The Sound of Silence


The image is just for laugh and not related to the content of the article.
Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/18/crosswords/daily-puzzle-2018-02-19.html

In 2000, the then Japanese Prime Minister wanted to make greetings in English at the first summit meeting with President Clinton and tried to cram the following exchange of basic phrases: “How are you, Mr. President?” “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” “Me, too.” Finally and unfortunately, the time had come, and the PM made a big mistake right at the beginning and said with a big smile “Who are you, Mr. President?” When the whole world went pale, President Clinton tactfully replied “I’m Hillary’s husband.” The PM, exactly as he had learned it, proudly said “Me, too.” I’m not self-depreciating the poor English skills of Japanese people, but just want to get your attention to today’s subject: wordplay.

I will never forget the strong impression I got when I heard the song, or the title of the song, to be more precise: The sound of silence. I hate to admit it, but such witty words never cross my mind. Years later, I learned the phrase in the song “within the sound of” was an idiom, and “sound” was used as a meaning of “range.” To sum up, Simon and Garfunkel sung many people just lived in meaningless voices (except for their songs, to my understanding). The lyric may sound a little arrogant, but they deserve it for such an amazing wordplay that, I believe, would be one of the main factors to make this song a master-piece.

Actually, there is one more reason why the title of the song impressed me a lot. I’ve heard the sound of silence a couple of times. I think it’s common for people living in a snowy region. In Hokkaido at mid-night in winter, you can hear the sound of silence. In addition to the fact that the greater area of Hokkaido is deserted (almost no life-noises outside), there’s no rustle because most trees lose their leaves and plants are buried beneath a covering of snow. Among other things, snow thickly covering the ground absorbs all the sounds in the world. It’s too silent even to feel pain in the ears, which you can’t experience easily in your daily lives. Now, let me bring this article to a close with the same sentence as the last article. Hokkaido is a good place to visit. I’m looking forward to your visit after the COVID pandemic!


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.


Where Is Your Home?


Where are you from? Because of my work (overseas sales), I’ve exchanged this question many times with many people around the world, and seen people living outside their countries of origin. Some of them say they will be back after retirement; others say they will stay out there for the rest of their lives. Every time this question comes up in conversation, I’ve got more and more interested and come to think deeply about the definition of a “home.” Is it a place where you were borne, you lived longest, or your parents live? How do you define it? Where are you from?

By the way, do you like TED talks? I do and one day happened to find a good definition of a “home” in one of them thrown by Pico Iyer. He is ethnically Indian; was born in England in 1957 and grown in California since he was seven; has lived in Japan since 1992. Probably because of his moving-place-to-place background, he would have got interested in a “home,” I guess. In his TED talk, while mentioning where you are going is much more important than where you are from, he said a “home” is not where you happened to be born but where you become yourself, and that movement has a meaning only when you have a “home,” a place to go back to.

http://world.globewalls.art/asia/hokkaido-winter-japan/

Totally different from him, I was born and grown in the same single place, here in Hokkaido (the northernmost part of Japan), until I was 22. After graduating from university, I had moved around Japan for about 15 years, and so, his point makes sense to me. During the 15 years outside Hokkaido, I often had a dream of snow scenes. It was a snowy, frozen, but beautiful landscape that I hoped at that time to see at the last moment of my life. Yes, I think Hokkaido is definitely my home, a place where even my soul goes back to.

This article would be beautiful if it ended up in the previous sentence, but the reality is always harsh. To be honest, I’m now already fed up with a lot of snow and crazy coldness here. Regarding the definition of a “home,” it seems like “the grass always looks greener on the other side” is more convincing to me, but, as this may sound like an excuse, Hokkaido is a good place to visit. I’m looking forward to your visit after the COVID pandemic!


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.


Products for Human Dignity


Indignation at commoditization drives me to keep writing. Before the COVID pandemic, I traveled around the world. When it was best in efficiency/worst in working environment, I visited five countries in a week. Such hasty trips get me disoriented. Soon after waking up, I sometimes couldn’t remember where I was. That should be blamed mainly on a lack of sleep (or my poor cognitive skills), but I believe commoditization also has some impact. To be more precise, sceneries get similar anywhere in the world, especially in new development areas and inside new buildings. Some people may give up or even pay no attention, saying it’s commoditization (a result of rationalization), but I want you to be aware of the short-term crisis that commoditization implies.

As it is often explained, everything that can be numerically evaluated will be commoditized. We, makers are struggling to differentiate our own products from others, but almost all of our attempts will end up with nothing because these days, more and more people stick to easy (numerical) evaluation criteria such as rationalization and efficiency. Consequently, only the most rationalized and efficient products can survive, and there’s no room for differentiation or diversity to survive. Is this the world you want? Aren’t you scared that the same criteria will be applied to ourselves in the future? You may think I’m too pessimistic, but have you ever felt (not jealous but) inferior to someone with higher salary?

Our hearts can keep beating only with commodities such as McDonald’s hamburgers, UNIQLO clothes, and IKEA furniture, but can you say that it’s still a human even if s/he lives in such a world? To be honest, I don’t think I can logically or rationally persuade you to buy our chairs, for example. The chairs are more than five times higher than mass-produced ones in price, and yet can’t be proved to be more than five times more comfortable. Even so, I still recommend our products for you, which is for human dignity not for my business results or a good awakening on my business trip, I swear 😊.


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.


Work for Something More Than Money


The other day, right after passing through the cashier of a supermarket, a pack of eggs slipped from my shopping basket and fell to the floor, which appeared in slow motion to me. As I snapped back and fearfully saw my wife still standing at the cashier, she furiously glared at me. I very well knew what she was going to say. “What have you done?” Literally in Japanese, that is “Why did you do that?” If I was a Congressman, I would like to prohibit this kind of meaningless questions not expecting any answers. Anyway, I was in despair waiting for the time, but surprisingly enough, an angel came down instead. Accurately, it was a clerk running up to me and saying with a smile “No worries. I’ll get you another one.” At that moment, I became a big fan of the supermarket, and was convinced that what the myths concerning Zappos indicate is true.

