The “People” Pencil Cases of Bruce 2nd
Bruce Lee Torizawa's studio in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district is a cornucopia of patterns, colours, fabrics, images and symbols. But no matter how different they might be, they all come in one style: a standing figure in the shape of a human with a vertical zipper at the back and a horizontal at the front where you can store your pencils and/or whatever else you can fit in. I always feel like a little girl in wonderland when I enter his studio.
The first encounter
I first came across Bruce's unique “design meets useable art” concept of “People” a few years ago during my first visit in Kyoto. Meandering through the streets of Arashiyama on my way back from Kyoto’s famous bamboo grove, I saw a little shop across from the Tenryu-ji Temple, and its photogenic World Heritage gardens. It looked different from the other mostly touristic shops further down the road, and at a safe distance from the tourist crowds. Kyoto on a good day sees thousands of visitors pouring through its streets and famous sites. Getting into Bruce’s store was a welcome respite from the barbarian hordes that refined Kyoto-ites consider as unsophisticated invaders, as Bruce himself would complain about later.
The minute I walked in I felt like a child in a colourful candy shop, only that the candies were in this case in the shape of little human figures lined up on the walls in colourful shapes and patterns, one above the other, one next to the other, like little soldiers, same shape but different colours, fabrics, patterns. I was mesmerised. I could not take them all in. The whole shop had just a single product, but what was it?, I remember asking silently in awe, which I am sure showed on my face. What I was seeing was design art; its functional aspect was revealed to me later. I talked to the woman behind the counter. I was told “People” were pencil cases. Human shaped pencil cases. They must be the most designer pencil cases I have ever seen! They are 24 centimetres high and 16 centimetres wide, and you can fit in pens in the legs, short pencils in the arms and an eraser in the head. Just how you fit them in is up to you, she said as she demonstrated with a smile. And they also come in a mini version, as a key ring or mobile phone decoration. The same pattern now appears on Covid-19 protection masks. I was so taken by the concept, I bought several of them after going through an agonizing selection process. Many of them have been gifted and one is still in my bag 5 years later. I did tell you of the candy-shop effect this had on me! It spoke directly to my inner child that was not done yet with playing; to my adult dormant creative self that felt awakened by the stimulation it was receiving; and also to my researcher self that felt curious about this design concept and who was behind it.
Japan was full of aesthetic wonders for me and I was just discovering them during my first long stay in the country. Who makes them?, I asked. The artist was there in his studio, I was told; “Would you like to talk to him”? I jumped at the offer! Wouldn’t you? How often does one have the opportunity to meet the artist/designer in his own studio? I was taken behind the counter where one could see the work-in-progress of a tiny studio in action, and I was introduced to a middle-aged man by the name of Bruce. As I had already noticed the name at the shop’s entrance and on the little “People”’s label, this introduction heightened my curiosity. I felt there was a story behind the name, and my journalistic training was already on the trail sniffing out the connection behind the obviously Western name and the Japanese-looking designer in front of me. And that’s how I met Bruce the 2nd, the Japanese “hafu” version of his name sake Bruce Lee. Because that’s who he was named after by his Japanese mother and American military father stationed in Japan in the 50s. This was an encounter that taught me something about Japanese traditional and contemporary aesthetics that in this case seemed to be combined in the rather opposing principles of iki (粋/い,simplicity and originality) and kawaii (かわい,cuteness).
Bruce was happy to share generously his time with me, explaining his design philosophy behind the little People concept, which I think stands for his philosophy in life: we are all made as equals but we are all at the same time unique individuals, as the rows of his lined-up little People testified. All the same size, height, width but look at that individuality expressed in the fabric, texture, colour and images!
