Of course, one of the problems is that any place has diverse strands of designing, making and living, and it is virtually impossible to generalise without being able to find exceptions. And in the end we don’t need to define why they are similar, just why they happen to complement each other so well.
One of the main connections must be that both areas have a strong sense of the seasons and a yearning for Nature. Nature has a big impact on both countries, whether it is harsh, dark winters or natural disasters and this shared appreciation of and respect for the seasonal and the natural is one foundation of the connection between the two cultures.
Leading on from this, simple, even rustic lifestyles are valued in both places and both societies also value humility, modesty and restraint. This feeds through into a mutual appreciation of simplicity, functionality, a quiet beauty, the unadorned, and the not-too-ostentatious.
There are clear overlaps with wabi-sabi: valuing the simple, unrefined and rustic, but Sen no Rikyu went even further, sometimes valuing the broken over the functional, which would alienate the pragmatic Scandinavians. And the undertones of mortality, impermanence and decay implicit in Sabi have no real parallel in Scandinavian cultures.
There is also a Nordic focus on democratic design, where everyone should be able to enjoy good design in their lives, and we can see parallels with the Mingei or Arts and Crafts movement in Japan, but this focus on the good of society and democracy isn’t really part of the Mingei ethos. The Mingei movement was already harking back to a time of rustic simplicity when it started rather than having a forward looking, overtly democratic motive. But nonetheless, the similarities are there, and it may be that these small differences and tensions actually make the two cultures designs work better together – to be too similar would be dull, but here the tension between the similarities and differences create a dynamic combination.
Japanese aesthetics influenced all parts of Europe in the 19th century, but I think this explains why Japan has had a particularly long-lasting and deep effect in Scandinavia, and in Denmark and Sweden especially. This was most obviously represented in the Studio Ceramics movement, where these similarities are just as prevalent today and Copenhagen’s Designmuseum Denmark recently hosted an exhibition called Learning From Japan which documented how Japan has influenced Danish design since 1870.
But it is not all one-way, Scandinavian design is now also incredibly popular in Japan, because of these same underlying reasons. In fact, during the 1990s it was Japanese collectors who saw the value in Scandinavian Mid-Century furniturebecause of the simplicity of design, the beautiful wood grain and the skill of the carpentry, sparking the whole Mid-Century modern trend.