Using a Chainsaw To Cut Butter

 

This is a wise saying by Barry Commoner, an American biologist, to express the inefficiency of nuclear power generation. By the way, this topic is not about energy policies; don’t worry. I interpret the point of his saying is adequacy rather than efficiency. In terms of adequacy, our production may look to have a problem.

I think it would be quality that best features our products, but sometimes we have been faced with requests or advice, saying, “It’d be better to sacrifice quality a little bit to save costs.” Indeed, our production sometimes goes excessive: making a flush surface even in out-of-sight parts, for example. We, Japanese, may be always too serious to be sloppy and may have to be a little more permissive. As it is seen in the article referred above, the only 20-second delay of a train is subject to apology here in Japan.

What is the basis of our high product quality is strong technical capacity, or craftsmanship. A large thing will serve for a small one: our production could make low-priced and mundane things for which no special skills are required, but we would end up losing craftsmanship — chainsaws. It’s not only about techniques but also about morale. Different from machines, craft people cannot adjust themselves so easily like being in energy-saving mode for this; serious mode for that. They will lose their motivation and ambition.

In order to survive the market competition, it would not be product quality (even though it’s a little excessive) that we should sacrifice. We just need to keep on using our chainsaws adequately.

The Wise Learn from History

The above image is Horyuji temple. Do you know it’s the world’s oldest wooden building (registered as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage), built in 607, about 1400 years ago? As you may know that, Japan is a country of earthquake. It’s a harsh environment especially for wooden buildings. Actually, the average lifetime of current residential buildings is about 30 years in Japan, which is much shorter than that of US (around 100 years) and UK (around 150 years), for example. Let’s see why Horyuji temple can exceptionally exist for such a long time.

There are mainly two reasons for that. One is its earthquake-proof structure. The joints of the building frame were designed to be flexible to reduce the shaking force of earthquakes, which has surprised many researchers. Another reason is continuous maintenance. Next to such temples and shrines in the past, there were always residential areas for carpenters in charge of daily maintenance.

Runt Om Series was launched in 1973, and still continues to sell well today.

On the other hand, most current residential buildings in Japan were built after WWII, when speed was prioritized for people who lost their houses. Such quick-build houses are structurally weak, and now, most people come to think a house is only for one generation; nor maintain their houses too seriously. Consequently, the lifetime of our furniture sometimes becomes longer than houses, and it is handed over and continues to be used by the next generation, which is an honor for us. For both houses and furniture, daily maintenance is the key to long life.

“Made in Japan” Is a Good Buy Now

You can get a Big Mac combo for 5 dollars in Japan, oh my.

Last year, I went to Germany, China, US, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan. Such many business trips overseas help me see Japan more clearly. One of the biggest discoveries I recently had about Japan is “prices are comparably cheaper.” Let me show you the evidence. Japan is the third biggest country in GDP but ranked 23rd in the World Big Mac Price Ranking (Jan 2019). MacDonald’s Japan might make bigger efforts, but it’s true that we have many other choices for lunch only for 5 dollars here in Japan.

 

The huge bubble burst in 1991, and the Japanese economy completely collapsed. The era after the bubble burst was once called “Lost two decades” but is coming to be “three decades”. No worries. I don’t mean to detail the causes of the long-lasting recession. It must be boring. Instead, just focus on people’s mentality, I’ll share one of the causes why prices become cheaper in Japan. The bubble burst was so huge that it took much time to recover (still halfway though). The chart below is Consumer Price Index from 1980 to 2019 where you can see it levels off from 1991. Can you imagine there’s a country of no rise in price for 30 years? Here we are! Sadly we are so accustomed with such a condition, and I think this would be the main cause why this recession lasts long.

Consumers become too sensitive on price increase; producers keep salary low to avoid price increase accordingly. In other words, price increase gets considered to be evil in Japan while overseas markets take it for granted in the long run. Some people may still regard Japan as a big economic power in the world, but in reality, it’s a country where people live humbly with 5-dollar lunch.

