Japanese Cultural Icons Who Changed the World

Japan exports much more than matcha tea, rice and automobiles. The geographically small Asian nation has given the world some of the most talented artists and cultural icons known to the human race.

True giants of their crafts like film director Akira Kurosawa, writer Yukio Mishima, international peace advocate and diplomat Sadako Ogata and others have permanently changed the course of history and enriched the lives of billions of people.

Who are some of Japan’s most important and influential “cultural exports”? Actually, there have been so many greats that it’s nearly impossible to compile a short list that has any meaning. But just to give a taste of the broad spectrum of Japan’s cultural contributions, a sampling of a few important figures might do the trick.

Here are four names that you may or may not have heard, but each one has had an immense effect on global cultural trends and even world peace, in the case of one special person on the list, the only one who is not an artist:

Writer Yukio Mishima

Mishima is one of the first Japanese authors to win international acclaim, but his interests spanned many disciplines: film directing, poetry, art, and stage performance. He only lived to the age of 45, at which time he was possibly having mental health issues that were unaddressed. He committed ritual suicide in public in late 1970, shocking his fans and all Japanese citizens at the time.

Before the troubled decade before his death, Yukio Mishima produced some of the most beautiful literature that world has ever known. He was considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times, but never won it. Breaking ground as a writer on topics that were seldom treated by Japanese authors at the time, Mishima wrote about death, sex and controversial political topics. He had a unique way of blending ancient Japanese literary techniques with avant-garde modernism in such works as Confessions of a Mask, Sun and Steel, and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (his best known work). One of his novels, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, was developed into a Hollywood film and released worldwide in 1976.

Mishima’s influence on world literature is enormous, and even his way of speaking and writing Japanese has had an effect on his native language. Throughout his short career and life, he produced 25 books, 50 plays, an operatic libretto, a film, 34 novels, more than 30 books of literary essays, and several notebooks full of poems.

Filmmaker and director Akira Kurosawa

Throughout six decades, Akira Kurosawa made more than two dozen films that earned him the reputation as arguably the world’s greatest film director. Not only were several of his films important in their own right, but Kurosawa broke ground as the first Japanese filmmaker to have an impact on cinema outside his home country.

Born in 1910, the director spent seven years as an apprentice beginning at age 26. By the time he had matured as a professional, he began creating one masterpiece after another, beginning with Drunken Angel in 1948, an effort that featured his key actor, Toshiro Mifune, who would go on to star in 15 Kurosawa classics.

Best known in the West for films like Rashomon, Kagemusha, Ran, Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Yojimbo and The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa was also beloved in Japan and was designated a National Treasure by the national government. In 1990, two American directors who patterned their careers after him, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, were on hand at the Academy Awards to present the 80-year-old Kurosawa a Lifetime Achievement Award from the academy.

He passed away in 1998 at the age of 88, leaving behind an astounding body of work and millions of adoring fans. Film student all over the world study his techniques to this day; and his “geometric” scene-construction techniques are now commonplace in major theatrical films in Hollywood, Europe and Asia.

Diplomat Sadako Ogata

From a political family, Ogata is now the 88-year-old dean of Japanese diplomacy and refugee relief. An author, college professor and peace activist, she is probably best known for being a Chairman of the UNICEF Executive Board and UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Unlike past occupants of those posts, Ogata took the lead to make certain that refugees were cared for, wherever they happened to live and whatever the cause of their displacement.

Currently the head of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, Ogata earned her PhD in the U.S., and was instrumental in developing strategies to help millions of war refugees escape horrific circumstances and start new lives. Often compared to Mother Teresa and Winston Churchill, Ogata shows no signs of slowing down as she approaches her 90th birthday.

Fashion Designer Issei Miyake

Miyake, a 77-year-old “techno” fashion guru, is sometimes called the “Picasso of apparel,” so daring, bold and anti-structural are his creations. He supposedly retired from designing in 1997 but continues to oversee all the creations from his company, many of which feature odd uses of pleats and buttons.

His design company produces much more than clothing these days, and has a powerful effect on worldwide trends in men’s and women’s clothing, watches, fragrances, and portable water containers. His international influence is so pervasive, in fact, that his name has become an adjective meaning “technologically stylish.” Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs was known for wearing black turtlenecks that were a creation of his good friend, Issei Miyake.

When people think of Japan their minds gravitate to classic cultural traditions like flower arranging, matcha tea ceremony, Kabuki Theater, calligraphy and other indelible icons of the nation’s history. It should be remembered that Japan has also given us some of the best filmmakers, poets, dancers, singers, authors and diplomats.

The essential Zen Buddhist element in almost every Japanese “export” is one of the subtler effects of the dissemination of Japanese culture around the world. Peacemakers, stylists, writers, filmmakers and other exceedingly talented Japanese people are now citizens of the world due to their lasting impact on the long course of human civilization.

Filed under Japan, Lifestyle

Yuki thinks simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. His most significant accomplishment is learning how to sit with a good cup of tea and listen. When not online, Yuki talks with all things wild and free. He is a blogger and a matcha lover.

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