The Story of Design: Japanese post-war design


6 December 2013

The Story of Design, written by Charlotte and Peter Fiell, is a new book that chronologises and contextualises the history of design.

Published by Goodman Fiell, the book provides an overview of design's development, beginning with primitive tools and production methods, before ranging through the Middle Ages, Industrial Revolution, the rise of mass production and Modernism, and eventually settling on an overview of the contemporary design scene.

Through essays and photography, the Story of Design examines seminal movements and periods such as Arts and Crafts, the Deutscher Werkbund, Italian Rationalism and Creative Salvage, aiming to provide an account of their development and significance within design's overall narrative.

To give a taste of the book, below we publish its chapter that examines Japanese post-war design, a period in which Japan regenerated its industry following the Second World War.

Japan experienced a rapid cultural transformation while under the occupation of the Allied Powers between 1945 and 1952. During this period the Empire of Japan was officially dissolved, and a constitutional democracy was instated in its place in 1947. Like its wartime allies Germany and Italy, Japan was compelled to transform itself from a military power into an economic one, though the country had actually undergone its industrial revolution relatively early in comparison to other non-Western countries: the inventor and industrialist Sakichi Toyoda had designed Japan’s first steam-powered loom in 1896, and it had been instrumental to the growth of Japan’s modern silk industry.

This coincided with a huge increase in exports to the West, and by the First World War Japan was a leading industrialized nation. Its industry had continued to grow throughout the inter-war period, thanks not only to another invention by Toyoda – the world’s first automatic loom capable of replenishing the shuttle during continuous operation (1926) – but also to the Japanese government’s desire to become a significant military power.

The Japanese defeat in the Second World War, however, came as a severe blow to this essentially inward-looking society. The effects were felt in all areas of Japanese life, but they were especially strong in the manufacturing sector. For decades most of these major Japanese companies had been suppliers of military materiel to the Japanese government, and now they had suddenly lost their most important customer. In order to survive, they had to convert their production quickly to consumer goods for civilians – and to do this they needed first to decide which types of product to manufacture, and then to learn how to design them, or at the very least work out how to copy successful products made by foreign manufacturers. And even if Japanese manufacturers accomplished all of this, they faced another problem, which was that although they were often competitive on price, they had a long-established reputation for poor-quality manufacture – the term “Made in Japan” being widely associated with shoddy goods.

The situation needed urgent redress, and fortuitously for Japanese manufacturers a book was published in 1951 that answered their prayers: the Quality Control Handbook, written by the Romanian-born American management consultant and engineer Joseph M. Juran. The first edition of this book came to the attention of the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers (JUSE) and made a lasting impression; it laid out the “economics of quality of design”, explaining how to implement control systems and exacting standardization in the mass manufacture of goods, and also how to introduce a procedural culture of organization and planning. Among other things it detailed processes for the selection and rigorous testing of materials, the specialized training of a workforce, the maintenance of strict financial controls and the inspection of quality standards throughout the manufacturing process.

The Nikon I camera, launched in 1948

All of this made Juran a veritable guru to Japanese manufacturers given the problems they were then addressing, and in 1952 members of the JUSE invited him to Japan. He made his first of ten visits to the country in 1954, and while there he gave seminars to top-ranking and mid-level executives from ten different manufacturing companies, including Nikon and the Noritake chinaware company. Juran’s first series of seminars was so well received that JUSE and the Japanese Standards Association asked him to deliver more lectures on subsequent trips to Japan.

Put simply, Juran’s message was that by introducing quality-control systems firms could increase customer satisfaction, produce more saleable goods, be more competitive, increase market share and enjoy better income and margins – and that while higher- quality products often cost more in the short term, they reaped a much better return on investment in the long run. His message soon spread throughout Japanese industry, and in time the larger Japanese firms set up their own internal quality-control training programmes. Such was the impact of Juran’s pioneering work in quality control that Japanese national radio began to offer related courses for foremen, and booklets on the subject were sold at newspaper kiosks.

