Whenever I go for a haircut, I envy hair stylists the work that they do. Staying on top of each passing trend, they steadily refine their creative sensibility and technique over the course of their careers. That the mode of their output is by no means uniform I find especially appealing. Each work is freely customized, made to order in accordance with each client’s hair type, preferences, and social position—not to mention the season.

As a novelist, by contrast, I am a kind of mass-production creator. If I could tell each of the stories I hope to write directly to individuals, my tone and choice of expressions would no doubt change a great deal depending on the listener. I wouldn’t adjust my work to them because I felt I had to—face-to-face communication would naturally give rise to such accommodations. Unfortunately, the result would most likely be of dubious quality, which is probably why the practice of writing novels alone at a desk and then making them available to many readers through publication still persists.

I first gave serious thought to the order made when I wrote the novel Love in Form Only. The basic plot is that a female actor known for her shapely legs loses one in a traffic accident and then makes the serendipitous acquaintance of a product designer, the protagonist, who designs her a beautiful prosthetic. A tale of boy-meets-girl with all the romance you might expect.

Given that each human body is unique, without its like anywhere on earth, and prosthetic legs must be tailored to the shape and size of the remaining stump, technology has evolved to the point where length can easily be adjusted by trimming the pole that corresponds to the bone of the limb. Moreover, the mechanisms for joints and other fine parts can be mass produced, bringing the price within reach of those who truly need them.

Although people can learn to walk fairly smoothly using a prosthetic with enough practice, the multiple other meanings of the original limb—sexual attraction and allure, warmth that might draw a child to pounce—are all but impossible to replicate. In other words, there is much room for improvement with regards to aesthetic properties, and this is what inspires the protagonist to design the actor a special, one-of-a-kind leg.

Since I had learned through my research for this novel how product designers realize their own distinctive visions through mass production, I was worried that bringing bespoke production into the narrative might introduce some degree of inconsistency with the essence of their profession. But when I began speaking with actual product designers, I learned that they were acutely aware of the limitations of mass production and had put much thought into how personalized design concepts might meet increasingly diversified user preferences in practice. 

With 3D printers and the possibilities they enabled entering the media limelight not long after, it became clear to me that the yearning for individually tailored products was not mere nostalgia but a desire burgeoning at the very cutting edge of the era. Indeed, prosthetic limbs were the domain in which this new customized technology was being most effectively deployed, with a seemingly never-ending stream of online announcements about gorgeous singular pieces produced at low cost.

Although I had originally pursued this line of inquiry as part of writing a novel, it eventually led me to what I see as an important insight concerning the order made and communication. 

Many of us may dream of a life in which we can wear exactly the clothes we desire, reside in just the house we imagine, and have food made for us unlike anyone else’s. And yet, if someone were to hand us a pen and paper and tell us to draw these ideal clothes and all the rest, this would no doubt leave many of us at a loss. When we take a shirt or a coat off the rack at a clothing store, we may be thrilled, telling ourselves it is the very thing we wanted all along. But could we have visualized that same item in precise detail beforehand? In most cases, we are only vaguely aware of what we desire until we come across an object produced by another.

However, my anecdote about hair stylists shows that the situation is different if we seek the advice of an expert over the domain in question. Communicating our desires in this context offers us a priceless glimpse of how our individuality can be interpreted and given form by an aesthetic refined over the history of a discrete discipline. Such illuminating interactions are precisely what is lacking from ready-made products.

The joy of the order made is to be found in the total experience that includes these processes. It promises surprising discoveries about who we are.

Originally appeared in Richesse, issue 13, 2015. 
Translated from the Japanese by Eli K.P. William

※ This essay is included in the collection of essays, “The Thinking Reed”(Japanese only).