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Decoding the Japanese wave: a renewed interest in all things Nippon

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With the buzz around the Bullet train, FDI in retail opening up, and a growing love of a more minimalist life, there’s a renewed interest in all things Nippon

Last month, as Shillong burst into pink-and-white blossoms, it pulled off a Japan — celebrating the second India International Cherry Blossom Festival. It isn’t just the northeast state that is waking up to the wonders of the island nation. India is going beyond the Bullet train and Rahul Gandhi practising Aikido, to embrace Japan in more ways than one. Take Marie Kondo, for instance. Her six-year-old book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, has come into the Indian mainstream now, with people holding up garments and asking themselves if they bring them joy! There’s also ASICS shoes, which brought in gait analysis machines, acknowledging that sport had come of age in India; malls with Onitsuka Tiger, Miniso, and MUJI setting up shop; and the Yakult ladies, who deliver door-to-door on their bikes. Are we soon going to be easternised then? “It’ll be wonderful if we are,” laughs Dr Anu Jindal, a Japan Foundation fellow who holds a PhD in Japanese art history from the National Museum Institute, Delhi. She points to Japan’s combination of austerity, discipline and simplicity, which encourages people to work hard. It also helps that we have had no past history of conflict, adds Seiji Hamanishi, CEO of MUJI India. “With India as the No. 6 nation on the GDP scale, having done even better than China with a 7.2% growth, and a population of 1.32 billion, there is no reason not to be here,” he says. We look at seven ways this trend is growing.

Decoding the Japanese wave: a renewed interest in all things Nippon

1. Building bridges

It’s not all cold, hard cash. This year, the Japan Festival extended across three months in Delhi, with its events seeing a full house. The Year of Japan-India Friendly Exchanges was also inaugurated with the announcement of the movie Love in Tokyo, by Imtiaz Ali and Arif Ali, in tandem with Japan’s major film studio Shochiku. The story — predictably about an Indian man and Japanese woman falling in love — is more about collaborations between the art that India can offer and the technology Japan is so well known for. Then there’s the Japan Film Festival that isn’t looking at itself as an artsy cornerpiece. “We hope for the day when we can see Japanese films in local cinemas around India,” says Misako Futsuki, Director of Arts & Cultural Exchange, Japan Foundation. “I feel there is a strong presence of classics now, especially Akira Kurosawa or Yasujirō Ozu, but not so much of contemporary Japanese films.”

Decoding the Japanese wave: a renewed interest in all things Nippon

2. Retail opens up

More people today understand the technology and design behind Japanese products. It’s what led entrepreneur Nilesh Gandhi to start in.buyjapanproducts.com. After living in Japan for six years, he now sells kitchenware, collagen and matcha tea, which he believes have huge potential here. While there is talk about brands like Uniqlo, known for its casual wear wardrobe essentials, readying for their entry, others like MUJI are in it for the long haul. Hamanishi says the minimalist lifestyle company with its ‘no brand’ aesthetic, is aiming to set up more flagship stores (currently in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru) and have a presence at airports. He adds that stationery, their highest-selling product category, is being targeted at children, so they stay with the brand as they grow. Meanwhile, Onitsuka Tiger, the premium shoe brand from Kobe, has brought in ASICSTIGER, a sports-lifestyle brand, and is starting with a mono-brand store in Mumbai. They plan to add a couple every year. Mizuno, the Osaka-based sportswear company, which came to India a year ago, hopes to capture the indoor sports market for non-marking shoes (that leave no shoe prints). With orders from various state-level volleyball teams, the brand retails online and through multi-brand sports stores, building awareness before they sink their feet into stand-alone shops.

3. Old brands, new sensibilities

Noritake, the 113-year-old tableware brand that was in India until a few years ago (the standalone store in Delhi shut four years ago), has just been re-launched — with four exclusive designs inspired by Indian flowers — adopting a shop-in-shop concept in Ekaani stores. Gold and platinum designs appeal to Indians, says Saurabh Garg, Director, Ekaani Group, and so does quality that lasts. It also helps that prices are lower than other premium brands (possible because of a production facility in Sri Lanka). Similarly, Suzuki, one of the earliest Indo-Japan collaborations, and in India since 1982, now exports the street sports bike, Gixxer, to Japan. They are also making motorcycles customised to Indian needs. “The recently-launched Intruder 155cc is a modern-cruiser, as we realised the Indian customer desires the versatility of superior performance and comfort of a cruiser, without any compromise on premium appeal. The Intruder not only fulfils daily commuting needs but also offers great road-handling capabilities for a weekend ride,” says Satoshi Uchida, MD, Suzuki Motorcycle India Private Limited.

Decoding the Japanese wave: a renewed interest in all things Nippon

4. Food first

Will Japanese be the Chinese of the ’80s and ’90s, or the Italian of the noughties? Rajesh Khanna, F&B manager at The Metropolitan, which houses Sakura, one of Delhi’s first Japanese restaurants, says yes. What’s different is that it sees none of the bastardisation that other world cuisines have seen. There’s no cooked sushi, for instance. Instead, the focus is on brining in Japanese vegetarian dishes. “Edamame is a part of any table today,” he says. Meanwhile, Sandeep Arora, India’s whiskey ambassador, says 2009 saw the Nikka whiskey range coming to India, and Suntory (Yamazaki, Hibiki, Hakshu) in 2011. Since then, Japanese whiskey has developed a sort of halo. The Japanese craft their spirits on the accessibility platform — making sure the drink marries well with the food — and are popular globally. But availability here is a problem, so globetrotters often lug back bottles of the award-winning Hibiki and Yamazaki from international duty frees. Fermented rice wine, sweet and warm sake, is also coming in, and of late, Japanese gin (like Ki No Bi, Roku, and Nikka Coffey Gin) is making a splash, too.

