Author Archive

‘Prototype’ documents the birth of designers’ ideas

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

Hironao Tsuboi's mutated light bulb at Prototype in Tokyo Midtown's Design Hub

Hironao Tsuboi’s mutated light bulb at Prototype in Tokyo Midtown’s Design Hub

Due to popular demand, Tokyo Midtown Design Hub’s third annual Prototype exhibition has been extended until Dec. 13. Prototype shows the work of Japanese creators – mostly architects, product designers and furniture designers – with a focus on the creative process and problems of turning an idea into an object. Each display has notes and sketches drawn directly onto the tables by the designers themselves, giving the viewer insight into  their creative process. This makes the show fun for both die-hard design followers and those with only a passing interest. The finished products are beautiful, to be sure, but just as interesting are the scrawled diagrams, and in some cases, the tools used to make the new products on display.

Personal favorites were Teruhiro Yanagihara’s polarized candle holder, Naoki Terada’s coded imunization kit and Ben Nagaoka’s “View Bench” (but we’re even bigger fans of what he and Point Design can do to a room, when given the chance).

Admission is free.

More information at the official Prototype site.

Tokyo Midtown Design Hub site

Eco batteries bring new meaning to the term “juiced”

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Anyone who’s had their laptop or cellphone run out of juice at a crucial moment can attest to the limitations that present power storage methods have on technology, but a product from Aqua Power Systems Japan may indicate an amazing new advancement: the water-powered battery.

At their present capability, NoPoPo (No Pollution Power) Eco batteries have enough power to save lives during a disaster since they can run on the smallest amount of fluid (drinkable or bodily), which means that someone lost in the woods or trapped under rubble could recharge their flashlight easily with a few drops of whatever is available.

But don’t start peeing on your laptop just yet: For the time being, NoPoPo batteries have significant limitations — just the double-A form is available and can only run low-powered items like flashlights and toy trains (see video above) but if they find a way to expand capacity, the NoPoPo could revolutionize how – and for how long – we work and communicate on electronic devices.

They may also represent an interesting twist in environmental policy, as the mercury, lead and other hazardous chemicals in today’s used batteries cause considerable harm when burned or left to rot in landfills.

In earthquake-prone places like Japan, however, practicality will sell more units than quixotic concerns. I mean, what’s going to power your Wii and Nintendo DS when the “big one” hits?

School uniforms remain a cultural conundrum

Friday, November 27th, 2009

The schoolgirl uniform means different things to different people

The schoolgirl uniform means different things to different people

Ah, the Japanese schoolgirl, that perennial trendsetter and object of adoration. Few items of clothing evoke such a spectrum of emotions as her attire (be careful when Googling it). Once considered a sartorial example of the East’s rigid conformity, Japan’s schoolgirl uniform has now reached such a globally iconic status that earlier this year the government tried harnessing its powers through “Kawaii Diplomacy.”

For better or worse, it may be working. On Tuesday, the Asahi Shimbun reported that CONOMi, the Niigata-based company making nanchatte seifuku (fake school uniforms) has seen its business booming, not only here in Tokyo but in China, South Korea, Australia and Brazil.

There are dozens of ways to extrapolate why this is, and for each there seems to be a journalist and TV producer poised to explain it to us. But beware, culture critics and Asian-desk correspondents, for Momus is on to you. On his fantastic blog, he vents his frustration with Western documentaries that claim insight into Japanese street style, of which the schoolgirl uniform is an integral component:

“Every Western documentary that purports to be about Japanese style is in fact a documentary about the Western concept of free will.”

A hyperbolic statement to be sure, but the point is valid: Western journalists almost invariably project their own ideas of conformity onto the schoolgirl’s fashion choices, but if they really wanted to know what uniforms mean in Japan today, they should ask the people who actually wear them. The simple fact is that schoolgirl and kogyaru style do not fit neatly into the conformist vs. rebel dichotomy set up by so many aspiring documentary makers. The lines between the traditional and evocative have blurred too far, and there’s a case to be made that many of the blazer-and-skirt-wearing tribe are not “rebelling” against anything, but are instead reveling in the spotlight that society has placed on them.

If this is the case, then the government-funded “cute diplomacy” program is the biggest spotlight yet.

More:

Japanese now a little less lost in translation

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

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If technology is truly meant to bring us all closer together, then recent translation services are doing their part to make the world a smaller place.

