japanese culture: a reflection

Japan is a country of contradictions. They claim to recognise themselves as part of the natural world and yet their cities are huge urban jungles. Their minimalist design contrasts heavily with the modern Kawaii and Harajuku culture, which are deliberate protests. But it takes a while to realise that these contradictions are what makes Japan so incredible. Through the conflict there is a balance which exposes the connection of everything in the universe. It seems more authentic because everything is explored, contrasted and considered. The design culture in Japan is more than just aesthetic, it is lifestyle and tradition. Their design principles involve complex concepts, like ‘Ma’, which enable designs to be effective and innate. There is also a fascination with state altering spaces which I was able to experience in Japanese ‘strolling gardens’, temples and some modern art. These places come from a desire to create tranquility, contemplation and reflection, activities essential to Buddhist practises.

One artist who captured my interest was Lee Ufan and his museum, designed by renown Tadao Ando, on Naoshima Island. Ufan’s work is extremely visceral and simple. It focuses on the space, the structure and colours of a room and most importantly, lighting. In one room natural light was shown in a precise square and was filtered to appear like water. In this way Ufan is able to instill an energy, or vibrations as he calls it, to make his viewers become still and take in their environment with a new perspective. Ufan’s artwork has a centering and healing air. The state transference put me in the perfect headspace for meditation and a time away from my thoughts. One’s breathing becomes essential, which links to Buddhist practises of meditation and concentration. Blood pumps through your system and your heart beat slows down. It is in those moments where deep insights are made. Rather than becoming a means of communication, like most of western art is, Ufan aims to imbue a feeling or sensation. In this way the artwork shifts away from an ego centric creation by the artist and becomes a gift of time.

Ufan says that; “when people train their mind and spirit in a rigorous way they attain a sense of reverence toward the world and toward death. A sense of awe and respect.” (Ufan, 2014) Ufan, and many other Japanese artists and designers (Yakumo Saryo with Simplicity) want the experiencer to feel the awe and respect for the world. At the same time it is obvious that Ufan is referring to Zen Buddhist practise and the intense discipline needed to transcend themselves through meditation. Before we left Sydney I did a presentation on ‘Daruma'. I have always been fascinated by Daruma and how sculptures and imagery can become sources of motivation. Through my research for the assessment I learnt about Bodhidarma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. His determination to find enlightenment through meditation paralleled my determination to become a better designer and person. I could understand it from a ignorant Western perspective. State transcendence also occurs when you engage the flow state. Technically skilled artists, crafters and even athletes can fall into an automatic state where there is no consciousness. This could be the purest translation of the body. Since having this insight in Japan I have experimented with accessing this unconscious action in my design practise. It is a new approach for my material investigations.

My design has always been inspired by small, subtle and visceral aspects of our natural world. Only after my reading of ‘Wabi Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers’ For Philosophers and Designers’ did I realise that I had been following an old, traditional way of seeing the world. It’s about how you hold a dialogue with your environment. This is the most important insight I gained. Japanese design has taught me that it’s not how you say something but rather what you include and leave out in your design that makes your work effective.



Koren, L. 1994, ‘Wabi Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers’, Stone Bridge Press, California.

Ufan, L. 2012, Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity, Documentary, Michael Blackwood Productions, New York.
Watts, A. 1989, Way of Zen, Vintage Books, New York.