10 January 2022
As the Design History Society and its wider community we are saddened by the loss of design critic and historian Kashiwagi Hiroshi, who passed away in Tokyo on 13 December, 2021, aged 75. Please join us reflect on Hiroshi's achievements and his invaluable contributions to the field through Sarah Teasley's words.
The design critic and historian Kashiwagi Hiroshi, Prof. Emeritus at Musashino Art University, died in Tokyo on 13 December, 2021, aged 75.
Prof. Kashiwagi was born in Kobe in 1946, during the Allied Occupation of Japan. He studied industrial design at Musashino Art University in Tokyo. After graduating in 1970, he worked as an editor while independently researching the history of the concept of industrial design in Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His first book, Kindai Nihon no sangyō dezain shisō [Industrial Design Thought in Modern Japan], appeared in 1979 from humanities publisher Shōbunsha.
With its combination of cultural history and social critique, its presentation of local conditions and decisions in Japan as part of wider global networks and its emphasis on developing historical narratives through artefacts and human interactions with them, Industrial Design Thought in Modern Japan would be a statement of intent and a harbinger for Prof. Kashiwagi’s subsequent 40-year career. He would continue writing prolifically for specialist and general readerships alike for the next 40 years, shifting between design and material culture-driven analyses of society and culture in early twentieth century Japan and sharp, sometimes uncomfortably astute critiques of contemporary capitalism and consumer culture, particularly in 1980s Tokyo. Jordan Sand, Professor of Modern Japanese History at Georgetown, commented, ‘No scholar in Japan read social meaning from everyday objects better than Kashiwagi. His books were an early influence and continuing inspiration.’
At a time before the normalization of modern design history as a field of study in Japan, specialists like Prof. Kashiwagi gained their knowledge through independent study, learning from elders and lived experience. In Prof. Kashiwagi’s case, the emergence of design history in the UK and US in the 1970s and early 1980s also played a role, as developments in anglophone and European philosophy, social theory, media studies and social and cultural history. Prof. Kashiwagi was one of the first design historians in Japan to address gender, including in the 1984 essay, ‘Furniture as metaphor: Furniture placement and patriarchy.’ He worked intensively with concepts of media technology and tools, leading to close collaboration in the 1990s and early 2000s with the now-Institute of Information Studies at the University of Tokyo.
Prof. Kashiwagi’s commitment to modern design history included extensive work, both public and behind the scenes, to raise awareness and support for the significance of twentieth-century design practice and products as national cultural heritage in Japan. His writing and media appearances extended beyond academic publishers and audiences to a wide popular audience. He wrote extensively in opinion and men’s lifestyle magazines and appeared frequently in art and culture programming on national broadcaster NHK, popularising design and material culture as a lens into historical and contemporary cultural and social critique in Japan.
Throughout the 2000s, he was a core member of a group advocating for public funding and support for a national design museum to house Japan’s significant design heritage. He advised the DNP Cultural Foundation, and in the 2010s collaborated with colleagues at Musashino Art University Library and Archive on a large special project, funded by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) to collect, preserve, research and communicate design cultural heritage, including cataloguing and researching historically dispersed collections. His international work with the Japan Foundation included the exhibition Wa: l'harmonie au quotidien: design japonais d'aujourd'hui (Paris, 2008) and numerous talks in the 2010s. While not fully representative of his critical approach as his writings in Japanese, Prof. Kashiwagi’s work for the Japan Foundation further evidenced his commitment promoting care for design as cultural heritage in Japan.
Prof. Kashiwagi was a dedicated teacher and mentor to a generation of design writers and historians, at Tokyo Zokei University beginning in 1983, then from 1996 to 2017 at Musashino Art University. Gennifer Weisenfeld, Professor of Art History & Visual Studies at Duke University, commented, ‘Professor Kashiwagi was a kind and generous scholar, who never hesitated to share his vast knowledge of Japanese design with students and junior colleagues. I learned so much from him. He will be deeply missed around the world.’ Rather than staking claims over particular bodies of knowledge or communities of practice through his students, he encouraged us to introduce new arguments about familiar conditions through careful, critical analysis, particularly of visual and material artefacts. The design journalist and educator Watabe Chiharu, who studied with him at Tokyo Zokei University, noted, ‘he taught me how to see’. He bolstered our confidence as researchers working in a relatively unknown, unrecognized academic area, and modelled an ethical practice uninterested in internal politics and unbounded by the ivory tower.
In 2018, Prof. Kashiwagi was diagnosed with leukemia. Despite entering remission, cancer weakened him physically. He died in hospital in Tokyo, on 13 December 2021. Ever averse to pomp, his funeral was for immediate family only. Prof. Kashiwagi will be sorely missed by colleagues, students and friends in Japan and internationally.
Prof. Kashiwagi Hiroshi, design critic, historian and advocate for design as cultural heritage. 1946-2019.