In Japan, the land where sake flows like a never-ending river and lubricates both awkward social interaction between men and women as well as cements business transactions amongst a bevy of black-suits, it’s easy to think of the past, present and the future in terms of drinking. There is the sobering post-war period of infrastructure and economic rebuilding called the 日本の一番長い日 (Japan’s Longest Day). Then came the exuberant 80s, which were the time of overflowing Cristal pyramids and buying and selling the world’s treasures like so much Bolivian blow in the bathroom, known as the のんべい時代 (Drunken Days). The current sobering 15+ year recession can be termed 二日酔い (The Hangover). Clouded by our splitting headache and blurred vision, it’s difficult to see what the future may hold without a bit of help, a time I like to refer to as 向かい酒 (The Hair of the Dog). As of January 1st, sure it’s technically 2010, but is it the same 2010 that Arthur C. Clarke foreshadowed in his science fiction classic 2010: Odyssey Two? Even close? Wasn’t Japan supposed to save the world with a super robot by now? Are they suspense freaks or just waiting till we buy more Toyotas? What’s the deal? For those of you Nippon-o-philes who have never set foot in Japan, and have only heard of Moe but not yet experienced it in all its sticky Akihabara glory, let me guide you through the last inebriated whirlwind decade of technological development, the current Delirium Tremens economic shakedown, as well as what the future and sociological implications of living side by side with high functioning alcoholics on an archipelago of more than 2000 islands made up of both the first and third world could look like for a population set to decrease by roughly 30,000,000 by the year 2050.
Best & Worst of the Japanese Decade
We all know Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Subaru reign supreme in the automotive universe while Sony, Panasonic, Canon, Fujitsu, Sharp, Epson and Toshiba are developing some of the most advanced technologies in electronics, optics, robotics, semiconductors and more, so what’s next? Despite Japan being 16 hours in the future of Tomorrow (L.A. PST) as well as the supposed technological Mecca of the world, what the day after tomorrow brings will be an evening of the interactive 4D playing field across the international dateline.
What Japan does well:
- Smart Cards
- Mobile phones
- Bullet Trains
- Public Transportation
- Digital Cameras (Do they even make that other kind anymore?)
What Japan does not do well:
- Web Design / Usage
- Hands free connectivity
- Recycling (Over 10,000,000 pairs of disposable chopsticks used daily)
It seems straightforward that different societies put emphasis on different aspects of technology. In the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, developing plastic forms of payment in order to promote Internet E-commerce has been a top priority. In spite of its convenience, relative safety and lack of crowds, buying online has not taken hold in Japan, where the face-to-face shopping exchange is still king, or perhaps better said, emperor. This is largely due to Japan’s aging population being accustomed to a cash-based society, which has worked well to this point due to the low level of violent crime across the country. Criminal syndicates are so ingrained in popular culture, post-WWII it was the infamous Japanese mafia which first gathered food into neighborhood black markets. Though theoretically outsiders, these so-called Yakuza (worthless in Japanese), consider themselves to be an important and necessary part of society, and according to the number of part and full-time employees on the Yamaguchi-gumi payroll (more than 80,000), the various government agencies don’t necessarily agree, but with such strong privacy laws in effect, it is difficult to do anything about them.Japan could be one of the countries at the forefront of the energy revolution. Simply because they… Click To Tweet
When the government finally got its act together after the Douglas MacArthur supervised Occupation of Japan surrendered power in 1952, what Emperor Hirohito asked of his people to re-build the shaken remnants of the past with a different kind of world domination in mind for the future was to sacrifice: specifically to invest their hard-earned savings into the government itself, into stocks and bonds. Recommending the reinvestment of dividend payments in order to improve the economy and guarantee Japan’s future eminence on the global stage, helped as well. It seemed to have worked, up until the 90s anyway, resulting in the Japan Postal Service, also a bank, to become the largest holder of personal savings in the world: with ¥224 trillion ($2.1 trillion), notwithstanding the vast insurance holdings and government bonds on the books. The Postal Bank also became the largest foreign lender in the world, charging abysmally low rates to anyone willing to borrow in order to increase spending. What this encouraged was not so much spending as loan default when the economy went bust after the largest real estate bubble in history burst. So while on paper the Post Office is cash rich, in terms of liquidity, just like 45 of 47 prefectures, they’re bankrupt. Sound familiar?
