There is this one amazing group most of Tokyo’s creators are familiar with: the Dainippon Type Organization breaks Japanese Katakana, Hiragana, and the alphabet into pieces to recompose the parts and produce new characters – like turning Katakana in Kanji looking characters and the other way round. As this special Organization is an experimental typography unit founded by the two artists Tetsuya Tsukada and Hidechika in 1993. You can’t help getting excited when you look at any of their typography works, noticing each character’s interesting features – let alone the witty guys who are behind it. Now, let’s have fun with the Dainippon Type Organization giving us a lesson in Japanese semiotics!
Written by Chiemi
Translated by Junko
Info: the Japanese language consists of 2 alphabets, Hiragana and Katakana (It’s like capital letters and small letters in English). But we also have characters called Kanji for the Chinese characters.
OK, would you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Tsukada & Hidechika: Characters are our longtime good friends. We are the Dainippon Type Organization!
What would you call yourself?
Tsukada: A union member.
You look alike a little bit, I think. I couldn’t tell which one’s which when I met you for the first time, to tell the truth….
Hidechika: We ourselves get confused sometimes too! We used to be much more alike, but I’ve gained weight, so…
Tsukada: The shapes of our foreheads are different! I have a forehead like Mt. Fuji. And also our names are on our faces…
What do you mean…?
A picture written on Tetsuya Tsukada’s business card: each part in his face, like eyes, nose, and mouth, is drawn by using the letters of his first name, Tetsuya, written in Hiragana. The right eye and nose reads “Te”, the left eye is “Tsu”, and the mouth is “Ya”. Great job!
You might not be familiar with Hiragana, but still you can figure out some letters: a depiction on Hidechika’s business card with his name written in Hiragana – Hi-De-Chi-Ka – thereby composing the face.
Tsukada: We call them portrait character.
I see…! How did you two meet first? It seems you’ve been together for a long time…
Tsukada: We’ve been friends for almost one third of our lives now. We met in a graphic department of Tama Art University, and formed this organization in 1993 right after our graduation.
Would you recall your first encounter?
Tsukada: You know what, there are many unexpected things in your life…
Hidechika: Ah… basically I jumped in his grade.
We don’t really hear of jumping in another grade in Japan, but anyway… I heard actually your graduation exhibition made you think of forming the Dainippon Type Organization?
Hidechika: Yap. I was working as a chairman of a committee on the exhibition.
You must have been the best student then!
Tsukada: Well, that was probably because he was slightly older than everyone else…
The poster for the graduation exhibition: the combination of “Tamabi Graph Sotsuten Laforet” written in Katakana, in green next to it, makes a look of four Kanji. “Sotsuten” means “final show”.
Hidechika: I needed to make a poster for the graduation exhibition and was playing with characters on paper. At some point, I realized that the combination of Ta-ma-bi, an abbreviation of the university’s name, written in Katakana actually also looks like a Kanji set, meaning “festival.” Then, I turned the Katakana written “Tamabi Graph Sotsuten Laforet” into four new Kanji characters. This happened to be the starting point of the Dainippon Type Organization. The previous year’s committee made a similar poster using English characters. However, I was already tired of that kind of stuff and wanted to go with Japanese characters – because we ARE Japanese! Luckily it also turned out to be really fun, too!
What did you do after that historical discovery?
Hidechika: We put those posters around Harajuku station, handed out flyers, and made a banner for the Laforet building. We really enjoyed the process of converting Kanji to Katakana and then recompose it to make completely different characters which look like Kanji. So we wanted to do more!
I see. So, what made you choose your name, Dainippon Type Organization?
Tsukada: There was already a group called Tokyo Type Director’s Club (TDC). We wanted to do something bigger, therefore we wanted a name that sounded bigger… “Dai-Nippon” really sounds larger than “Tokyo,” and “Organization” also sounds larger than “Club,” right?
I guess so. Did people commission you right after you started working together then?
Hidechika: Of course, NO!
Tsukada: That’s why we often sent out our work to competitions. The Tokyo Art Directors Club (ADC) only accepts projects that have clients. However, the TDC usually accepts independent works, too, so we always send our pieces to them. One of our works had been selected for their yearbook before.
