Sitting at a plain white table in a meeting room high up on the 12th floor of a narrow building in central Tokyo, product designer Kenya Hara asks me to picture a shallow plate in my mind. “Now imagine a slightly deeper plate,” Hara says, “that gets deeper and deeper and eventually becomes a bowl.”

Hara is dressed in a crumpled black suit that is thrown over the top of a simple black T-shirt. He is rarely seen in public wearing anything else. He looks at me through a pair of tiny round glasses as he continues speaking.

“Now see the bowl get deeper and deeper and deeper,” he says, “until it turns into a cup.”

I’m sitting opposite the country’s most important living thinker on contemporary design, but he is far away, quietly visualizing a plate turning itself into a cup.

“If somebody were to ask you,” he continues, “‘At what point is it a plate? At what point a bowl, or a cup?’ You would have to question your understanding of the boundary between each object.”

Hara views this kind of thought process as an “awakening” that deepens our understanding of the objects in question. “This is what I mean when I say design should make the known become unknown,” he says.

Born in 1958, Kenya Hara has helped mold the face of contemporary Japanese design alongside the equally influential industrial designer — and Hara’s friend — Naoto Fukusawa. Whether you realize it or not, you will have definitely encountered his designs before and even if you can’t recall something specific, you’ll at least be aware of his ideas.

In 2002, he became an adviser and art director of Muji, and raised the profile not only of the country’s most famous nonbrand brand (Mujirushi Ryohin, or Muji for short literally means “no-brand quality goods”), but at the same time effectively crafted the way Japanese design is perceived outside Japan.

His work at Muji, however, is only one part of his portfolio. He is also a graphic designer, a design professor at Musashino Art University, director of the Hara Design Institute, author of critically acclaimed books “White” and “Designing Design,” and a curator of large-scale design exhibitions. “There are many balls in the air, I can’t count how many balls I’m juggling,” he says. But being busy across many domains is good for Hara, it keeps him able to clearly identify the problems of his diverse clients.

“I only have two types of jobs,” he says. “The first are jobs where I’m commissioned to make work and the second are jobs where I propose an idea to society, where I suggest another way of looking at something.”

These proposals have sometimes seemed absurd, but they have led him to create some of his most interesting exhibitions and writings: What do macaroni and architecture have in common? What would the world look like built at a nonhuman scale? What could common daily products become if they were redesigned? How can we design for all five senses?

What makes Hara really valuable as a Japanese designer is his ability to articulate a clear philosophy about Japanese design that is sensitive to the present as much as it is to the past. Looking ahead, if there is one man in the country who can project what the future of Japanese design could (and should) involve, it’s Kenya Hara.

To talk about the future of Japanese design we need to look back to the postwar period, when industrial design in Japan went hand-in-hand with local Japanese manufacturing. For almost 50 years after World War II, the number of people working in Japanese factories making such things as fridges, televisions, air conditioners and domestic industrial products increased. The number of manufacturing workers in such jobs peaked at 16.03 million people in October 1992.

According to a report released by the Internal Affairs Ministry in February 2013, the number of people working in manufacturing at the end of 2012 was just below 10 million, the lowest number in more than 50 years. Firms that churn out low-cost, mass-produced goods have moved assembly lines offshore, and Hara thinks the manufacturing of other goods is likely to follow.

“This industry is now reaching its end,” he says. “We are going through a change, from having to create products to having to create value.”

The type of value he is talking about is the value that can be found in a piece of Swiss Emmental cheese. No, Hara is not joking.

When you eat a piece of Emmental cheese, he explains, you consume more than just pressed curds of milk from Switzerland, you also consume culture.

“It’s about the value that’s created around the product,” says Hara, speaking broadly about Swiss cheese, French wine or German bread.

Hara believes that Japanese designers need to consider how to create — or design — value, to think of culture as a resource. “When we typically think of resources we think of materials and minerals,” Hara says, “but a resource can also be aesthetic, or even cultural.”

