Artisan Culture in Italy and Japan


What would you do if the world ends tomorrow? An Italian would answer “I would spend the day with a lover.” A Japanese would say “I have to finish my work quickly.” This is a popular ethnic joke, and even most Japanese people would nod in agreement at the answers. The general image of Italian people is easy-going; that of Japanese people is too serious. Their general images sharply contrast like this, but they have something in common, funnily enough. Italy and Japan are countries of artisans (artigiani/artigiane in Italian). Italian artisans receive preferential treatment from the government, while Japanese government is driving artisans into extinction sadly, though.

Only in Japan among OECD countries, Real Wage Index has been declining for more than 20 years. The government blames that on small businesses where many artisans work, and applies pressure on the businesses for elimination and consolidation. On the other hand, due to the favorable government policy in Italy, artisans hold their places in society. Ferrari is a good example. For the last few years, it has shown rapid increase in sales, but once was just a small local factory in the auto industry. Indeed, small businesses may not be able to make an innovation but have strengths such as developing a long-term perspective, niche strategy, etc. like Ferrari.

Japanese furniture TACK LUX

In the luxury furniture industry, Italy is the advanced country. Wherever I went for new market development, some Italian brands have already achieved mainstream recognition in the market. Yes, they are the hurdles to overcome, but I feel a sense of intimacy with them because of the common characteristic: craftsmanship. When thinking about the craftsmanship in Italy and Japan, I always remember Ken Okuyama, the first and only Japanese who designed Ferrari (the ex-creative director of Pininfarina). Today, I’d like to finish this article with his words that well express our design and craftsmanship. “What looks simple is not simple. It’s designed to look simple. When looking at such design up close, you can see how complicated it is.”


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Photo Credit: https://sharing-kyoto.com/Shopping/magazine/sp006635


Ethical Furniture Is Only Choice


I can always make prompt decisions. This is one of the few things I’m proud of in my abilities. The trick is always trying to narrow down choices. Some people (who love fashion, for example) may say “We enjoy matching outfits!” but it’s a rare example. As a psychologist, Barry Schwartz insists in his book “The Paradox of Choice,” more choices make us feel less happy for the three reasons: a sense of helplessness about not being able to make decisions; a bigger doubt in the correctness of choices; too high expectation for something perfectly matching the taste. Apparently, “more is less” is the truth of life.

The reason why I use fashion in the above example is today’s topic is news from apparel industry that is environmental pollution industry second to oil industry. According to UNCTAD, the industry emits 20% of the world’s industry waste water and 10% of CO2. The world biggest apparel company in market capitalization is Fast Retailing (UNIQLO). It has officially announced to achieve the zero emission of green house gasses by 2050. I think it’s great but not enough. We consumers also must change our ways of thinking. Some research says we Japanese people averagely buy 18 pieces of clothes and throw away 12 pieces in a year, and keep 25 pieces not to wear in the closet. We have too much stuff.

Japanese furniture SHOJI Open Shelf by Lucia Matteucci

Now, it’s about our furniture making. Some people may have negative feelings for cutting trees, but it’s no need to worry. The trees suitable for our furniture making are mature ones, like more than 50 years old, at least. In such mature trees, the amounts of carbon dioxide absorption and emission become equal. And also, if we don’t cut mature trees in the mountains around us, the forest will die by the overcrowding of trees. Our production is completely made-to-order, and there’s no disposal. Luckily or unluckily, our products are not cheap, which strongly motivates people to use them for a long time. Why don’t you stop spending on a bunch of disposable products and instead buy one set of our ethical furniture?


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Photo Credit: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-44968561


The Original Japanese Landscape Being Lost


This year, riverbeds and big parks with forests were often closed in our hometown. It was not because of the COVID but because of bears. There are two kinds of bears in Japan: brown bears and black bears. Brown bears are a related species of grizzly bears: much bigger than black bears, and inhabit only here Hokkaido in Japan. Making matters worse, our hometown is surrounded by mountains, and many rivers are stretching inside. Bears come out of the mountains and move freely along the rivers. It’s not so unusual, but I think this year is abnormal. You may guess it is because of a food shortage due to the destruction of nature, but it is not. Some experts say it is because of increasing deserted villages.

Japan is small in area, and mountain areas account for 70%. Along almost all the mountains, there were villages that worked as buffer zones between the habitats of humans and animals. As the population is declining, many villages have been deserted and inhabited by animals. The major industry in villages is agriculture, and abandoned fields and rice paddies are a paradise for animals. This is the reason why there’s an increase in the opportunity of encounter and conflict with bears nowadays. They have finally regained their lost territory. You may see it that way, but the paradise will come to the end soon because the ecosystem of the buffer zones will be destroyed by the absence of humans.

