Rediscovering Japanese spirit and aesthetics

When I lived in California, I drove a Lexus LS. It seemed to me to be the perfect car for those long, sprawling neverending highways and I was happy with the feeling being in an egg - a secure object that has no visual protectors, but a place with a true inner sense of security.

Thanks to the opportunity to visit a gallery and factory dedicated to Lexus, I learned a lot more about these cars, which Toyota Motor Corp., the biggest automobile manufacturer in the world, successfully launched in the U nited States in 1989 and introduced at home in 2005, re-establishing itself as a luxury Japanese brand in the eyes of the world.

Being an artistic type, I thought the world of Lexus would be very different from my own. But to my astonishment, what I actually found was that they have a lot in common, which is somewhat analogous to what attracted me to Japan many years ago. My knowledge of Japanese language and culture comes from an innermost need I felt to grasp Japanese aesthetics when I experienced them in films; these aesthetics led me to fall irretrievably in love with Japanese cuisine.

The philosophy behind Lexus as a luxury brand is Japanese “omotenashi“ (hospitality), which means to treat or entertain someone sincerely and warmheartedly. At the core of omotenashi is attentiveness to the needs of others, by reading the atmosphere, sensing the mood and feeling the invisible energy pervading an occasion. Ultimately, or ideally, it means not entertaining a guest to achieve self-satisfaction, but to be quick in perceiving the guest's needs, desires, and overall mood, and entertaining the guest accordingly.

For example, in a traditional Japanese “Kaiseki“ restaurant it is not just about serving a delicious meal, but its true value is in the customized experience created by the whole process from the selection of tableware to the coordination of the room, giving thought to the way to the venue and the specific situation of the guest. And the carefully decorated pre-seasonal flower placed on the wall may be the first glimpse a guest has of the next season.

The “omotenashi“ (hospitality) concept of Lexus is based on Japanese aesthetics as seen in food and dishes at Japanese restaurants.
The “omotenashi“ (hospitality) concept of Lexus is based on Japanese aesthetics as seen in food and dishes at Japanese restaurants.

Such attentiveness is seen in every function of a Lexus, including the pinpoint indoor lighting system that perfectly accommodates user's needs; and power windows that slow down slightly when closing to reduce noise, much like the well-mannered way in which a “fusuma“ (sliding door) is closed, which should never be heard at sophisticated Japanese restaurants.

Also, this philosophy is reflected in its cutting-edge, yet elegant, design based on carefully thought-out simplicity and composed of elaborately crafted parts. One such elaborate detail is the “Shimamoku“ (striped wood) trim used in the Lexus LS sedan. The wooden part is made by Tendo Mokko, an established furniture manufacturer, using very thinly sliced veneer - similar to the “katsuramuki“ method of peeling in Japanese cooking - which is glued, pressed and heated into the desired design, in alternating bands of light and dark wood. The master craftsmanship put into Shimamoku, a careful process that takes 67 different steps over 38 days to complete, adds to the impressive LS interior, providing drivers a new experience in the fusion of tradition and modernity.

This philosophy of attentiveness leads to perfectionism in the factory build process and provides the gallery with the ability to offer a wide array of services, which is exactly the case in Japanese restaurants.

How the people work together in an assembly line is much like the way a kitchen runs when a team of chefs is working on a full course menu. There was a place on the assembly line where the dashboard was being installed. A sign there said “touchless.“ How does one work bending over the engine holding a good size piece of equipment and not touch the car? It is like plating a group of “zensai,“ or hors d'oeuvres, onto a brilliant mirrored lacquer platter without allowing a single drop of anything to hit the surface in any place that it shouldn't. The movement, the action, the breathing and visual judgment of the location all come together in one place.

To truly appreciate Lexus products, the Lexus International Gallery Aoyama in Tokyo welcomes visitors with heartwarming omotenashi, catering to all five senses. Through the aromatic fragrance; the almost subliminal sounds of nature; the natural light coming through the large windows in the high-ceilinged space; the feel of the smooth leather and wooden steering wheels; and the taste of a seasonal drink offered at just the right time, visitors will be welcomed to the world of Lexus. They are subtly touching all five senses and, almost exactly as in traditional restaurants, customers will be given subtle hints and in turn it is up to them to open up and take in the experience being offered.

It is more than just adding up all of those milliseconds and millimeters and preparation and refining. All of this is forgotten, for now it is the final product ... or is it? This is my question, for I see Lexus the car as a plate or dish, which by itself is still an incomplete, empty object. A plate needs food to be presented on it to make the art perfect.

Even then, only after continuous use of the plate or car does it receive the breath of life. That is, in car terms we realize this by giving a car a familiar endearment such as “my set of wheels“ or “baby“ or lovingly referring to our car “she“ or “he.“ I feel that when the Lexus you are driving has made you comfortable enough to call it by one of these names then you have something you truly love.

The LS 600h F SPORT X Line and IS 350 F SPORT X Line, which are LS Special Editions commemorating the 10th anniversary of Lexus in Japan,<br>
are on display at the Lexus International Gallery Aoyama.
The LS 600h F SPORT X Line and IS 350 F SPORT X Line, which are LS Special Editions commemorating the 10th anniversary of Lexus in Japan,
are on display at the Lexus International Gallery Aoyama.

