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Best & Worst of the Japanese Decade

Best & Worst of the Japanese Decade

Best & Worst of the Japanese Decade

Need to Book my Ticket to Fujirock

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.

Best & Worst of the Japanese decade

The Penguin Smart Card

What Japan does well:

  • Smart Cards
  • Mobile phones
  • Bullet Trains
  • Public Transportation
  • Robotics
  • Digital Cameras (Do they even make that other kind anymore?)

What Japan does not do well:

  • Wi-Fi
  • 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 have no natural reserves of oil, are completely dependent upon imports and therefore should already have begun searching for a better… 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

Best & Worst of the Japanese Decade

Shibuya Girl passing time on her Keitai waiting for the Yamanote Line

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?

Best & Worst of the Japanese Decade

Even from Keio Towers in Shinjuku it’s tough to get a Wi-Fi signal…

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.

Best & Worst of the Japanese Decade

Sweep the Corruption out of the Construction Industry

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 education, a Japan that would not throw you out of work. A Japan that would never invade another country... 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.

Best & Worst of the Japanese decade

Welcome to the Big Smoke

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.”

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14 Comments

  1. Jon

    “get on the train, any train, by touching the infrared sensor to the electronic turnstile wicket”

    Oh no you don't!

    FeliCa is a contactless RFID smart card system by Sony in Japan, primarily used in electronic money cards.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FeliCa#Mobile_FeliCa
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobile_Suica

    One of the reasons that Sony refused to use the international standards for RFiD and built it's own was the requirement that they be able to process the traffic volume at Tokyo station during rush hour. Doing it with infrared would be close to impossible, as it requires physical alignment. 🙂

    Even though that stuff was pushed out in 2006, i don't see many people using it… but then i don't do much JR'ing. Japanese people seem to have this odd concept of privacy that means that they'll not cross certain lines even for the sake of convenience.

  2. Jon

    The whole micro-payments thing has a dodgy track record. At least in the virtual world. It might be more successful in the physical world. It would be interesting to see if usage patterns on the trains have changed since people no longer have to go through the hassle of buying a ticket – if it's off their 定期 route. I'd better the railway companies are doing just fine, and are spending less money on tickets / ticket machine maintenance, as they rake in extra trips…

    For a more effective fleecing it'll be necessary for Japan to evolve a system of private debt that goes beyond short term loans. My credit card here isn't even really a credit card (if you ignore the multiple payment option), the money come right out of my account like a Visa debit card. A micro-payment system linked to a credit card isn't going to enable me to unknowingly spend more, just allow me to do so more quickly and in smaller chunks. Maybe this is like the rats that will overeat if food is always available. To quote that man, “despite all my rage, i am still just a rat in a cage”.

    Felica sounds filthy. All the best names do!

  3. U rite lotsa werdz….

  4. Characteristically eloquent and insightful writing.
    And a best of list that should be on the “best of 2009 lists” list.
    Keep up the good work in 2010.

  5. Manny Santiago

    Thanks for the information, which I have updated.That's the kind of comment I like to have put into the public realm…smart, technical corrections, first hand observation or opinions.

    Speaking of “Felica”, I do see some people use it, mostly young women for whom being separated from their mobiles might require surgery, but this article was written more about what is possible and what trends are likely to grow in the future. For me, I foresee one vast network of connectivity, trying to charge the consumer as often and electronically as possible in order to undermine the conscious knowledge of “I'm spending too much cash” which happens when you see physical bills leave your wallet.

    Felica sounds a bit sexual doesn't it, or is that just me?

  6. Jon

    It looks like you've fixed the openid login stuff!

  7. Manny Santiago

    “get on the train, any train, by touching the infrared sensor to the electronic turnstile wicket”

    Oh no you don’t!

    FeliCa is a contactless RFID smart card system by Sony in Japan, primarily used in electronic money cards.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FeliCa#Mobile_FeliCa
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobile_Suica

    One of the reasons that Sony refused to use the international standards for RFiD and built it’s own was the requirement that they be able to process the traffic volume at Tokyo station during rush hour. Doing it with infrared would be close to impossible, as it requires physical alignment. 🙂

    Even though that stuff was pushed out in 2006, i don’t see many people using it… but then i don’t do much JR’ing. Japanese people seem to have this odd concept of privacy that means that they’ll not cross certain lines even for the sake of convenience.

