”Konnichiwa, this talk will be presented in Japanese”, moderator Stephen Coles starts off the talk and introduces Niko Kitsakis on stage. Many people in the audience seem to be confused by the joke as they don’t understand what “Konnichiwa” – the Japanese word for “Hello” – means. I guess his joke didn’t work for most people :)
Niko himself was wondering for a long time what he would present at TYPO Berlin and he finally decided to present his background and his own personal story.
The first image of his presentation shows him in front of an Apple II. He tells us, that in his younger years, he encountered Nintendo, Macintosh and many other interactive toys and technologies. He noticed that many of these things came from Japan and they were always funny and entertaining. He gradually developed a strong interest in Japan, Japanese language and the culture. Therefore Niko decided to learn the Japanese language.
During his presentation Nikos shows many images of Japan. Being a professional photographer he took a lot of the images of Japan himself. For example he shows beautiful pictures of a skyscraper with mount Fuji, Japanese temples and castles along with funny and miserable typography failures. If you want to check out his pictures, please visit his website.
During his presentation he tells us about just his general experiences in Japan. Like ones, when he came back to his hotel room, he found his computer cable neatly folded on the table. This is very normal in Japan, everybody tries to do everything tidy. Tidy cable makes the room tidy. The tidy room makes your customer happy. Happy customer makes you happy. Everything comes back to you and a assiduous attitude makes your life happier. This is the very Japanese way of thinking. But such thing is not normal for people who come from other countries and he was impressed from that way of thinking.
He shows Japanese graphic design, e.g. Hanafuda (playing cards from Japanese origin) of Nintendo. Nintendo is well known as a computer game company today. But at first the company started as a playing cards company in the late 19th century. The graphic style and their aesthetic were very different from today’s graphic design – the packaging design, the Japanese family emblems and how those emblems got combined when people got marry, Kakejiku (asian hanging scroll which is replaced every season, because it can be scrolled easily) etc. Apparently Niko was impressed especially by Kakejiku and he shot a short movie which shows how it is made by hand. You can watch this movie on his website.
In addition he shows and explains Japanese interface design through Japanese and western sandals, chopstick and forks, spoon and knife, Japanese characters and the alphabet. These examples originated also from his interesting perception. Normally, Japanese people might have not noticed that Japanese sandals have a strap in the middle of it and western sandal have the strap inside of it. Because nobody cares about the strap of sandal in daily life.
Japanese writing system
Japanese people use three different characters – Kanji (Chinese character), Hiragana (Japanese phonetic character) and Katakana (additional Japanese phonetic character). Japanese children learn 2136 characters at school and JIS (Japanese Industrial Standards) has about 13.000 characters as standard characters. The Japanese dictionaries has over 50.000 characters. Compared with those numbers there are only 26 characters in the western alphabet. It is difficult to even read a text. But why do Japanese people still use this complicated writing system? He gives three main reasons for that.
1. Culture: Characters are deeply integrated by Japanese calligraphy and graphic design so that people can’t throw away their tradition.
2. Homophones: many Japanese words have the same pronunciation. If they were written in an alphabet they will be written the same way, although they all have a different meaning (e.g. shukan has 7 different meanings in Japanese).
3. Meaning: Chinese characters have meanings, that the alphabet doesn’t have.
For example the Japanese word “conclusion”. “Conclusion” can be separated in two words in Japanese “tie up” and “argue”, if you tie up argue, you get a conclusion. In this way “conclusion” is constructed by Japanese.
This explanation is also very interesting for Japanese people. Normally Japanese never think of their words in this way. If you were born in Japan, “conclusion” is just one word – “conclusion”. You don’t have to separate the words to understand the original meaning. On the contrary English native speaker never think about what the origin of the word “conclusion” is. How was the word “conclusion” constructed thousand years ago?
Niko’s perception might be coming from his background. He was born in Switzerland where they have four official languages. In addition he has German and Greek parents. His background might have made him more sensitive for other languages and culture. And today he uses this sensitiveness for his work.
At last he goes back to show pictures from the beginning of his presentation and explains how each thing and event affected him in his life. He emphasizes, how he is fascinated by the experience of writing Japanese.
“Nowadays we don’t have much to do with writing with pencil and paper.” But he did it in order to learn Japanese and that experience was very interesting and fascinating to him. Learning another language is not only getting to know language skills and culture, but becoming sensitive of perception. If you are working in the creative industry, such perception could help your creativity and your life.
Thank you so much for the nice conversation after your stage, Mr Kitsakis!
Written by Toshiya Izumo