructed to merely translate the texts, which were also considerably shorter than usual.
- 21 Befu, op. cit., p. 78.
- 22 Pigeot, op. cit., p. 32.
63All of this reflects what Befu describes as the characteristically “prescriptive” nature of Nihonjinron.21 Indeed, Befu posits that the phenomena catalogued in Nihonjinron and the theories they give rise to are presented as observations, whereas in reality they represent a “positive ideal”: the Japanese described in these treatises and their associated characteristics become normative standards. The same view is expressed by Pigeot, who asserts that the Nihonjinron that stress social consensus are less “objects for analysis” and rather “incantations” (formules conjuratoires) repeated without explanation.22 The Japanese institutions organising the exhibitions stipulated the image of Japan that was to be disseminated in France. The Japan Foundation expressed a clear desire to allow the objects to “speak for themselves” in order to reveal an intuitive Japan, similar to the one portrayed in Nihonjinron, and to impose it on the Parisian public.
64At the Musée du Quai Branly, on the other hand, although the objects were provided by a Japanese museum, the curators stress their independence from the Mingeikan, both financially and in terms of the exhibition’s design. And yet, as we saw, its message resembles that of the other exhibitions. The image projected by Japan to the West has thus been perfected assimilated. This appropriation illustrates the mirror effect provided by the Other in the construction of Japanese identity.
- 23 Christian Simenc, « La beauté de l’utile » (The Beauty of the Useful), AD. Architectural Digest, no (...)
65Japanese-produced discourse on Japan’s cultural identity was thus implemented and taken up in France by the museums, which in turn communicated it to the public. In the case of the Musée du Quai Branly, despite having organised the exhibition independently, what resulted was nonetheless a message guided by and featuring the same arguments as the two exhibitions produced in Japan. What is more, in the case of all three exhibitions this message was accepted and disseminated to the general public. This is particularly obvious in press coverage on the exhibitions, with articles on the exhibitions employing the same vocabulary used in the press releases. Occasionally the wording is strictly identical, suggesting a simple copy-and-paste of the source material. However, a special issue of AD (Architectural Digest) devoted to Japanese design featured views that reveal a real appropriation of Nihonjinron rhetoric:23
What if the essence of design was well and truly to be found in Japan? Sometimes, without knowing exactly why, we are able to pick out those objects made in Japan from a myriad of others from around the world. It is as if, despite intense globalisation, the eye was able to recognise that “little something” that is eminently Japanese.
66Sensibility, intuitive understanding, harmony and timelessness: the same themes reappear and form the blueprint for the image of Japan constructed in France.
- 24 Befu, op. cit., p. 82.
67To be precise, the Japanese identity put forward in Nihonjinron discourse is both intended for and validated by overseas dissemination. This definition of the self is only valid because it is accepted by the outside. This is why, according to Befu, the Japanese Government expends so much energy propagating Nihonjinron overseas by financing English translations24 or, in this case, culturalist exhibitions.
- 25 Michael Lucken, L’art du Japon au vingtième siècle (Japanese Art in the Twentieth Century), Paris, (...)
- 26 Laurence Caillet, op. cit., p. 9-34.
- 27 Shiraha Akemi 白羽明美, “Ke buranrī bijutsukan tenrankai hōkoku. Furansu, Pari tokubetsu-ten o oete” ケ・ (...)
68The exhibitions Wa, Mingei and Kansei simply re-launch an exchange of images between Japan and the West that predates them in the definition of Japanese identity. It is a complex game of mirrors that operates on a principle of contact and reaction in both directions and on a wide historical scale. Japan developed its self-image through permanent comparison with foreign countries. Michael Lucken illustrated this fact through the example of the formulation of artistic concepts at the end of the nineteenth century;25 Laurence Caillet also notes that in order for current theories produced by the Japanese about Japan to be successful, they must first make a detour via Western research.26 This movement is illustrated by an article written by a French-side curator at the Musée du Quai Branly, published in the journal Mingei in Japan to demonstrate the exhibition’s reception in France.27 The curator ascribes the exhibition’s success to the museum having adapted its content to a French public. In other words, the Japan presented in the exhibition was a hit because it corresponded to a highly photogenic image of Japan, to which the French public is very receptive: the mirror effect is never-ending.
69This view of Japanese identity embraces two paradoxical and complementary positions. Being purely Japanese it excludes foreigners, who are incapable of understanding it; but at the same time, being spiritual in nature, the Japanese essence has a universal vocation, the aim being to disseminate it as widely as possible throughout the world.
70Nihonjinron are based consistently, if only implicitly, on comparison and contrast with the West. Indeed, the message communicated by the three exhibitions is presented as concerning the entire Japanese population and all other nationalities are excluded from understanding this identity. An anecdote at the Musée du Quai Branly introducing its “bamboo objects” clearly suggests the inaccessibility of Japanese concepts to foreigners: it is said that Yanagi Sōetsu considered the objects bought by Charlotte Perriand to be in extremely bad taste!
