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            15 / 03 / 16

            Japan's spirit of monozukuri fuses tradition with innovation

            • Tradition or innovation? Which way to go? Is it really a question of one or the other? Tradition implies a dependency on long-established values and a strong attachment to the past – one’s cultural heritage. In stark contrast, innovation drives the way forward, opening up room for a generation of new ideas, approaches and products. On the surface, the two terms appear to be mutually exclusive but Japanese start-ups have proven that there is space for reconciliation through the spirit of monozukuri.

              In the Japanese language, monozukuri is a compound word compromising “mono” which translated as “product,” (literally, “thing”) and “zukuri” meaning “process of making or creation.” Beyond its literal meaning, however, the word is infused with a deeper impression of skilled craftsmanship. It carries a message of excellence, spirit, zest and pride in the ability to create things and make good things even better.

              Levitating the aesthetic pleasure of Japanese bonsai

              Everyone knows about the beauty of Japanese bonsai. Deeply embedded in its culture for over a thousand years has been the traditional practice of carefully trimming and wiring potted trees to keep them small but in proportion to how they might have looked if grown in nature. This condensation of a natural appearance requires not only a lot of exercise and determination but also artistic know-how and a passion to create – a skill set that forms the basis of monozukuri art. Yet, how does this connect with the idea of innovation?

              A Japanese start-up based in Kyushu has refined this perfected process of growing a bonsai into an even more magical object by letting it magnetically levitate and spin endlessly. The Kickstarter project "Air Bonsai" uses the same magnetic floating trick seen in speakers. This time, however, the sound-producing floating ball is replaced with a carefully crafted bonsai tree of one’s own choice. The team had quickly passed its initial goal of $80,000, which demonstrates that tradition and innovation work well together if creativity and skilled craftsmanship are at play. But this is not the only example.

              Virtualizing the karakuri experience

              In a world where virtual realities have truly immersed into our day-to-day life, there is plenty of new space to bring old traditions to life and create experiences through an innovative, picturesque lens.

              Karakuri dolls might not be as popular as Japanese bonsai art but they too are part of a long Japanese tradition of monozukuri dating back to the 17th century. The word karakuri means "mechanisms" or "trick" and describes any device that evokes a sense of awe through concealment of its inner workings. The most common form of a karakuri mechanism was a kind of in-home tea-serving robot, which would start moving forward when a cup of tea is placed on the plate in its hands.

              Today, in the 21st century a Japanese start-up takes this traditional idea of in-home assistance to a new, innovate level. The start-up Vinclu has embarked on the development of Gatebox, a hologram-based communication robot allowing users to enjoy their daily lives with their favorite 2D character. Instead of simply serving tea, the Siri-like features allow this new ‘virtual karakuri’ to respond to individual wishes and needs. From starting coffee machines or music devices to wishing you a good morning or welcoming you on your return home, Gatebox virtualizes and personalizes the karakuri experience.

              The above are just two examples where the spirit of Japanese monozukuri effectively infuses traditional ideas and mechanisms into the development of new, innovative technologies. In this sense, we should not regard terms like old and new, tradition and innovation as being mutually exclusive. Rather, it is the cultural heritage that, if carried over in a passionate and creative manner, attaches value and meaning – a raison d’être – to new innovations.

              • Article by Caroline Fitzner