Tin MenIn the toy-shops of Japan one may see the microcosm of Japanese life.
—William Elliot Griffis, 1876Toys are not really as innocent as they look. Toys and games are the prelude to serious ideas.
—Charles Eames, 1961
Riding chariots built in Detroit, American conquerors surveyed the nation they had brought to its knees. The devastation wrought by months of firebombing was almost beyond imagination. Prior to the outbreak of war in the Pacific in 1941, Tokyo was the planet’s third-largest city, home to nearly seven million people. Through military conscription, civilian casualties, and mass evacuations, by the fall of 1945 fewer than half remained. The same could be said of the city itself. “Skeletons of railway cars and locomotives remained untouched on the tracks,” wrote the war correspondent Mark Gayn of his first drive into the fallen metropolis. “Streetcars stood where the flames had caught up with them, twisting the metal, snapping the wires overhead, and bending the supporting iron poles as if they were made of wax. Gutted buses and automobiles lay abandoned by the roadside. This was all a man-made desert, ugly and desolate and hazy in the dust that rose from the crushed brick and mortar.” Charred bodies still lay beneath the rubble, filling silent streets with their stench. The only sound of industrial civilization in this grim landscape was the rumble of the American jeep.
The “U.S. Army Truck, ¼-ton, 4×4, Command Reconnaissance,” as it was officially designated, was designed for hauling things around and nothing else. Mass-produced to military specifications by the automakers Willys–Overland and Ford, the jeep offered little in the way of amenities save the promise of near indestructibility. It was boxy, open to the elements, and painful to ride in for any length of time. The drab yet dependable vehicle was somehow down-to-earth and larger-than-life; even the Americans knew it. General Eisenhower went so far as to credit the jeep as one of the four things that won the war for the Allies, right alongside the Douglas C-47 transport plane, the bazooka, and the atomic bomb.
Japan spent the rest of the decade occupied by a foreign military power, literally picking up the pieces of its major cities. Jeeps zipped freely through the streets all the while. For Japanese adults, the jeep stirred complicated feelings of loss and longing—an unavoidable symbol of capitulation and powerlessness. To children, they represented thrillingly loud and fast candy dispensers, dishing out tastes of American culture in the form of Hershey’s bars, Bazooka gum, and Lucky Strike cigarettes. And they did radiate a sort of charm; bug-eyed headlights and a seven-slotted grill evoking a toothy grin, as though the jeep were a cartoon of a car. The iconic nickname, in fact, likely came from a Popeye comic book. The sailorman’s sidekick Eugene the Jeep first appeared in 1936. He emerged as the Pikachu of his era, a fuzzy yellow fantasy creature whose utterances were limited to the monosyllable “jeep”—which sounded a lot like “GP,” as in General Purpose, another designation for the vehicle.
Officially, the occupation lasted until 1952, when much of Japan regained independence under a new constitution authored by American framers. (Okinawa would remain under American control for another two decades.) Even still the jeeps remained, for sovereignty hinged on the adoption of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan, better known as Anpo—an abbreviation of its Japanese name. Grossly inequitable and hugely unpopular among a war-weary citizenry from its very inception, the treaty obligated Japan to host a series of American military bases along its entire length, operating independently and beyond the reach of Japanese law: permanent islands of occupation.
Police were required to salute as the American soldiers roared past, whether they were on official business or driving around with their newfound local girlfriends. The first English words most Japanese kids would master in those postwar years were “hello,” “goodbye,” “give me chocolate,” and “jeep.”
The total destruction of the industrial sector in 1945 obliterated Japan’s manufacturing capabilities—a crippling blow for any nation, but doubly so in one as singularly obsessed with material things as Japan. From the earliest days of contact with the West in 1854, Japan relied on manufactured products to build bridges with the outside world.
The unexpected appearance of an American naval fleet in Japanese waters in the mid-nineteenth century compelled the shogunate to end more than two centuries of self-imposed isolation. The Americans undoubtedly presumed they would find a backward nation with a low standard of living, ripe for exploitation. What they discovered was a vibrant consumer economy that not only met its citizens’ daily needs but delivered books, artwork, furniture, decorations, and fashion accessories to an eager populace. Even in these preindustrial times, Japanese citizens sought out and cherished little luxuries.
Boxes both metaphoric and literal define Japan’s material culture. Artfully arranged bento boxes showcase ingredients and stimulate appetites. The challenging limitations of haiku, just three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, channel creativity into the art of what might be called single-serving verse. So too in the art of wrapping, putting as much effort into the aesthetics of presentation as the object itself, whether it be the careful plating of kaiseki haute cuisine or the presentation of gifts in envelopes or boxes so elaborate that they can rival or even exceed the value of the actual contents.
These packaged pleasures are the products of a hereditary caste system that sorted citizens into boxes of their own: samurai at the top of the social pecking order, followed in turn by farmers, artisans, and merchants at the very bottom. Yet a passion for packaging extends throughout all levels of society, whether in the functional furoshiki cloth wrappings used for daily purchases on the street or in the meticulous packaging seen at luxurious hyakkaten.
Written with the characters for “hundreds of products,” hyakkaten were the traditional analogue of what are now called department stores, or depaato. It is no coincidence that Japan is home to two of the world’s very first and longest-running such establishments: Matsuzakaya, founded in 1611, and Mitsukoshi, whose roots extend back to 1673. With a million residents, Edo, as Tokyo was known prior to 1868, ranked as the world’s most populous city for most of the eighteenth century. For many generations, department stores like Mitsukoshi and its many rivals prided themselves on carrying the choicest wares for discriminating urban customers. Fine kimonos; beautifully wrought housewares, jewelry, and accessories; decadent delights of all kinds, from sweets to toys, all of it wrapped just so and presented with a deep bow from the clerk to the customer—the flourish of the presentation just as important as the contents inside. Packaging was always about something more than protection from the elements; it was an art form in and of itself, a show of respect to object and consumer both.
And what might lurk inside those exquisite boxes? In the late nineteenth century, sophisticated books created from woodblock prints, ceramic ware, fashion accessories, brocades, and other pleasures intended for savvy Japanese consumers so charmed Western artists that they began to question long-held assumptions about aesthetics and design. Impressionists and those inspired by them, such as Degas, Whistler, van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec, immersed themselves in the playful artwork of Kuniyoshi and Hokusai to free themselves from the strictures of ossified European style. Before long, things Japanese began to transform what it meant to be cultured. Charles Tiffany harnessed Japanese flourishes to elevate a humble stationery emporium into America’s top purveyor of urban sophistication. To familiar luxuries such as combs, servingware, silver, and stained glass, he added exotic motifs inspired by or even copied directly from the work of Hokusai and others: fish, turtles, flowers, butterflies, and insects. Such was the impact of the Western world’s first encounter with the handiwork of the shokunin: Japanese artisans who poured heart and soul into their craft, because their craft was their lot in life, all but ordained by the social order of their era. Taking a cue from the often brutal apprenticeships of the martial arts, shokunin tradition places innovation secondary to the mastering of a chosen medium’s form, finish, and presentation. Only after long years of rote practice might one aspire to making something new. You might call it thinking inside the box.
Copyright © 2020 by Matt Alt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.