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BOOKS Where lunch is a metaphor for life The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox By Kenji Ekuan, edited by David B Stewart. MIT Press, 1998. 195pp. £17.95

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Kenji Ekuan is described simultaneously as 'a master of Zen design' and as 'one of Japan's foremost industrial designers'. Such a combination could only be possible in Japan, where a deep instinctive awareness of nature and beauty co-exists, not always comfortably, with rampant consumerism and a strong capitalist ethos. In The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox Ekuan makes use of both traditions, taking the Zen concept of a symbolic, abbreviated form whose condensed suggestiveness can encapsulate the larger world, and making it a metaphor for Japanese values in industry, culture, society - just about everything, in fact.

It's a beguiling idea, if ambitious. Ekuan begins by focusing on the nature of the Japanese lunchbox itself. It can be hard for a Westerner to appreciate the Japanese devotion to the aesthetic presentation of food. Dining is, above all, an expression of aesthetic discernment, with the artistic arrangement and subtle flavourings of food intended to capture the Zen ideals of wabi (deliberate understatement) and sabi (the patina of time).

In the first part of the book, Ekuan depicts the aesthetic principles underlying the lunchbox and the basic tenets of the Japanese etiquette of form that they embody. He explains how this 'creative power of the structure of the lunchbox' reflects aspects of the Japanese style of making things, and how such techniques and principles can be observed throughout Japanese society. In the second part he relates this to particular contemporary Japanese products - such as mini-calculators, cars and cameras - and to certain aspects of Japanese life.

Ekuan is at both his most convincing and entertaining when giving examples that relate to his special interest in industrial design. Functionality, for example, is one attribute of the lunchbox - just as the mini-calculator is 'full of 'delicacies' rendering possible a multiplicity of operations at the touch of a button'. Similarly, the compact nature of the lunchbox is reflected in the Sony Walkman's compression of stereo components into a tiny portable case. And there's a wonderful comparison of the principle behind the compact camera with the ancient belief that placing objects in a box and closing the lid quiets their spirits, while opening the lid and taking them out again brings them back to life.

It is when Ekuan extends his metaphors to wider aspects of Japanese society that his arguments begin to lose their conviction, or at least tell only part of the story. His portrayal of Japanese society is an overwhelmingly halcyon one. At one point, he likens the lunchbox to a scale model of Japanese social organisation, which he describes as hierarchical yet equal. It isn't only Westerners who might disagree with that: it might be possible to make claims for material equality in Japan, but that has always masked a strictly hierarchical and regimented social system. And the Japanese mystique of beauty, purity and homogeneity has always been too easily converted into racism and virulent nationalism.

Admittedly, Ekuan does not paint a completely rosy picture - if you look hard enough, there are passing references to less pleasant aspects of Japanese society. When he compares Japanese companies to lunchbox containers, within which employees prefer anonymity so that they may produce a more harmonious and effective result (just as each piece of food in the lunchbox is tasty but none outshines the others), he does point out the disadvantages (such as the stifling of creativity and originality) that this approach can bring. One wouldn't expect searing social comment from a glossy design book, but since Ekuan's aim is to apply the lunchbox metaphor so widely, there are also parallels with the darker side of Japanese life which are too obvious to ignore. Hierarchy, rigidity, compartmentalisation, strict boundaries, conformity, control . . . these are just a few that spring to mind, and that's not only an individualistic Western view but one that is increasingly finding expression in Japan itself as its people begin to feel betrayed by the effects of the current recession.

There are some fascinating morsels in this book, giving telling insights into Japanese society - I didn't know that heating/air-conditioning units are given names that translate as, for instance, 'the natural coolness of towering mountains and deep valleys', or 'warm family pleasures on a snowy day'. And the photographs are exquisite. But in the end the book left me in mind of another lunchbox parallel - beautiful to look at, amusing and entertaining; but ultimately insubstantial, leaving you hungry for something more.

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