By Yoshi Nishimoto
The American roots of art and design goes back to Western Europe home of the original immigrants. During my military service in West Germany in 1958-59, I visited a new school of design founded in the city of Ulm. It’s curriculum was the re-creation of the old Bauhaus of the 1920’s. I met Shinji Iwasaki who was a student there and in my initial visit to Japan, we met again in Tokyo in 1963 and thus by chance meeting was the beginning of a twenty-three year relationship with GK.
Japan is a very homogeneous and collective country; while America is a heterogeneous and individualistic country physically larger in land and population, historically not as old as Japan, multi-ethnic in populous, less traditional and more culturally diverse.
Since Yamaha who was here to sell electronic products and motorcycles in the U.S., and Messieurs, Ekuan, Ito and Shibata had studied at Art Center and knew a little of Los Angeles, I suggested that they establish a representative office to act as what the army would refer to as, “a reconnaissance outpost” to study America; which with my help they did in 1967.
Yu Yoshioka and Ken Inoue were assigned to the office and I set up my own practice nearby and eventually within the same office building to aid in their efforts. Whenever we had social gatherings, usually during the visits by Messieurs, Ekuan and Shibata; we invited John Coleman and George Jergensen to share drinks and stories. After nine years, the marketing efforts did not develop much, although the English language abilities of the two improved noticeably.
The Japan Industrial Design Association – JIDA is part of the International Council of Industrial Designers Association – ICSID who holds a world conference every two years. In the 1960’s, Japan’s economy was recovering and foreign trade had become a national priority. JIDA wanted to host an international design conference. Mr. Ekuan asked if I would give up my private practice to come to Japan in 1971, to aid in the promotion of an ICSID conference in Japan, that took place in Kyoto in 1973. During this period, the representative office was legally transformed into a California Corporation and relocated to another larger site, which I returned to in 1976. The new GKDI secured an agreement with YMUS (Yamaha Motor US) and began design and marketing studies, we accomplished our first motorcycle design in a carpeted office facility. This created a need for a larger space, and two moves later we were in an industrial building in Santa Monica. In this new location we designed the Snowmobile facility in Coon Rapids and began design development of Yamaha snowmobiles and later modified Golf Cars for Senior Citizen Retirement Homes in San Bernardino.
Our successful design conference in Kyoto in 1973 changed the visibility of JIDA; it got Mr. Ekuan elected to the Presidency of ICSID, and later I was also elected as the Secretary General of ICSID. This led to many years of lecture invitations, we asked JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization) to finance our design education lectures in the Far East as a goodwill gesture, which sent us to Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines Thailand, and Singapore. We were invited to Australia, East Germany, Poland, Romania, Moscow, Leningrad, and Tibilisi who were interested in the industrial design activities in Japan. We later formed a program for the Pacific Rim countries to conduct seminars on planning, marketing, product design and invited them to participate in Japan.
At a Yamaha Product Planning meeting in Hamamatsu, the English Sales Manager of Yamaha-Amsterdam saw our presentation and asked me to create a similar arrangement in Europe, so I invited him to L.A. and we discussed how we conducted the program for YMUS. The emerging opportunity to travel to Europe clouded the purpose of the venture; “who was to be in charge, and how to staff it” became a source of political debate within GK. I had planned to staff it with GKDI personnel, because of their English language and market awareness skills, and team with able Dutch, German or English designers. The political football at GK tired me, so after 10 years I decided that it was my time to make my departure, and oriented Mr. Aki Hikida for one half year on managing GKDI. The creation of GKDI was my idealistic experiment of staffing it with architects, product/graphic designers, market researchers and cross fertilize the specialists into a multi-disciplined design office. I discovered that most designers resisted and wanted to work within their chosen narrow specialty. It was difficult to manage but it was interesting for me. Disneyland was the only client who was impressed with the idea. We did a minor graphic project for Tokyo Disneyland. I disengaged the architectural interior design and graphic design part of the business, and reduced it to a singular focus on Yamaha, since Aki was most suited for the work. I also suggested that he move the office to Buena Park/Cypress area.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the beginning of World War II created a mass hysteria in the U.S.; all people of Asian ancestry, including Chinese and Koreans, were looked at with distrust and despise. Japanese Americans, mostly American born, were constitutionally illegally interned in concentration camps during the World War II years. My father lost his job and we lived for 3-1/2 years in the camps, upon release we were homeless. During the war, my mother’s three sisters perished in Hiroshima due to the atomic bomb.
There is an old Buddhist temple, built in 1925, in Little Tokyo which was considered structurally inadequate and condemned by the City of L.A. who acquired it for demolition with plans for the space to become a parking lot for its employees. This angered the community and me, whom asked that something be done. So a group of eight proposed a restoration plan that would convert it into a museum, as a historic preservation project. I managed the actual restoration work, and with its completion it opened in 1992; this was the initial phase of the Japanese American National Museum where untold historic stories of how the non-English speaking immigrant Japanese endured racial hostility, saw discriminatory laws created to prevent further immigration, segregation of schools, restrictive covenants created to prevent purchase of property and discourage rentals of land or property, intimidating threats and violence to discourage the formation of families and communities.
These stories which occurred in my life many years ago, shaped me in my profession of design and influenced my decision to go to Japan, live and work there and to aid their product development for the American market. It also helped me to encourage Japan to share its stories of success with their Far Eastern neighbors, who suffered from Japan’s previous militarily planned colonization.
I hope the visibility of Honda, Toyota, Nissan, et al. in sponsorship of the recent Rose Parade (2015); the NFL, NBA sports event sponsorships, and their aggressive business expansions in the U.S. would not be considered as cultural invasions, but as employment opportunities. I hope new Japanese assembly facilities, built especially in the depressed South would be considered a cultural investment, which on a long term basis would help America accept the idea that it is becoming a multi-cultural society, one which would become a role model for the rest of the world, which today lives in constant racial, religious and now sexual conflict.
I hope in your study of new markets, you will cherish the learning experience. If the products are designed in a respectful manner, they will have new cultural meaning for those who buy and use them. This is the most important interface between product and user.