Naoki Ito, co-founder of the Tokyo-based creative lab, Party, gives an insider’s insight into Japanese creativity.
The export of Japanese culture is experiencing a renaissance, whether it’s American frenzy with the massive new Uniqlo store on Fifth Avenue in New York, or global respect for the grace and solidarity with which the country handled the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. To crack the code of creative culture in Japan, Think Quarterly sat down with Naoki Ito, co-founder of the Tokyo-based creative lab, Party, for a wide-ranging discussion about silence, Japan’s future, and even toilets.
Think Quarterly: What’s the latest thinking in Japan with regard to creative ideas? Where is Japan leading and what is its unique perspective?
Naoki Ito: The best, most unique aspect of Japanese creativity is the silence, an appreciation for the impact of what you don’t say or show in your art or your words. This is a contrast with the Western way; non-Japanese people tend to fill the silence with noise.
What is the source of this inclination? How has it developed?
It comes from more than a thousand years of self-reflection. We are introspective, we go to Buddhist temples to think and to meditate. We’ve all been brought up to value these things. So even when we create advertising, we put this into our thinking.
You have these internal meetings where the creative guy doesn’t even speak a word, and the account management guys are getting fidgety because there isn’t any talk. Party is a bit more multi-national but there are still meetings where there are 20 minutes of pure silence. When we tried to come up with a name for our company, one candidate was ‘Silence.’ So you can see that silence is a big part of what we do here in Japan in the advertising industry.
There is indeed silence and minimalism in a lot of the best advertising, museum exhibits, and architectural design in Japan, but anyone who has walked through Shibuya crossing or Shinjuku would get a very different impression of the design aesthetic in Japan. When you ask most people about Tokyo, the first images that comes to mind are the neon signs, blaring music, and advertisements.
At the other extreme of silence, you have something called waizatsu: A vulgar mix of visual and aural noise. It’s a dichotomy, two separate styles of our culture.
Waizatsu is a complex word in Japanese; it’s a mixture of ‘noisy’, ‘bright’, and ‘in your face’, but it’s also degraded. You see it in Kabukicho, in Shinjuku, or Shibuya [the famous entertainment neighborhoods in Tokyo] with blistering lights and advertising. It’s not like the night lights of Las Vegas, which are relatively clean and organized.
But while waizatsu certainly exists, I do believe that silence is what’s unique about Japan. Maybe the closest comparison would be to the minimalist design coming out of the Scandinavian countries. You don’t see this much in the West or in other parts of Asia.
“We seek to find harmony by bringing ourselves around to the viewpoints of others, rather than trying to change others’ minds. The different values and beliefs among the Japanese have helped Japan get back on its feet again.”
In the face of economic stagnation in the last couple decades and unfavorable demographic change, much has been said about the need for Japanese business, political, and other leaders to think and act more creatively in order to ensure Japan's continued success in the next century. Do you think that this is already happening and if so, what are some of the signs that you can point to?
While we certainly have much to do to move the country forward, I would question one of the premises of this question by evaluating the differing role of leaders in Japan, vis-à-vis the West. I would argue that it is opposite to Japanese values when you have a leader like President Obama saying, ‘Let’s go this way,’ and then having people follow him. In Japan, just because a leader says, ‘Yes we can,’ it would be hard to believe that the whole Japanese society would say it with him. For better or worse, we seek to find harmony by bringing ourselves around to the viewpoints of others, rather than trying to change others’ minds. It is essential that we have a leader that can respect the differences as much as preach the vision of one goal he or she has towards the country.
But at the same time, look at how we have dealt with the challenges facing us. We pulled together and responded gracefully to the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and in spite of pronouncements of doom over the last decades of low economic growth, we have retained our values, quality of life, and respect for each other. The different values and beliefs among the Japanese have helped Japan get back on its feet again.
Your job and passion is to be one of the most creative people in the world. How do you ensure that you always have fresh ideas? What routines do you have to make sure your mind stays creative?
I believe in the importance of process and of pushing oneself to the limit. There’s a culture in Japan called ohenro-san where you visit 88 temples to come up with a vision. And there’s a phrase in baseball, the ‘hundred knocks,’ which means a player needs to catch 100 ground balls that his coach hits –in a row. It pushes one to the extreme limit, but it makes him really focused and gives him a routine. When the game comes, he will catch the ground ball. Similarly for me, if I don’t have a routine to push myself, my focus blurs. When I am tuned, I have a clear vision of what I need to do.
At Party, our ohenro-san, our hundred knocks, is called ‘story as the process.’ When we push ourselves and have a great tuning, we have a clear vision of what we need to do.
Is there a creative project from Japan that is also a good example of global leadership?
Washlet toilets. It’s a toilet, but it’s a good example of how we harmonize technology and the environment. If you look at toilets in hotels around the world, they’re usually pretty roughly made – there is no care, no thought put into them. The Neorest toilet, with heating, various options for washing, and automatic toilet seat lifting, recognizes that you can make this formerly rudimentary and crude experience just as graceful as the hotel lobby. The attention to details in the technology of Japan is really unique, and I think in the next 10 years, the washlet toilet will be thought of as the cool thing in town around the world.