Break Out of the Shell: Decolonizing Design in Japan

“Decolonizing design” has been a key theme discussed in the industry worldwide in recent years – yet this idea hasn’t received much attention in Japan. Are designers in this country not interested in this topic? Or is it considered irrelevant? In this article, I will explore the context of design in Japan in relation to global design – mostly the one in the West – and look into what this topic means to us, Japanese designers.

The term “decolonization” originally refers to an action or process of a  country colonized by others gaining its independence. However, its meaning has evolved and is now used in broader contexts, including cultural and social aspects. The Cambridge Online Dictionary provides the following text as the 2nd definition of the word:

“the process of changing something such as a curriculum (= a list of books, ideas, etc. to be studied) in a way that considers the cultural beliefs behind it, for example the belief that European writers, artists, or ideas are better and more important than ones from countries that were colonized (= controlled) by Europe, and that gives more importance to non-European writers, artists, etc.”

We can see two central aspects of decolonization here;

  1. Challenging the prevailing perception that ideas and values originating from Europe are inherently superior.
  2. Amplifying the voices and contributions of authors and artists who are from marginalized groups. 

You might have heard news reports about famous museums in Western countries considering returning artifacts originally taken from other countries.

Reference: It’s time for museums to return their stolen treasures

Or, as another example, there are efforts to focus on the systems that were overshadowed during the colonial period, like traditional agricultural ways of growing food and land usage. Furthermore, health techniques, which were previously overshadowed by Western medicine, are now being re-emphasized and spread. It seems there’s a growing movement towards decolonization across various fields.

“Decolonization” of design

Design is not exempt from this trend. Historically, it’s a discipline led and dominated largely by white men, rooted predominantly in Western values. Their perspectives dictate “Good” or “Right” design, and many design schools worldwide have adopted these standards in their curriculum. Moreover, there is a fundamental inequality to start with; only the people in the privileged environment have access to that education.

Recognizing this inequality as a legacy of imperialism, the push to decolonize design has become a top priority in the design industry in the West.

Reference: Attending Design Matters 22: What Is Our Societal Role as a Designer?

How does that look in action? In recent years, some initiatives have emerged that focus on highlighting designers from marginalized groups or those who have been overlooked, giving them more opportunities to share their perspectives and approaches. For example, ustwo, the digital product company I work for, collaborates with communities that promote DEI values and champion young talents by offering opportunities for design education. Another example is an internal activity; during BLM month, we exchange and circulate information about artists and designers who have been underrepresented. 

Referene: ustwo announces global partnership with Where are the Black Designers?

How about, Japan?

When considering this in the Japanese context, we need to remember that “decolonization” is an initiative driven by the people whose lives have been affected by colonization. They are the people whose lands, culture, and rights have been exploited due to colonialism, and the activities are for them to address persistent inequalities and reclaim their resources. Most of the discussion is rooted in European countries that historically engaged in global colonization and the United States, a nation shaped by immigration and its complex history with indigenous and enslaved populations. Casual use of the term “decolonization” could risk diminishing the significance and efforts of those directly impacted.

Therefore, when considering “decolonization of design” in the Japanese context, we first need to recognize that Japan has a different history, social structures, and underlying values than Western countries. I will step back from the word “decolonization” for now and reconsider the “perspectives” currently mainstream in Japan as the first step.

“Design” as an imported concept

The word dezain was imported from English in the 1950s. It is a phonetic katakana representation of the English word “design” and is widely used in everyday conversation. Modern Japanese design, especially in graphic and industrial realms, has been developed around dezain and heavily influenced by Western concepts and theories. Its evolution is unique; as you can see in the current Japanese society, it’s blended both Western and Eastern perspectives. Yet, in the process of adopting Western values, some uniquely Japanese approaches to “design” might have been lost.

For example, “Why is Japanese design so cluttered?” is a topic often raised by foreign designers. However, if you look at Japanese design from the pre-modern era, many elements are pretty minimalistic. It’s interesting to think about this; did such minimal styles fade away as Japan incorporated Western design techniques? Also, “Clutter” often has some context; in Japan, information functionality is often prioritized over aesthetic excellence to keep society working the best for everyone. In a way, it’s a sign of people’s commitment to cooperation. Then it throws another question: is “cluttered design is bad” true for other societies, too?

Design as a word in a small box

As I already mentioned, dezain is a phonetic representation of the original English word. Since it’s an imported term, it often carries a narrower meaning. A native English speaker would interpret the word with multiple denotations and connotations. On the other hand, in Japan, dezain is often used in a more restricted context, and interestingly, we use different Japanese words to describe some of the meanings that are pretty much “design”.

