Design with a Japanese Mind - A Conversation with Takeshi Wakabayashi 若林剛之

My name is Takeshi Wakabayashi
I owe a great deal to the nature of Kyoto.

When I need to be alone, I often take a stroll in Tadasu no Mori (糺の森), “the forest of truth”. I am happy and at peace with myself in this forest. It is natural, not pruned or planted by human beings. I also enjoy the late afternoon breeze in the spring. A kind of breeze is just like what the eccentric Zen Buddhist priest and poet Ikkyu Sojun (一休宗純, 1394-1481) described: “Break open a cherry tree and there are no flowers, but the spring breeze brings forth myriad blossoms”. The breeze carries away the day’s grievances of mine and puts me at ease.

From ancient times to the present, the Japanese people have celebrated the beauty of nature and the poignancy of its seasonal rhythm of the moon, the sakura blossom, the river and the forest. Inspired by nature impulses, they created meditations on the fleeting seasons of life and, through them, expressed essential truths about the nature of human experience.

Iki, the Japanese aesthetic ideal
The patterns of human experience forms culture, and the critical reflection on culture, art, and nature shapes aesthetics. Zen was formalized in China. Chan, as it is known in China, took root in Japan in the thirteenth century. Zen Buddhism’s emphasis on simplicity, emptiness, and the impermanence of the natural world generated a distinctive Japanese aesthetic. Therefore, the appreciation of nature has been fundamental to many Japanese aesthetic ideals, artistic expressions, and other cultural elements.

But the highly refined Japanese aesthetic sensibility is not only about the sensual appeal of elements of the natural world, but also about the human emotions it imbues them with. The main theme in Japanese aesthetics is that objects are alive and should be in harmony. Iki (いき, often written 粋), a traditional aesthetic ideal in Japan, illustrates this value of Japanese aesthetic.

Iki is not simply “Japanese things”. It can be used for almost anything, but especially for people. Iki is not found in nature itself, but can be found in the human act of appreciating the beauty of nature. Iki is associated with a thing or situation that is simple, improvised, straight, restrained, temporary, romantic, ephemeral, original, refined, inconspicuous, etc.; it can also be related to a person who is audacious, chic, pert, tacit, sassy, unselfconscious, calm, indifferent, unintentionally coquettish, open-minded, and restrained.

Satou Toshi-san, the owner of Tawaraya Ryokan in Kyoto, is the perfect example of Iki to me. I'm not only impressed by her personal style, but also influenced by her sense of fashion, architecture, taste, and hospitality. She is truly a pioneer in creating a new style inspired by Kyoto tradition!

Design with a Japanese mind
In my 20s, I used to be called “the American boy”, owing my obsession with Ralph Lauren's collection. But soon after turning 30, I started to question my running after Western fashion as a Japanese designer. Moreover, what is the “modern” Japanese style? Just like you, Della-san. Becuase you are educated in America, with roots in Asia, I don’t see you viewing art and literature only with the Western eyes, right?

The aesthetic system of Japan is significantly different from that of the West. For example:
• Contrary to the precise geometrical values in the Western world, Japanese use diagonal, rather than a centrally placed horizontal or vertical line when dividing a rectangle symmetrically.
• In the West, the pictorial quality is based on realm; in contrast, Japanese characterize the elements drawn from the natural world in an abstract from.
• The West worships a permanent beauty and a complex context; Japanese praise the beauty of nature and its harmonious simplicity.

As a designer, I am open to anything. But things that take full concentration and excessive training attract me the most, such as calligraphy, tea ceremony, and traditional craftsmanship. Therefore, inspired as I am by the sublime Japanese aesthetics, I see no need to adopt Western ideals. And as an upholder of the need to rediscover and appreciate Japanese traditional values, albeit in an apparently revolutionary guise, I established the “Made In Japan” brand – Sou • Sou.

Sou • Sou, pronounced as so – so in English, expresses the ultimate statement of Japanese lifestyle. It is a typical Japanese way to say the word when we make a nod to maintain a friendly and harmonious atmosphere during a conversation. Although the word doesn’t convey a meaning of “yes”, it implies “I agree with you” and “I understand you”.

Sou • Sou has always made the point: discovering and interpreting avant-garde art in Japan, and the roots that bind it to the cultural and aesthetic values of the country’s own tradition. It doesn’t matter if the design is for Jika-Tabi (split-toe shoes, 地下足袋) or textile; all of Sou • Sou’s works derive their aesthetic merit from the fact that it cannot be fully achieved without perfect execution!

Tradition is present
When I walked in the courtyard of Shimogamo Jinja, I saw the glow of sunset deepening and hanging on the torii gate . Even though Kyoto is a modern city of more than a million, the weight of history and the force of tradition have given the streets of the city an undeniable unified and harmonious atmosphere, beyond the well-known image of temples and geishas.

Tradition lives in the present, and it is our key to the past.


  1. Della,
    I like this excerpt from your book. KyotEau is such a wonderfully inspiring book about the creative process through all it's different aspects. I had a hard time putting it down and finished it in no time at all!

    You are a true inspiration and I admire how you are able to transcend your "role" as a graphic designer by showing your talent for great writing as well. Your success shows just how important it is to challenge oneself, push boundaries and welcome creativity into one's life. And now it's my turn to do the same!

    Your friend, Kristin

  2. Welcome on board. Dear Kristin.