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Enduring Japan: Craft, Culture, and Symbols of National Identity

Kirsty Milnes, BA (Hons) Textiles and Surface Design Student

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I was introduced to the Japanese aesthetic and visual language through my studies at university. In level 4 I analysed some of the traditional techniques used in Japanese textiles and how these techniques influenced Western design; the aim of my work was to collate and state what information I had gathered. Now in level 5, I have continued my research into this area; and this article aims to explore the theoretical elements surrounding the cherry blossom (as a national identity, symbol of Japan and culture), and the sustainability of the traditional Japanese crafts (specifically: parasols, katazome, hand embroidery and origami). As I move into the final year of my degree, and begin writing my dissertation, I have begun to take this research further as I delve deeper into the topic, to explore how the West’s obsession with the Japanese aesthetic has changed the way Japan produces its wares.


Japan began trading with the West in the 16th century but closed its trading doors to the world soon after.  When the Portuguese landed in Japan in 1542, they set up trading colonies and were soon followed by the Dutch. Alongside trading, these outsiders made an attempt to move Japan from its Buddhist (originally Shinto) beliefs to those of Catholicism. Japan objected, pushing out all foreign parties and closing the borders. This resulted in no foreigners being permitted on Japanese soil, except for a small number of Chinese and Dutch traders. A small island was built for these traders to live on beside Japan, in order to keep the country completely closed off from the world. During this period of isolation that lasted over 200 years, Japan had the opportunity to embrace its national identity and develop a unique visual language.

When Japan ‘re-opened’ (Wilhide 2016, p.82) to the rest of the world in 1854 (after negotiating with the Americans for over 2 years) its wares became internationally sought after. The rest of the world became obsessed with mimicking its style. The problem was that while Japan was closed the rest of the world had been in the midst of the Industrial Revolution of 1760 – 1840 (although it could be argued that this was the second Industrial Revolution, and these dates are only an approximation). No longer were products made by hand and laborious to produce, they were made by machine and the process was much simpler. There was no longer a need for skill. It was now easier than ever for anyone to own a piece of Japanese work (or replica), especially during the reign of Emperor Meiji (1867 – 1912).

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