The Japanese term zakka very loosely translates as 'stuff'. Or, to refine this within its common context, 'sundries' or 'miscellaneous goods'.
If, in Western parlance, this evokes a higgledy-piggledy bric-a-brac store, then think again. In Japanese, the first part of the compound – zatsu – may mean 'things that cannot be categorised', but the term is loaded with socio-cultural significance; things considered zakka being referential to the evolution of Japanese lifestyles and how new foreign customs and items – often considered kitsch in origin – are assimilated and amalgamated into the country's cultural identity. It's a particular commercial phenomenon currently being explored in a new exhibition at Tokyo's 21_21 Design Sight: 'Zakka: Goods and Things'.
Until around 50 years ago, zakkya stores largely stocked utilitarian household items – particularly for cooking and cleaning; now, their remit has exploded, encompassing almost any item an individual could want to express their own personal tastes (consistent aesthetics and functional uses be damned). It's a sensory, almost spiritual predilection. As Tadao Kushimatsu, an analyst at the Hakuhodo Inc. advertising agency, said in a 2011 New York Times article, 'Cute is not enough. To qualify as a zakka, a product must be attractive, sensitive, laden with subtexts'.
The survey at 21_21 Design Sight is broad, with the show encompassing a range of explorations of the theme, including: 'Matsunoya Sundries Peddler', an installation depicting a Meiji-era peddler given a modern product overhaul; 'Zatsu Mandala', an exploration of the elements of Japanese culture embodied in zakka; a Dutch-made 'Hook Carpet', constructed of zakka; 'A Never Ending Loop of Thoughts', which examines 'ideal lifestyles' from the viewpoint of Hidenori Ikeda and 'lifestyle adventurer' Saiko Ito; and much more, from videos and drawings through expositions and talks. There's even a dedicated zakka store, as well as a number of time-limited pop-up shops.
'It may be that zakka resonates with people as a symbol of a small measure of happiness built upon a familiarity deriving from their integral status in our everyday lives, the comfort they offer, and the careful attention that has gone into their manufacture,' explains lauded product designer and exhibition team member Naoto Fukasawa. 'Regardless of how useful they are in our actual lives, people are drawn to zakka and feel the urge to make them part of their own lives…. The purpose of this exhibition is to focus on the aesthetics of zakka as things that appeal to us, and to share our thoughts on their allure.'
More soulful than mere materialism and richer than ascetic minimalism, zakka, it would appear, is a superlative, singular take on self-definition.