- 28 In reality this should read “kokoro kubari”.
71This exclusion of foreigners is also visible in the explanation of AD journalists that understanding the defining characteristics of Japanese design can only be achieved through “Japanese semantics”. One journalist lists the Japanese concepts side by side without translating them and muses ironically over their impenetrableness (“Kawaii, kurafuto, minimaru… only that!”). Further on he writes that “kokoroburaki28 [is] a virtue that verges on wisdom”. The Japanese term has not been employed for precision, as the syllables have been carelessly mixed up. Instead, this use of the Japanese concept seems to stem from a taste for the exotic. Finally, he concludes that “the mystery of the Japanese item nonetheless remains to be solved”, confirming once and for all the insurmountable differences between the Japanese and the rest of the world – the main premise of Nihonjinron.
72However, this uniquely Japanese essence has a universal raison d’être. The aforementioned article published in the journal Mingei claims that the exhibition’s greatest virtue is to have fascinated the public with the “universal message” it contained: from the “silent words” of the objects emerged a “truth shared with the West”. The text, written by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry as the introduction to the exhibition brochure, presents the kansei sensibility as a concept “elucidated” by Japan and which is destined to be “spread throughout the world”. Although the roots of this rhetoric can be traced back to an essentialised Japan, it nonetheless has international aspirations.
73When Japanese design is presented as a symbiosis between past and present, or craft and industry, it establishes itself as a model. The aim is not merely to project an image of Japan to the outside world, but equally to show that the qualities of this Japan are an example to follow, in this instance for design everywhere. Similarly, the showcasing of international designers at the Mingei exhibition demonstrates that foreigners moved to Japan in order to draw inspiration from a uniquely Japanese essence that enabled them to elevate their work to a level that transcended borders, and even time itself: this “higher level” is attained thanks to the fusion of values made possible by the concept of “wa”.
74An article on the three exhibitions published in the French newspaper Libération raised these issues, quoting the words of the fashion designer Issey Miyake in its introduction: “Measures can be imagined that would enable us to rebuild the nation based on a design that has its place all around the world”.29 Design appears to provide the ideal foundation for the international aspirations of those wishing to promote a Japanese essence.
75The three exhibitions Mingei, Wa and Kansei all fall into the framework of, and in fact themselves constitute, Nihonjinron. The Japan presented at the exhibitions is the same one theorised about in Nihonjinron literature, while the exhibitions contribute to the promotion of this Japan abroad. They draw on the same arguments and methods of persuasion. Through their being held in Paris in the winter of 2008, the acceptance of their message and the coverage they received in the media, they illustrated and revived the image created by Japan in comparison of itself with the West.
76Germain Viatte summed up the message of the Mingei exhibition in two paragraphs during a brief interview with an art magazine: he successively mentioned Japan’s characteristic “spiritual dimension” and his desire to illustrate “the universal nature of the techniques”.30 The juxtaposition of these two ideas indicates that they provide the basic framework underpinning the exhibition’s message: Japanese essence and universalism. I demonstrated that these ideas in fact constitute two threads running through the discourses produced by the museums and those who in turn relayed them. However, more generally speaking, discourse on the universal nature of the Japanese model appears to be a constituent part of culturalist theories.
- 31 Bernard Stevens, « Ambitions japonaises, nouvel asiatisme et dépassement de la modernité » (Japanes (...)
77This process is not a neutral one. According to the philosopher Bernard Stevens it can be problematic in that it revives the theme of Japan’s “overcoming of modernity”, which carries an “ideological slant” he deems dangerous.31 Indeed, he recalls how during the 1930s and 1940s Kyoto School philosophers used this theme to justify ultra-nationalism and imperialism. The search for Japanese specificity was accompanied by a “reinterpretation of Hegel’s philosophy of history” in which Japan was placed in “the ultimate position in the advent of the Spirit”. Here the “spiritual vocation” was merely a pretext; the universalist plan, on the contrary, was entirely concrete in that it aimed to put each nation back in its rightful place, with Japan at their head. This “overcoming of modernity”, the title of the famous 1942 symposium, today expresses itself in what Stevens terms a “new Asiatism”. What makes it disturbing is the way it has been hijacked by neo-nationalists, for whom Japan’s economic strength is correlated with the universal vocation of Japanese culture.
78Accordingly, although caution appears to be necessary regarding the potential political and ideological implications, Stevens concedes that the idea of a universal Japanese essence nonetheless remains welcome in certain fields, such as aesthetics. My analysis of the exhibitions Mingei, Wa and Kansei shows how design represents an ideal means of developing this rhetoric.
79Culture as an intangible essence is presented here as being embodied in tangible objects. Retracing the selection process sheds light on the “world view” that underpins and transcends these objects. Stevens’ historical contextualisation thus serves as a warning: the manipulation of Japanese identity/otherness described here has implications that extend well beyond the museums’ doors.