Source: https://www.condehouse.co.jp/contract/?lng=ja_en

Once Japanese makers dominated the world markets with their price and quality competitiveness but were gradually driven out by more price-competitive entries from developing countries. In addition, facing the long and severe domestic competitions, many of them were forced to withdraw from the market. Remaining survivors are companies of real value where people continue to work diligently even at lower wages. Japanese products were thought to be “good but expensive” in the past; they have changed to “good and cheap”. There’s no reason not to buy Japan (our products) now!

The Internet Never Broadens Your Horizons

Source: https://www.widewalls.ch/magazine/imaginary-creatures-art

 

Do you think you can create an imaginary creature which is completely different from existing ones in this world? A unicorn looks like a subspecies of horse; a dragon is just a big lizard with wings. I think this question well expresses the bounds of human imagination. It’s very difficult or almost impossible for us even to imagine something we’ve never known. Today’s topic is a trap we’re likely to encounter in this information overload era.

When I was a college student, it always took time to write essays because I had to struggle with many books for evidence. Now, Google can make surveillance more quickly and accurately. It’s definitely true we can easily get much more information on the internet, but here is a trap we need to watch out. The range of information we access to gets narrower because we can’t imagine information we’ve never known; nor search for such information even on the internet. Making matters worse, the internet only provides information related to our interest. On the contrary, in the newspaper for example, we can access to news we don’t know from headings laid out around the article we want to read.

Source: https://www.condehouse.co.jp/?lng=ja_en

 

The internet broadens your horizons? I don’t think so. Unless we try harder to keep our eyes open for new things, our horizons more easily shrink in this internet era. In a sense, this newsletter may be a good chance, hopefully, to know Japanese premium furniture as a new option for you and your customers.

People Pay for Social Significance

 

Differentiation in value is no longer a determinant factor for survival in the market because people choose something not for its value but for its meaning. This is the point I made in the newsletter last week. Today, I want to dig this subject a little more.

She is the CEO of a biotechnology venture company that raises thoroughbred flies quickly changing livestock excreta to fertilizer. She says enthusiastically their biotechnology will solve world food crisis and organic waste problems at a time. I believe the company is one of the top unicorn companies in which many Japanese covet to invest.

 

ESG, SDGs, “How dare you,” etc. As these buzzwords well express, environmentally and socially correctness weighs more and more. If there’s no difference in value (nobody knows if investment succeeds), people want to have a reason or meaning to justify payment (investment, in this case). As I was writing last time, such reasons and meaning are personal preferences (or relations) in most cases, but I assume many people want something more socially significant these days. Why do you think that is, by the way? The answer is very simple. Our material needs have already been satisfied. Well fed, well bred.

A monument standing in our company forest.

The chairman of our company always says “We’re lucky because our business is Eco-friendly. We are surrounded by rich forests that grow much more trees than what we use.” I hope this will be a good reason or meaning for you to choose us.

Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.

Interview with Michael Schneider vol.02

 

This time, Michael talks about how product designs would change according to the changes in the market: especially the recent rise of subscription and sharing businesses.

Michael Schneider: 
I assume that subscription and sharing businesses will expand in the furniture market; Pieces of furniture are rented for a certain period of time, go back to factories for refurbishment, and are sent out to other users. This cycle could go on and on until they eventually go out of fashion or break. Furniture will be made on the premise of continual refurbishment and changes in ownership. Accordingly, designers would have to focus more on efficiency, so that products can be packaged, delivered, and refurbished easily. Despite such a trend, some of the current mainstream furniture will remain, patronized by people who appreciate true authentic value. Take Karl Lagerfeld for example. He had added some actual pieces of traditional crafts in the Métiers d’Art collection of Chanel in order to leave them to posterity.

My wish as a product designer is to create products with true value that fascinate people, even those who have less materialistic desires to own things, while meeting the needs of the times mentioned above.

Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.