How ‘takumi’ approach the art of carmaking

A trip was recently made to the Lexus factory in Tahara, Aichi Prefecture, to learn how the Lexus philosophy is reflected in the manufacturing process.

Lexus manufacturing is supported by its “takumi“ (craftsman) system that was established to realize the ultimate in product and personnel development appropriate for producing Lexus automobiles. Each staff member is trained to reach the highest levels of technical skill required to build to the standards of precision and design expected of Lexus. E mployees also develop a Lexus mind, learning about the brand, the history and various components of Lexus automobiles.

The process is a two-way, hands-on system of teaching someone to think while going through the everyday work processes. The system also asks employees to see themselves in the driver's seat or to imagine what drivers experience.

At the same time employees learn how to do their job with a combination of precision and speed. However, going beyond that, employees are asked to think, add input and make changes, rather than just going through the motions.

This is the making of a true craftsman as well as a teacher. One must be able to teach the people around you to improve and, moreover, one has to think.

Among the craftsmen, a Lexus master craftsman is someone whose knowledge, technical skill and leadership ability was appraised by a master craftsman evaluation committee and endorsed by the Tahara plant manager.

At the Tahara plant, there are 10 master craftsmen in the areas of engine casting, engine machining, engine assembly, molded parts/plastics, plastic painting, stamping, welding, body manufacturing, painting and assembly and inspection. Each of these master craftsmen is a leader in their section, responsible for teaching the highly technical skills and developing the production and audit processes of each.

Katsuhiro Yamazaki, the master craftsman who oversees the operation of the Lexus assembly line, explained its operational movements, some of which take place in around one-hundredth of a second.

Clockwise from left, Katsuhiro Yamazaki, who oversees the assembly line at the Lexus factory in Tahara, Aichi Prefecture, is one of the factory's 10 master craftsmen and speaks to The Japan Times in January; the dashboard is installed without touching the car in any way; the human touch is needed to perfectly place a sunroof in the proper position; Stickers must be applied in an exacting and precise manner.
Clockwise from left, Katsuhiro Yamazaki, who oversees the assembly line at the Lexus factory in Tahara, Aichi Prefecture,
is one of the factory's 10 master craftsmen and speaks to The Japan Times in January; the dashboard is installed without touching the car in any way;
the human touch is needed to perfectly place a sunroof in the proper position; Stickers must be applied in an exacting and precise manner.

When Toyota decided to create the luxury brand of Lexus, the company already had the technical knowhow involved in mass-market carmaking. It had already embraced the idea of using machines to free people to allow them to come up with new ideas. But with Lexus they decided to change the balance of man and machine. Even though the Lexus owner may not be able to see what has gone into the building, the craftsmen will be able to sense it.

It seems that no matter how technically advanced machines become, there are certain jobs that require the human eye and touch. For example, when it comes to the installment of the sunroof, “a person with a good sense of touch is far better at calculating exact placement than a machine,“ Yamazaki said.

“The human eye or sense of touch is something that has proven itself on the assembly line. The workers are taught how to pay attention to details. They are asked to put themselves in the place of the customer.“

When a person is working on the assembly line they are consistently doing the same movement over and over. Here, the Lexus way of thinking is to ask the workers to move in the most fluid and efficient ways while contemplating the possibility of bettering all aspects of the car. This could be in the form of better seat cushions, improvements to the frame or in myriad other areas.

An interesting sign we noticed was one that read “touchles“ at the place on the line where dashboards are installed. A mechanical arm holds the equipment while a worker attaches it, but this is where the “touchless“ comes in. Originally, it was thought that one could not help touching or scratching an auto panel so elaborate guards were produced to protect them. However, from time to time the guards themselves would scratch the panels, so to cut expenses, it was decided to simply eliminate them and have people be more careful not to touch the panels; it seems to have worked.

What makes Lexus different from other cars?

“The attention to detail,“ Yamazaki answered. “In assembly, others may accept a 1 mm gap in the fit of something. Lexus accepts less than half of that.“

This is where things step above the ordinary and go on to the next level of detail, and the birthplace of the Lexus motto.

“When the Lexus was launched in Japan 10 years ago, the idea was to make a luxury car that is Japanese from the inside out and by giving the car a soul,“ Yamazaki said.

Water polishing brings paint to life

What gives Lexus paint its soul and color is the care of a takumi expert, much in the same way a craftsman enhances and polishes lacquerware to create artwork from just a bowl.

Among the multistage painting process, one of the key steps is water polishing, which takes place immediately after painting. The careful work of takumi removes invisible irregularities on the surface, enhancing the gloss to its utmost.

The finished surfaces are checked with fluorescent lights to ensure there are no deformities or irregularities.

Within a manufacturing process using cutting-edge technology, the Lexus finish is a crystallization of takumi's techniques and sensibilities.

Water polishing brings paint to life

David Ellis Wells

David Ellis Wells is an artist specialized in Japanese cuisine and ceramics. Inspired by the works by Japanese film maker Yasujiro Ozu, he came to Japan to study in 1979. While studying at Waseda University in Tokyo, he became interested in Japanese cuisine and then serving dishes for Japanese food. Up to now, he has attended Japanese culinary schools, apprenticed in a Kaiseki restaurant, worked as a private chef in New York, apprenticed with a potter and graduated from a porcelain school. He is active in creating his original Japanese dishes, working with Japanese magazines and TV stations.

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