At the beginning of this year, Elle Decoration planned a trip to Japan for a travel story in our Spring Issue. 24 Hours after we got the green light to fly to Tokyo, the earthquake and tsunami hit. As an Elle Decoration exclusive and tribute to Japan, we featured a story titled My Japan instead. We chat to Tokyo-based design and art consultant Liezel Strauss (below), creator and organiser of this extraordinary project.
How long have you been living in Tokyo? What is life like in Tokyo? Tokyo life is extraordinary. I’ve lived here for one and a half years and it’s nothing what I expected. What surprises me daily is the contrast between the deep seated traditions and the very modern landscape. It is not out of place to see a man with traditional wooden shoes crossing the neon lit Shibya Crossing or a lady in a kimono going for botox!
How did the My Japan exhibition come about? Five days after the earthquake struck I joined my business partner in Singapore to discuss the future of our business BottegaTokyo. The reality was that most of our target market had left the city, and the locals were not spending money. I felt that if I returned to Tokyo, I would want to focus my attention on giving back to this beautiful country. While in Singapore I felt very removed from Japan and quite helpless, so I started going through all the photos of Japan on my laptop and I realized so many people too must have beautiful pictures of Japan. And so the idea for My Japan was born. I already had a studio space so I decided to do a photographic exhibition to raise funds for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami via the Japan Emergency Network.
How did you get photographs from around the world? I created a Facebook group asking ‘What does Japan mean to you? – Submit your images’. Within days the Facebook wall was swamped with photos. Within the first five weeks we had more than 400 photos from people from 21 countries. We now have more than 600 photos. The top 50 photos, as voted by on Facebook, were exhibited in Tokyo on 11 May, exactly 2 months after the earthquake and tsunami and we sold more than 70 pieces. ‘My Japan’ will remain open and we encourage people to keep submitting and voting on Facebook. We are planning future exhibitions too, wherever an opportunity arises.
How has the response been? Overwhelming! We are very inspired by the response we’ve had and we feel very blessed by the support we’re getting, thanks also to Elle Decoration for the feature in their stunning Spring Issue. This project was always only possible with the input from the public from the word go. Without people uploading and voting for pictures, there could be no My Japan. I went up to volunteer in Fukushima a few weeks ago and no words can describe what I saw. The town that I worked in only had a three minute warning before the tsunami hit, so everything was flattened. It will take years and years to rebuild that coast line, so I am passionate about keeping this awareness alive and to continue raising funds.
Personally, which is your favourite image from the project, and why? I love ‘Elvis’! (Pictured at the very top) To me it is such an accurate observation of one of the many facets of Tokyo. This to me represents the contrast and sometimes bizarreness of this city. And also the absolute dedication of the people. If they do something, they do it wholeheartedly and with pride. You can feel this man’s passion. I love the colours too. Everything in Tokyo has that grey saturated hue.
What was it like being in Tokyo at the time of the disaster? I could see the skyscraper my husband was working in from where i was standing and it was swaying in the wind like a tree. It was like something out of a movie. When the quake hit, it was different from the previous ones. Besides the earth shaking more fiercely and things breaking and falling, it was the faces of the Japanese people that will stay with me forever. You could see on their faces they were thinking ‘is this it? is this the big one?‘ Twitter was working so my husband got hold of me. We found each other in a park, it was the best sight ever!
Three days after the quake I had enough of watching TV, so I decided to take my bicycle and camera and went photographing the Tokyo I loved. This was very healing and calming. The well wishes of people from around the world via social media from these moments after the quake hit was just extraordinary and it really helped. I’m in awe of its power.
What is life like in Japan now, months after the tsunami? There is definitely a sadness here, a sadness for all that was lost, the lives devastated and now the reality of the knock the economy is taking. But Japan is a strong nation and they’ll get through this. The day I arrived back was quite extraordinary. Life was going on in Tokyo, everyone in their offices, working through all the turmoil.
I hope that people will return to Japan. This is what I want to do with the My Japan exhibition, to show the beauty of this country and encourage people to visit. Japan needs visitors now more than ever.
What next? We are currently working on My Japan 2. This exhibition will take place in Tokyo and then South Africa towards the end of this year. We’re also in the process of designing a coffee table book. It’ll be available soon on www.myjapan.withtank.com
Get your hands on the latest Spring Issue of Elle Decoration to see our My Japan travel feature. Also visit Liezel’s own blog TokyoLily, or check out her posts as contributor to US blog Apartment Therapy.