A good case study that illustrates the transformative influence of Juran’s work on Japanese design is to compare the output of Nikon from the late 1940s and the late 1950s. In 1948 the company, then known as Nippon Kogaku, launched a compact camera known as the Nikon I, which was not only the firm’s first camera but also the first product to bear the “Nikon” name. This design was inspired by the successful top-of-the-range Leica cameras then being produced in Germany. A decade later Nikon introduced its own groundbreaking high-end camera design, the Nikon F – the company’s first interchangeable-lens SLR model. This design, with its boldly styled, distinctive casing, offered numerous innovations, including the world’s first exposure meter to be fully coupled with an aperture, and the world’s first practical application of a motor drive. It was this type of technically persuasive and beautifully design-engineered product that transformed the term “Made in Japan” into an indicator of design innovation and manufacturing quality. Thanks to Mr Juran the tables had turned within a very short period of time.

Another Japanese company whose name became closely associated with Japan’s design revolution during the postwar period was Toyota Motor Co. Ltd. The company had been established in 1937 by Kiichiro Toyoda, the eldest son of the famous Japanese power-loom inventor, Sakichi. During the war years, the firm undertook extensive research into and development of, among other things, batteries, diesel engines, alternative fuels, forge-processing techniques and steel alternatives. Then, on 14 August 1945, its main plant in Koromo was hit in an air raid and a quarter of the factory was destroyed. The following day the Emperor’s broadcast announced the end of the war, and Toyota was immediately tasked by Vice President Hisayoshi Akai with resuming truck production, for the manufacture of trucks was seen as essential to Japan’s post-war reconstruction. Although the Allied Powers issued a memorandum the following month prohibiting the manufacture of passenger cars, they still allowed the production of trucks, and also certain types of electrical equipment such as boat engines, small motors, radios and various household appliances. Toyota, therefore, diversified its product range to encompass these types of products.

But while the production of passenger cars was banned by the occupying administration, research and development into their design was not, and so Toyota busied itself in this area. The results of this activity were plain to see when its first post-war car was launched in October 1947. The Model SA (1947), retailed under the “Toyopet” brand, was a family sedan, the brainchild of Kiichiro Toyoda, who had taken on board his father’s entreaty to “stay ahead of the times”. Its aerodynamic body design was predominately the work of the engineer Dr Kazuo Kumabe, and can be traced to pre-war German models; the reason for this is that Kumabe, together with other Toyota engineers, had travelled to Germany before the Second World War to study the automotive technology and styling then being pioneered by the talented engineers at Auto Union (Audi), Porsche and Volkswagen. In contrast the first Toyota Crown, introduced in 1955, reflected the influence of American styling; unsurprisingly, it was successfully exported to the United States during the late 1950s.

Toyots Model SA car, 1947 - retailed under the "Toyopet" brand

Nissan, another Japanese car manufacturer, also became a successful exporter to the USA; having entered this overseas market in 1958 it had established dealerships across the country within a year. In 1960 it started to sell, through these dealerships, the all-new Datsun Bluebird 310. This marked the beginning of a tremendously successful period for Nissan in America: in 1971 alone it sold an astonishing 255,000 automobiles, demonstrating convincingly that Japanese manufacturers had managed to overthrow any doubts about their design and manufacturing credentials by creating products that the whole world wanted to buy. The power of design had yet again been harnessed to create national industrial wealth and, with it, national industrial pride.

More than any other Japanese company, though, Sony was responsible for the extraordinary rise of modern design in the country’s post-war era. In the first few months following the end of the Second World War there had been a huge surge of demand in Japan for radios, fuelled by a population eager for news from around the world. In September 1945, spotting the opportunity that this demand for radios represented, a young engineer named Masaru Ibuka opened a small office in Tokyo. Rather grandly named the Tokyo Tsushin Kenkyujo (the Tokyo Telecommunications Research Institute), the business functioned as both a research lab and a repair centre for war-damaged radios and sets that had had their shortwave units disconnected by the military police, so as to prevent their being tuned in to enemy propaganda.

The fledgling company also manufactured innovative adapters that allowed short- wave units to be converted into all-wave receivers. These short-wave adapters were featured in the “Blue Pencil” column of the respected Asahi Shimbun newspaper, and this led the physicist Akio Morita to reconnect with his old friend Ibuka. Together they went on to found their own company the following year. Known as the Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo Kabushiki Kaisha (the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation), this venture was set up to research and manufacture telecommunications equipment and measuring devices. Initially, its best-selling product was an electrically heated cushion; however, in 1950 it launched the first Japanese-made magnetic recording tape, dubbed Soni-Tape – hence the name “Sony”. In the same year they released the first Japanese reel-to-reel tape recorder, which was used to record evidence by the Supreme Court and various other government agencies, thereby earning it the nickname “G Type”, in which “G” stood for government.

