Last month, I met Taro Kihara, who is Kihara space manager in Shibuya neighborhood in Tokyo. The brand specializes in producing porcelain from Arita, where the team works closely with a network of fifty factories “big or small” – whether it be for making a cup or a vase, the right conversation partner can always be found. Kihara combines in-house design works and international collaborations – each remaining true to their culture. I first got to know the brand in January 2019 at Maison & Objets fair in Paris. Concerning The Dorayaki Project, I chose to broaden the scope of my research and include a brand that uses a unique craftspeople-and-machine combination, as well as a wider-spread network of suppliers and business partners. I wanted to find out what it means to produce faster, in bigger quantity than a solely-owned craftsmanship company and to sell on an international scale. This is all about perspective!
Origins of Arita porcelain
“Four hundred years ago, Korean people came to Arita and found the material in Arita. So Arita is started a porcelain factory”. Traditional know-how is rooted in Arita, as the Koreans, who learnt from Chinese people, taught Japanese people how to make porcelain. In addition to “quality”, Arita’s porcelain has a “specific white blue, blue and not perfect white but a little bit blue white” color. Got it? It seems simple, but it is all about shades. One should train their eyes to spot a genuine Arita porcelain.
Getting inspired at the museum
When he can make some time in his busy schedule, Taro-san likes to go to museums and see “old-style Japanese crafts in Japan for exhibition”. Taro-san believes that old-style Japanese porcelain are timeless: they are “always good”. Young people do not fancy this kind of precious, hand-painted, refined artworks. Even though he is young, Taro-san if fond of products which would seem old-fashioned to many. “I understand porcelain history and techniques. I have this knowledge, so I can appreciate old-style porcelain”, Taro-san explains.
Innovation: clients ask for more contemporary lifestyle brands
Arita’s economy is relying on porcelain: “most people are working in a porcelain factory or store”, Taro-san confirms. Therefore, when economic uncertainty occurs, the consequences can be tragic. When “Japanese economy [was] down”, it was time to stop and think. In addition, in a globalized world, competition with China can be particularly dreadful. As a result, “people didn’t buy old style [expensive] porcelain, because very cheap porcelain was made available by China”. In this context, Arita turned a threat into an opportunity by choosing the way of innovation. The brand used to offer “old-style”, refined and therefore more costly porcelain. The offer was adapted in order to fit with a more contemporary and relevant style. “So we are just thinking to change the concept…”, to integrate “lifestyle” as “European style, American style”. It is a real shift: Arita team members were ready to “change thinking” and therefore change the brand spirit.
I mentioned earlier that an in-house designer was responsible for providing designs, moods and patterns for the Japanese market. Taro-san found out that “only Japanese people understand [Japanese] designs”. What is a typical Japanese design? It should represent the characteristics of the place. Taro-san gives us an example: “Have you heard of Naoshima, in Shikoku prefecture? This island has a lot of museums, and a lot of cats as well”, so Kihara is making magnets that represents cats and museums in a very figurative way. More broadly, “what is Japanese culture about, what can be identified as Japanese immediately?”, I ask. It is mainly about “anime, Tokyo Tower, kabuki and maid cafés”, as far as Taro-san is concerned. “This is Japanese culture”, he states. Moreover, Taro-san emphasize the importance of the four seasons: “we just feel the design or pattern means spring, summer, autumn or winter”. He acknowledges that foreign people might not notice this way of expression. Therefore, Kihara developed a local approach for products which are to be sold overseas. This expressed in collaborations with foreign designers in Paris or Singapore. “For example, we want to express French style, but Japanese don’t understand French culture and History, but we can mix it with Japanese style, so that it makes it easier for Japanese people to understand French culture”. That is how one can take the leap from a national perspective to a comprehensive multicultural approach.
Many thanks, Taro-san!
1-14-11 2F, Tomigaya, Shibuya-ku,
Tokyo 151-0063 JAPAN
T : +81 3-6407-1571 | F : +81 3-6407-1572
The original location in Saga prefecture
Akasaka, Arita-cho, Nishimatsuura-gun,
Saga-pref, 844-0024 JAPAN