On its website, Japanese company Maywa Denki is “an art unit produced by Nobumichi Tosa”.  I suppose their description is as good as anything, because it is extremely difficult to describe what the company is.

Opening page to Meiwa Denki Website

The opening page to Maywa Denki Website

It was once a typical Japanese SME, a small manufacturer of electronic products, started by Nobumichi’s father, Sakaichi Tosa.  The company originally was a subcontracting firm to large corporations such as Toshiba and Matsushita.  However, the company went into bankruptcy in 1979.  The company was revived in 1993 by Sakaichi’s two sons, Masamichi and Nobumichi Tosa.

The company’s second president was Nobumichi’s elder brother, Masamichi, with whom Nobumichi made its most successful product to date, the Na-cord, and transformed the company to an art/performance/music/toy company.

The Na-cord

The "Na-cord" a fish skeleton shaped extension cord.

The Na-cord was probably successful only because of its interesting shape, converting a completely utilitarian object into something whimsical and entertaining.  But its shape, really, is instructive, even if only to the subconscious mind.  The skeleton serves as a reminder of the (dangerous) power of electricity, bringing to mind cartoons in which a victim is electrocuted and transformed momentarily to a skeletal form.  The media were quick to take up the story, probably for its novelty, but the product won several awards and interest in the company grew.

Maywa Denki had already started to promote itself as an art unit, with a strong focus on music and new experimental musical instruments.  Their inventions and performances started minimally, with Nobumichi’s “Pachi-Moku” and Masamichi’s “Koi-Beat”.  While their first exhibition in 1993 drew interest, it was limited to the two instruments and one “song”.  Later that year, they extended their products and performance, with gadgets such as Na-Uchi-Bou and Harisen-bomb.  During the performance, one of the instruments short-circuited, starting a fire.  The small frenzy that ensued probably led to some of the growing interest in Maywa Denki, their products, and performances.

Instruments by Maywa Denki

Instruments used by Maywa Denki, circa 1996

1996, when the Na-cord was released, coincided with Maywa Denki’s first national performance tour.  It was a perfect way to showcase their crazy and creative instruments, innovative toys, and strange otaku expression to the entire nation, which was really just starting to feel the pinch of the growing recession after the bursting of the so-called Bubble Economy.  For the kids that were starting to become Maywa Denki’s fans, these nerdy heroes were cool because (and not in spite) of their extremely uncool look, preoccupation with electronics and other weird and unpopular gadgets, and their cute but vacuous pop music. Maywa Denki was helping the kids of Japan‘s lost generation – who saw their prospects for the future to appear bleak – feel good about their bland geekiness.

Maywa Denki’s third and current president is, of course, Nobumichi Tosa.  After taking over from his retired older brother in 2001, the company has become an iconic legend.  I think that it has become an art unit, using the company’s own description, as it has become a good representation of what Japan “means” culturally, to many in the world.  There are aspects of Meiwa Denki that somehow ring true when you think of other icons of Japanese culture of the past 25 years, including people and things such as Sakamoto Ryuichi, manga and anime, Towa Tei, Nintendo, Ultraman, Hello Kitty, and Shinkansen.

Maywa Denki has made a huge impact, I believe, on the remaking of a cool image of Japan in the 21st Century.  For that, I think that Nobumichi is owed the greatest credit.

Maywa Denki

Maywa Denki, dressed to perform (photograph from Flickr used with Some rights reserved by Ars Electronica)

The company’s performances have become more than just strangely eclectic, but art.  I’ve yet to see them perform live, save for a brief encounter at a trade show and another time at (I think) Tower Records Shibuya in the late 90s) but I find – mostly through YouTube – their music to be quite compelling.  And, though I have yet to purchase any of their products, I am fond of both their Na-cord and one of their more recent products, “Otamatone Jumbo“.  This is a musical instrument, played by squeezing the head of the instrument with one hand while sliding the other along the Stem Switch on its neck.  In the photograph at left, Nobumichi is at the center, holding a Otamatone Jumbo.

Otamatone advertisement

English ad for Otamatone

Most of their musical instruments, unfortunately, are not for sale.  The instruments are generally for performance only.  They occasionally display the instruments at exhibitions, under the banner “Tsukuba Series”.  For the most part, they are based on “real” musical instruments, but have been modified to be played electronically using a series of motors and mechanical parts, or are powered at 100 volts.  The series of instruments is named after a proposed building design for the Tsukuba Electric Town, where one of Japan’s major scientific research centers is based, as well as the technical Tsukuba University where Nobumichi graduated from.

Tsukuba Denki Town design

Tsukuba Denki Town building design

The most convincing thing about the strange beauty and bonafide ingenuity of the Otamatone is in the following video from YouTube.  In it Nobumichi plays the instrument, with a wailing riff of The Star Spangled Banner.

Another more J-Pop endorsement comes from “Nut” a cute idol group, in a collaboration between Maywa Denki and YGA, an entertainment company associated with Yoshimoto Kogyo, the legendary Kansai-based entertainment powerhouse with a stronghold on stand-up comedy in Japan.

Well, to paraphrase the Monkees (RIP recently deceased Davy Jones), “I’m a Believer”.  Hope that you’ll find fun in Maywa Denki too!

Maywa Denki

Maywa Denki

Advertisements