For some more years, crops may spontaneously grow even in the abandoned fields but will die out sooner or later. Water creatures in the paddies are gone, and so are their predators. Another major industry in such villages is forestry. In the abandoned forests, undergrowth like low-striped bamboo will drive out young trees producing animal feed like nuts and acorns, because the bamboo has much higher fertility especially in such brush areas. The deserted villages will lose biodiversity and become inhabitable even for many animals. Over-cutting leads to deforestation, but abandonment of cultivation also destroys the forest. In that sense, our furniture making by the forest is a last defense against deforestation in this depopulating country. We have no other choice but to continue our involvement once intervening in nature. In other words, as Erich Fromm said, we are a part of nature.


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Photo Credit: https://allabout-japan.com/en/article/6805/


Designer Profiles


A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. I’m sure you’ve heard this before: the famous words left by Steve Jobs. Sometimes, making matters more complicated, people say the opposite of what they want. The well-known example of behavioral economics is “Salad dish set launched by McDonald’s Japan in 2006.” The product development team of McDonald’s Japan was not smug, and not acting arbitrarily. The epic-fail menu was developed based on questionnaire results asking for healthy salad and saying no to junk food. Ironically, Quarter Pounder series (huge size burgers) debuted in 2008 and were a big hit.

People don’t know exactly what they want, even say the opposite of what they want. This would be the reason why we can never accurately forecast the market. It is always too chaotic because of human irrational behaviors. In that sense, our product development policy, “not market-in but product-out” may be right. Ex-chairman (the current senior adviser) often said “Proposing new designs to the market is our mission, our value, and our brand. It’s vital for us to find talented designers, build a good relationship with them, and keep developing our skills to realize their ideas and passions.”

CondeHouse x Designers

The other day, the senior adviser came to me nagging “Why don’t you introduce more about designer profiles in our website?” I know he is right and we should do that, but the problem is it’s not easy to profile them. “Who are you?” is the question with which a world-wide smash hit novel (published more than 25 years ago, though) “Sophie’s World” began, as I wrote before. This is a simple but very difficult question for anyone to answer, and so, it’s very natural for designers just to send their study, job, and award history in reply. I guess nobody is interested in such dry and boring information. I wish I could interview each of our designers to dig deeper and share how attractive they are, like I did before with Michael Schneider. Today, can I pick your brains about a good question to profile them to reveal their talent, passion, and charm to you readers?


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Photo Credit: https://www.businessinsider.com/steve-jobs-quote-misunderstood-katie-dill-2019-4


Right Wood, Right Place


Do you believe in talent or hard work? This is the topic that has been debated since the beginning of history (I’m exaggerating). Making the topic even more complicated, some people say “Hard work is a talent itself.” One day, I found an interesting article related to this issue. Do you know the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (SME)? SME is just observing children with marshmallows to see their self-control or delayed gratification under various conditions. The data were later used in many follow-up longitudinal studies to make many people believe the power of self-control is the key to success, like better SAT scores, keeping in better shape, etc.

Whether or not hard work is a talent itself: it’s not subject to debate here, but it’s a plain fact that the result of SME has supported people who believe in hard work. Once I was one of them, but the article by Jessica McCrory Calarco in “The Atlantic” changed my mind. She wrote SME had come out biased results because the number of the subject children was too small (only 90) and—this is much more important—all the children enrolled in a preschool on Stanford’s campus. In 2018, the researchers of NYU improved the problems of SME and conducted some tests, and Jessica pointed out what we can learn from the result of their new tests is what is behind kids’ long-term success is not their ability but their social and economic background.

People change depending on the environment. There are no good or bad people, but people in various situations. In other words (by a little further extension though), it’s like “right people, right place,” and I believe the same thing can be said to wood for furniture. People sometimes ask how good the wood used for our furniture is. Of course, it’s good because it’s carefully selected by the professional suppliers who our purchasing manager trusts. What is no less important is, however, the keen eyes of the manager in charge of milling wood. Sometimes, the process is underestimated as rough cutting, but the very first phase of furniture production decides everything like the beauty and strength of finished products, the yield rate of wood, etc. Right wood, right place is the key to good furniture.


