This week, Japan and the world of design lost a true visionary - Kenji Ekuan. You have almost certainly never heard of him, but his designs are part of Japan’s cultural identity. Decades after he created Kikkoman's iconic soy sauce bottles with their red caps, he designed Japan's Komachi bullet train. He died last weekend at the age of 85.
A native of Hiroshima, Ekuan was 17 when the city was hit by an atomic bomb toward the end of World War II. In the blast, he lost his sister and father, who was a Buddhist priest. He later said the devastation motivated him to start building things. "Faced with brutal nothingness, I felt a great nostalgia for something to touch, something to look at," he once said. "The existence of tangible things is important. It's evidence that we're here as human beings."
Ekuan designed JAL airplane seats, Yamaha's VMAX motorcycles and the Narita Express train that ferries passengers to and from Tokyo's international airport. He designed bicycles, audio gear, pianos for Yamaha and the logo for the Mini Stop convenience store. His most famous design, the Kikkoman bottle, was a contract he won while still in his 20s. It took him three years and 100 prototypes to come up with a final design for his dispenser, which combined a gracefully curving form with an innovative, dripless spout. More than 300 million of the bottles have been sold.
For University, Ekuan studied at Geidai — Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music — in Ueno. “There was no design department back then,” he explained. “I was studying traditional crafts, which provided a good base for under- standing a wide variety of techniques and also general aesthetics. Design to me has always meant making people happy. Happy in the sense of creating items that provide comfort, convenience, function, aesthetics and ethics. I used to do a lot of research, fieldwork, wanting to understand the psychology of human needs and response.”
At the end of his life, Ekuan became ill. However, “he came into the office every day,” a co-worker reported. "He used a special green wheelchair that he had designed himself." "Ekuan was not a designer but also a philosopher. He always said, ‘Everything has a soul’. He never married but often said that he was married to design.” “Regardless of what the object of design is, humans need design,”Ekuan said in an interview in 2007. “For anything humans use in their day to day life, they need design and it is a clear and concrete proof of the fundamental human right to live.”
The Japan Times
The New York Times