An insatiable interest in how people live

Fumitoshi Kato

Walking around town, looking for ways to get closer to others

My research is focused on fieldwork, going out into the city to observe and document people's lives. Daily life is fascinating, and while living normally we solve problems in a variety of unique ways. These appear, for example, in the ways we lead objects against walls, or how we make a schedule. I believe that designs, broadly defined, are hidden in these schemes for living.

In the “Power of Place Project,” which started in 2003, I went out to stay with students across Japan, and created a camp to inquire into what kind of places give rise to human activity. During the day, I interviewed locals and walked around town to try to understand the area. At night, I created posters and other works from the photographs I'd taken and the words I'd heard that day. All were taken from that area's atmosphere or people. Two days and one night is a short time, but one of the project's goals was to discover ways to reduce the distance between the local people.

The finished posters were lent for hanging in halls in the areas studied. While you view the posters, the people who made them and those who appear in them have a conversation. They are not face to face, but through the poster, smooth communication does take place, and sometimes new relationships are created. This kind of dialogue was also part of the project, so you might say that we were designing communication.

Kato lab
Kato lab
インタビューの成果をポスターにまとめ、滞在先でポスター 展を開催する。(上山, 2011)
Kato lab
改装中の商店を活用して、ビデオの上映会を開く。(佐原, 2008)

Converting a town into a university

“Bokuto University” was a medium-term project that took place during 2010 and 2011. By converting the Sumida district into an imaginary school called “Bokuto University,” we could test designs of places for people to gather, speak and learn. Anyone could enroll at any time, and the structure of the curriculum had students walk through the area many times. We created a “B” logo based on the university's initials and made merchandise, an act that though simple created a feeling of identification with the university. Close to the end of the “academic year,” I was moved when one participant baked cookies with the logo on them.

The lecture content was truly diverse. There were even courses on cleaning dirty apartments, painting empty stores and napping. Most interesting was a class that built a chair for a pharmacy worker to use in the small space behind the counter. They started by measuring the size of the shopkeeper's body size exactly, then created a one-of-a-kind chair. It also created a new relationship, in that when it breaks the shopkeeper will be able to contact the creators.

In this way we formed new ways of learning and thinking about the town while involving local people. Now we would like to take this structure to Miyakejima and try creating a “Miyakejima University” that encompasses the entire island.

The city changes slowly. It's all right if we don't see the end result

When people ask if the Bokuto University project led to an increase in local activity, I say I'm not sure. It may have provoked an increase, but in fact it takes many years for cities to change. I am prepared to accept that I will not be able to see those changes through to the end. What I can do is leave the project behind on paper for others to find. In this way, I can entertain the small hope that it may be of use decades from now.

The folklore scholar Wajiro Kon, best known for his studies of modern society, described in 1926 a practice known as “examining surroundings.” He walked around and observed everything within a 500 meter radius of the Waseda, Keio and Imperial universities and laid out his results on a map. In that spirit, we carried out our own “examination of surroundings” in the same locations in 2010. If we leave these records behind, perhaps 80 years from now someone will appear to do the same thing and investigate how the city has changed. That's about the feeling of time we are going for.

Thorough observations will naturally lead to proposals

Wajiro Kon made observations and recordings with an eye for and interest in even the minutest details of people's lives, down to attire and homes. Looking back at his achievements, I felt that thorough observations can only lead to actual proposals. For example, in 1961 Wajiro Kon drew a diagram of a kitchen with a dining table in it. Today eating in the kitchen is not unusual, but old kitchens once had dirt floors, and were clearly separated from rooms meant for eating. However, while he observed a large number of private homes, he may have noticed that putting a dining table in the kitchen could raise efficiency and lead to new opportunities for communication within families. This is a wonderful design idea.

We cannot make easily understood proposals or tell people that if you do this you will profit and lots of people will come to your town, but at the end of the observation process proposals will naturally come. Also, towns and regions cannot be changed with action from the outside. Locals must participate for that to happen. This is why I want students to plunge into the field, connect with a variety of people, reduce the distance between people and acquire the ability to form deep relationships. I believe these will prove to be strengths that will serve them well after graduation no matter what path they take.

Kato lab
フィールドワークの成果はリトルプレスをはじめ、さまざまな形で 展示・公開する。
(フィールドワーク展, 2005~)