Flashy items like NEC’s translation glasses and the new iPhone application that can convert text from pictures will get plenty of attention once they’re tested and widely distributed, but in 2009 a number of other innovations have already begun to affect how Japan’s residents interact with the world and each other.

Google has certainly been at the forefront. Their “Translate this page” links are now built into Japanese search results, and the dedicated Translate application has made huge strides in turning select phrases, web pages and PDF documents into your preferred tongue. Google Reader has opened the blogosphere even further with the option to change RSS feeds into English or other languages. Twitter, the year’s other web darling, continues to grow in popularity here, and the Tweetie iPhone application‘s translate function is helping more non-Japanese speakers to keep better track of the country’s 140-character community.

Continue reading about translation services →

Manga publishers go back to the drawing board

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Manga are still popular, but are losing out to cell phones and the internet

Free manga browsing at a convenience store

In a recent interview with Monocle Magazine, Japanamerica author and pop culture stalwart Roland Kelts was asked about Meiji University’s plans for a manga library. “When you make a Rock and Roll museum, it means that Rock and Roll is dead,” he said. “And when you build a manga museum, to some extent it means that there is an end in sight.”

Perhaps in its present form, yes. Kelts doesn’t believe that manga are going away, but domestic sales are down, with print media competing with – and frequently losing to – digital platforms on cell phones and the Internet. Don’t worry, he explains, manga are just in the process of adapting to the new landscape. Downloadable manga for your cell phone are but one example.

Continue reading about evolving forms of manga →

A virtual page-turner on the iPhone

Friday, November 13th, 2009

Now this is a fantastic idea. The Japanese firm Mobile Art Lab has turned the iPhone into an interactive children’s book with what they’re calling the PhoneBook.

This is not the first iPhone-related program aimed at your toddler – you could spend hours looking through all the child-related applications available on iTunes – but this approach, with its book-like accessory framing the touchscreen, is an idea that is bound to catch on. Mobile Art Lab has stated that these kind of applications are not limited to children’s books, but could also be utilized in other types of media such as catalogs and brochures. Graphic novels and manga could easily integrate this technology as well, but the interactive potential makes this an ideal learning tool.

Next up, Dr. Seuss: Is there an app for that?

Japanese camera makers reassess size and simplicity

Friday, November 13th, 2009

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Depending on your perspective, the digital camera market is either mind-bogglingly fascinating or mind-numbingly boring. Every day, legions of dedicated shutterbugs pore over spec sheets and review sites, blogging breathlessly about the latest features and innovations, while almost everyone else yawns at camera makers’ constant leapfrogging and just wants to aim and fire.

Nikon, Canon and other major Japanese players have long been locked in a struggle for supremacy in both the D-SLR and point-and-shoot realm, but as the holiday shopping season draws closer the imaging market is changing in significant ways. One of the most interesting trends is the growing middle ground between these two main categories.

Olympus and Panasonic have both released hybrid models using their Micro Four-Thirds system to bridge the gap between the versatility and image quality of D-SLRs with the convenient size of a pocket camera. Both utilize a larger sensor than their point-and-shoot brethren while also offering the option to switch lenses.

This week Ricoh entered the ring with a small unit that offers detachable lens-and-sensor units that load like game cartridges. None of these cameras can boast a D-SLR’s image quality or ability to shoot action or low-light, but they’re close enough that, for some users, the ability to shove it in your jacket outweighs the extra depth, sharpness and action-stopping abilities of their larger cousins.

Continue reading about four-thirds cameras →

Cheap vino continues to flow in Japan

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

Yosemite Road, 7-11's new discount wine label

Yosemite Road, 7-11's new discount wine label

The recession continues to affect the Japanese wine market in interesting ways. As we have noted in our pages earlier this year, cheap wine is apparently quite tasty in tough times, and now it seems the market for low-rent sommeliers will increase. One indication is that 7-11 wants in on the action. Starting this month, both American and Japanese 7-11 outlets will be selling their own lines of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon under the Yosemite Road label. At around ¥600 a bottle, that’s hard to beat.

Even Ginza, home to much of Japan’s luxury industry and a competitive wine-bar market, has seen a new cost-cutting measure. The wine bar GOSS, near the flagship Matsuya Department store in the heart of the shopping district, has installed wine vending machines as a way to cut down on labor costs and still provide premium vino to their patrons.

This is all happening just as the first bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau arrive in Japan. With French imports dropping an estimated 30% from 2008, 7-11 is betting that convenience truly is the ultimate luxury.

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