Poetic Japanese LunchBox

{Essay Report of Article
Kenji EKUAN. ‘Introduction: Joys of the Lunchbox’
pp 1-7; from The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 1998.}

“Good mind save; bad mind kill.” _*1]

—Kenji EKUAN

In fact, Kenji’s article is the introduction of the book “The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox”. To be frank, this article is just a rough summary of all the concepts and it also guides us to read this book further.

Kenji reads the Japanese lunchbox as both object and metaphor. He finds the traditional Japanese lunchbox a touchstone for discovering the country’s landscape, culture, and aesthetic sensibilities. It seems that Kenji tells us lots, but actually, there are two main concepts passing through the whole article. They are the Japanese visual culture and the many-talented national character. These are also what this article and this book impressed me. I would like to discuss further in this report.

Kenji, as Japanese, emphasizes much on the visual of a design. Throughout the passage, he reminds us repeatedly that you must allow your eyes to enjoy the beauty, the harmony, the seasons, the visual hierarchy, the space and frame of the food in the lunchbox. “The major asset of the lunchbox is its beauty.”_*2] said Kenji. Biologists also claim that visual sense occupies 80% of one’s sensibility. This is very important that people often desire to see something beautiful, especially Japanese. As Japanese tends to think more with their eyes than their heads, it is worth to design from the motivation of beauty.

The French Encyclopedist Denis Diderot (1713-1784) once mentioned that Japanese diet is abundant in the sense of vision: _*3]

“Colors, aesthetic, sense of touch, harmony, taste; you get all you want here.”

First, lunchbox ‘artist’ emphasizes on the 5 colors which are “white, black, yellow, red, and green”. And the traditional Japanese lunchbox contains, on average, 5 to 6 types of food in each of its four squares, bringing to the total of 20 to 25 colors. Second, as mentioned before, Japanese stress on the structure, the space, the colors of this delicious picture. Third, using the chopsticks thumbing the food is another enjoyment. Fourth, there are numerous and disparate elements in one compact lunchbox, but we also find them all harmoniously arranged. Fifth, 5 tastes which are “sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, and salty” should be include in the traditional Japanese lunch in a harmonious way.

It explains how the Japanese lunchbox becomes a functional art.

Moreover, Japanese is a race who cares about their national identity very much. Although it is just a box of rice, there is a philosophy behind. There is a kind of lunchbox called “Hinomaru” (丸の內便當) _*4] which is a box of white rice with a red plum in the centre. It symbolizes the national flag of Japan.

The Japanese visual culture also applies to other Japanese design. When you are travelling in Japan, you will properly express admiration for their packaging design. How come? All the gifts are packed prettily and in a kind of Japanese way. Even the paper box for carrying cakes, the angles of the card is definitely perfect. Maybe delicacy is a kind of national character; Japanese often focus on the small part of the design. Not only making it as beautiful as they can, but also making it very convenience for you. You feel very amazing when you care these very small parts.

Then, I would continue to discuss the many-talented national character. Japan, not the same as China, is a very small islands country. Farming is not very well because there are lots of mountains. There is also lack of natural resources; and it is often affected by the natural disaster such as earthquake. Almost 120 millions of people live in this small land and they are densely populated. Because of all these, Japanese are cultivated to have many talents and skills in order to overcome all the troubles they face. Some of them are the etiquette, nationalism, courage, sense of unite, etc. In short, the physical area of Japan is like a small lunchbox (container) which is packed with multi-talented character and full of enjoyment.

A typical design is the Japanese mobile phone. The mobile phones become smaller and smaller. This compact mobile phone is multi-functional. There are several hundreds of functions. For many Japanese, mobile is almost a very small personal computer in one’s pocket. They can use it sending e-mail, SMS; playing games; listening to radio, mp3; searching on the web; taking photos; planning timetable; etc. As there is 3G now, we can have face-to-face conference and watching TV. After all, maybe the most important function is to throw the loneliness away. The Japanese design approach is a bit different from the West. Western designers like to use “form follows function” approach and everything should be express in the outlook. But the Japanese like to design a product as small and beautiful as they can; all the powerful functions are packed inside.

So, both small Japan and small mobile phone illustrate the words “small but powerful”.

Personally, I respect this designer, Kenji very much. I have read Kenji’s interview in a local magazine. Maybe all the values and philosophies are important, but the designer’s mind is more important than everything. As you know, there are just lots of bad minded designers (who cheat others) both in Hong Kong and in other part of the world. Designers should be just like a doctor. Our mission is to improve people’s life so as to make them live more “comfortable”. The meaning of “comfortable” includes both of the physical and mental comfort. We should try our best to achieve this goal.

Hope more and more people can enjoy well “designed” life!

*1] Please refer to LO. <先進訪談:榮久庵憲司──便當盒詩意美學> pp 212-215; from CITYMAGAZINE issue 330
*2] Please refer to Kenji EKUAN. ‘Beauty Is Function’ pp 13-21; from The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 1998.
*3~4] 參見李佩玲:《和風浮世繪—日本設計的文化性格》,(田園城市,2002年3月),第一章,頁6-32。

1. Kenji EKUAN. The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 1998.
2. 李佩玲:《和風浮世繪──日本設計的文化性格》,(田園城市,2002年3月)
3. LO. <先進訪談:榮久庵憲司──便當盒詩意美學> pp 212-215; from CITYMAGAZINE issue 330

(written in 2004, an assignment of Subject: Introduction to Design in China, Japan and Korea)


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