Japanese car design | Stephen Bayley | CAR news and reviews

Published: 20 August 2009

My own first visit to Japan was nearly 30 years ago.

We drove to Heathrow in my wife’s Morris Minor which broke down in Hammersmith. These period details are important. In those days you travelled in a JAL DC-8 and a refuelling stopover in Anchorage was obligatory because the Soviets would not allow overflights of Siberia. Sole concession to cultural interest in Anchorage was a yellowing, stuffed polar bear.

I had an American friend living in Tokyo who introduced me to the city. He had been a beneficiary of the State Department’s messianic need to teach aspiring diplomats Japanese (now they prefer Arabic and Mandarin). Jimmy told me two things about Japan which I’ll never forget.  First, they have a great sense of beauty, but no sense of ugliness…..whatsoever. Second, if you are expecting it to be westernised, you’re astonished at how oriental it is. But if you are expecting the mysteries of the east, you’re disappointed that it looks like Pittsburgh in the rain.

For these contradictory reasons, Tokyo is, for me, the least boring place on earth. It’s an urban manga of visual surprises, especially with the cars. In 1981 I looked it astonishment – both fascinated and horrified – at some of the things they put on wheels and did not trouble to export. 'What,' I remember asking myself, 'did they reject at review stage of the design process if they decided to put THAT into production?'

The design of anything reflects the preoccupations and beliefs of the culture that created it. Never more so than with cars. The Japanese, at first falteringly, made it their business to familiarise themselves with Western design and Western language. And, of course, with mixed results. There was one famous newspaper campaign that carried the banner 'As smooth as a baby’s arse', but by 1979 'Design oh yan-tay ee-was' ('I’m into design') had found its way into Japanese phrasebooks.

At first we ridiculed the Japanese for copying, but that is to misunderstand. Certainly, the 1965 Toyota 2000GT was, at least in profile, a none too subtle take on the E-Type Jaguar. But it was more sophisticated than supine imitation. Why waste money on invention, the thinking went at this historical moment, when the west has generously shown us the way and we can invest in sophisticated production technologies that will allow us to build whatever we want in any number? The result was that, by about 1985, inventiveness actually came out of the factory floor.

Still, there were cultural limitations on Japanese car design. The Japanese excel at graphics and flat pattern and have no great tradition of sculpture in-the-round. As a result, before sophisticated computer-modelling, Japanese cars tended to have the appearance of two-dimensional flat pattern.  Almost of origami. But when complex curves were added to the options list, creative opportunities multiplied geometrically. A Lexus LS400 is now one of the most sculpturally sophisticated of cars.

But there are cultural stimulants too. Old and new can sit, sometimes uncomfortaby, together : the first calculators were sold with an integrated abacus. Additionally, the Japanese have artistic concepts we do not possess. And if you have a word for such a concept, you can apply a special quality of thought to it. Thus, mizuhiki is the art of making decorative knots : a sure aid to expressive detail in design. Engawa is the word architects use for the space between things. And then there is the more famous wabi-sabi, the mysterious and beautiful idea that things incomplete and transient have special value. How else to explain a Datsun Cherry?

Nowhere is a car less useful in Japan, but nowhere do they take them more seriously.   At the time of my own first visit, the architect Kisho Kurakawa explained: 'Just as a person takes a bath to keep himself clean, he treats his car with the same fastidiousness... a dirty car is thought to reflect a person’s personality. Japan is perhaps one of the few countries where curtains, a vase for flowers, clothes hangers, cushion, air-conditioning, a stereo radio and sometimes even a television set are not extraordinary furnishings in the ordinary family car.'

To that list, sitting in Tokyo’s stupefying congestion and numbing heat, you could add a microwave oven and an espresso machine. Don’t laugh. I remember when I was a child my father showing me a photograph of an Isuzu Bellet with venetian blinds in the back window. I sniggered.





By Stephen Bayley

Design critic, guru, cultural watchdog, occasional annoyer of Ron Dennis