Friendship Envoy

Motoko Ishii

top-photo-Motoko-Ishii

PROFILE

Motoko Ishii is Japan’s pioneer in illuminations for sceneries and architecture. After graduating from the Tokyo University of the Arts, she decided to specialize on lighting design but that kind of job opportunity was non-existent in Japan back then.


Her encounter with one specific design book made her decide to go to Helsinki, and so she went there in 1965 to learn the basics of the design of lighting equipment.

After working also in Germany, she returned home in 1967. Ishii established her own company “Motoko Ishii Lighting Design” and set out to enlighten Japan in this new field. Her representative works in Japan are Tokyo Tower and Rainbow Bridge among other famous landmarks.

Young women had to select marriage or work in Japan back then, but I refused that idea.
I was encouraged by knowing that a country like Finland existed.

  • Ms. Pape taught Ms Ishii not only the basics of lighting design, but everything else such as how to stand and behave at reception parties.
    Photo: Motoko Ishii Design
  • Motoko Ishii Lighting Design’s showroom “LIGHT ORB” is decorated with chandelier that Ms. Ishii designed with the Finnish northern lights as theme.

INTERVIEW

You were studying product design in college. Could you tell us how you ended up in Finland after that?

I started working for a design company in Tokyo after graduating from university, when I was given a task to design a lighting device. In the process I was very much surprised to see how light changes colors and shapes of things, and that made me want to learn more.

Nordic design was a worldwide trend in the 1960s. Finnish design was especially brilliant, so sensitive and humane, and I was charmed. But back then, one dollar was 360 yen, and there were no scholarships in Japan for students to study in the Nordic countries.

I learned about Finnish lighting designer Lisa Johansson-Pape from a thick book called “Scandinavian Domestic Design”. I wanted to work under her, so I wrote her a letter with my past works attached, and one and a half months later, received an answer saying that she would hire me as an assistant designer.

That was in July 1965. I left from the port of Yokohama by ship to Soviet Union, arrived to Moscow by railway and airplane, and from there, headed to Helsinki by night train. The sun began to rise just when crossing the border, it was such a beautiful moment! The small station on the Finnish border was a wooden house painted in white, and flowers were blooming around it…. it was just so pretty.

The ray of light differs in Finland from Japan because of the latitude. How did you feel about that as a lighting designer?

That was my first visit to Europe, and what I felt to be the most different was the “light in the city”. Light comes in from sideways, whereas in Japan, light would shine from the top. Also in Japan, winter is very bright. So Japanese homes are built to create spaces with “cozy darkness.” Japanese alcove, or tokonoma, is the most typical; they are beautiful because of the darkness created. Finns, on the other hand, try hard to capture light in their homes. Flowers are expensive during wintertime, so instead they use candles that shine beautifully on white walls and furniture. The usage of light in Finland was so different compared to Japan.

In Japan back then, the domain of lighting only existed in the field of electrical engineering. So you learned the basics of lighting design from Ms. Pape, who taught you many other things as well?

Ms. Pape and everyone else at (lighting company) Stockmann Orno, where I worked at, were so kind. Ms. Pape taught me the philosophy and basics of light, such as “you don’t ‘see’ light, you ‘bask in’ light”. She also taught me things like, how to stand and act at parties.

Ms. Pape often invited me to her home, where she would tell me about many things over coffee. Things like why she became a lighting designer, how she built her career, how Finnish design developed into what it is now, and what it was like during the wartime… she gave me many valuable pieces of advice, including the one she told me when I left Helsinki. She said: “It must be difficult for a woman to work in Japan compared to Finland considering the social conditions. You should not belong to big companies, but try to work alone.”

Do you mean your one-year stay in Finland affected your career afterwards?

Yes, there were still resistance in having women work when I returned home, and very few actually did. Young women had to select marriage or work, but I refused that idea. In Finland, some executives were women at the Stockmann department store, and the Chief Buyer was also a lady. Stockmann Orno had a staff of five, out of which three were women. I was encouraged by knowing that a country like Finland existed. I thought Japan would soon be like that too.

What was Helsinki like in the 1960s, the Golden Age of Design?

Showcases in Esplanadi, in the middle of Helsinki, were full of modern design and tableware. So many beautiful shops, and no graffiti.

What I was really impressed about, was that even ordinary people were proud of Finnish design, and knew designers’ names. I was walking in the outskirts of Helsinki the summer I landed there, and asked one middle-aged lady of directions. When I told her that I was studying design, she invited me to her house. There were fabulous lighting equipment, furniture from Artek, ceramics from Arabia… I thought it was like a showroom, but that was the ordinary lifestyle in Finland, and I was pleasantly surprised.

People were so kind in Helsinki. I later lived in Germany and the United States, but what I experienced in Finland never happened in these countries.

