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Parisian brings a touch of France to re-emerging Japanese traditions

by Edan Corkill

Staff writer English-teaching? No. Military? No. Corporate transfer? No. None of the usual templates comes close to describing how Maia Maniglier ended up in Japan. Audacious bubble-era corporate recruiting experiment? That might do it.

The tale of the Israeli-born Frenchwoman’s move to Tokyo began in Paris in 1989. Maniglier, then a Japanese major preparing for her final university exams, was told by a friend that one of Japan’s department stores was looking to hire a Japanese-speaking French citizen on a six-month contract. It was holding an exhibition on France and wanted a native to help out with the planning.

“Because their financial year started from April 1, I had to have my university exams brought forward,” the now 43-year-old explained at her Tokyo office late last month. “The day after the exams ended, I was on the plane.”

And just one day later she was clocking in at the Seibu department store in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district, kicking off a Japan-based career in exhibition, event and design planning that continues to this day.

For those who know the Seibu chain only from recent stories of store closures, plummeting sales and corporate mergers, a little background: In 1989, Seibu stores and the chain’s subsidiary retailers were the hippest places to shop in Tokyo. They were the arbiters of not just fashion but interior design and even cultural tastes.

Seibu had so much money, explained Maniglier, that if it had wanted to do an in-store promotion of a particular type of hand-made paper, for example, “they would send not just the campaign planners but the actual sales staff to spend time with the artisans out in the country.” So naturally when it came time to showcasing France, they needed a French native.

The Maniglier experiment paid off. Thrown into the thick of corporate Japan, the young Parisian thrived.

“I got on best with the older generation — the people in their 50s — who had built up the Seibu brand. They were the ones who brought French fashion to Japan for the first time, in the 1970s. I could sit down and talk to the guy who brought Yves Saint Laurent to Japan,” she said, almost as though the thrill still hadn’t subsided.

Having just graduated, Maniglier had no experience of working in France, but she found corporate Japan not just stimulating but comfortable.

“Value was still attributed to effort here,” she explained. “If you were willing to work, the reward was real.”

After the initial exhibition, Maniglier’s contract was renewed and she was put in charge of introducing Thalasso, or French seawater therapy, to Japan. She ended up remaining at Seibu until 1992. Nowadays her clients include Japan Airlines Corp. and the Osaka Hikari no Renaissance Organizing Committee, for whom she plans the annual French-themed Christmas illumination at Nakanoshima.

Naturally, it wasn’t just the work environment that prompted her to stay in Japan.

“I liked the way people’s lives were naturally free of stress,” she said. “People don’t steal and don’t hurt people. It’s clean. I found people here were applying the values of common sense that we don’t see or don’t abide to any more in the Occident.” She added, however, that on these fronts Japan has unfortunately become more like the West.

Still, she continued, running counter to those unfortunate Westward lurches has been the recent boom among young Japanese for traditional culture. Maniglier’s own, more externalized take on Japan’s traditions has made her skillful at reinterpreting those traditions for contemporary tastes.

Not only does she produce her own line of affordable, machine-printed kimono, but she also plays the “tsuzumi,” a drum used in noh — traveling by motorbike with her friends each year to play the instrument at a temple in Kumano, Wakayama Prefecture.

One of her recent successful products was a contemporary take on the decorative “kokorozuke” envelopes used to give money at weddings and other formal occasions.

“I began to notice some young Japanese giving money without the envelope,” she said. “It seemed such a waste for them to lose that wonderful tradition.”

Maniglier’s envelopes, which are now sold at department stores such as Isetan and have been featured in design publications, are simplified versions of the originals, with bow-shaped slits, for example, playing the role of the complex bows attached to conventional kokorozuke envelopes.

She explained that this reawakening to traditions among young Japanese came at just the right time. “After the war, their grandparents were still using kimono in their everyday lives. So the young now can go to their grandparents and hear about these things directly.”

Ironically, the same bubble period that brought Maniglier to Japan was also largely responsible for diverting the nation’s attention away from its heritage.

Maniglier said the current revival of interest in traditions shows that Japan has come to the end of one cycle in its history. “Japan is like a racehorse that performs best when it is chasing the leaders,” she said. “During the bubble period they caught up with the industrial powers. Now they are not really sure where to go.”

Still, she continued, Japan will soon set a new goal for itself, and when it does the whole populace will swing into action. “Maybe in 20 years’ time they will have decided to go around as samurai and wear kimono,” she mused. “It wouldn’t surprise me.”