I approached this project from three main sources: myself, Roland Barthes' Empire of Signs, and the CIA World Factbook.
My research for System of Substance was unique in that it was first and foremost personal. The project began from my own observations and reactions as I spent time in Japan, but I wanted to create something that was not merely personal but forming a connection to others. By translating the way that I connected to Japan, I hoped others would connect with me and the country.
The CIA World Factbook, conversely, is an entirely detached and objective way of defining a country: through it's exports, population size, etc. But it is also a representation of humans and how we learn about the unknown: we like to place as much of the unknown into known categories. When we travel, our minds are constantly taking in the information in the new environments surrounding us in this way. And I found the Japanese to be fascinatingly expert categorizers.
Roland Barthes thought so as well, and dedicated a few of his essays in Empire of Signs to the subject. Reading his writing as I traveled allowed me to make the connections I desired through experiencing and considering things that his studied and thoughtful eye had noticed decades before me.