Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Alma R. H. Reyes

Wataru Sakuma’s Filipino Paper Craft Adventure

November-December 2013

How strange that the steamy days and nights of Tokyo summer have transformed dramatically into rainy skies this autumn, moving towards dry and windy chills of winter only to wait for another erratic cycle to begin. Changes—a changing life is what I always see with the timely undressing of the four seasons.

Such changes did happen, too, to Wataru Sakuma, a young and talented Japanese paper product artist who fled the seasons of cherry blossoms, Tanabata (star festival devoted to the romantic encounter of two star deities), and mochitsuki (rice pounding) for the colorful jeepneys, Simbang Gabi (Christmas midnight mass), and Bicol Express (Bicol regional dish). Not entirely new to foreign living, Wataru attended an international high school in India, then ventured his way to the U.S. to study painting and sculpture in college. He received his huge break when he joined a company dealing with paper and textile business that eventually sent him to the Philippines to explore further handmade paper production processes. Filipino artists and designers occasionally come to Japan for workshops and exhibitions, but having a Japanese artist establish his career back home is quite a rarity. We should hope that Wataru savors this exciting turn point in his life and career, and that his social and work experiences with the local Filipinos would further enhance Japanese and Filipino interrelations.

Q: When and how did you decide to go to the Philippines to develop your craft?
A: The company I was working in Japan sent me to the Philippines for me to see the local factory and production processes for handmade paper. Then, one day, I was asked to come up with new products, and since then, the project became part of my job. That was around seven years ago.

Q: Describe your experiences working and interacting with Filipino designers, artists, craftsmen and workers.
A: I find Filipinos to be very creative and unique, especially designers and artists. The ordinary people can manipulate available materials on the street or in the forests, and turn them into very practical and functional tools. I think the Philippines is quite advanced in recycling discarded materials. I think the creativity runs in the blood and the lifestyle of the Filipino. When it comes to designing, I tend to contemplate on certain materials or techniques on my own way, and this involves experimentation, research, and drawing rough or detailed sketches. Often, it takes a while to come up with the final designs, but I am always amazed how quickly Filipino designers come up with a wide range of ideas in such a short period of time. The spontaneity of the Filipino creator is incredible. However, when it comes to being on time, Filipinos, in general, are very much laid back and loose. I would be sweating myself when I am late for 15 minutes only to find out that the people I am supposed to meet would arrive one hour later, and arrive with a big smile! That already is a talent!

Q: What aspects of being a designer/artist in the Philippines can you not do in Japan?
A: I am involved in quite a few projects as a design consultant for CITEM (Center of International Trade and Exposition) under the Dept. of Trade and Industry. My main job is to do design consultation for exporters, such as furniture, Christmas décor, and fashion accessories companies, and to design special settings and visual merchandising. I would not have been given this opportunity and experience if I were in Japan considering that I do not even carry a design degree. The approach to design in the Philippines is very different from that in Japan. For example, CITEM invites various creators to be involved in the design industry—from photographers, sculptors, architects to writers, in order to inject new ideas and perspectives. I think it is a great approach that helps creators to acquire new knowledge and exchange ideas. It also allows designers a lot of freedom and room for expression to develop their finished products, which often turn out to be quite design oriented pieces. This may be good, but the products may not necessarily be marketable. This kind of freedom of expression given to designers may not exist in Japan.

Q: Do you think most Filipino artists/designers cannot practice their craft successfully because of financial problems in the country?
A: The standard designers’ fee in the Philippines is not very high. To be able to live on just designing is very challenging. When I first started as a consultant, I was probably the youngest designer, but I was very fortunate enough to be given the platform to experiment and express. As I started the career as a designer, I noticed that I did not meet any young designers who were active as independent designers. The reason might probably be due to financial factors.

Q: You live now in Tagaytay, yes? Why did you decide to settle there?
A: When I came to the Philippines, there was a small workshop in Quezon City where I worked for the first three years. We transferred to Tagaytay because of the availability of the pineapple plantation there since we were mostly using pineapple leaves, which were considered to be agricultural waste. I am glad we transferred! I might not have lasted this long in the Philippines if I were to live in Manila. The pollution, traffic, and heat of Manila is something that I have a hard time adjusting to.

Q: What aspects of Philippine life attract you? Do not attract you?
A: Managing a factory on my own, being a design consultant for several companies, trying to be active in the art scene, joining exhibitions, and doing all of that at the same time require multi tasking skills, which I am not very good at. I rather concentrate on one thing and do my best at it. My work life often becomes very stressful, but living in the Philippines, and interacting with the local people allow me to look at my busy life in a different perspective. The problems that I encounter may not be such a big deal, or somehow make me feel that things would be all okay. I am often saved by the cheerful characters of my workers. The food is little too oily for me, but I do love Bicol express (stew made from long chilies, coconut milk, shrimp paste or stockfish, onion, pork, and garlic), sinigang baboy (braised pork using tamarind), beef tapa (dried or cured beef, and bulalo (broth soup of beef shanks and marrow bones).

Q: What do you miss most in Japan?
A: I miss Japanese food the most.

Q: Name your 5 favorite things in the Philippines.
1) “Kain na tayo!” (Let’s eat)—You don't really hear people say that in Japan or abroad. But, you always hear that in the Philippines, and I think it reflects the friendliness and the loving Filipino character for sharing.
2) Bicol express—This is one of the first dishes that I tried and I love it.
3) Tagaytay City —I love Tagaytay very much. It’s a great place with clean air, nice weather and great nature, but with basic needs, like small malls.
4) Celebrating Christmas from end of September—It‘s just simply crazy, but it’s cute, and I love it.
5) Jeepney—I love how colorful and playful it is. I wanted to be a jeepney driver when I first arrived in the Philippines. I thought they were so cool! But, I hate it now because it stops in the middle of the road and causes traffic.

Arigatou, Wataru-san! Merry Christmas to all!

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