When I first arrived here in Japan in 1971, many traditional skills and crafts had already been lost. It seemed that most Japanese simply did not appreciate the genius of their own culture. Over time, however, I have been watching a gradual turnaround in awareness. One person who not only has been watching Japan longer than me, but has actually been participating in the turnaround is Amy Katoh, a cultural explorer in Tokyo since her arrival in the 1960s. Amy’s shop and her four books (the fifth will be out next year) have not only excited Westerners to the understated Japanese aesthetic but have also been a part of the domestic revival.
If Alex Kerr’s book, Lost Japan, is about the disappearance of crafts and arts in Japan, then the works of Amy and people like her could be described as celebrating “Found Japan.” Today, handmade goods are returning to use in greater numbers. Old houses are escaping the wrecking ball and are finding new life as trendy restaurants, cafes, galleries and boutiques. In new construction, architects are once again emphasizing wood and bamboo in structural, interior and exterior design, installing folk-style mud walls in buildings and decorating rooms with handmade mulberry paper. As awareness of “Found Japan” continues to grow in this ever-evolving culture, so grows hope for both traditional and contemporary crafted items of warmth and substance.
Amy’s passion for all that is genuine, heartfelt and life-enhancing in her adopted country of Japan is as strong today as it was when she first arrived in Tokyo. In her gentle, unassuming way, she has achieved the unofficial status of a living institution in Tokyo to many who know her personally and to those who know of her work. She is not only an author of widely read books on crafts and design, but her ability to see a Japan that is hidden in the many folds of its culture and sub-cultures has assisted some of Japan’s treasures to survive and flourish. Her shop, Blue and White, located in Tokyo’s much loved Azabu district is like a salon for established and budding artists, craftspeople and collectors alike, as well as for newcomers to Japan who are trying to find their way through the many layers of one of the world’s largest and most exciting cities. Together, her books and the richness and accessibility of her shop have created an international forum for both established and new artists to show their works. She has created space for creativity to thrive, and it does. In addition to the carefully chosen works of textiles, ceramics and paper crafts, much of the draw of the shop is Amy’s warmth and enthusiasm. She treasures each piece and can tell anyone who is interested its history and why it is valuable.
One of the most enchanting villages I have ever visited was inspired and supported in its redevelopment by Amy. It is Omori-cho, a small town in western Japan. During a long process, Tomi and Daikichi Matsuba, the owners of the Gungendo clothing company, were encouraged by Amy’s shared vision of a modern revitalized rural Japan that valued its past unique aesthetic and life style achievements and have restored that dilapidated old town into a gem. Together, they are spreading the word and the know-how to create a grass roots “slow life” movement to inspire and support similar projects all over Japan. Amy continues to speak at events promoting rural revitalization. I had the pleasure of serving on a public panel discussion with her for the city of Sasayama as part of their successful, ongoing effort in getting a lovely rural community to thrive in the 21st century.
Amy’s book, Japan, the Art of Living: A Sourcebook of Japanese Style for the Western Home, written in 1990, is now in its 19th edition and her Japan Country Living: Spirit Tradition is in its 6th edition. Blue and White Japan followed in 1996. Her latest book is on Otafuku, the laughing goddess of mirth and down-to-earth goodness. It can be found in the Japan sections of bookstores throughout the world. Her fifth book, due out next year, will focus on the spirit of things Japanese.
In the words of her daughter Saya, Amy “sees the beauty that most of us are too busy to see. Tokyo is a go-go-go city and often there is no time to stop.” Through her shop and her writing, Amy shares the beauty she finds in crafts as well as “in the most simple, unassuming features of the Japanese people and culture.” For me, personally, she is always a source of information. Rather than focusing on a Japan that is lost, Amy celebrates a “found Japan” that is vibrant, genuine and renewing.
The Blue and White shop is located in Tokyo at 2-9-2 Azabu Juban. Tel 03-3451-0537