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New era for Japanese design

Design of subtraction: Youichi Sato's sketch of his new Mazda6.

Mazda6 style chief declares: 'It's time to be Japanese’

29 Nov 2007


AFTER years of following the lead of foreign designers and slavishly trying to produce cars that look European or American – and largely succeeding – one of Japan’s leading stylists has admitted it is now time for the automotive powerhouse to celebrate its “Japanese-ness”.

Mazda6 chief designer Youichi Sato took the opportunity at last week’s international launch of his handsome new creation to call for a more overtly Japanese style in car design.

Mr Sato noted that a distinctly Japanese style can be seen in industrial design (such as buildings and mobile phones), but that this had not translated to automobiles.

“The previous model (Mazda6) does not reflect its Japanese-ness (and) for this model I wanted to add a subtle Japanese-ness,” said Mr Sato. “It is time to be Japanese.

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“Since it could be said that we are now competing on a level to (match) the European makers in terms of vehicle performance, we must find a way to express Japanese cultural and social identity in modern car styling, and so emphasise Mazda’s individuality.

“I feel that the current age is the time for us to further incorporate Japanese culture and the Japanese aesthetic into car design.

“We have to establish a style of car design unique to Mazda, with the embodiment of the unique Japanese character.

“Spreading this message was our objective.” Mr Sato’s impeccable design portfolio includes the third-generation (and the last, for now) RX-7 sportscar and the RX-Evolv concept car that turned into the RX-8.

He also worked on the original and much-loved MX-5 and has been involved in designing several concept cars, but also has strong roots in volume production cars.

Before entering the world of sportscars and motor show concept design, his first project was the last rear-wheel drive Mazda 626, followed by the first-generation front-wheel drive Mazda 323 and 626.

Last week in St Tropez, France, Mr Sato, wearing a red jacket that immediately identifies him as a stylist, said that car design was entering a new era. He described 20th-century car design as the era of laying elements over one another.

“I call it the design of addition,” he said. “This can be said to be a characteristic of Japanese car design.

“However, in the 21st century we have greater technical capability and flexibility, so we can separate individual design elements, remove the superfluous, and produce a simplified but highly polished style. I call it the design of subtraction.

“When you see a refined object, you don’t see any unnecessary decoration. I feel we should pursue this kind of thinking with car styling as well.

“Contemporary Japanese product design is quite simple and this simple beauty sends a powerful message.

“However, it seems to me that current car styling is about the only area that does not fully reflect this Japanese identity.

“I’m convinced that the design of subtraction will provide an aesthetic Japanese value which will appeal to the world.” Of course, Mr Sato pointed to his new Mazda6 as an example of design of subtraction, saying it could be seen in empty spaces and “purposefully designed featureless areas”. He believes this is a characteristic of Japanese art and design.

“We don’t try to control nature, but try to fit ourselves around it,” he said. “This is the basis of the Japanese character.

“Additionally, we prefer infinite suggestiveness and subtlety over explicitness and brashness. We care about the hidden underlying depth of things.”

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