He believes that Asian countries have a key cultural resource that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

“Lifestyle has value in Asia,” he says. The Swiss have their cheese, the French their wine, but Hara’s future Japan will be based on the export of a way of life.

Hara is not the first person to think about Japan’s fading economic and cultural power, but his ideas are wrestling with the problem at a far more structural level than the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s “Cool Japan” solution. This government initiative has a tough job trying to get beyond easy stereotypes about Japanese pop culture abroad. In short, it has yet to live up to its promise.

A 2012 report singled out “media and content” — that is, most likely anime and manga — as the most important resource to spread abroad in the years leading up to 2020.

But Hara’s eyes are clearly fixed on other resources.

“What are Japan’s resources?” he asks, “I’m particularly thinking about traditional aesthetics. I’ve identified four keywords related to this: sensai (delicateness), chimitsu (meticulousness), teinei (thoroughness or attention to detail) and kanketsu (simplicity).”

Hara sees the migration of domestic manufacturing to other Asian countries as one factor influencing structural change in Japanese design.

“I feel the designer’s role has changed in recent years from one of creating beautiful forms or clear identification for brands to one where the designer himself visualizes the possibilities of an industry.” And just to ensure he gets his point across, he restates his position in English. “Visualizing and awakening the hidden possibility of an industry,” he says.

It seems overworked Japanese designers may not be getting a break anytime soon.

By now, the sun has set outside and the streets of Ginza are glistening with streetlights and colored lightboxes. Hara’s personal assistant, Yoshino Nihonyanagi, enters the room and informs us that we will need to finish the photo shoot before the library closes. We don’t have much time. What’s more, she adds for good measure, Hara will need to attend an awards ceremony soon.

While his portrait is being taken, Nihonyanagi shares her thoughts about working with the country’s preeminent designer for the past two years.

“I’ve already filled every day of his schedule until 2015,” she says. “I’ve turned down at least 15 to 20 interviews this month just because I couldn’t find the time for them. We were only able to fit you in because of a cancellation.”

His days are spent with students at the university he teaches at, or with interviewers or clients. Nihonyanagi notes that Hara only really gets time to reflect on his work and write his books late at night and when he is 35,000 feet in the air, traveling overseas for a job.

Part of Nihonyanagi’s job is to keep Hara on schedule as he juggles his myriad projects. “He needs a schedule,” she says, “but I know he doesn’t want to follow a schedule. And right now, no matter how many times I tell him that he needs to get ready for the awards ceremony—”

She is cut off by Hara, who has returned from the photo shoot. It’s almost as if he heard her. “Ah, mōsukoshi. . . . We’re going to talk a little more,” he says.

Hara is part of a postwar generation who grew up in a country desperate to Westernize and modernize itself (some of the time, those terms meant the same thing). Hara believes the future of Japanese design includes a reversal of part of this process.

“The basic concept is to clean up the Japanese archipelago again,” he says. By “clean up” he means getting rid of the industrial factories that line the coast of Japan from Ibaraki to Fukuoka in the worlds largest megalopolis, the Taiheiyo Belt.

Postwar Japan tried to “focus on using the Japanese terrain as a factory to create industrial value,” Hara says. “But the Japanese terrain is naturally very rich. It’s our challenge now to recreate the Japanese landscape in a way that allows people to find value in those places.”

In 2010, Hara worked with curator Fram Kitagawa on a landscape-recreation project called the Setouchi Triennale. It was essentially an art festival spread out over islands with declining post-manufacturing communities in the Seto Inland Sea. The project proved so successful that the organizers decided to expand it to 12 islands for the 2013 Setouchi Triennale edition.

But this process of cleaning up “doesn’t have to be about art,” Hara says. “What Benesse (the company who supports the festival) is trying to do there is to compose an art zone that will induce and provide value for a long time.”

Hara views design in similar ways to designer, teacher and design philosopher Victor Papanek, who wrote “Design For The Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change” (1971). While Papanek generally chooses to focus on the importance of social and ecological issues in design, Hara prefers to reflect on the philosophical ideas in design, and stays away from Papanek’s polemical tone.