Luckily the populous is well-trained in placing the national before their own personal needs, and therefore while the rest of the western world had been investing in various futures, like Internet Service Providers, since the 80s and investor speculation in new markets provided enough capital to install the infrastructure for the popular use of the internet (despite the dot-com collapse in the late 90s), it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the internet caught on in Japan, but more on that later.
Big in Japan
In terms of personal saving, Japan is by far the world leader, and since credit card use is only now becoming wide spread (and that only in the major urban centers), the use of cash has been the only show in town. Stop the average business man on the street and he may have a few thousand yen in his wallet, but stop his wife on payday and you will likely find a few thousand dollars worth of bills, which she probably doesn’t think twice about carrying around. After all, in a society which prefers non-confrontational means of conflict resolution, who is going to rob her? Despite the relative safety of carrying large quantities of cash on your person, Japanese companies are only now developing smart cards like Pasmo and Suica which, though not connected to the banking system, are generally used for ease of commute on the massive public transportation grid, but are also being used more and more to pay for merchandise at many grocery and electronics stores, convenience as well as vending machines.
In recent ads shown on various trains throughout the Tokyo metropolitan area announcing the system has recently coupled with Visa, a cute anime penguin uses his Suica card (permanently attached to his flipper) to A) ride the Shinkansen (bullet train) to an airport where he (she?), B) buys a ticket to the snowcapped mountains and then C) buys skis, a lift pass and goes skiing all day, before retiring to the warm fireside of the ski lodge (sometime in between which he gets a scarf…). Obviously the Suica people wish to impart to their customers that the automated system of payment has become so easy to use that even a small flightless bird without (a lot of) clothing or opposable thumbs can do it, therefore you have a decent chance. Speaking of opposable thumbs, Japan’s vending machine industry took a major hit with the passage of the Taspo card, which, in a seemingly concerted effort to finally curb underage smoking, requires purchasers of vending machine tobaccos to sign up with Japan Tobacco and swipe their card to use the machines. The world’s third largest tobacco company, a 50% stake of which belongs to the Japanese Ministry of Finance, which is to say the government makes money off of your cancer causing drug addiction, want you to carry yet another smart identification card to that effect. Even the beer vending machines are starting to card people. The Buddha said the world is a sad place, but is this what he meant?
Even better than carrying around a boring card is the option of connecting your Suica to the all-mighty mobile phone, the must-have for every single citizen regardless of age. It’s old news to say that even 40-50% of elementary age children carry them around, but what is not well known is what, apart from calling people (but who does that anymore?), you can do with your mobile: get on the train, any train, by touching the RFID smart card system sensor to the electronic turnstile wicket, as well as buy almost any merchandise at any of the aforementioned shops and stores. The mobile phone is so indispensable that many people forgo owning a home computer (expense and lack of room in cramped apartments) and use their “portable” (direct translation of 携帯) as their sole means of connectivity to the internet, hence the popularity of .mobi sites over here (also why do .jp sites run upwards of $100 just to register a domain? Lower the price, increase consumption is not necessarily the economic mode availed in Japan). Because of the strict code of rules and public mores which are followed to the letter by most citizens, mobile phone usage is frowned upon on trains and in most public places, where “manner mode” is de rigueur. Yet beyond surfing, checking the weather and train times, there is texting, which is simple and silently done everywhere, so much so people are now writing books on their mobiles, the first of which was published last year to the tune of hardbound 400,000 copies sold thus far.
Dude, Where’s my Wi-Fi?