Consequently, design is often perceived as an exclusive endeavor undertaken by special people for special audiences. We can see it from how the word is used in society, such as “designer’s flat” or “design cafe”, which both refer to something with a better visual aesthetic. Some people distance themselves from design, thinking that it is “something cool (but not essential)”, “making it a little prettier would do”, or “it has nothing to do with our product/service”. Since it’s considered non-essential, design is often the first area to face cuts during budget constraints. ”Little appetite to invest in design” can sometimes lead to poor user experience, which may cause higher costs in the long term; however, few people consider it as a design issue. 

Conversely, activities that might be categorized as design are often not recognized as such. Numerous fields, such as service, office environment, work process, civil service, and social system, can notably benefit from design principles. However, they are considered a field that doesn’t require creativity, which means its status quo is never challenged. Designers are often barred from being involved in those sectors.

Dezain is perhaps being constrained and confined by the word that defines it.

Bias in the community

Let’s now shift our focus to the design community itself. Not only in this industry but also in various sectors in Japan since the 1950s, the society and economy have been largely male-dominated. While nowadays, many women are working as designers; it’s still evident that the majority in leadership or decision-making positions are Japanese men — a reality easily observed by comparing global design conferences with those in Japan. Although Japan’s situation isn’t unique, there is a widening gap in progress between communities that actively recognize the situation and intend to resolve those issues, striving for greater diversity in perspectives and leadership, and those who remain unengaged in such efforts.

While women notably represent a substantial segment within broader minority categories, and addressing gender issues is crucial, it is merely an initial step in the journey toward holistic diversity, equity, and inclusion. Modern design has been predominantly shaped by the perspectives of able-bodied individuals. Similarly, to go through the viewpoints largely overlooked within the design industry, the list is considerable — non-Japanese speakers, left-handed individuals, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and various ethnic and racial minorities, to name just a few. Also, remembering the word “decolonization” now, we must introspect: is the current design community equitable to those from marginalized groups, cultures, societies, and communities that Japan once dominated? Do we show enough empathy and respect for those communities’ experiences and challenges? Without that honest reflection, we cannot promote a design ethos that is truly inclusive and representative.

Japan, as a member of the global community

Finally, let’s explore the relationship between Japan and the global design community. As discussed already, modern design theory is heavily influenced by Western perspectives. When we say “global” in Japan, it almost equals the U.S. and Europe. However, shouldn’t “global” be something much broader?

The author of “The Next Billion Users”, Payal Arora, makes an insightful point. She argues that it’s essential to consider regions outside the West not merely as “developing” but as future innovation hubs. It is arrogant to assume these nations will follow the same paths as the West. We have so much to gain in propelling innovation by truly embracing local values and cultures across the globe.

NEXT19 | Payal Arora | The Next Billion Users – YouTube

Moving forward, when design communities aren’t solely focused on Western values, what kind of role might we, Japanese designers, play? In a society that values diversity, “being different” can be a great strength. Designers with varied backgrounds and values to bring their unique perspectives and collaboratively address issues can significantly fuel innovation, and our experience in Japan is one unique color in that diversity. The design wisdom and expertise Japan has nurtured throughout its history and society – here, I mean not just dezain but all sorts of design – might well serve as a valuable inspiration in the global community.

Here are a few actions individual designers might consider:

Firstly, let’s widen our design perspectives within Japan. Ponder this: What forms of “design” have existed in Japanese culture since before the 1950s? Do you know anyone who designs something, even though they are not called “designers”? By engaging in conversations with them, perhaps we can expand our view of what design encompasses and enhance the collective image of designers within our circle. Also, embracing the knowledge and experience of the designers who haven’t previously been spotlighted will make our design culture more richer and colorful. If you are in charge of hiring designers, thinking about diversifying your team’s perspectives might be the first step.

Lastly, consider immersing yourself in the global design community. How about exploring design narratives beyond the Western sphere or attending an international design conference? Communicating our design initiatives from Japan to the international stage is equally valuable. If it feels too much of a hurdle for you, you can start by engaging in international design community events hosted right here in Japan.

”Design is an activity that anyone can participate in.” “Design should be democratized.” — What do you think? We’d love to hear your feelings and perspectives on this!


Share your thoughts with us through #spectrumtokyo

Written By

Mayu Nakamura

Mayu is a Principal Designer at ustwo Tokyo. After working in Japan as a UI developer for optical discs, she moved to the U.K. and joined ustwo London as an interaction designer. She worked on a wide range of design projects from financial systems, mobility to kids' apps. Mayu is a music lover of all genres, from classical music to punk rock.


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