In the world of high technology, and particularly in its part related to design, it’s a truism that the popularity of Apple’s products is partly owed to the Japanese influences that Steve Jobs, its legendary co-founder and head for years, had adopted in both his personal life and his company. Austere lines, monochrome surfaces, minimal ornamentation, emphasis in packaging are all elements that characterize the classic Japanese style and make up what the Japanese call “wafu” (和風); a word with the double meaning of “Japanese style” and “harmonious style” because its first character, “wa” (和) has been used since the 8th century to describe the country and almost everything inherently Japanese –clothes, food, architecture, attitude or anything else- and at the same time to convey the sense of harmony, peace and the integrated whole.
Countless tons of ink have been spilled in efforts to describe “wa” in either of its two interpretations; what really matters though is the realization that the two aren’t contradictory: the idea of non-disturbance, serenity and balancing of relations and conflicting elements runs so deep in the Japanese conscience that it shouldn’t be surprising that the Japanese people consider it synonymous with their national identity. One of the most common reasons given for the way things in Japan are done in the way that they do is “so as not to disturb ‘wa’”; the fact that occasionally “wa” is thought of almost like a totem in the feet of which elements essential for people’s progress (like logic or creativity) are sacrificed, probably goes unnoticed.
Profound stuff, more suited for sociological/anthropological studies –yes, but personally it never ceases to amaze me how prevalent the idea of “wa” is in every aspect of Japanese life and how much, after a certain point, it gets transfused even to people who weren’t born and raised in the particular society. Even more so I find fascinating how, especially when it comes to its aesthetic implementation, it manages to equalize all the extreme and contradictory parts that comprise the reality of contemporary Japan. And perhaps this is the point where the two meanings of “wafu” meet: Japanese is anything that takes things that in any other culture would be far apart and not only brings them close but combines them in a way that they look as if they the one is the natural continuation of the other. How can anyone stay indifferent in front of something like that?
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.