So how do you pack the breadth of Japanese culture into one symbol? Japan Real Time talked with Mr. Sato about the logo’s conception, why this was one of his most difficult projects, and why its impact will come down to branding strategy. Edited excerpts follow. See Mr. Sato’s portfolio of projects here.
JRT: Why did you decide to submit a design for the “Cool Japan” competition?
KS: I had an interest in “Cool Japan” from the start. I attended the “Cool Japan” conference and designed the logo for the Japan International Contents Festival. I also have an interest in this kind of activity — presenting the world with cool Japan content in my regular work with global brands such as Imabari Towel and Uniqlo. In addition, there was the earthquake. As a designer, I’ve been deliberating what I could do and should do to help rebuild the country. I wondered if there was a way I could lend a hand in dispatching a message that Japan is rebuilding.
KS: Well, it wasn’t just myself. Ideas were thrown around among my staff, but I made the final decision.
I wanted to express the notion of moving towards a new Japan. To say we’re going to rebuild doesn’t simply mean we should go back to the way things were. Rather than revert to the past, I wanted to convey the view of advancing towards the next dream. Let’s combine our strengths and work together towards a new future.
Another element I thought very seriously about while developing the slogan and felt was necessary in the final product was to think of something that will be easily understood by people around the world and will be immediately remembered. I thought it was better to think of something that was “Japan” plus just one more word. Anything longer than three words would probably be difficult to remember. I also wanted to choose a word that is easy enough that you don’t have to be fluent in English to understand the meaning. Keeping these elements in mind made the project very difficult. Once you consider these factors, your options become considerably limited.
JRT: Do you think Japanese culture is understood overseas? If not, how does it fall short?
KS: I suspect there isn’t a sufficient understanding. I think there’s a tentative grasp of the culture. There’s contemporary Japanese culture and traditional Japanese culture. It’s questionable whether (the difference between) these are being accurately communicated. Take geishas and samurai, for example. I think people basically understand what these things are, but in reality samurai no longer exist and there aren’t many geishas. But in some instances this is the only image of Japan people have. When I go to faraway places like America and Europe, there are stores and restaurants where it seems Asia is treated like one country — you don’t know if what they’re serving is Japanese “washoku” food or Chinese or Korean. I think this happens because the difference has not been properly articulated. I don’t think it’s that they don’t know Japanese culture at all, but they still don’t fully understand it.
KS: It’s a hybrid culture. There are things that came from Europe, kanji characters were adopted from China, and of course there are things that were originally conceived in Japan. I think there’s a big mix of cultures going on that undergoes change here. To me, that is very Japanese. To mix many different things together and have it reborn as something new is one part of Japanese culture.
JRT: You have created logos and designs for major Japanese brands, including Uniqlo, Honda Motor Co., and even SMAP. Did you approach this project differently, and what were the particular challenges that came with conceiving a logo that represents the country?
KS: The approach is the same. You think about the substance at hand, then grasp onto that and think of a logo or slogan that communicates the substance. But what is different was how to cope with this subject. In the case of Uniqlo, Honda and SMAP, I dealt with a specific product. But the idea of Japan and its future has such a wide breadth and to convey that spectrum in a simple way was hard. It was a very difficult thing to do, one of the more challenging projects I’ve taken on.
JRT: Did you conceive of the “sun” as the symbol from the beginning?
KS: Not really. Several ideas and many approaches were under consideration…but I suppose this idea in particular resonated from the start.
JRT: What are the spikes on the sun supposed to represent?
KS: Speed and lively motion – it shows the people of Japan combining forces and moving together as one.
KS: Well, all I’ve done is come up with the logo and message. Whether it becomes a “masterpiece” depends on how it will be applied. Symbols are only as effective as how well they are used. I look forward to see how this logo will be used, like if it be branded on “Cool Japan” goods, I think it is only then that the message of “Japan Next” will begin to be understood.
Before you can determine whether a project turned out well or bad, you need to see how it is molded after the fact. For instance, I believe the Uniqlo logo became a strong brand because Uniqlo worked hard (to create the brand). The same goes with the National Art Center, SMAP and others.
The important question going forward will be the strategy to develop “Japan Next” into a strong brand. It’s all about branding.
JRT: Japan has attempted to “brand” itself in other ways, such as the “Japan. Endless Discovery” message as a part of the government tourism agency’s “Visit Japan” campaign. But it doesn’t seem to stick. What are these projects missing?
KS: As I mentioned before, I’ve helped out with Japan’s Co-festa project and have spoken at “Cool Japan” conferences. My view from the sideline is that these activities appear to be quite scattered. I wonder if it might be more effective to consolidate these activities.
I suspect there are people to execute the jobs, but maybe not a person like a creative director overseeing the entire process who can see the big picture. I think that’s why the activity doesn’t look collective
JRT: What will be your involvement in the “Japan Next” project going forward?
I don’t know. I’m not aware of their ‘action plan’ from here on, but because I’ve labored (over the project) this much, I’d like to be involved. I’d like to help them figure out how to best communicate this mark and message to the world. Otherwise it’s too boring, isn’t it?
(Yoree Koh for Japan Real Time)