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Photo Credit: https://www.condehouse.co.jp/


Story-based Products


Did you know that the history of trick-or-treating at Halloween in North America was not so long? It started about in 1930, while Halloween itself has a long history of more than 2000 years. As you may know that, it’s just recently that Halloween became widely known in Japan. The Halloween parade in Tokyo Disney Land started since 1997 is said to trigger the boom. I don’t mean to brag, but we, Hokkaido people, are forerunners about trick-or-treating. Although it’s not related to Halloween, trick-or-treating is a summer tradition in Hokkaido since the late 1800s.

Even now, in August (at the end of short summer in Hokkaido), you can hear kids singing “Give us candles, give us candles” from somewhere at neighbors’ doors. I don’t know why that is, but we are supposed to say “candles” not “candies.” People moving from the outside of Hokkaido sometimes give candles as told and disappoint kids a lot. As such, today I’m going to introduce Hokkaido sweets before getting down to our furniture.

For your information, such candies as shown in the above image are not treated in the give-us-candles. The brand name of those high-class chocolates is RAMS, and it’s made by a confectionary company continuing more than 90 years in our hometown. The feature of RAMS is its ingredients. Every piece contains a local specialty material. Let me introduce four pieces in the above image: local-made blue cheese in the blue one; local sake in the polygon-shape one; caramel made from local pear in the yellow one; local-made honey in the square one. They are not cheap, but I sometimes buy them as a gift because they make a good story to talk about. In other words, they are story-based, the same as our furniture. The best example is this lounge chair, TACK, in the above image. It’s designed by a local designer, and we make it here using ash wood sourced locally.


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Photo Credit: https://www.tsuboya.net/rams/


Essentials for Life


One of the biggest reasons why I was back to my hometown is a summer music festival held in Hokkaido, but this summer is ending without the fest due to the COVID, the same as last year. I don’t intend to complain about it but am just worried about people working in the entertainment industry, not only musicians but also sound mixers, light controllers, stage arrangers, etc. in the case of music fests. Their field is more like the world of artisans, different from what many people imagine, and it’s very difficult to get back lost techniques. During the COVID pandemic, the present Japanese government leaves us to our fate in the name of self-help, and is cruel especially to the entertainment industry. It seems that things other than basics of life are thought to be unnecessary.

On the other hand, the measures of the German government are so good that I feel ashamed of my own country. They have earmarked 50 billion euros for small businesses and freelancers, including those from the cultural, creative, and media sectors; Japanese supplementary budget for cultural affairs last year was only 3 billion euros. The German Culture Minister, Monika Grütters said “Artists are bulwarks to protect democracy from totalitarianism and a sense of political helplessness by always asking “why” and pointing out any inconsistency from their rich imagination and spirit of experimentation.”

Furniture may be regarded as one of basic goods and a target industry of government support, but high-quality and rich-design furniture like our products would not. The same as the entertainment industry mentioned above (let’s leave aside the issue if our furniture is art or not), wooden furniture manufacturing industry is the world of artisans. There are still many manufacturing processes that can’t be taken over by machines. As the coronavirus recession continues, many small businesses including furniture manufacturers are fading away, and many skills of craftspeople will be lost forever in Japan.


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Photo Credit: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-52646104


A Chair of Our Fantasy


AI can create virtual humans that look realistic. It’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between real and virtual actors in movies, for example. As this is a well-known trick, to make the faces of virtual humans good-looking or look like something considered to be good-looking, AI calculates out the average faces of many real people. We seem to judge average faces as good-looking. I have known this mentality of human beings for a long time, but a doubt had been left in my mind as a long-standing mystery. If average faces are good-looking, the world should be filled more with people like Cleopatra and Don Juan, where I would feel difficult to survive.

It is a book that saved me from the edge of the abyss. The title is “The End of Average” written by Todd Rose, a psychologist in Harvard University. He measured more than 4000 U.S. Air Force pilots to calculate their average size to optimize the size of a cockpit, and later found there was no one who met average in all the 10 points of measurement. What the result of his research showed is simple and clear: there’s no average pilot, no average people.

Now I understand why there are not many people like Cleopatra and Don Juan even though average faces are judged to be good-looking. Average is nothing but our illusion, and there’s no one who has an average face. This time, I was going to ignore another mystery: why we judge average faces as good-looking, but I come to feel like it may be because of our nature to seek for a utopia or cry for the moon. In connection with today’s theme, “average,” let me introduce one of our dining chairs, KAMUY designed by a Japanese designer, Naoto Fukasawa. The design is so plain, and there’s nothing novel or eccentric. The designer calls it “the most chair-like chair.” In the language of today’s theme, it can be called “the average chair” that is good-looking, a chair of our fantasy.


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Photo Credit: https://www.ancienthistorylists.com/egypt-history/facts-cleopatra-vii/