A favorite theme of some journalists commenting on Japan today is how Japanese innovation is nearly dead. However, while the country’s global brands may not pack the punch they used to, there’s no shortage of transformative ideas in Japan, particularly in the field of design. This year’s Good Design Awards showcased many surprising examples of innovation from Japan and abroad.

Sponsored by the Japan Institute of Design Promotion (JDP), the Good Design Awards have been celebrating excellence in design since 1957. It’s known for its crimson G Mark logo, which promoters call a sign of quality and which winners consider a badge of honor. In an introduction to the latest awards, JDP President Atsushi Oi says rising numbers of entries from China and other Asian states shows the importance of design to economic growth.

More than 4,700 entries were submitted to the 2018 awards, and 86 judges in Japan and overseas chose 1,353 of them to receive Good Design Awards. Out of that bunch, more selections were made, including the Best 100 and the Good Design Grand Award, which will be announced Oct. 31. This year, the awards introduced four Good Focus categories related to themes including new business and disaster recovery.

There are quirky, futuristic products aplenty among the awardees. Mitsui Chemicals, Inc. was honored for its TouchFocus eyewear, which look like ordinary glasses, but hide electronics and a rechargeable battery in the frame in addition to liquid crystals in the lenses. Tap one of the TouchFocus’ temples and the lens’ focus instantly changes from far to near, eliminating the need for bifocals.

Another homegrown high-tech Good Design product that reflects Japan’s aging society is Panasonic’s Corporation’s Walk Training Robo, one of several distinguished robotic creations including Sony Coporation’s robot dog Aibo. The Walk Training Robo is a rehabilitation walker for elderly users but it incorporates artificial intelligence to analyze the force being applied to the handles. A monitor provides real-time feedback on exercises with the aim of keeping elderly users independent for as long as possible.

The Best 100 also features myriad low-tech yet innovative offerings. Nagori, also from Mitsui Chemicals, is a range of plastic kitchenware made from marine minerals that feels like traditional ceramics and have high thermal conductivity. Tokyo-based YKK Corporation, the world’s largest zipper manufacturer, won for its QuickFree zipper, which can be instantly ripped open without having to unzip. A G Mark also went to a bicycle with a frame made of bamboo, the Spedagi Rodacilik Bamboo Bicycle, designed by Indonesia’s Singgih S. Kartono.

The accolades’ Long Life Design Award recognizes products or services with a track record of at least 10 years of widespread popularity. They included iconic Japanese creations such as Godzilla, Mobile Suit Gundam and Tokyo Tower, as well as household-name products such as Asahi Super Dry beer, which launched in 1987, Yamazaki Biscuit Co., Ltd.’s Chip Star potato chips, first released in 1976, and Nissin Foods Holdings Co. Ltd. Chicken Ramen, the world’s first instant ramen noodles invented by Momofuku Ando and launched in 1958.

One of the more surprising aspects about the awards, though, is how they’ve been used to distinguish products and services outside the realm of industrial design. This includes design you can walk through, such as the re-landscaped plaza and promenade between Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace, nonprofit organizations you can contribute to, such as Otera Oyatsu Club, a Buddhist temple network that distributes food to needy families, and apps, including CloudSign, which lets you sign Japanese contracts electronically.

“We have tried to extend the scope and possibilities of design so that more people can benefit from good design,” says Jun Akimoto, a senior manager with JDP. “We have shown that design isn’t just used in areas surrounding manufacturing but also in the IT and services industries. Indeed, design plays an important role in everyday life.”

To see winners up close, The Good Design Exhibition 2018 will take place at various locations in Tokyo Midtown from Oct. 31 to Nov. 4. Admission to all exhibits is ¥1,000. For more information, visit bit.ly/gooddesign2018.

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