People | 20 QUESTIONS

Yuko Kikuchi: Celebrating Japan's hybridity

Name: Yuko Kikuchi
Nationality: Japanese
Occupation: Professor of art and design history at Kanazawa College of Art
Likes: Fairness, picnics, blackbirds
Dislikes: Name droppers, ¥100 shop crockery, a hakutaka white hawk who attacked me and stole my pizza


1. You just moved back to Japan from the U.K. What were you doing there? I moved to the U.K. in 1989. I did a doctorate in art and design history at Chelsea College of Arts, and taught there until 2019.

2. Your first degree was in literature. How did you transition to visual arts? In the late 1990s, the cultural studies approach to art and design was becoming important; that’s how I got into postcolonial studies in visual culture.

3. How different is the academic culture between Japan and the U.K.? People in Japan are quite rigid about their fields of study, and the curriculum in Japan looks like it has been frozen for 50 years.

4. How so? Eastern and Western art are still really vertically divided. Different departments here are very compartmentalized.

5. What about working culture? Here I work Monday to Saturday, 10 hours a day. The work is very diluted (over that time), but you have to be on site.

6. So it’s much longer hours? It’s 100 percent teaching, and 50 percent administration. So 150 percent! There’s really no time for any research.

7. But in Japan, professors get personal research budgets. Surely that’s a plus? Yes, all full-timers automatically get a research budget. But if you’re not doing any research, what are you going to spend that on? The problem is that we are not encouraged to actually do any research.

8. What was the main idea behind “Japanese Modernisation and Mingei Theory: Cultural Nationalism and Oriental Orientalism”? Most discussion of mingei (Japanese folk crafts) and Yanagi Soetsu, the leader of the movement, has been about the movement’s originality and uniqueness to Japan, but there was a global and transnational aspect to it.

9. Mingei is not solely Japanese? There were other related international movements. In particular, mingei was inspired by the arts and crafts movement, which was happening around the globe.

10. What about the objects themselves? There is uniqueness in terms of the objects, and how everyday functional things were viewed as art or aesthetic pieces, but the core ideas were a hybrid of theories from different sources.

11. How well was your book received? It has been used very widely as a textbook by undergraduates and postgraduates at universities, particularly in North America.

12. But not in Japan? It hasn’t been translated into Japanese yet. The ideas are regarded as not being ‘pure’ here, which doesn’t help.

13. What did you work on next? I edited “Refracted Modernity: Visual Culture and National Identity in Colonial Taiwan.”

14. Why Taiwan? For 50 years (1895-1945) Taiwan was part of Japan, but this is not written about as part of modern Japanese art history. There are many (Taiwanese) artists who studied in Tokyo and became professional artists and teachers, but disappeared in terms of Japanese art history. We wanted to re-record their achievements.

15. Did this colonial experience leave any sort of legacy? Since the late 1990s, a new academic field called Taiwanese art history has developed. Up to that time, though, only the art history of mainland China was taught in Taiwan. Even though it was imposed top-down by the coloniser, Japan helped to create a whole new (regional) art environment, and both countries shared modernity.

16. Your aim is to pay particular attention to hybridity? Yes. I’m interested in the transnational movement of people, art and styles; looking at the hidden, or forgotten; and what’s in-between national histories and national frameworks.

17. What are you hoping to research in Japan? Before I left the U.K. I was doing a lot of research on the American designer Russel Wright (1904-76) and Asian design during the Cold War. I became interested in how Southeast Asia was affected by American cold war cultural propaganda. As Japan was already under U.S. occupation it was one model for design projects and initiatives in the area.

18. Why the change in focus? For me it was all very connected. I first thought mingei was restricted to Japan, but it also moved to the colonies, so I couldn’t ignore Korea and Taiwan. Then, of course, because of the U.S. presences there, American designers started developing projects in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

19. What changes in Japanese design culture are you interested in right now? A part of Kanazawa is very developed as a cultural heritage area, but it’s like a Dejima (the artificial island in Nagasaki bay that served as a trading post for non-Japanese from 1641-1854) for tourists. Outside of that area it’s quite economically depressed. This concentrated claustrophobic atmosphere is not a sustainable model for cultural development.

20. Is the way forward then to be more open to hybridity? That’s right. For example, Ishikawa prefecture is very close to Seoul. There are lots of craft relations with the Korean Peninsula, if we could be more open to Asia and celebrate those connections, that would help.

Coronavirus banner