The influence of design on Japan’s regional communities throughout modern times
Design, innovation and creativity, facilitated by makers and supporters of design, have been fundamental to the economic thriving of regional communities throughout Japan in modern times. This idea is extensively explored in Sarah Teasley’s book, Designing Modern Japan, which goes on to argue that design can also help people in communities to maintain and deepen social bonds and to develop a sense of security, pride and place.
Throughout Japan’s history, designers and makers have had to weather extreme disruption. As old markets shifted and disappeared, the stories of the products, systems, relationships and communities created by designers and makers become part of a much larger story about design within national, regional and global movements of capital, people and ideas.
Between the 17th and 19th centuries, a complex network of workshops, distribution guilds and merchants developed throughout Japan, which produced goods for national markets as well as some overseas trade. Local artisans started specialising in a large variety of goods and congregated in specialist communities, making use of common supply chains and shared local expertise.
In castle towns, daimyo, or regional lords, sponsored the development of specific industries in certain towns and cities, considering their location and locally available materials.
In the mid-19th century, the Japanese government committed to new trade and diplomatic relations with several foreign countries and, as a result, regional communities - including makers, artisans and designers - faced severe disruption within the domestic economy.
It wasn't until the 1880s that Japanese exports surged and Japanese production was once again competitive in the domestic market. In part, this was due to Japanese makers using innovative designs and materials to try and capture new audiences.
New local and national design support mechanisms subsequently emerged during the late 19th century, enabling a never-before-seen exchange of knowledge and support beyond individual workshops and associations.
About Professor Sarah Teasley
Sarah Teasley is a social historian, design researcher and author, known for her research into histories of design, creativity and communities in modern Japan. She is Professor of Design at RMIT University in Melbourne. Her current projects include the DESIAP/Kogei-Net transnational mentoring programme for women’s leadership in design, craft and social innovation in Asia-Pacific, supported by the AHRC and the Australia-Japan Foundation, and historical research into the reception of cutting-edge technology and materials in local design and manufacturing, supported by the Australian Research Council. She is the author of Designing Modern Japan (Reaktion, 2022), co-editor of Design and Society in Modern Japan (2016) and Global Design History (Routledge, 2011), and has published numerous articles and book chapters.