Come See What Makes Japan Tick

The Art of Making Things

How is it made? How does this work? What makes it go? Enter the fascinating world of industrial tourism, where you can learn about the process of invention and manufacture, from ideas to release. In seeing how—and why—things are made, you can also glimpse the inner workings of a nation. Through the lens of industry, you can learn Japan’s history and the industries that drive its economy and its vision for the future.

From the Meiji Restoration during which Japan’s industrial revolution blossomed, to the post-war economic boom to the present, Japan has sprinted to become one of the richest and most economically powerful countries in the world. Japanese products are everywhere: cars in Russia, consumer electronics in the USA and trains in China. In addition to the ubiquitous electronics, Japanese traditional and pop culture is making real headway abroad, with sake lovers in Seattle, pottery aficionados in Adelaide and Japanese snack and candy fan blogs popping up all over the internet.

In a country where high tech sits cozily elbow-to-elbow with thousand-year-old traditions, the juxtapositions may seem incongruous. How funny to see a monk with a mobile phone! How striking to watch a refined lady dressed in a beautiful kimono board a bullet train! How strange to see a shrine squeezed in next to a skyscraper!

By delving into industrial tourism, the observer can glean a greater understanding of how these contrasting images came to coexist in one frame.

Japan is well known for its high tech sectors, with giants of industry in cars, cameras, and consumer electronics. Much of the world uses electronics that were designed or conceived in Japan. Semiconductors, bullet trains, hybrid vehicles, solar panels—if you look around, you won’t have to search very far to find something from Japan.

The country is also known for its tradition’s artistry and craftsmanship, to be found in items like washi paper, kimono, ceramics, lacquerware and musical instruments. Japanese cuisine, too, is gaining traction: beyond sushi, international gastronomers are learning the delights of sake, soba noodles, tea, and mochi.

But what do these industries say about the country? How did these products, these companies, come about?

Many of these industries grew out of cultural touchstones. For example, the iconic bullet train is made by a company that first specialized in shipbuilding—an obvious specialty for an island nation. Their prowess with heavy metals easily lent itself to developing rolling stock. And the story of nihonshu, or rice wine, is the story of the country’s most important dietary staple and the farmers who grow it. A company that makes high-end china is easy to understand in a country with a long fine history of pottery, but the connection to solar panels becomes clearer when you realize that ceramics technology was used in the development of solar tech.

Japanese innovators haven’t created these things in a vacuum—they’ve certainly taken cues from other cultures and studied developments made by companies abroad. Cars, ships and porcelain ceramics were all made in Japan under the compulsion of the makers to do it for themselves: to make things domestically and to have less reliance on imports. Though these products were born from inspiration by others, the end results were uniquely Japanese. Of course, there are many homegrown products that were made exclusively in Japan. And in turn, these results were sent out again into the world to spur on the next round of innovations.

Industrial tourism gives us a window into the daily lives of citizens, a look at how people spend their time and the way they make a living, as well as the things that they use every day to make life run more smoothly. How are these livelihoods tied to a place’s history, natural resources, skills and strengths? How does the community lean on the industry and what do they give in return? By learning about local industry, we can put a product or company in a greater context. And with that context, we can more fully appreciate the product and the world around us.

So why not go to the source? In Japan, passion for monozukuri, or the art of making things, is strong. Quality, sophistication and attention to detail are key elements in Japanese products, and highly skilled craftspeople abound in this small archipelago. Whether it’s leading-edge technology or age-old traditional handicrafts, Japanese makers strive for excellence. Come, meet some of the people and see the process for yourself.