We visit the Japanese diasporas that are leaving a distinct mark on the world stage.
They’re known as the Nikkei – Japanese who’ve gone overseas – and there are some 3.8 million spread across the globe, according to the Association of Japanese and Nikkei Abroad. Though there are records of emigration dating back to the 12th century, their story really begins in the Meiji period (1868-1912). That was when Japanese, struck by poverty and social change at home, began moving in larger numbers – to the Philippines and the Americas mostly – in search of a better life.
Building new relationships hasn’t always been easy – the Japanese-American community has a thing or two to say about that – but over time the Japanese spirit has permeated the cultures that they’ve settle in. Here we meet three lesser-known communities from the worlds of design, business and holiday-making.
The 19th-century grey-brick Arabia factory in Helsinki is steeped in Finland’s rich design history. It was here that the country’s most iconic ceramics were produced in a building that now houses a centre showcasing the best of the nation’s design. The building is also home to designer Fujiwo Ishimoto’s atelier; this is where monocle meets him, along with a dozen of his countrymen and women.
Finland’s design heritage, and brands such as Marimekko, Iittala and Arabia, have found a loyal following in Japan, as well as attracting a community of Japanese designers to Helsinki. Ishimoto says that he knew little of Finland when he moved here in 1970 to work for Marimekko but he was attracted to its design culture. “The Japanese people are very knowledgeable about Finnish design,” he says. “I remember seeing the work of Timo Sarpaneva in Tokyo in 1964 at an exhibition of Finnish design, and I fell in love with it straight away. It was so simple, so clear.”
Ishimoto went on to become one of Marimekko’s most famous designers, launching a career that spanned more than four decades. Now there are more than 600 Japanese people living in Helsinki – roughly a third of them working in design and architecture – and many say that they moved to Finland to follow in his footsteps. “In a way we are all Ishimoto’s children,” says Kohsuke Nakamura, who runs a boutique specialising in Japanese design in Helsinki.
“Both cultures share a high appreciation for timeless and functional design and believe that good design makes our everyday lives better,” says Minna Kemell-Kutvonen, Marimekko’s design and product development director. But Japanese designers have also left their own mark, she adds, pointing to the fall/winter 2019 collection. “Our Japanese designers have created their own interpretations of Marimekko’s characteristic style and you can tell that they’ve been inspired by Finnish nature and its seasons.”
Helsinki’s Japanese community is well integrated and many who move here, like Ishimoto, stay for decades. The affection here clearly extends beyond an appreciation of Finnish design. Toshiako Hoshi, a chef who transitioned into tableware design and whose work is sold at fashion retailer Samuji, applauds the Finnish work-life balance and social equality. “It feels liberating and it definitely has an effect on the creative output,” he says.
Japanese designers have found a place that both inspires them and reminds them of home. Eri Shimatsuka, who runs her own brand, Pikkusaari, says, “Nature is everywhere here. It, and the quintessential Finnish silence, inspires me and is clearly visible in the patterns that I design.”
Since the end of the Second World War, migration from Japan has added a subtle yet important cultural twist to Queensland’s Gold Coast. More than 12,000 ethnic Japanese now call this region home, making Japanese the most taught language, other than English, in schools. It’s not just the sunshine but also the relaxed Australian culture that attracts many to the region.
Yoshiro Takeda has been honing his craft as a surfboard shaper on the Gold Coast for close to two decades. “I’ve always wanted to be a surfboard shaper,” he says from his workshop in Burleigh. While Australia is “possibly the most innovative country for surfboard design”, he says his Japanese upbringing helps in a craft that demands patience and perfection. He does about 25 per cent of his business back in Japan but the Gold Coast is home. “My life is so comfortable that I don’t ever feel the need for a holiday,” he says.
That feeling of comfort is augmented by a welcoming community. Far from the surf in Brisbane’s Queensland Ballet studios, five of the company’s professional dancers hail from Japan. Opportunities to dance professionally back home are hard to come by so, at a young age, many ballerinas follow scholarships to Europe, the US and Australia. “When I lived and danced in Europe I was seen as a stranger,” says soloist Neneka Yoshida, who has been with the company for six years. “But here cultural diversity is the norm.”
Meanwhile Naomichi Hirano is dressed head to toe in the Queensland Police’s deep-navy uniform. He moved here in 1990 and five years ago became the first cross-cultural community liaison officer on the Gold Coast. “I deal with about 60 different cultural communities,” he says. He also heads up the Japan Community of Queensland. “I wear many different hats.”
Nestled on the southern edge of Los Angeles County, the small coastal city of Torrance (population 145,000) is home to the second-largest ethnic Japanese community in the US after Honolulu. It also serves as the US headquarters for some of Japan’s largest companies. All Nippon Airways (ANA) has its only office in the US here, as does JTB, the travel agency. By the early 1990s Toyota, Honda and Nissan all had their US HQs in Torrance. The South Bay’s attraction for businesses lies not only in its large Japanese community but its proximity to Los Angeles International Airport and the trade port of Long Beach.
Both ANA and Honda rank among the top employers in the city. Honda alone has some 2,000 employees and made Torrance its R&D centre. The carmaker has also followed the Japanese tradition of engaging with the community. “We have several volunteer initiatives, from supporting schools to coastal clean-ups,” says Erik Wedin, manager of corporate community relations at Honda. “We know the people and they know us. That’s been the key to good relations.”
Smaller businesses, such as food shop Nijiya Market, play a vital role in making Torrance an attractive place to live. “A lot of elderly people come here to socialise; they get coffee or sushi and meet with friends,” says Seiji Kurata, merchandising manager at Nijiya Market.
Japanese-American heritage has no doubt been shaped by its troubled history. “There’s a unique Japanese-American culture, which is different from Japan,” says Alan Nishio, a civic activist. Born in the Manzanar internment camp in 1945, Nishio is on the board of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Centre in LA and has dedicated his life to promoting Japanese culture in the US. Japanese-Americans have infiltrated Japanese culture too. “The best example is the California roll,” says Nishio. “It was never known in Japan before but it certainly is now.”