Lisa Björke is a jewelry artist in Stockholm. She is excited about Japan, a place she's never visited. A tiny, gold Superman logo is glued to one of her teeth and winks in the sun when she speaks.
“It started when my studio-mate went to Japan for exchange,” says Björke. “She told a lot of fantastic stories about Japan and it really awoke my interest for this country that seems to have a lot of contradictions in the culture.”
“For me, both Swedish and Japanese design is very clean and very functional. But Japan also has this strange side – like earphones with mushrooms coming out of your ear, plastic sushi and Hello Kitty products. That attracts me more than this clean design that I can also find in Sweden,” she says.
Björke has two upcoming exhibits of her work scheduled in Japan and hopes to find a market for her jewelry there.
EASTWARD: THE PATH TO SUCCESS
Scoring an exhibit in Japan can be a boon for Swedish artists and designers. Margot Barolo's studio in Stockholm is filled with things she's made for the home - white ceramic bowls with jagged edges, gauzy knit curtains, and down comforters. She showed her work at Tokyo Design Week a few years ago.
“When I came back from exhibiting in Japan, suddenly there was a lot more interest in my design from the journalists. It was like I had done something big, just by being there and exhibiting. I think it made a huge difference. It was like I was more accepted as a designer,” says Barolo.
While the two cultures are very different, Barolo also says that she finds similarities in the way Japanese and Swedish people have some of the same values and behaviors. “We are both a little cautious, maybe. We communicate very easily with each other.”
NO SHOES, HERE AND THERE
But when did these two cultures first take a shine to each other? Thomas Ekholm is doing his Ph.D. at Gothenburg University in Japanese history and cultural relations. He says for a long time, Japan was quite isolated, but during the late 19th century, it opened up its ports again.
“The real interest basically comes from the Swedish side, when we take an interest in Japanese arts. We have several Swedish artists, Carl Larsson is the most famous, who have taken the influence of the Japanese way to paint,” says Ekholm.
And he says that a few decades later, a Japanese tea house was built in Stockholm. That made headlines around Sweden.
Interest in Japanese culture went through a lull during World War II, but eventually it came back, and now, Thomas says, it is exploding with the internet.
And when people seek his advice about how to act when they visit Japan, he tells them to use Swedish common sense and they probably won't go wrong. It could just be a coincidence, he says, but the two cultures have some similar customs, like taking off shoes upon entering a house. Ekholm says that Swedes only started to do this recently, but Swedish travel diaries to Japan from 80 or 90 years ago reference the practice.
LUCIA BUNS IN JAPANESE
Motoko Ehrngren-Doi is sitting at a café on Stockholm’s south island. She originally hails from Nagoya but lives in Sweden now. Ehrngren-Doi is the epitome of the cultural exchange going on between the two countries. After doing an internship at Sweden's famed organic cafe and bakery Rosendahl's, she wrote a cookbook. The recipes are for classic Swedish treats, like saffron buns and cinnamon rolls. But she's written it in Japanese and modified the recipes to suit the tastebuds of her native country, where she’s sold a few thousand copies.
In between bites of one of her favorite Swedish cookies, which looks like a small checkerboard, she explains why people in Japan are interested in Sweden.
“We have very good image of Scandinavia and Sweden – good environments, nice people, beautiful nature and good design. Also, we began to be interested in sweets and food,” she says. I’m very fascinated with Swedish sweets, because their very simple and warm, not like French things, which are beautiful and colorful,” she says.
And the next day, Ehrngren-Doi says she will be teaching a small group of Japanese women in Sweden, both tourists and residents, how to cook with mushrooms from Swedish forests.
TO PLANE TOGETHER
Ulrik Hjort Larssen is a Danish Ph.D. student at Gothenburg University, studying craftsmanship and carpentry. He recently went to Japan with a number of other European carpenters for a workshop called “kesurokai”, a Japanese word meaning “to plane together.” There, the two groups exchanged knowledge about their craft in a poetic way. They were working at the edge of the forest, near a small village.
“We were building a Japanese teahouse, led by the Japanese team. At the same time, we were building a European timber-frame construction to share with the Japanese,” says Larssen.
But unlike some of the others interviewed here, Larssen says it wasn't always easy to understand his Japanese counterparts. For example, what did they think of the European construction also built during the workshop?
“Communication is different. It’s not always easy to tell what a Japanese person is thinking,” he says, “because you sort of have to read the person in another way. They don’t always put it into words.”
Many questions remain about this mysterious attraction between Sweden and Japan. Are their shared customs, aesthetics, and sensibilities just a coincidence, or have the countries really influenced each other's development? And are the ideas that Swedes and Japanese have about each other based more on myths or on reality? Thomas Ekholm, the Ph.D. student from Gothenburg says that the difficulty of learning Japanese prevents many Swedish scholars from sticking to this research area. And that means we may have to wait a long time for the answers.