Not long after the earthquake that disrupted most of northeastern Japan in 2011, a young Japanese professor returning from Boston bought an old house in Kamakura and transformed it into a fablab. Portrait of Hiroya Tanaka, the pioneering father of Japanese fablabs.
Tokyo, from our correspondent
In 2008, Japanese professor Hiroya Tanaka visited Fab Lab Pabal, the first fablab in the world outside of MIT, in the small rural village of Pabal, a five-hour drive from Mumbai, India. The building was ramshackle, electricity was unstable. Nonetheless, the makers of the village had already built a device that emitted supersonic soundwaves to scare away fierce dogs, a 100% solar-powered cooker, a generator from a hacked bicycle… and a wifi antenna made by a 5-year-old boy from downloaded open source instructions.
For Tanaka, it was a shock—followed by wonder, inspiration, and finally the conviction to invest himself fully in this budding community. His discovery of fablab culture led him to Amsterdam, where he visited De Waag fablab, housed in an ancient 16th century castle, and to Barcelona’s huge solar Fab Lab House. He admired these DIY spaces open to all: engineers, architects, designers, craftspeople, artists… Then he spent a full year as a visiting scholar on the campus of MIT to follow Neil Gershenfeld’s famous course “How to make (almost) anything”.
Japan’s first fablab
Back in Japan in 2011, the professor searched for an abandoned building in which to import the spirit of the fablab movement, both digitally and physically, from theoretical concepts to local implementation. He finally found a 150-year-old traditional Japanese house in Kamakura, south of Tokyo, which he immediately bought.
For the next two years, along with his students, he cleaned, renovated and converted. Without any financial support from either the government or Keio University, he equipped the house with a 3D printer, a laser cutter and a CNC. And because he didn’t have enough money left to buy a house of his own, he lived there too. “Instead of buying a BMW, I bought a fablab,” he chuckles.
Today, at age 40, Professor Tanaka is just as idealistic, humorous and eternally young at heart. He still lives in the Kamakura house during the week, but his own eponymous research lab, as well as his Social Fabrication Laboratory, reside on the very open Shonan-Fujisawa Campus (SFC) at Keio University, southwest of Tokyo.
Originally from Hokkaido, the wild island in the extreme north of the Japanese archipelago, and currently associate professor at the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies, Tanaka is committed to the social mission of fablabs. “In Japan, the word ‘social’ implies many things—not only collaboration, but also social good, using technology to tackle social problems. The word ‘hacker’ has a negative connotation… Here there is a serious imbalance between rural areas, which are already dealing with issues in agriculture, forestry, fishing, etc., lots of problems that can be tackled with technology, and urban areas, where we have lots of technology but not necessarily applied to solving practical problems. It’s this imbalance that I’m worried about.”
He points out the contrast between hackerspaces (full of geeks) or fabcafés (full of designers) based in the city center, and fablabs, usually located on the outskirts or on university campuses, which are generally more oriented toward the community at large. But he also recognizes the difficulty in finding a good balance in these eclectic spaces, where there is no existing model to guide them.
Shared space between research, business and community
He gestures toward the international tricolored fablab logo: “There are fablabs that are more focused on the community and social projects, others on start-ups, others on academic research. However, the logo is made up of three equal parts: make-learn-share. They can also represent .edu .com .org. But it’s a real challenge to find the right balance between education, business and social good, all in the same space.”
Nonetheless, Tanaka’s pioneering initiative in Japan has since engendered the very active FabLab Japan network, which currently includes 15 members, from Sendai to Saga. In addition to regular regional, national and Asian meetings and exchanges, collaborations through the international network have sometimes surprising results. For example, the slippers featuring an image of Barack Obama: the plans were designed in Japan, then sent to a fablab in Africa, which made them out of different local materials, and finally delivered the African version of the Japanese slippers by hand to the U.S. president’s mother.
“I love working with fablabs in Africa, global communication through design, sharing data, it’s a lot of fun,” Tanaka continues. “Because the network is global, we have friends all over the world. We must maximize this ‘glocal’ network.”
“Currently I’m one of the leaders of a global research group for fabshare. We are collecting existing web services (Instructables, Thingiverse, Fabble…) to make strong connections between labs. But some people don’t understand the difference between share and show off. Showing off the result is one thing, but in fablabs we use the term ‘share’ to describe talking about our failures and attempts, not just ‘I made this.’ That’s not what we mean by ‘share’.”
These last years, Tanaka’s reputation is on the rise. Not only is he recognized as the founder of the FabLab Japan network, he is invited to every fablab opening in Asia to give the keynote speech.
Recently he received a national research fund for a 7-year project to start the Center of Digital Fabrication in Asia, situated in Yokohama, where he employs about a dozen engineers from all over the world. One of his students opened the first fablab in the Philippines, specialized in the fabrication of 3D-printed prostheses for handicapped people. Another one of his students started the original FabCafé in Tokyo. Half of his former students are now working in fablabs, including those in Shibuya, Sendai and Daizaifu.
Meanwhile, his own projects, always in collaboration with his students, bubble around 3D printing of various materials (ceramic, clay, edibles) and for various applications (architectural, medical…). And he has just started to realize his dream machine, inspired by the One Laptop Per Child project: the $100 CNC (more on that very soon…). “I’m a hacker, so I can make (almost) anything!” he laughs. “I teach the hacker mindset.”
But how does he manage to do it all? “That’s why FabLab Kamakura is my house. When I come home at around 1 AM or 2 AM, I can use the fablab because it’s my house. That’s my secret. That’s my story.”