Bruce is a “hāfu” (ハーフ), a half man by Japanese standards, a mixed-race man by western standards, a bastard for some, depending on how you see it. Even Bruce introduced himself as a bastard in that first encounter when I asked him about his name, which did take me aback. What a way to see yourself, I had thought. Japanese people often take me by surprise, a mixture of conservative and shy demeanor and unexpected directness with disarming honesty. The outcome of post-war occupied Japan, Bruce was the result of a union between an American man and a Japanese woman. The father did not get to stay long or take responsibility for his son. This had a profound effect on the young boy growing up in Japan’s monoculture society. His wish to fit in but also be accepted is so clearly expressed in his People’s design. As different as he might look, he seems to say to us, he is just as human as everyone around him.
Bruce explained to me in a subsequent visit that the idea came to him in the late ‘80s when a friend asked him to create something unique for his birthday. Bruce ended up making a personalized pencil case, and that’s how the first “People” design was conceived. At the time he was studying Automobile Engineering at Osaka Industrial University, dreaming of designing cars. As his enthusiasm started fading at some point, he was faced with an uncertain future. Taking up printing and design at a silk screen printing company proved a serendipitous choice, as that’s where he learned to use a sewing machine. That experience came with a creative realization: “I was at last experiencing creative satisfaction”. It sparked a lifelong creative engagement.
I got to know Bruce a bit better in one of my return visits to this aesthetically rich city. He took me out to dinner one night and I grabbed a moment to ask him a few personal questions while being served multiple delectable small dishes by the mama-san who runs Warajitei, a tiny restaurant known for its clientele of famous Japanese actors. That’s how I found out that he was born in Kyoto, where his mother grew up with her siblings. His grandfather was an architect and his sons stayed on the trade. He mentioned that his uncle was a carpenter, so he was always playing with carpentry tools as a child. That’s where the creative vein was running from, rather than from his father’s side. When his mother met his father, she was working at a department store in Kyoto. Theirs was a short union that produced a child outside marriage. I can only imagine what that must have meant for the mother’s family’s honor, especially so shortly after the war, and Japan’s crashing defeat and an American occupation. He grew up with his mother, not knowing much about his father, other than what she told him: that he came to Japan as part of the US military post. When I asked him if he ever had a chance to meet him again, his short reply left much unsaid: “I spent 10 days with my father when I was 22 years old.”
“In my high school student era, I loved motorcycles and bicycles. I had many old motorcycles and I loved spending time restoring them. I was always riding on a dirt road. I only listened to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.”
A typical teenager of his time. When he got on a motorcycle once and fell, he tore his jeans, and that’s when he learned to sew, a useful skill for later on when he set up his studio.
I couldn’t help asking him how it was to grow up as a mixed-race child, a “hāfu”, in post-war Japan. He mentioned his family was worried about him being bullied. Fortunately, he said, he went to a Catholic primary school where he felt he was accepted, and the friendships he made then continue to now. But he does have mixed, if not complicated, feelings about this that became clearer to him as he grew up. He learned that Japanese people do not easily share their thoughts, especially in public, and do so even more rarely with people outside of their close group.
He often feels his propensity to offer direct and honest opinions tends to make him stand out: “Among them, I who give a clear opinion am disliked by [Japanese] people. I don't know if this is due to my personality or ethnic origin. If personality also includes differences due to DNA or “mixed race”, how can I explain this to them?” Clearly, Bruce has been trying to make sense of his standing out personality, and being of mixed ethnic background does not make things easy.
“I don’t know how hāfu is perceived among European [Western] countries, but being a European [Western] and Asian hāfu is complicated”.
He seems to think it is more complicated than being of just a mixed western ethnicity, in any case. Whilst a personality changes with time, human DNA does not change and that makes him wonder if his American/Western (Germanic origin on his father’s side) did play a role in shaping him and might account for his personality. The age-old “nature vs nurture” question comes into it, but I could sense that this was more than just a philosophical question to Bruce.
Experiencing “otherness”, whether due to his personality or perceived mixed ethnicity, has often resulted in bringing him sadness. Like that time when someone told a friend of his, “You know, Bruce is not Japanese”. Or when he realized people, even close friends, think he is just using a very famous movie star’s name for gaining popularity. And who could blame them, with a name like that in a monocultural Asian society?
