As some of you may know I have just come back from Japan.

Having built up a series of impressions of Japan and the Japanese from movies like Lost in Translation, classic animes like Princess Mononoke and Fist of the Northstar, Kurasawa’s epic Seven Samurai; and the often bizarre written works of authors Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto and Kazuo Ishiguro I had a confused and totally misinformed idea of the place.


First of all the Japanese are not nearly as aloof and – dare I say it – weird as they are portrayed. That is not to say they don’t have their idiosyncrasies, but it is these very differences that makes Japanese culture so captivating, endearing and, probably, enduring.

The most compelling aspect of Japanese culture from my point of view is its universal sense and implementation of design concepts. It seems to me that the Japanese are the only race (except maybe the Danes?) that still value and apply the rule of form as well as function. Making it both a visually stimulating and far more efficient culture.

There are studies being conducted in Europe right now (led by the Danes incidentally) that have finally reached the conclusion that the nation of Japan practices as a lifestyle: design can add value to the economic landscape by improving the efficiency of services, infrastructure and industrial production, and by expediting policy; thereby improving the health and happiness of the nation, which leads to everyone working hard and reinvesting in the economy: Boom.

This is how I break it down: design makes you happier because every thing is easy and everything is beautiful.

Let’s think about this in terms of say, trains:

Q. How late is the bullet train?

A. Never. Ok, ok, an average of 14 seconds in an entire year, what more do you want?

Q. How good does it look?

A. Futuristic: Ice-cool.

Q. How smooth is it?

A. “Are we moving? I hadn’t noticed.” (see 4 Weddings & A Funeral.)

Q. How comfortable is it?

A. Very. There is a spacious foot well, a foot-rest, a generous sized table and a winged chair-back for added comfort.

Q. How good are the snacks?

A. Plentiful, high quality with healthy options, and it comes to your seat after every stop.

Q. How clean is it?

A. Spotless. An entire team sanitize the train after each journey.

Q. How polite are the staff?

A. They are so polite they even bow to the doors.


Now let’s talk about British Rail:

Q. In general how often are British trains delayed?

A. All the time. Once I was stuck on a Great Western Railway train for 8 hours.

That would never happen in Japan.

Q. How good does it look?

A. Thomas the Tank Engine: fail.

Q. How smooth is it?

A. You can’t even walk down the length of your own carriage without falling in somebody’s lap, probably a big fat sweaty man who will make lewd remarks.

A Japanese man would be neither fat, nor sweaty, nor would he make lewd remarks.

Q. How comfortable is it?

A. Granted the seats are alright, but they certainly don’t have foot rests, and the tables are too small, and if you are in a cluster of 4 seats with a central table you have to dominate everyone else in a complicated game of footsy whereby the Alpha keeps their foot in the prime location and refuses to make way for the Betas until they just give up and wallow in pedestrian misery.

Q. How good are the snacks?

A. You have to stagger up eight carriages, jabbing your hip into seat backs and grabbing onto people to steady yourself – thanks to the jerking motion of the train – in order to reach an ingenuously entitled ‘restaurant’ car, tastelessly decorated in dreary grey linoleum, where you pick up a wet cheddar and pickle sandwich, a packet of salt and vinegar crisps and a watery tea for a 300% mark up. Then, stagger all the way back, spilling your tea on a man travelling with a rottweiler and get into a fight.

At which point you then have to re-dominate your foot-well.

Jesus Christ, I’m tired just thinking about it.

Q. How clean is it?

A. The loos absolute reek of urine. And once, on the way to Brighton, I found a bra stuffed down the toilet.

Q. How polite are the staff?

A. Rude. Especially if you have lost your ticket and only have the receipt stub as proof of purchase, at which time they positively relish humiliating you in front of the rest of the carriage, making you buy a new ticket (when you’ve already bought one) and pay a fine.

So, let’s conclude:

On a scale of 1-10 how happy are we at the end of a Japanese train journey? (Unless there has been an earthquake, a nuclear disaster or typhoon)

Serene, nourished and ready for the day: 9

(N.B I give it a 9 because 10 is ecstasy and trains can only make you so happy.)

On a scale of 1-10 how happy are we at the end of a British train journey?

Stressed out, vaguely disgusted and hungry: 1.

Apart from the incredible efficiency of its public transport system, the Japanese take great pride in the detail, that is to say: the appearance of things. This is where the other aspect of design comes into play.

A lot of text has been written about the emotional and cognitive impact of the environment on human beings. Gestalt theory posits that our brain receives so much visual stimulation that it automatically finds the simplest solution to the problem, thus grouping items together that have certain characteristics. That is why we like symmetry over diversity.

I like to think of this as the ‘superficial b*tch’ theory, whereby you choose the good-looking person over the ugly one because their face is more symmetrical.

Anyway, the Japanese have positively nailed this theory.

Market stalls and shop shelves are artistically decorated with beautifully laid out fish and vegetables and brightly coloured boxes of cereals. Mushrooms are artfully nestled in little punnetts of grass. The trees that line the streets are groomed to represent the very apex of tree-dom without sacrificing their natural tree-ness.

treesThe ultimate example of this?

The Zen Garden…. Aaaahhh… relaaaaaxxxxxx…..

Go there.

You will be a happier, better version of yourself.

And you probably will live longer.














© Copyright Madder Red By Dalya Islam 2014. By DESIGN45