On December 12th 2019, DutchCulture organized a talk event “Outlook: Japan 2020” at Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam. Director of MONO JAPAN, Emiko Chujo, was invited along with four other speakers to give a talk at this event. We’d like to share with you the interview between Emiko and the moderator of the event.
Interviewer: MONO JAPAN has become a hot annual event in Amsterdam after 4 years. Could you introduce it to some of our audience members who might not have heard of it?
Emiko: MONO JAPAN is a business fair and a market for Japanese products. We invite buyers who want to have Japanese products in their retail shops, and we also invite general visitors who are interested in buying these products for their own personal use. With MONO JAPAN, Japanese makers and craftsmen have a good entry point for their business into the European market, and we also offer the European audience an opportunity to buy high-quality, well-selected products from Japan. Alongside the fair, we also host a cultural program which includes lectures, workshops, and exhibitions.
We started MONO JAPAN in February 2016 at the Lloyd Hotel; this February was our 4th edition. During these past years we initiated several collaborations between Japanese makers and Dutch designers. For example, we asked Cristien Meindertsma, a talented young Dutch designer to produce tea towels together with a Japanese weaving company which specializes in making handkerchiefs. We also collaborated with Bonne Suits; we selected five Japanese textile makers and let Bonne select fabrics from them, and from this we made four custom suits which were presented in a fashion show that opened MONO JAPAN 2018. Through years of experience, bridging the Dutch creative industry and Japanese companies and makers has become one of our missions.
Interviewer: We can see that MONO JAPAN is a great platform to spotlight contemporary Japanese craft and design in the Netherlands and has brought many things from these two worlds together. This year you also started the MONO JAPAN Artist in Residence program. Could you tell us some more about this?
Emiko: We realized after some years that we’re actually in a very unique position as we have developed a wide network of Japanese craftsmen and often hear about their struggles, but at the same time Japanese products and crafts are becoming more and more popular with the Dutch creative scene and we’re receiving more questions about the possibility of studying the techniques of certain crafts in Japan.
From this, we started thinking about matching Dutch designers with Japanese makers and how this could be an interesting opportunity. We started asking some makers in Japan to gather their interest in this sort of opportunity, and it wasn’t difficult to find out that many Japanese makers want to try and collaborate with Dutch designers.
From this we decided to start the AiR program. For the very first year we decided to organize residencies in three different crafts and areas: in Aizu, we organized a residency with a Japanese lacquer maker. In Kyoto, we had a crafts studio for the uniforms of Shinto priests. And in Shimane, we arranged a residency with traditional Japanese papermakers.
We applied for a budget from the Stimuleringsfonds in the Netherlands and from the Dutch Embassy in Japan to organize these programs. Once we received the subsidies, we were able to start. We held an open call and received many interesting submissions. We asked studio INAMATT, Samira Boon, and Ryutaro Yoshida (Time & Style) to participate as the jury in selecting the designers.
We thought that the key to success would be in good match-making. It’s not only about the quality or the experience of the designers, but their personalities should also be a match with the hosts of the residencies. As a designer, if you are not open to new environments and techniques it will be quite difficult for the makers to work well with you.
At this year’s MONO JAPAN, with the help of our jury, three designers were chosen. All of them have succeeded in creating great prototypes from their residencies.
With the support of the Dutch Embassy in Japan, we were able to organize a presentation of our AiR program in Tokyo. The designers were able to join us and bring their prototypes to the event. It was held on a Monday evening, quite a difficult day to host an event, but we had about 50 attendees.
The designers are now working on brushing up their prototypes to create real products. We will showcase these products at the next MONO JAPAN event as an exhibition.
Interviewer: What does MONO JAPAN and AiR mean to Japanese craftsmanship and local Japanese people? Are they open to this dialogue between Dutch design(ers) and their precious tradition?
Emiko: Craftsmen and makers work with distributors who bring their products out into the market: this is the traditional structure. But this structure is not really working anymore and nowadays many makers must take their own initiatives to do business and are looking for new ways to bring their products out into the market.
The production of their crafts are deeply rooted in traditional practices, which is what makes their products great, but these strong ties to traditions also limit their ideas and innovations in business. Also as a historic “habit”, the Japanese find it easier and seem to be more open to listening to the opinions of and receiving advice from those outside of Japan.
The actual collaboration itself, however, is not that simple. There are traditional and habitual manners and ways of thinking on both sides; both parties must respect each other and also try to understand each other. Otherwise, it won’t work.
Interviewer: What is your plan for MONO JAPAN 2020?
Emiko: For the past four years, we organized the event at the Lloyd Hotel. It has always been our “home” and it was an easy partnership for all of us, including the Japanese makers who travel to Amsterdam to participate in MONO JAPAN. But the ownership of the hotel has recently changed and we felt that it was time for us to find a new location. So we have decided to move the event to NDSM-LOODS. It’s a big, old building and many local Dutch creators have a studio there. It still has the atmosphere of an alternative arts scene in Amsterdam and at the same time there are always many new buildings. Each time we visit, something has changed and it continues to change. We really enjoy the dynamic atmosphere of the area.
Another change for the 2020 edition is that MONO JAPAN will be hosted at the end of August instead earlier in the year. Because of the change in venue to NDSM, it will be too cold to host the event in the winter as we usually do. But we are looking forward to the change: it will be after the Tokyo Olympic games and we can make the event a bit like an end-of-summer festival.
Because it will be the fifth-anniversary edition, we are also aiming to have many makers participating from Japan as well as hosting special programs.
Interviewer: Through your experiences with MONO JAPAN, what are the challenges you face working in-between the Netherlands and Japan? Also from your experience being a Japanese person operating from and in the Netherlands?
Emiko: The challenges of MONO JAPAN are often financial. I personally want to organize more new programs every year, but financially it’s not wise or possible. Without the necessary budget to host in-depth programs, we lose the storytelling aspect and the opportunities to let our audience know more about the cultural backgrounds of Japanese crafts. This is the reason we finally established a stichting this year. I’m hoping this will make it easier to get more budgeting for cultural programming.
As a Japanese person, I quite often face difficulties here in the Netherlands. I’m not fluent in Dutch which makes it difficult to obtain many things, like information and networks. But after some years here we realized that MONO JAPAN has many Dutch fans who trust our quality stamp, and I get more and more offers from Dutch creators who’d like to collaborate. So I believe that it just takes a bit of time.
I think that being Japanese in the Netherlands also has its advantages, as I get many ideas from seeing both countries and cultures. Nowadays, Japanese concepts are incredibly popular and non-Japanese people are starting businesses using some aspects of Japanese culture. I find this to be a very interesting time. And it makes us think that we as Japanese people should keep providing opportunities for others to create something more “real”.