Ekuan had a difficult childhood: his father died from radiation poisoning, from the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima. He decided to stand in for his father, a Buddhist priest, and became a monk. But he noticed that the devastation in Hiroshima spoke to him: the destroyed objects, he said, told him they wished they had been used more. “Faced with that nothingness, I felt a great nostalgia for human culture,” he said. In 1950, he remembered, the U.S. occupation forces established a “cultural intellectual education center” in Hiroshima. “I remember this elegant smiling woman,” he said, “wearing lipstick, and nylon stockings and high heels, showing me a book of American design. I even remember the title: ‘Never Leave Well Enough Alone’.” He went back to school and graduated from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and became an industrial designer.
“Design to me has always meant making people happy. Happy in the sense of creating items that provide comfort, convenience, function, aesthetics and ethics,” he said later. “Our biggest mistake? Making people the priority. I now believe good design should be in balance with nature.” His most famous design is the bottle for Kikkoman soy sauce, introduced in 1961 and exported around the world. Well over 300 million have been sold, and it has been added to the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in its Humble Masterpieces exhibition. Ekuan also designed the look of Japan’s Akita Bullet Train, the Yamaha VMAX motorcycle, and a Yamaha piano, among other items. He died February 8, from Sick Sinus Syndrome — an arrhythmia caused by problems with the heart’s primary natural pacemaker, the sinus node. He was 85.