Issey Miyake: designer, hibakusha, seeker

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Miyake’s “132 5. Issey Miyake” collection of garments made from recycled fabric are on display at an exhibition in 2010.

Issey Miyake, who died on Aug. 5 at 84, came from Hiroshima. As a high school student, he was immensely moved by the beauty of the handrails of the Peace Bridge near ground zero of the atomic bombing in the city. The handrails were designed by sculptor Isamu Noguchi. “It made me aware of the power of design that can give people encouragement,” Miyake later said.

Miyake became a hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor) while an elementary school student. Yet he rarely spoke of his wartime experiences because, “I don’t want to be called a pikadon [a slang term for the atomic bomb] designer, and it would be pathetic to make the atomic bombing an excuse,” he once said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Issey Miyake speaks to The Yomiuri Shimbun in 2015.

However, in December 2015, the 70th year from the end of World War II, Miyake told The Yomiuri Shimbun of his experiences as a hibakusha.

“If someone like me, who has symptoms from the bombing, speaks out now, then things may start to change in society, however little,” he said in the interview, explaining why he had decided to talk about the experiences. He was probably concerned that the numbers of people who could talk about the war and their experiences of the atomic bomb were decreasing every year, putting memories of the war at risk of being forgotten.

He checked his own memories ahead of the interview, such as by searching for photos. In the interview, he discussed how he was affected by the atomic bombing, how he walked alone to his home 2.3 kilometers from ground zero to find his mother and how he nearly died after developing periostitis (an inflammation of connective tissue surrounding bones) in the fourth grade of elementary school as a result of the bombing. The interview lasted more than three hours. Miyake choked and became teary at times as he spoke of what he had kept deep in his heart as if to force himself to bring it out.

Miyake, who did not expect to live long, got into fashion design during his student days and gained something to live for. For half a century from the 1970s, he continued to deliver to the whole world his one-of-a-kind designs that featured Japanese material and craftsmanship combined with the latest technologies.

“A designer is someone who proposes outfits that reflect the time, society and people’s needs,” Miyake said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Students perform in attire for men’s rhythmic gymnastics designed by Miyake in Tokyo in 2013.

Original designs born out of one piece of fabric, pleated attire that can be washed at home, outfits made from sustainable materials, clothes in vivid colors — the works he produced struck a chord with many people across the globe.

His designs all shared brightness and hope, perhaps created in counterpoint to the deep-down pain of his wartime experiences.

In 2016, a large-scale retrospective of Miyake’s work was held at the National Art Center, Tokyo.

“How will people’s lives change in the future? It’s no good to rehash something that existed before. I’d be happy if I can produce beauty many people will really need, invaluable beauty that remains in your memory,” he said at the time.

His desire to make clothes for the next era never waned until the end.