Japan: Brand Japan

Sosuke Koyama tracks the way Japan's collective society has influenced Western life and is itself being influenced by its own cross-cultural rebels.

If an English woman were spotted walking down Regent Street in Victorian dress, people would think she was either mad, a drag queen or on her way to a fancy dress party.

In Japan, however, it's not unusual to see young Japanese women, clad in traditional kimonos, shopping for foreign luxury goods while gossiping on state-of-the-art mobile phones. They seem intriguing, yet strangely natural, in a country where the past has bled into the present.

In today's Japan, zombie-like companies continue to drain the economy and politicians fail to provide decent leadership. Yet it is increasingly evident that there is something about Japan's "Japaneseness" that has the potential to be its meal-ticket out of a decade-long post-bubble hangover.

"Brand Japan" has evolved throughout its history. Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo in 1888, wrote: "It is a true religion which these simple Japanese teach us, who live in nature as though they themselves were flowers." So intrigued was van Gogh by Japan that he collected Japanese prints and incorporated their distinctive style into his own art.

Van Gogh was one of many influenced by Japan as it shed its isolationist stance in the late 19th century and began a frantic process of adopting Western technology to stand its ground against unequal treatment by Western imperialist powers. At the same time, it began sharing its crafts and culture with the outside world.

Indeed, brand Japan offered the West a very different lens through which to view the world. Japan's social group structure versus the US's rugged individualism. Its social religion couldn't have been more different from Western religion's focus on individual redemption. Its flattened perspective and two-dimensional, linear style in art jarred with an emphasis on central perspective and realism in the West. For the first time in its history, Japan had provided the raw materials for Western artists and thinkers to change the way they looked at the world ("Japonisme", as the craze was dubbed in the 1870s).

But, of course, Japan's influence on art and culture seems tiny compared with its contribution to reshaping the world of technology. In 1962, brand Japan meant low-quality goods, not high-quality inventions. Then a fledgling electronics company from Japan opened its first showroom in Manhattan.

Akio Morita, a founder of a small electronics company called Sony, hung a Japanese flag above the entrance. So intrigued were visitors by his showroom that Sony's new 13cm micro-TV flew off his shelves and into US living rooms. Brand Japan's journey to becoming a manufacturing juggernaut had begun.

By the end of the 20th century, while Western auto workers were smashing Japanese-made cars with baseball bats, their bosses were diligently studying and emulating Japanese business methods, and brand Japan was offering refreshingly original business processes rooted in its society, and interesting products too.

Japan preached the benefits of processes such as "Just-in-time", a manufacturing system first introduced by Toyota, which saved assembly plants time and space, and horizontal organisational structures began to change the way Western corporations ran themselves. Japan's business processes, born out of unique aspects of its culture, became just as exportable as its seductive technological eye-candy.

Today, though, as many Japanese become jaded and cynical about the virtues of Japan's old collective ways of doing things, mavericks have increasingly fallen under the spotlight.

On one level, these individuals do what all creators do; mix and match disparate ideas that are totally different, but relevant. Yet these Japanese mavericks do so with great fluidity, perhaps because their culture has been doing this for centuries.

Contemporary brand Japan consists of Japanese individuals who have broken free from the grip of a collective society and taken the tradition of mixing cultures to include a wider spectrum - time, context, space, social boundaries ... the list is growing.

Nigo mixed the kitsch pop-culture of Planet of the Apes and hip-hop sneakers with high fashion; Issey Miyake did the same thing with fashion and kimono fabric; Takeshi Kitano combined extreme violence with comedy in his films; Haruki Murakami married hard-boiled fiction with surrealism - all to world acclaim.

Why is this ability to fold one extreme into another now so powerful?

Perhaps because it chimes with our modern sense of alienation and irony; it is refreshingly tongue-in-cheek in the face of a mad, bad, exciting world. This is the new youth dream - creating and blending, mixing and matching, an expression of individualism. This is far more relevant to youth today than the American dream of rebellion against authority. After all, how do you rebel against anything if you are free?

If this art is practiced by more Japanese companies, brand Japan can offer the world a refreshing counterbalance to the serious, almost fundamentalist world of nations such as the US. At its worst, Japan's collective society tends to promote conservatism and a risk-averse environment that smothers the individual. However, when this society learns to allow for playful individual expression, amazing bursts of creative energy are released.

Where else can you find companies creating video games that mix Japanese history and horror (Onimusha)? Modern ink-jet printing technology being used to make funky kimono designs (Okinuyasan)? Cutting-edge woodcraft used to create the perfect ping-pong paddle (Butterfly)? Or see a woman in a kimono walking around the city, just because it's fun to play with fashion? Only in Japan.

- Sosuke Koyama is a strategic planner at Bartle Bogle Hegarty Tokyo.