Character play: at first sight, this looks like the Kanji “Zai,” meaning existence. But you can make out “Nike”, too, written in Japanese Katakana by forming that one character.
This means “Coke”.
Your works are really interesting to us as Japanese, but I really worry that how we can explain this to foreigners…
Tsukada: You must think so! But in fact, our work got attention in other countries too! After this TDC yearbook, a friend of ours said, “Hey, I saw your work in a very cool book! Looked great!” And I was checking this very cool book and saw something quite familiar… our work!
This is the ‘very cool book’: “Sneakers, isn’t everything”.
Oh my god it’s really here!
They used your work without permission!? Didn’t you get angry?? Did you!?
Tsukada: We weren’t sure what to do then… but we also created that work without permission from Nike and Coca-Cola, so… What can we say? Ha ha. Actually, we now thank them for doing it because we received appreciation by people from Nike, and it gave us a chance to work with them later.
It sounds that it didn’t take that long for you to get what you have now?
Hidechika & Tsukada: Not at all!
Tsukada: It was just in the last 2 or 3 years that we received requests from many places. We had long hard days, like if we were young struggling comedians… We did many things like this…
You told me earlier that there was another event which became a turning point for you?
Tsukada: We attended a Japanese design exhibition in Barcelona and at the same time, we had an exhibition in a small gallery in London. In Barcelona there was a talk show with Groovisions, Namaiki, Power Graphixx and Delaware, and we were asked to talk on stage as well….
Hidechika: It was like a secret live show!
Tsukada: However, the person before us talked a bit too long, so we had to finish our presentation within 10 or 20 minutes. That’s why we made it really simple and quick. I think it worked even better because people seemed to like it, and a curator got interested in our works. We then told them that we would love to do something in Barcelona the following year – and it came true with an exhibition. It is all published as a pictorial record of the gallery. Also, it is the 10th anniversary book of our Organization.
What an unexpected surprise for you. From there, you made your way to the “AN note” project with Kokuyo and the project for the personal Hanko, the Japanese stamp signature?
Hidechika: Once we made this personal Hanko for someone called Takahashi. Because of his name, we immediately thought of Takahashi Meijin, a famous Nintendo game player. So we made a Hanko with Kanji looks like “Meijin” out of his name Takahashi in Katakana. He really liked it and brought his big brother the following day, asking us to make another seal for him. So we made a different version for him. Next day, to my surprise, he brought his girlfriend, too! Her name is Sugimoto and this is the one we made for her.
Such an interesting idea must be in danger of being copied. Have you seen anything that looks like that so far?
Hidechika: This is not our work… a bad sample, I would say. Some characters are left out …All characters should be used!
Now, would you talk about your masterpiece, “Toypography.” It was really popular at the last Design Tide.
It is “Toypography” with wood blocks. You can make many different letters and also meanings with the same blocks. For example, you can make several versions, such as BIRD, FISH, BEAR…
Tsukada: By assembling these wood blocks, you can make many different characters of the same meaning. Those blocks were made for a feature article called “No fun, no design” of the Design Quarterly magazine. Then, the Japanese stationary maker Kokuyo wanted us to make them into proper products. Let’s begin with “FISH”, for example.
“Sa-shi-mi” for sliced raw fish? No, that’s wrong.
It was supposed to become the word “Sa-Ka-Na” for “fish” in Hiragana, wasn’t it?
Tsukada: Not today. It becomes a Kanji for “fish”, though.
Can you assemble the blocks to any picture you like?
Hidechika: Yes. How about a squid?
I want to see a “fish”! …like flatfish.
Tsukada: Doesn’t this look more like an angelfish?
The two seem to be completely forgetting the fact that they are being interviewed… having so much fun together…
A chameleon came out from the “fish” blocks!
You really made so much good stuff! And even nicer that you can truly enjoy playing with it yourselves. It must inspire children’s creativity, as well. What are your future plans?
Hidechika: My dream is to be an artist who can host the dinner show.
Tsukada: I want to have a lunch meeting.
Lunch meeting??? I’d better get going and leave you guys alone because you are having too much fun with the blocks… Thank you very much for today!