Sony's G type reel-to-reel tape recorder, 1950

A sales trip to America taken by Ibuka in 1952 propelled the young Japanese company into a completely new and exciting sphere of electronics manufacture. Having read an article in an American magazine about the invention of the transistor by Dr W.B. Shockley, Dr J. Bardeen and Dr W. Brattain at Bell Laboratories in 1948, Ibuka was pretty sceptical about its practical application. Nevertheless, while in America he heard from a friend based there that Bell Laboratories’ parent company, Western Electric, was going to license the manufacture of transistors to interested parties on a royalty basis, and his interest was somewhat piqued.

During a night of jet-lagged restlessness, an idea suddenly flashed though Ibuka’s mind: maybe his company could license the manufacture of transistors, and then his team of highly trained staff could work hard to perfect their commercial application. Unable to secure a deal with Western Electric on this first visit, Ibuka doggedly persisted, and eventually he received a letter announcing that the US company would be happy to license its patent to Ibuka and his team. This was a major coup, and Ibuka’s partner Akio Morita was tasked with closing the deal, which he managed to do on another fact-finding trip to America. On the same trip he visited various European countries, among them Holland, where the Philips electronics company inspired him to believe that his company too could go from very humble beginnings to worldwide sales.

Having finally obtained the licence to produce transistors in 1954, Ibuka observed, “As long as we’re going to produce transistors, let’s make them for a product that anyone can afford to buy. Otherwise we’ll be wasting our time. What I have in mind is a radio. Let’s work on a transistor radio from the beginning, regardless of any difficulties we may face.” This was a formidable challenge considering that transistor technology at this stage was still fairly basic, using only low frequencies; this meant that early transistors were suitable for hearing aids and not much else.

Within a year, though, Ibuka’s company had introduced the first Japanese transistor radio, the TR-55 (1955), which, measuring only 8.9 cm x 14 cm x 3.8 cm and weighing 560 grams, was a feat of unprecedented miniaturization – a major theme in design that would become increasingly associated with Japanese products over the coming years. With its colourful plastic housing, eye-catching tuning dial and stamped aluminium speaker grille, inspired by the dashboards of Lincoln cars, the TR-55 had an appealing futuristic quality that undoubtedly contributed to its success. It was also emblazoned with the distinctive Sony logo, which had already been used on some of the company’s earlier products.

Sony TR-55 transistor radio, 1955

In 1957 the firm launched another revolutionary product: the TR-63 radio, which similarly incorporated transistor technology, allowing its internal mechanism to be much more compact. As the world’s first pocket-sized radio, it introduced the concept of listening to the radio on the move. This diminutive “pocketable” design measured just 11.2 cm x 7.1 cm x 3.2 cm and incorporated a dial that also functioned as the tuning mechanism. It was almost minimalist in style, giving it a strong functional clarity that in turn made it an intuitive product to use. User-friendly yet highly innovative, the TR-63 was the first full-fledged Sony-branded product that was exported to the US, and it became a massive hit despite its premium price tag of $39.95 (the equivalent of around $315.00 today). It was available in a choice of four different colour options – yellow, red, green and black; in total, more than 100,000 units of these diminutive Japanese radios were sold in the US alone.

In 1958 the company changed its name to the more Westernized Sony Corporation and launched another pocket radio, the TR-620, which with its slightly more upmarket styling proved an even bigger hit in America and Europe, selling over half a million units worldwide. Yet despite this extraordinary commercial success, Ibuka, mindful of the necessity of staying ahead of the electronics game, declared around this time, “The days of radio are over. The future lies in television.” Soon afterwards the newly christened Sony Corporation launched the world’s first fully transistorized television, the TV8-301 (1960) – a model that was designed to be as portable as possible and again demonstrated the extraordinary ability of Japanese manufacturers to miniaturize technology into compact “personal” electronic products.

This small, soft-edged television, with its distinctive Sony logo, showed just how far Japanese consumer- product design had come since the end of the Second World War. The country had transformed itself from an ill-reputed producer of poorly made, replicated goods to a nation at the very forefront of design innovation, pioneering commercial applications for cutting-edge technologies. This single-minded commitment to design and manufacturing excellence returned national pride to Japan, and also stimulated a buoyant economy with which to build the infrastructure of a new, democratic and far more outward-looking society. It might be said that a country’s designed products determine its cultural standing in the world – and this was especially true of Japan during the 1950s.