  8. berlinerstrasse

    Very good article, but I am really confused about the passage about trash. I read a book of a German guy in Japan and he said that Japanese people were sorting trash so strict that it was already ridiculous. However, reading your lines it sounds completely different. The only explanation left would be that they sort their trash but then make two piles again (burnable, not burnable). Though, this would be ridiculous, too.

    I like the quotation of Michael Moore the most, because that's what I am hoping (probably unfulfilled) for too. When I go to Japan, I want a Japan which is not America, a Japan which has its own culture, which relies on its own culture, which does not follow the pure capitalism, superfluity and entertainment only. However, considering the statements of a Japanese acquaintance it seems as if Japan was exactly going there…

  9. Manny Santiago

    Everyone's confused about trash. It's purposefully deceptive. On the surface it's about discipline and coordination and everyone working in concert to separate what needs be separated and (supposedly) properly dealt with. But that's where the simplistic superficial reality ends and the deep down dirty truth gets going. But think about it, even without some kind of ulterior motive, the burning of trash seems like a temporary stopgap solution at best for “ways of dealing with an overconsumptive society”, as opposed to the lagging, smelly and respiratorily harmful reality it has been these past 40-50 years. An important point here is that there is no domestic plan for disposal. Many prefectures make households buy certain bags (usually manufactured in the SE Asian countries where they often export the garbage to…) at 10 for 5-8USD, and / or write your name / address on the bag. During one such trash day I came outside to find my trash strewn across my doorway because I had not properly separated it out.

    Then the reality after going to all that trouble, for all these years, is that most of it's just burnt, not recycled. Recycling is not as lucrative as some investors initially thought and will only turn a profit over the long term. While this is fine for aluminum, what about P.E.T. Bottles (which along with plastic grocery store bags are already banned in places like Berkeley and San Francisco), all of which are not necessarily “recycled”?

    Anyway, you're right, it's confusing, so much so it's ridiculous. And I too like the Moore quote for the reason you stated, and actually with the new administration in power we might be seeing a shift from being America's lapdog, and asserting more international authority. We'll see.

  10. berlinerstrasse

    Really impressive images. I especially like the old man and the sleeping guy on the bench.

    About the description:
    “What Japan does not do well:
    * Web Design / Usage”

    I already recognized this, too. Whenever you come along a Japanese website, it usually does not seem pretty modern. You always feel like back in the 90s. Maybe I should mention my web programming skills when I want to work in Japan someday (even if my interest is robotics).

  11. berlinerstrasse

    Hope that you're right and the new government will change the attitude against always following America. However, aren't PET bottles already recycled in China for the production of clothes? I think I heard something like this…

  12. berlinerstrasse

    If I understand you correctly, that's exactly what we have in Europe. Most people here do not use a credit card, but instead a EC-card (electronical cash). You put it inside somewhere and the money is just removed from your account and put to the other account directly. You can check it online as soon as you come back home.

    However, as Japan at least in Germany we still pay a lot with real cash. Considering the 2010-bug on many EC-cards this might not be that bad (many EC-cards / credit cards have not worked since 2010-01-01, because somebody made a programming mistake), otherwise there might be one day on which we are not able to pay anymore.

  13. seanmiles1

    Very fair and impartial article on the good and the bad. There's so much ground to cover you didn't get a chance to discuss Japan and the arts which may be worth a separate piece altogether. Postwar Japan made excellent, peculiar, idiosyncratic contributions to literature, cinema, and rock and roll. That was 'once upon a time…' It seems that since the golden age of champagne and real estate, Japan's creative youth has been focused on design and fashion, which might be a cultural indictment. What happened and where are the mad young men who can challenge the status quo with something substantial, confrontational, and beautiful?

  14. seanmiles1

    Very fair and impartial article on the good and the bad. There's so much ground to cover you didn't get a chance to discuss Japan and the arts which may be worth a separate piece altogether. Postwar Japan made excellent, peculiar, idiosyncratic contributions to literature, cinema, and rock and roll. That was 'once upon a time…' It seems that since the golden age of champagne and real estate, Japan's creative youth has been focused on design and fashion, which might be a cultural indictment. What happened and where are the mad young men who can challenge the status quo with something substantial, confrontational, and beautiful?

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