I’m “not interested in creating messages against something,” writes Hara in “Designing Design” (2007). “Design should function as part of a planning process.”

The themes in our talk seem to be weaving themselves towards an elephant in the room: the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Does one of the world’s largest nuclear crises make him reconsider that quote, and should social and political activism be a part of the future of design in Japan?

“This is a difficult question to answer,” he says. “Regardless of whether there is an accident or not, we are leaving the burden of responsibility with future generations. Those used fuel rods are an unresolved problem. If I had to choose, I would say I am against nuclear power generation. But I wouldn’t really say that to the public, because I feel it’s more valuable to provide a positive solution to resolve these issues.”

At this point, Hara pauses and thinks for a moment.

“The problem of Fukushima is not a simple problem at all,” he says. And then he pauses for an even longer moment, taking time to consider what he is going to say.

The role that design can play in this type of situation is not abrupt or adversarial, but something much larger, slower and more structural. In short, it’s about designing what people desire.

“I don’t believe cities are created by great urban designers,” Hara says. “Cities are made by the desires of people. What designers are able to do is provide a little awakening that might change what people want from a city. That will eventually lead to a [larger] change.”

Hara calls this philosophy the “education of desire.” It is one of main research topics of the Hara Design Institute and something he puts into practice with his work at Muji. On the institute’s website, Hara writes: “Desire and education are both words that seem too direct, but I haven’t found any better. . . . Design must be a slow, quiet education that gradually exerts influence on the quality of need — the standard of the desire.”

At Muji, Hara says, educating desire is about teaching people to say “This will do. Instead of a very elaborately made towel, you’ll say, this brown towel will do. This is the awakening Muji tries to introduce.” As designers “we should learn to control the level of ‘This will do,’ ” he says.

Hara’s concern with the excesses of the modern world is clearest when he refers to the objects and actions that inspire him: Japan’s traditional folk-craft objects and traditions. In his books, lectures and interviews he regularly looks to historical objects, rooted in Japanese tradition, as guides for alternative ways of producing and living. In the hands of a lesser designer, such objects would come across as kitsch historical revivalism, but Hara has a way of interpolating the past seamlessly into the present. During this interview, too, he frequently referred to Japan’s traditional inn, the ryokan, as an example of how value can be created in Japan.

“The most expensive Japanese hotels are not luxury resorts but ryokan, traditional Japanese establishments,” he says. “This is a very unique phenomenon: traditional service in Japan is more expensive and refined than the five-star hotels imported from the West.”

That said, Hara wonders about how to emulate the value embodied in a ryokan. “Japan needs to think of a way to make this function in a global context,” he says. It’s about capturing the “richness” valued by Japan, as opposed to the “opulence” valued by the West, he says.

What these references to folk-craft and traditions suggest is that the only way forward for Japanese design is through reactivated anachronisms — taking the items which were created in Japan’s past and interpreting them in the present.

“I don’t feel that anachronism is the right term,” Hara says, “but if you want to trace back the aesthetics of my design, you have to go to the late Muromachi Period (1392-1573), where the aesthetic roots of Japan were created.”

His assistant returns, silently signalling the end of the interview. Hara, however, hasn’t quite finished yet.

“I’m not trying to go back to the past and say it’s beautiful and wonderful but, just like unearthing minerals, I’m trying to unearth those resources from the past as energy to propel us into the future.”

And with that, Hara left to prepare for the awards ceremony. However, his thoughts on the ultimate role of Japanese designers in the future is clear: Designers should not only make beautiful or functional products, but tap a sense of culture as well.

This can be achieved, Hara believes, through a deepening understanding of the value of “koto” over “mono” — experience rather than the beauty of a “fantastic object or brand” — and by allowing themselves and their work to embrace the unknown.

As far as Hara is concerned, the future of Japanese design is not about creating better solutions, it’s about searching for better questions — and never looking at a plate or a cup in quite the same way.

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