When probed a bit more on how others might perceive him, Bruce sought to explain to me how Japanese make sense of the world around them in a way that has not really changed that much over the centuries. He argued for instance that while the European thinking style is like a "pile up of individual blocks’ held together by logic which dictates any changes in thinking, the Japanese thinking style is something completely different, defined less by logic and more by context and thus more elusive. “It means that once a thought its decided or believed to be true, change is very difficult.”
He went on to give me examples of how the “individual” fits in the whole, through a work context. There is a tendency, he said, to avoid mentioning the writer's or the creator’s name on documents they author or products they create except when they are expected to take responsibility. Individuals are embedded within the organization. Whilst organizational success is celebrated as a collective result, failure is often attributed to the individual.
Also, Japanese people, although they tend not to like those who express their opinions clearly or too directly, when they notice the overall opinion is supporting theirs, their voice will be louder. He was aware that he was generalizing and that the Japanese culture was far too more complex than that, but he insisted that this complexity is very different from a multi-cultural society.
I did feel his strong sentiment about this when he said that it was very difficult to spend his life as a “‘stand-out mixed character’ in a monoethnic group.” So I was surprised to receive the following answer to my question about how he perceived himself (Japanese or hafu);
“Just a happy guy!? I am having a unique life experience and learning so much from this situation. It's unique to me.”
The People Pencil Case story
Bruce started selling his People pencil cases in 1993, at a department store. But as the communication with the store was difficult he decided to open up his own shop in 1994.
He feels that the fabric can express emotions and individuality. “The use of different kind of fabrics reflects the diversity of our society”. It feels very important to Bruce to be able to express that individuality through the objects we use in daily life. I sensed the poetry in that when he claimed that “as the pencil case is carried around by the user, it is getting the same experiences as the user”. So the object becomes an extension of the user, absorbing what the user experiences? How does that manifest?, I couldn’t help asking. To Bruce it was obvious, the fabric of the People changes along with the user day by day (he actually said “grows up” as a human would). He believes that “if knowledge nurtures the individuality of the user, "People" also nurture the individuality of the user”.
That was too deep for me to grasp all at once, and I clearly missed the symbolism of the pencil cases at the time, carrying pens and pencils, instruments of documenting knowledge. “The pencil case is right there when the user gains knowledge.” But it does not stop there. This experience is also recorded on the People’s fabric that changes with the passage of time, softening, fading, carrying ink marks, and food marks too!
To Bruce, his “People” represent diversity. When I asked him where he draws his inspiration from, he responded that a long time ago he had asked himself this question: Why do people pay attention to other’s people’s use of fashion? This made him think that people choose their clothes for a reason and that each piece has a distinct meaning to them. Fashion might be defined by wider trends in society but people still have a choice of what to wear and how. This triggered a lifelong fascination with fabric and its use in everyday life.
He puts an enormous amount of work into designing and producing his little People. From coming up with the original design concept, drawing up multiple versions and transferring the designs to fabric and to printing, cutting and sawing, this is a long labour of creative love that involves just Bruce. I remember looking at a couple of the products with spring onions and penguins. Bruce explained that he came up with these designs on a hot summer day, dreaming of cooler times. Spring onion soup is a summer cooling dish. They are all uniquely conceived, a response to stimulations he receives in his daily life. As Bruce has been living upstairs above his studio, one could say that he does live and breathe in his art!
Some of the People’s designs are collectors' items (in fact he has a few collectors always checking for new designs), while others are made for those who only see pencil cases with a “kawaii/cuteness” factor. The modern cultural phenomenon of cuteness is a prominent aesthetic of Japanese popular culture, visible in clothing, toys, personal appearance and mannerisms, and thought to be rooted in Japan's harmony-loving culture.
Perhaps that shows how different we are; some see practical use where others see art. I see both, and Bruce does too. He believes in art being part of the everyday life, not something posted in a museum to pay an entrance fee to see, and to admire from a distance.
