Interview: Keio Fab Lab Founder Hiroya Tanaka

A revolution is happening in Yokohama.

Hiroya Tanaka, the 38-year-old director of Keio University’s Super Fab Lab, has finally built his dream workspace: a two story fabrication laboratory (fab lab) in Yokohama’s Minato Mirai.  Proponents of the Fab Lab program believe this radical democratization of the modern manufacturing process promises to alter the consumer landscape and drive us to a new era of unprecedented innovation. As Tanaka himself explains, “Fabrication is the third revolution in my life. The first was in 1980 with the personal computer. The second in 1995 with the Internet. The third revolution is personal fabrication.”

Tanaka has campaigned hard for years to construct a Fab Lab in Japan and to establish East Asian countries as major participants in the movement. Now, with the help and support of Keio University’s Shonan Fujisawa Campus, he is ready to act on his dream.   Corporate sponsors in Japan who appreciate the subtlety of the FabLab initiative have been hard to come by. “I visited a lot of companies in person, and explained fabricationーwhat Fab Lab is.”

In bringing the Fab Lab program to Japan, Tanaka has also become the de-facto leader of the movement in East Asia. “I set up the Fab Lab Asian network this year: Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, and Mongolia have joined in. I am leading the Asian network to create a new direction for fabrication, mixing [the] Asian mindset and technology.”

Tanaka believes East Asia has a distinct voice and style rooted in its design traditions that offer a unique perspective to the international fabrication community. In keeping with the philosophical “yin and yang” concept from Taoism, Tanaka says that “Asian people are good at thinking about duality… Day and night, male and female, good and evil— [all] two things happening at the same time…physical/digital is an extension of that…now, I am thinking about design theory, derived from the Asian spirit.”

Tanaka defines himself as foremost as a researcher and inventor, but  will continue to work in his own unique style. “I need time to do trial and error. To have stupid experiences, to take risks by myself…my research style is so artistic. Most of the students don’t follow me,” he laughs.

In the same vein as Steve Jobs’ efforts to popularize the home computer through slick design and user-friendly interfaces, Tanaka hopes to adapt fabrication tools for a broader audience. “I want to make personal fabrication tools, personal fabrication with machines, and make it beautiful…a home appliance.”

Ultimately, implementing Asia’s distinct cultural and philosophical heritage into his work is what Tanaka hopes for the future of his research.

“My father, [a physicist], always said that Einstein was a very great physicist, Newton was a very great physicist, but Lao Tsu was the great physicist. I understood, what they talked about was the essence of the world. Now I am thinking about design theory, derived from the Asian spirit.  Fabrication technologies, came from MIT. But now, I want to inject an Asian voice into the global standard of digital fabrication.”

Visit the Super Fab Lab