Japan Goes On a Soft Power Offensive With Wooden Keyboards and Hello Kitty Teacups

Hacoa "Full Ki-Board" and "Monaca" USB drives, designed by Yamaguchi Kogei
(Courtesy Future Tradition WAO)

NEW YORK — Japan, the purveyor of technology that gave us Toyota, Nikon, and Playstation, arguably has its best days behind it. For the past twenty years, the country has been experiencing economic stagnation in light of rising competition from China and South Korea for its bread and butter — the manufacturing of electronics and automobiles.  "We are facing such difficulties," Japanese fashion journalist Yoshiko Ikoma told ARTINFO. "The market for us isn’t expanding. It’s shrinking." What's Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry's (METI), then, come up with as a solution? Jumpstarting international interest in its other endeavors, of course — fashion, design, anime. And to put a little umph in its appeal, they named their latest campaign Cool Japan.

Ikoma is currently the producer of "Future Tradition WAO," a Cool Japan traveling exhibition of contemporary design aesthetics formed with Japanese traditional craftsmanship debuting stateside in New York this weekend. The combination of “wa,” Japan, and “o,” birth, WAO stands for the rebirth of Japan (while simultaneously letting out a sound of awe). It fuses ancient traditions with new technology, familiar shapes with foreign designers. Featuring a crystal Baccarat bowl created for tea ceremonies, cypress trays accented by neon plastic lids, keyboards crafted from walnut and oak, and lacquered USB drives adorned with Japanese cultural symbols in gold leaf, the show is a demonstration of the Japan’s duality — a deeply traditional culture rooted in meticulous, time-perfected craftsmanship with an inventive and innovative eye towards the future.

We’ve always known Japan was cool — let’s not forget the pioneer in progressive, futuristic design also gave us (and Gwen Stefani) Harajuku fashion, Metabolist architecture, and Murakami. But the nation needed some practice in capitalizing on its cool factor. "We’d like to expand our market,” Ikoma said. “We have so much to offer in terms of the arts, but Japan has no idea how to sell outside Japan. For now we have to cultivate the new possibility on the global stage."

"Future Tradition Wao" is on display at Capsule Studio through February 12. To see highlights of its innovative offerings, click the slide show.