I might go as far as adding that his People concept bears some elements of Shibui (渋い, simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty with connotations of elegance and sophistacation). A shibui object might appear to be simple; however, details such as textures balance simplicity with complexity. This ensures the owner of a shibui object does not tire of it, as it constantly offers new meanings and an enriched beauty that cause its aesthetic value to grow over the years. I find the “everydayness” quality of a shibui object present in the People’s modest aspiration to serve as a humble pencil case that is at the same time aesthetically satisfying in its textures, fabric choice and design. Perhaps it is this everydayness quality that provides a framework for Bruce’s design concept to become a unit not a process.
As fabric plays an essential role in the People design, since Bruce relies solely on it to make distinctive products, I persisted a bit more on this subject in our conversations. To Bruce it is not necessary to use a special fabric, common ones that we are familiar with are as valuable. Of course, some fabrics are his original textile design prints which take up time but which he has fun producing. Each fabric eventually becomes special with the experiences that come with its use. “These fabrics become artwork along with my concept”. He suggested very generously that “maybe the newly designed People are not my artwork yet”. For Bruce, it is only after his People are out of his hands that they become art work, through the cumulative uses and experiences of the user.
In describing the design and production process, he basically chooses the fabric that he likes and that comes with a good feeling. Sometimes there is a series of stories, sometimes there are only patterns. He uses a reactive dye digital textile printer which creates durable products but needs to be steamed after printing. It takes a lot of work, but the resulting colours are beautiful.
He is not sure who he designs People for, or who buys them, which was surprising to me. I would have thought that such intensive labour of creative love would have a “bespoke audience” in mind. Possible for those who cannot recognize diversity? That was a tongue-in-cheek reply by him after I insisted on getting an answer. It seems his customers come from all walks of life, ranging from elementary school students to the elderly, to engineers, designers, doctors, teachers, nurses and others. But most of them seem to be adults.
Each of the "People" has a serial number. Bruce keeps records for each People and who bought one. He likes taking a photo with the customer:
“The moment that a customer buys one of the People is very important. I record this moment. When a customer returns with their People a few years later, I will see the photos to remind me, and I will talk about what has happened in the meantime.”
A few years ago, he used to employ about 10 staff in his workshop. But he got tired of taking care of the staff, and since the negative turn in the economy, it’s been mostly Bruce and his wife now running the shop. Bruce’s daily work routine starts around 10 o'clock with serving customers from around 11 o'clock while working in the open studio at the same time. Serving customers does take energy, though, which affects his creativity that really requires uninterrupted time. So when the conditions are good, he starts his design work after dinner.
The People pencil cases come with their minis, designed as a key chain and cell phone accessory. In japan people often decorate cell phones and bags with small objects, a habit that can be traced to the Edo period, when the Japanese developed a love for using small objects in their daily life. “People wanted unobtrusive beauty, not conspicuous beauty”. One example would be the small ornamental but functional objects called Netsuke (these were attached to the belts of kimonos, which don’t have pockets).
Although to an outsider the People design concept might look unusual, it fits within the historical, social and cultural context of Japan. Japanese people are familiar with using small items made by fabric, and Bruce suggested the explanation could be that “perhaps it's kimono culture.” Also, the Japanese like to organize and stationery items are popular. But he thinks the pencil case is not just a tool for Japanese people, it has more meaning than that.
The artist in his community: Kyoto and the Arashiyama district
The studio’s location, Arashiyama, might be a popular spot now, but it was not always so, especially in the ‘90s when Bruce came to the area. As a newly married man with not much money, he went to Arashiyama looking for a cheap apartment. And that’s where he started his design work.
I couldn’t help but wonder if these changes have had an impact on his work. An artist gets inspiration from the environment, and Bruce did not look a happy man when talking about the changes in his neighbourhood and city. Kyoto is considered to be the cultural capital of Japan and a major tourist destination.