What about the TV, video and DVD capabilities already visibly in use during the nightly commute home by businessmen and office ladies alike? Even with all of these high-powered functions already available, the Softbank-sponsored iPhone continues to grab a bigger share of the market, despite its ¥80,000 price tag (roughly $920). Expect more of this as the portable touchable screen industry grows and people become aware that the common practice of hiding their books from fellow train passengers with paper covers is more than odd on a level I don’t care to explore, but also quite environmentally wreckless.
The problem with all of this is that the Japanese people don’t really trust the Internet, which translates into Japanese businesses also not trusting the Internet and therefore not pushing industry advancement through their companies via multi-pronged media assaults. Despite a handful of forward looking individuals (Creative Commons Joichi Ito for one) Japan is still at Web 1.5 circa 1995. Not that friendship networking is the gold standard for internet savvy, but Mixi, the Facebook of the east, is a severely underused and underexploited site where everyone’s avatar is their dog, a pop or porn star of some sort, and has basically become an overly Flash-y, slow-loading Craig’s List. People are scared of putting their private information, even their faces, out there, something I agree with, but it has begun stagnating Internet growth. As has the lack of accessibility: ask any laptop user in any of the ten major Japanese cities what bothers him or her the most and they’ll more than likely say, “No Wi-Fi! No place to plug in!” Wi-Fi access is dependent upon government investment and a loosening of the regulations regarding public access to building electricity, which is currently strictly curtailed. In order to spur investment and encourage public spending I foresee a shaking of the young Internet branches with startup buds popping up everywhere in spring (the new fiscal year in Japan) 2010 as interactivity grows.
As this happens we may see a larger, more comprehensive embracing of the Hands-Free culture so popular in the west. It was already three years ago that driving while talking on the mobile was outlawed, yet the only change it has spawned is that now (if they do it at all) people merely stop in the middle of Japan’s narrow roads- blocking traffic and creating hazards- when taking a call. Car makers need to include Hands-Free functions within the design of the cars so as to make making a choice moot. As this industry grows alongside Tele-conferencing (which has inadvertently exploded due to business trips to all points on hold thanks to economic hardships) we could see a new paradigm in working from home or café take hold over the century old tradition of 14-hour days at the office. Hallelujah.
This could also help an (finally) ailing automotive industry. When workers stay at home, car usage is cut. By forcing car makers to rethink their approach to staying relevant in the 21st century we will see greater strides in environmentally-friendly technologies. It was earlier this year that Japan Post attempted to put an order into Mitsubishi to replace its current fleet of 21,000 mail delivery vehicles- trucks, cars and scooters- with electric, not hybrid, technology by 2012. Mitsubishi said it didn’t have that many vehicles available. JP told them to get moving. They also were looking to sponsor a plan that would provide free electricity outlets at post offices and convenience stores throughout the country, available for use by couriers as well as customers with electric conveyances, which could encourage the private sector to join in the electric game more quickly. This is a great example of how industry can push consumer change, because while the Post Office was at one time ostensibly a part of the government, JP is now a private corporation and the largest employer in the country. The fact is we need to see beyond the stopgap of hybrid technology toward full electric and or hydrogen-powered vehicles.Quit being like us (Americans). Be the Japan you created after 1945, a Japan that valued… Click To Tweet
As electricity continues to grow as a viable solution to guzzling gas, we need to be sure that it is not coal that is producing the electricity we use to run everything. The grid upon which we ourselves operate must also operate as renewably as possible, something the newly elected Yukio Hatoyama Democratic Party of Japan administration, which has more rapidly outshined the Obama administration in terms of applying “change” to the serious problems faced by both governments, could enact by looking into Feed-in Tarrifs, a beneficial regulation allowing “greener” energy sources equal opportunity access to the grid and a guaranteed price to sell their energy. The only way to decrease the use of coal is to make it more expensive, or rather make producing, supplying and using renewable energy sources more lucrative to investors and consumers, which Japan has a lot of now (but won’t in twenty years). As a side note, it would be beneficial if the recently passed child safety measures were more strongly enforced by the authorities, as seeing infants on mom’s lap and hearing doctors prescribing not using the seatbelt for pregnant moms, is more the rule than the exception.
