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Miguel Arboleda

I used to be an architect. I first returned to Japan in 1991 to try to find work as an architect, but little did I know that the bubble was just about to burst then. Japan was one mecca for architects to migrate to because of its free-for-all style of designing, where architects could design and build things which few other places would allow. But I was too late.

I remember having a job interview with the president of Obayashi Kensetsu, through an introduction by the famous architect Edward Suzuki, who is an OB from my high school. I sat nervously watching the president as he perused my portfolio, one project of which had been an attempt to design a Japanese tea house. He looked up and sneered (actually sneered!), saying, "You foreigners will never understand Japanese aesthetics. You should never even attempt to try to understand. It is stupid." Well, you can imagine how taken aback I was. I should have stood up and just left the office without a word. But me, being just a little foreigner and he, the president of the second biggest construction company in japan, and me also being the polite, Japan-bred foereigner that I was, just sat there grinning, taking it all with "gaman". Afterwards, as I stalked the Shinjuku street back to the station, I fumed, only then thinking of a reply: "Well, Mr. President, then I think you ought to stop trying to understand and design Western-style buildings, because you obviously don't understand Western aesthetics. Almost everything you have built is based on Western design concepts, but you, being Japanese, and not applying Japanese concepts of aesthetics to your designs, are neither here nor there." It is always futile to think of these retorts afterwards.

But I think you are right, and it is something that I have spoken about with my Japanese friends and colleagues for years... the Japanese need to stop always emulating everyone else and come up with their own measures. There is so much precedence to choose from here, and so much beauty and balance. And this doesn't mean going back to the cliches of classical Japanese design (the immutable, so-called "wa-fu") , but learning to build on them and come up with something new. Some places and practices are beginning to do just that: the new sento (public baths), the Yamada Brothers shamisen players, even the slow, but inevitable, adaptations that rural towns are taking to revive their cultures and economies. I think the long recession is a good thing for Japan. It is forcing people to stop being stagnant and to rethink outdated and inefficient practices and thinking.

Fujiko Suda

We gained such valuble experience, living and working in Japan after the bubble era, didn't we? I used to lament the fact that I came to Japan several years too late, not happy with the fact that my salary stayed the same, regardless of improvement in my work output (so I thought, anyway). But because we witnessed the fundemental questioning of what Japanese are all about, what Japan is, seen from global perspective, we seem to be in ideal positions to take part in this exciting growth of new and real Japan.

I find it amusing that even though I grew up in US, my gaman part did not change while I lived in US, and I only changed after coming back to Japan. Well, maybe instead of really changing, it's more like learning to take advantage of Japanese people's perception of me as an American.

Miguel, do you miss working as an architect? How satisfying does your work feels as you do your routine task, as you review your work, as people use and appreciate your work, comparing your current profession against being an architect?

Miguel Arboleda

It took me many years to finally overcome the guilt and doubt I felt over giving up architecture. I spent many years training for the profession, had developed a lot of ideas for what I wanted to do (mainly sustainable architecture and helping developing countries to build), even spent a lot of money on getting to where I wanted to get (I only finsihed paying off the bank loans this year, 17 years later), so I had a lot invested in being an architect. But it was also the special nature of architecture... a multidisciplinary field that required that you learn about just about everyting: society, design, physics and engineering, planning, city growth, accounting, ecology, human psychology, ergonomics, history, art, philosophy, typography, surveying, and all the specific knowledge that you need to design buildings according to their functions, like hospitals versus business buildings versus airports. It was very exciting and I could think of few other professions quite so versatile and actively creative.

But, apart from being a difficult profession to survive in just for job availability, there was also the cut-throat world of competing male members with huge egos. And, for me, a profession that dealt in direct destruction of the environment, which is something that personally I can never justify; the natural world is too important for me. So, I just wasn't cut out for the profession.

I do two things right now, teach English and write and illustrate books. And recently a third job, design homepages. I chose this lifestyle, mainly because the night teaching allows me to have the daytime off for time to work on my writing and the weekends for time to travel, get to the mountains that I love, and get experiences and material for my writing. Without it I would have no time or incentive to write.

But, the English teaching is getting very old. I'm tired of repeating the same thing night after night. I love teaching and I love the students... I believe no one should teach unless they love to... but I also need more creative and responsible input. Eventually I want to move on to my own teaching, on nature and ecological studies. Teaching a subject I love would make a huge difference.

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