The emphasis placed by local authorities and businesses on turning the city’s historical assets into a profitable source of income might have succeeded in making it a prime destination in Japan, and indeed in Asia, but as many locals might tell you, it has also changed the city. Residents often feel under siege by the thousands of tourists that stream through the narrow and picturesque hilly streets of the old city. Bruce was not impressed, “People will convert all the assets of Kyoto into money. By the time this generation grows up, history and culture will be lost…. it's a different world coming soon.”
As I befriended Bruce on Facebook, I noticed some of the photos he posts at times show him participating in festivals and religious events. This indicates to me that Bruce is an integral part of his community. He takes part in the activities connected to the area around his studio/home because, in his view, “Shinto rituals and regions are connected and are indispensable for unity”.
But his engagement with the community goes beyond the religious festivals. It took him about eight years to establish the "Arashiyama Town Development Council" with the approval of Kyoto City. He felt compelled to take action as his neighbourhood was becoming popular and was attracting the attention of architects and other arts people who wanted to capitalize on the area’s popularity for their own benefit. He often clashes with the conservative local organizations, although local people seem to accept his efforts. He often thinks his hafu status might be a factor in the way other Japanese perceive his rigorous involvement and often outspoken stance.
His engagement with the community also embraces the younger generation. In the "town exploration" project of elementary school students in the neighbourhood, he asks elementary school students to make a simple design and then teaches them how to print, dye and sew. “If you understand this process, everyone can become a designer. It’s fun!” He thinks it’s a shame that teachers don’t take the time to be creative with their students.
Being an artist in Japan
The pandemic has brough a lot of uncertainty. But long before that the influence of mobile phones in daily life had undoubtably started to change the way Japanese people keep notes (making pens and erasers less common and perhaps rendering them obsolete in the future). Bruce also feels that peer and social media pressure on the younger “shopping center” generation does not allow for an environment where individuality is encouraged. He felt that “society is going in the opposite direction of his "people" concept” that embraces diversity and originality, even a certain eccentricity.
In talking further about the challenges in being an artist in Japan today, he had much to say. First, one has to think about the art market. There is no art market in Japan, he argued. Most galleries in Japan are in rental spaces. There is no place to sell your work. Few people buy it. When he first started creating "People", there was no environment that could support his design work other than owning a store and selling it himself.
He thinks that has something to do with Japan being a country of craftsmen, with often unclear boundaries between craftsmanship and art and where advanced and unique techniques are often perceived as “art”. I couldn’t help then but ask Bruce if he considers himself an artist or a craftsman to which he replied: “I think it's up to others to decide. I just do my job”.
His art work related to the People concept was part of the COLLABO project that was exhibited in Sydney, Australia. It provided the space for participants to create their own People, using materials and ideas that express their own experiences. You don’t have to be an artist to create art, he seems to think. I would love to see the COLLABO project gaining more traction internationally. Just imagine exhibitions with People around the world displaying the richness of human diversity! He thinks it would be a fun project and I couldn’t agree more. I hope one day to get to see some of his four thousand and more samples of unique little People created with much love and attention to detail over the last 30 years.
“Just like we have the same body structure or skeleton so two people should have the same body shape or pattern. Just like we have different personalities… people come in a variety of designs and materials. My hope is that by creating a huge range of Peoples design everyone will identify with the many possibilities within them. I would like to feel that through creating People, I am on the side of the people”.
Expressing his solidarity with the people of Ukraine with his most recent design of mini people that carry the national colours of Ukraine, is just another way of being on the side of the people. With all profits donated, Bruce is not only making a symbolic gesture but also one that makes a difference, however small that is.
If Bruce had lived in Okinawa he wouldn’t be a “hafu”(half) but rather a “daburu” (double). For Okinawans, mixed race people are considered as “double”. Having known Bruce, it is this mix that precisely makes him more than half, and in fact someone of double the inspiration.
Right: the author with Bruce at Warajitei restuarant, Kyoto/ Left: the author with Charlotte and Meg with their People gifts
** photos provided by author and artist