Before I went to Japan, I thought I was a bit of a perfectionist. But during my first summer in Kyoto, when my conversation partner pulled out her agenda to pencil in our next session in minuscule handwriting that only a mouse could read, I realized I had a long way to go.
Fast forward to 2017. I'm in Japan in the final year of my master's degree, building wooden furniture inspired by Japanese joinery. "Ugh, these drill holes are all over the place. I'll never graduate with this shoddy craftsmanship," I thought to myself. The source of my frustration: I had marked my drill hole 0.4mm off from the accurate position, throwing off the entire join to an unacceptable degree. Pro tip - if you want to become a perfectionist, measuring in millimeters is a good place to start. None of this "1/32 of an inch" nonsense.
What could have prompted this sort of transformation, you may ask? Well, living in Japan for four years certainly didn't hurt. While classmates in the U.S. called me a perfectionist and classmates in Spain told me I needed to be more laid back ("tranquila!"), classmates in Japan were amused by how "teki-tō" (適当, haphazard） I was. I soon learned that in my formative years I had been completely blind to the real extent of the possibilities of perfection. Being constantly surrounded by the Japanese standard of perfection made me realize the importance of precision and meticulousness when crafting beautiful and functional objects. Now I know what makes the difference between mediocre objects and those of superior quality.
So all that stuff you hear about Japan quality? Yeah, it's true. And not surprising, coming from a country whose culture values teinei-sa (丁寧さ, carefulness, thoroughness) so much. No kidding, it was the theme of a design project I did in collaboration with MUJI. Although I still have a long way to go, as evidenced by the work of Japan's master craftsmen such as those at Ishitani Furniture, I'm committed to a path of continuous improvement (改善, kaizen). In the meantime, I'll always be grateful for the Japanese education I received on perfection, and I'll do my best! (頑張ります！ganbarimasu!)
The Japanese obsession with removing your shoes and its influence on the evolution of furniture design
You might know that in Japan people always remove their shoes before entering a home or certain other buildings (including primary and secondary schools). But did you know that this one cultural practice had a huge impact on the development (or lack thereof) of furniture design in traditional Japan?
To be honest, until very recently I didn't quite understand the obsessive need to remove your shoes every time you enter your house. Yes, in theory it makes sense to keep the house clean. But I think many foreigners in Japan can relate to the frustration of having to unlace and re-lace your shoes every time you forget one thing before heading out (I started using my sneakers as slip-ons...). I didn't really get what the big deal was - why can't you just clean the floor more often?
Well, it's official! I'll soon be moving to Fukuoka, Japan. After a couple of years of working towards this goal, I was finally successful and had the amazing fortune to receive a research scholarship from the Japanese government. When people ask me why I became interested in Japan and learning the language, my answer is always, "Japanese design." It's kind of a fun story actually...