Found Japan

Introducing author, business person, long time Japan-resident and cultural pioneer, Amy Katoh

When I first arrived here in 1971, many traditional skills and crafts had already been lost. It seemed that most Japanese simply did not appreciate the genius of their own culture. Since then, I have been watching a turnaround in awareness. Amy Katoh, a cultural pioneer in Tokyo since her arrival in the 1960s, has written four books (the fifth will be out next year) that not only excited westerners to the understated Japanese aesthetic but helped awaken enough Japanese to begin a genuine revival.

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If "Lost Japan" is a book about some disappearing crafts and arts in Japan, then Amy Katoh's books could be called "Found Japan." Today, young people are wearing kimono again. Handmade goods are returning to use in greater numbers. Old houses are escaping the wrecking ball and are finding new life as trendy restaurants, cafes, galleries and boutiques. In new construction, architects are once again emphasizing wood and bamboo in structural, interior and exterior design, installing folk-style mud walls in buildings and decorating rooms with handmade mulberry paper. The "Found Japan" of Amy Katoh may very well be the beginning of a new Golden Age in this country.

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Amy's passion for all that is beautiful, genuine, heartfelt and life-enhancing in her adopted country of Japan is as strong today as it was when she first came. In her gentle, unassuming way, she has been a living institution in Tokyo. She is not only a successful businesswoman, collector and author of widely read books on Japanese crafts and design, but she has played a vital role in the re-vitalization and appreciation of Japanese folk art within and outside Japan. Her Blue and White shop in Tokyo's much loved Azabu district is like a salon for established and budding artists, craftspeople and collectors, as well as for newcomers to Japan who are trying to find their way through one of the world's largest and most exciting cities. In addition to the carefully chosen works of textiles, ceramics and paper crafts, much of the draw of the shop is Amy's warmth and enthusiasm.

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Every piece of work in her shop has a delightful story. When she opened the tiny place 35 years ago, few Japanese were interested in their own timeless traditions and exquisite folk craft. Their focus was on Japan's frenetic march towards westernization. Just as internationally recognized Yanagi Soetsu, founder of the Japanese Mingei (folk craft) Movement, saved countless crafts from extinction in the pre- and postwar years, Amy has been pivotal in reminding the Japanese of their heritage. Starting in the heady "bubble years" of the Japanese booming economy, she has helped save a generation of crafts and craftspeople from extinction by creating a niche for enthusiasts and collectors worldwide.

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One of the most enchanting villages I have ever visited was inspired and supported in its redevelopment by Amy. It is Omori-cho, a small town in western Japan. During a long process, Tomi and Daikichi Matsuba, the owners of the Gungendo clothing company, have restored that dilapidated old town into a gem. Together, they are spreading the word and the know-how to create a grass roots "slow life" movement to inspire and support similar projects all over Japan. Amy continues to speak at events promoting rural revitalization. I had the pleasure of serving on a public panel discussion with her for the city of Sasayama as part of their successful, ongoing effort in getting a lovely rural community to thrive in the 21st century.

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Amy's book "Japan, the Art of Living: A Sourcebook of Japanese Style for the Western Home," written in 1990, is now in its 19th edition and her "Japan Country Living: Spirit Tradition" is in its 6th edition. "Blue and White Japan" followed in 1996. Her latest book is on Otafuku, the laughing goddess of mirth and down-to-earth goodness. It can be found in the Japan sections of bookstores throughout the world. Her fifth book, due out next year, will focus on the spirit of things Japanese.

Maybe Amy's sixth book should be a guide to living in Tokyo, covering places and events of special interests such as where to buy the best tea sweets, what time to arrive at the Kanda festival, where to find the most riveting Buddhist fire ceremony and what to see in the underground theater. No one knows Tokyo or Japan better than Amy.