Japan and Finland will celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Diplomatic Relations in 2019. How do you think the bilateral relationship will develop in the future?

I was 26 years old when I first visited a foreign country, and that was Finland. My stay there helped me greatly in the years ahead as a lighting designer. Finland is a very important country for me.

I feel that Finland is still not much known in Japan. I sincerely hope that many Japanese would come to learn what kind of country Finland is. For example, in the education sector in Finland, there isn’t so much homework and no studying during summer vacation, but still Finnish school children do well in academic performance. I hope that the centennial year would make Japanese more interested and enthusiastic to learn about Finland from various perspectives.

INTERVIEW

You were studying product design in college. Could you tell us how you ended up in Finland after that?

I started working for a design company in Tokyo after graduating from university, when I was given a task to design a lighting device. In the process I was very much surprised to see how light changes colors and shapes of things, and that made me want to learn more.

Nordic design was a worldwide trend in the 1960s. Finnish design was especially brilliant, so sensitive and humane, and I was charmed. But back then, one dollar was 360 yen, and there were no scholarships in Japan for students to study in the Nordic countries.

I learned about Finnish lighting designer Lisa Johansson-Pape from a thick book called “Scandinavian Domestic Design”. I wanted to work under her, so I wrote her a letter with my past works attached, and one and a half months later, received an answer saying that she would hire me as an assistant designer.

That was in July 1965. I left from the port of Yokohama by ship to Soviet Union, arrived to Moscow by railway and airplane, and from there, headed to Helsinki by night train. The sun began to rise just when crossing the border, it was such a beautiful moment! The small station on the Finnish border was a wooden house painted in white, and flowers were blooming around it…. it was just so pretty.

The ray of light differs in Finland from Japan because of the latitude. How did you feel about that as a lighting designer?

That was my first visit to Europe, and what I felt to be the most different was the “light in the city”. Light comes in from sideways, whereas in Japan, light would shine from the top. Also in Japan, winter is very bright. So Japanese homes are built to create spaces with “cozy darkness.” Japanese alcove, or tokonoma, is the most typical; they are beautiful because of the darkness created. Finns, on the other hand, try hard to capture light in their homes. Flowers are expensive during wintertime, so instead they use candles that shine beautifully on white walls and furniture. The usage of light in Finland was so different compared to Japan.

In Japan back then, the domain of lighting only existed in the field of electrical engineering. So you learned the basics of lighting design from Ms. Pape, who taught you many other things as well?

Ms. Pape and everyone else at (lighting company) Stockmann Orno, where I worked at, were so kind. Ms. Pape taught me the philosophy and basics of light, such as “you don’t ‘see’ light, you ‘bask in’ light”. She also taught me things like, how to stand and act at parties.

Ms. Pape often invited me to her home, where she would tell me about many things over coffee. Things like why she became a lighting designer, how she built her career, how Finnish design developed into what it is now, and what it was like during the wartime… she gave me many valuable pieces of advice, including the one she told me when I left Helsinki. She said: “It must be difficult for a woman to work in Japan compared to Finland considering the social conditions. You should not belong to big companies, but try to work alone.”

Do you mean your one-year stay in Finland affected your career afterwards?

Yes, there were still resistance in having women work when I returned home, and very few actually did. Young women had to select marriage or work, but I refused that idea. In Finland, some executives were women at the Stockmann department store, and the Chief Buyer was also a lady. Stockmann Orno had a staff of five, out of which three were women. I was encouraged by knowing that a country like Finland existed. I thought Japan would soon be like that too.

What was Helsinki like in the 1960s, the Golden Age of Design?

Showcases in Esplanadi, in the middle of Helsinki, were full of modern design and tableware. So many beautiful shops, and no graffiti.

What I was really impressed about, was that even ordinary people were proud of Finnish design, and knew designers’ names. I was walking in the outskirts of Helsinki the summer I landed there, and asked one middle-aged lady of directions. When I told her that I was studying design, she invited me to her house. There were fabulous lighting equipment, furniture from Artek, ceramics from Arabia… I thought it was like a showroom, but that was the ordinary lifestyle in Finland, and I was pleasantly surprised.

People were so kind in Helsinki. I later lived in Germany and the United States, but what I experienced in Finland never happened in these countries.

Japan and Finland will celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Diplomatic Relations in 2019. How do you think the bilateral relationship will develop in the future?

I was 26 years old when I first visited a foreign country, and that was Finland. My stay there helped me greatly in the years ahead as a lighting designer. Finland is a very important country for me.

I feel that Finland is still not much known in Japan. I sincerely hope that many Japanese would come to learn what kind of country Finland is. For example, in the education sector in Finland, there isn’t so much homework and no studying during summer vacation, but still Finnish school children do well in academic performance. I hope that the centennial year would make Japanese more interested and enthusiastic to learn about Finland from various perspectives.