Decoding the Japanese wave: a renewed interest in all things Nippon

5. Textile connect

Shefalee Vasudev, editor of to-be-launched web portal, The Voice of Fashion, talks about how, in 1984, Asha Sarabhai, a textile designer from Gujarat, launched her label, Asha, in the Miyake Design Studio, Tokyo. She also made Japan-inspired clothes under Raag, which was widely exported at the time. Today, in a revival, Raag is available under the beejstore.com umbrella run by her nephew, featuring asymmetrical pleated shifts, box-pleat coats and ikat overlays. It makes sense, says Vasudev, because ikat is a part of our vocabulary, as it is for Japan, “so it’s easy to build bridges”. Boro textile — made by patching pieces together like we would for kantha — is another technique used by Indian designers now. Most recently, Ryoko Haraguchi, a designer who works in India with Indian textile and Japanese dyeing techniques, created a fashion edit for Good Earth, where her knitted kota silk garments were a highlight.

6. Psychologists speak Japanese

While wabi sabi, or finding beauty in imperfection, has been used by fashion designers, architects and interior designers — Ashiesh Shah’s new furniture collection for Urban Ladder being a case in point — psychologists are going a step beyond. Gurugram-based Aparna Samuel Balasundaram, the psychotherapist who founded Life Skills Experts, says she helps people find beauty in their emotional scars, akin to kintsugi, the art of ‘healing’ broken pottery by putting them together with a gold alloy. In her corporate programmes, she also introduces the idea of ikigai, or life’s purpose. The tool used is a Venn diagram of three overlapping circles. “In each you fill ‘what I am passionate about doing, what I am good at doing, and what leaves the world a better place’. You find your purpose in life and your place in the world at the intersection of these,” she says.

Decoding the Japanese wave: a renewed interest in all things Nippon

7. Fashion’s pared-down aesthetic

Simplicity has always been a part of our clothing design: think khadi saris and mal dhotis, both anti-fit and handcrafted. Brands that speak the language, like the very laid-back Nicobar, is making a comeback in fashion. Last season, they did a collection inspired by Japan: a single red dot often finding its place on an off-white piece, along with obi belts and kimono-style overlays. Designers like Aneeth Arora, Kiran Uttam Ghosh, Rahul Mishra, and Abraham & Thakore have also consistently exhibited a strong Japanese design sensibility.

Amit Vijaya, one of the lead designers at Amrich Designs, Delhi, uses Shibori (Japanese tie-dye) and creates clothes that stay true to the textile and the art form. A few years ago, to experiment with purity in “design and pattern”, he approached Andhra Pradesh’s Telia double-ikat weavers, to use just indigo and white, and keep the grid parts while doing away with the figurative ones. They were amazed at how the geometrics played out.

Decoding the Japanese wave: a renewed interest in all things Nippon

Q&A

Making friends

HE Kenji Hiramatsu, the Japanese Ambassador to India, gets behind the growing trend

How have the governments of India and Japan helped in cultural collaborations?

During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan, in November last year, he and Prime Minister Shinzō Abe agreed to mark 2017 as the year of Japan-India friendly exchanges. As part of this, commemorative events such as Kabuki, Japanese and Indian traditional music and film screenings have been held in both countries, strengthening friendly relationships and mutual understanding.

Tell us about the Open Sky policy.

This September, when PM Abe came to India, the two countries exchanged an RoD (Record of Discussions) on civil aviation cooperation with regard to the ‘Open Sky’ policy. This will open up the skies between India and Japan, allowing aircraft carriers to mount unlimited number of flights to selected cities in each country, and give a huge fillip to economic relations and people-to-people exchanges.

What are the cultural similarities between the two cultures?

Hinduism and ancient Shintoism have many aspects in common, including respect for nature. We have also continued to receive and absorb many influences from India — Buddhism was brought to Japan in the 6th century and the Japanese are surrounded by many gods that originally came from India. We worship Kissho-ten (Lakshmi), Taishaku-ten (Kubera), and other gods rooted in this country. Another similarity is the order of the Japanese syllabary, which is influenced by Sanskrit.

Kabuki (the traditional Japanese performing art) and Kathakali (from Kerala) are very similar, too. Onoe Kikunosuke, the superstar of Kabuki in Japan, who performed in India last August, says perhaps its roots might lie in Kathakali.

What aspects of Japan would you like to popularise in India?

As we have endeavoured to present in the Japan Festival (held this October in New Delhi), I’d like to introduce more of our food, visual, and popular cultures. Also, since the next Olympics and Paralympics Games will be held in Tokyo (in 2020), I’d like to make sports exchanges between Japan and India more active.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2020 11:07:36 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/decoding-the-japanese-wave/article21312821.ece

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