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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Top creators call for museums to save nation's modern heritage


Staff writer

What do industrial design, architecture, manga, anime, video games and traditional craft techniques have in common? Well, apart from each having spawned some of Japan's most popular cultural exports, the similarity is this: Japan has no national museums dedicated to their preservation, display and study.

Kinnikuman Exhibition
Heavyweights: A visitor enjoys the Kinnikuman (Muscle-man) Exhibition (above), which finishes today at Tokyo Anime Center in Akihabara, while Issey Miyake (right in photo, below) says that he, architect Tadao Ando (left) and sculptor Isamu Noguchi (center) discussed the need for a national design museum for Japan during this meeting at Noguchi's show in New York in 1988. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO (above); 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT
Issey Miyake, Tadao Ando, Isamu Noguchi

Yet, as many international tourists and foreign residents scratch their heads in wonder that this country could so neglect its cultural treasures, the national government still has no firm plans to rectify the situation.

Now some miffed, big-name commentators have been spurred to action — or at least to talking to The Japan Times. Here are the proposals of three of them.

A National Museum of Manga, Anime and Video Games?

Masakazu Kubo is the executive producer at the Tokyo Anime Center, one of the several private and local-government-funded museums that have sprung up over the last few years in honor of Japan's popular arts of manga and anime. But he nevertheless firmly believes that the national government should establish a new museum for such art forms.

"At the moment, information is spread out around many small institutions. All of the arts — anime, manga and games — are closely related, so they need to be brought together in one national facility," he said.

While Kubo's Tokyo Anime Center focusses on — you guessed it — anime, others, such as the Kyoto International Manga Museum, have proved popular for their huge collections, too.

Kubo said a national facility covering both of these art forms — and video games — would provide a portal for international visitors wanting to learn about these fields in which Japan leads the world. "When people come from overseas now, there is not really anywhere for them to go," he said.

He also made an unusual comparison: "No one knows exactly how the pyramids were built, right?" he asked. So, he suggested, a danger exists that in years to come people will forget how anime and related arts got where they are now. "The connections between traditional and contemporary arts need to be documented clearly in a museum — likewise the connections between technological developments and types of video games," he said. "If those connections are not spelled out now, they will be lost."

One need only remember the case of Japan's Film Center (within the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo) to realize that the threat of loss is real. By the time it got its archive off the ground (in the mid 1980s), 90 percent of Japan's prewar films had vanished, never to be seen again.

A National Museum of Design?

Fashion designer Issey Miyake recalls that the idea of a national design museum first developed in conversations between himself, architect Tadao Ando, graphic designer Ikko Tanaka and the late sculptor Isamu Noguchi way back in the late 1970s and '80s.

"People overseas would ask me where they should go to learn about Japanese design," he recalled at a recent symposium in Tokyo.

In 2003 — a year after Tanaka died — Miyake revived the idea in an Asahi Shimbun article.

Kimono on display at the Crafts Gallery
Crafty work: Kimono on display at the Crafts Gallery in Tokyo's Takebashi district, which is part of the National Museum of Modern Art.

"Design museums exist in London, New York, Berlin, Zurich and Helsinki. How much longer must we wait for one in Japan?" he asked.

How long indeed? It's now 2008 and still none is in sight.

Of course, in that time Japanese design has not stood still. Candidates for inclusion in the elusive National Design Museum keep stacking up. To the original classics — the Sony Walkman, the Mazda Eunos, Issey Miyake clothes and Tadao Ando architecture — could now be added dozens of Muji products, AU Design Project mobile phones and countless other items.

Meanwhile, as Miyake's 2003 article was politely ignored by the national government, it was picked up by property developers Mitsui Fudosan, who promptly incorporated a design facility in their Midtown project in Roppongi (which was then in the planning stages) and handed Miyake the reins.

Ando agreed to design a building, and two younger designers — industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa and graphics specialist Taku Satoh — accepted Miyake's invitations to join him as directors of the new 21_21 Design Sight, which opened in March last year.

In Miyake's characteristically evocative words, 21_21 Design Sight is like the "ring in pro wrestling." That means it's a place where designers come together and hold exhibitions and workshops in order to experiment and exchange ideas.

The facility is not, however, a National Museum of Design — as it has neither government funding nor a permanent collection.

At last month's symposium held to commemorate the first anniversary of 21_21's opening, Miyake repeated his plea to the national government.

"There are a lot of good designers still living now who have kept examples of their own work and other records," he said. "If a collection is started now it would still be possible to get access to those things."

A National Center for Traditional Craft Techniques?

Last year, yuzen (resist-paste) dye expert Kunihiko Moriguchi (often described in the West as a "kimono painter") was awarded the status of Living National Treasure. The title added to his already significant clout, and he's now using it to tell the world of his latest vision — one that does not consist of elegant geometric patterns, like his kimono.

Visitors line the corridors of the privately operated Kyoto International Manga Museum
Comic capers: Visitors line the corridors of the privately operated Kyoto International Manga Museum KYOTO INTERNATIONAL MANGA MUSEUM

"Japan needs a center for craft techniques," he told The Japan Times by phone from Kyoto.

"It should collect and exhibit works by Living National Treasures, but it should also be a center for research and study into Japan's many unique craft techniques."

Moriguchi explained that several decades ago, when the Living National Treasure system began, each of the craft sectors was supported by local industries.

"But with the expansion of the economy, a lot of these industries suffered as work was exported to Asia," he said.

That has had a domino effect through related industries, with the result that materials and tools needed to practice traditional crafts are just not being produced anymore.

"There is a real danger that these techniques will be lost forever," he said.

But isn't craft included in the remit of the Crafts Gallery at the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo's Takebashi?

"The museum collects works on the basis of their aesthetic merit," he said. "They are not concerned with the technical aspects."

Moriguchi pointed out that, like untapped biodiversity in a rain forest, traditional craft techniques are being lost before their potential applications have been explored.

"The noses of rockets used in the space shuttle program, which are made from a titanium alloy, are shaped using the Japanese shibori technique (which involves hammering a shape on an anvil)," he said. "Conventional steel-casting techniques were incapable of producing a metal that was strong enough."

Moriguchi also explained that only 15 percent of Japan's traditional metallurgy techniques are completely understood by scientists.

A National Center for Traditional Craft Techniques would not only engage in such research, but it would play a role in the global community. "People around the world are interested in Japanese crafts," he said. "This would give them a place to come and learn about them."



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