To continue along in this vein, Japan could be one of the countries at the forefront of the energy revolution. Simply because they have no natural reserves of oil, are completely dependent upon imports and therefore should already have begun searching for a better way, such Geothermal, Hydroelectricity, Tidal, Wave and Wind power, which could mean massive changes once the UN Climate Change Conference mandate in Copenhagen replaces the outdated Kyoto Protocol (Hah!). We need to see the pushing of more environmentally friendly economics from the new Hatoyama administration. The fact is this is at heart a latest-craze consumerist’s society, reinforced by the shop-first, ask-questions-later American mentality since WWII. People will follow what the market dictates, in droves.
Thanks to 50+ years of Liberal Democratic Party whose waning popularity and wishy-washy legislation summed up aptly with five different prime ministers in five years, culminating in the neutered and clown-like Aso administration, we have many policies for Hatoyama’s DPJ to overturn. Environmentally speaking, the country that gave us the Kyoto Protocol is also the country that has two types of trash (at least in Tokyo): burnable and nonburnable. Even if there is a recyclable icon on one of the many unnecessary pieces of plastic wrapping overused by supermarkets here (do onions and bananas need another wrapper?), it’s unlikely your local trash collector will differentiate. It will be burnt in one of the many incinerators that give Tokyo the nickname, “The Big Smoke”. Many so called “Shogyo Chiki” (business areas), such as Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza and many more, offer no recycling whatsoever, notwithstanding the Mt. Fuji size mountain of cardboard and other garbage they pile up throughout the week. And that is just the trash that ends up in-country. There are reports of ships that have left the port of Yokohama and been at sea for years, unable to call at any harbor, due to their toxic pile releasing more and more carbon and methane into the atmosphere every day. It is also a documented fact that Japan sends a large percentage of its trash to plants it has funded through infrastructural development programs in Southeast Asia designed to take the pressure off of domestic plants unable to process the billions of pounds of rubbish steadily mounting.
But this is Japan. When they’re not mind-bogglingly drunk after too many end-of-the-year all-you-can-drink (忘年会•飲み放題) parties, the Japanese are frugal and environmentally-minded, right? The inventors of sushi and wabi-sabi cannot be so, so, so…American, can they? Yes they can and they are better at it. Their more efficient trains are almost never late to the thousands of stations connecting the entire country to what is a pretty smart public transportation grid, so as to more easily reap the hard-earned ¥en of potential shoppers both far and wide. There needs to be a sexy new technology developed that brings into common usage to this isolated island nation a more universal point of view. I hope that with JR’s new Maglev bullet train (Superconductive Magnetically Levitated Train) due to be in full service by the mid-2020s, the continuing advances in mobile phones (and the culture that spawns thence) and pdas, as well as the advanced robotics behind Honda’s Asimo (and the burgeoning sex robot (fembots baby, yeahhhh!) industry) we see a leveling of the playing field, from the technologically lofty R&D labs which dream these contraptions up to something the everyday mama and papa-san can implementing in their local coffee shop (a nice to look at, easy to access homepage perhaps?) in (less and less) vain attempts to compete with the Starbuckification of the ever-shrinking, yet more and more pixellated and solitary, world.
As Michael Moore summed up on his recent visit to Japan: “Quit being like us (Americans). Be the Japan you created after 1945, a Japan that valued education, a Japan that would not throw you out of work. A Japan that would never invade another country, and which would not support a country that would invade another country… I’m so sorry to put it this way. Please don’t take personal offense, but you asked me what would I say to the Japanese people, a society I think highly of, a society structured on peace and respect, and you’ve started to go down the other road. And my humble plea is to get off that road with your new prime minister and return to the road you used to be on.”