As many of you may have already known that, let me introduce Zappos. It’s a company for online sales of shoes, headquartered in Las Vegas, often ranked in “Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work for,” of which customer-obsession policy made Jeff Bezos say “I get all weak-kneed when I see a customer-obsessed company, and Zappos is certainly is that.” I’m not going to share their legendary stories here, but I’m sure you’ll fall in love with the company once you know even one of the stories.

There’s one more important lesson we have to learn from them. Zappos had been sometimes ranked as one of 100 best companies “to work for,” which means the employees actively execute their missions and are proud of the customer-obsession policy. As it may sound too naïve, I feel like people fundamentally want to do something to make others happy, which is a fundamental driver for us to work.

There’s a Japanese proverb similar to Zappos’s policy: Being good for sellers, buyers, and society is a must for long business. We may not yet be close to their level, but keep making an effort. I know the proverb may sound too naïve to survive, but don’t you feel good to think that we work for something more than money?


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.


So, We Have to Chase After Fans.


AIDMA, PDCA, SWOT, PEST, 3C, 4P, STP, KGI, KPI, etc. When learning these business frameworks in an MBA course more than 10 years ago, I was so excited, feeling like I got a key to the truth of the market. However, the world has been soon full of MBA holders, and all the above frameworks have been commoditized. I didn’t mean they were wrong and no longer work at all. By the frameworks, any and every person can reach correct answers in business, or the same answers, in other words. The problem is, in order to survive in the current market, correct answers are necessary but not sufficient.

High quality is absolute justice — this is an answer believed to be correct by most people especially in the manufacturing industry in Japan (like us). Our production people, for example, always keep making sincere efforts to improve quality more, even a little bit, though there’s not much room for improvement. Sadly enough, it’d be almost impossible for ordinary customers to tell such a small difference in quality. Even so, some of those improvements are shifted to prices. It seems nobody wins anything, but I didn’t mean to blame our production team. It’d be one of craftsman’s psychological needs to aim perfection, and we can’t always say no to them only for cost reduction.

High quality is not sufficient to survive in the market, but seeking it is the fundamental nature of craftsmen. In order to resolve this dilemma, interpreters between manufacturers and markets are required. For example, even joints out-of-sight are carefully finished up (deburred) in our products. Some might say it’s useless; some might find value in there. As it’s not obvious at a glance, we, sales reps, have to constantly introduce our craftsmanship to the market and find out the latter, customers with empathy for us.

Even MBA frameworks are not lethal weapons because we can’t make a differentiation only with correct answers any more. Then how can we survive? I think the next evaluation axis we should value would be neither “correct or wrong” nor “good or bad” but “love it or not.” I know it’s difficult to get a loyal following, though.


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.


Changing Eyesight for Beauty


Modesty is such a holy word in Japan. We hardly ever hear people brag about even their relatives, not to mention themselves, but the magic of love (or the curse of youthfulness) seems to sometimes drive us crazy. When I was a college student, there was a friend of mine, who boasted a lot about his girlfriend, saying like “She is gorgeous and looks like XXX (actress name I forgot).” One day, I saw him be with the girlfriend, and she was, she was just different from what I imagined from what he had said to me. Since then, human evaluation criteria especially in beauty has been in my research list. As I wrote before an article about beauty, this article is focusing more on a subject to judge.

The point is evaluation criteria can change. I’m sure everyone would have the similar experience as this: seeing old photographs of an ex-girl/boyfriend and receiving a different impression from what you had before. According to the super-rough abstract of some column I recently read, beauty is originated from a pleasure feeling; psychological pleasure is more important to human beings, which mainly arises from relationships with others. The subject to feel psychological pleasure is our ego which is designed flexible to maintain various human relationships, and consequently, our evaluation criteria in beauty are likely to change.

Some decades ago, when wood with unique grains such as knots and knobs was still regarded as defective material, we started to use it for our specific table collection for the effective use of resources. Initially, complaints sometimes came in, but now, the table collection has grown to one of the mainstay items. As you might guess, it’d be the result of the product concept going with the times (environmentally conscious time). To be more precise, according to the above theory, people have a higher awareness of environmental issues; the environment could be interpreted as “others” in a broad sense; the table collection becomes popular because of the change in people’s evaluation criteria in beauty caused by environmental consciousness.

I know this has turned out like a so-what conclusion, but at least, I believe I could help you understand your feeling of strangeness and unfamiliarity for the photographs of your exes.


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.


Great Expectations


Elon Musk started TESLA only in 2003, and finally snatched the world top position in the total market value from TOYOTA this year. Upon learning the news, I felt the big change of the times, and somehow remembered a scene from the movie “BACK TO THE FUTURE.” Doc said “No wonder this circuit failed; it says Made in Japan.” Marty said back “What do you mean, Doc? All the best stuff is made in Japan.” I imagine if someone came from the future to the present time, s/he might be surprised to see cars are still made in Japan. Today, rather than just mourning the economic downfall of Japan, I’d like to express my appreciation for the heritage inherited from our ancestors.

When I first saw the movie, I was just under 10 years old, not a whiz kid, but already knew that “Made in Japan” was a synonym for high quality. In 1960s Japanese products were dominating the world market, not with quality but with price. I heard a story (shocking to me and) indicating the common understanding on Japanese products at that time: a woman cried to see the tag of the dress she was given for her present say “Made in Japan,”

After a lapse of some decades, the situation around Japanese products drastically changed by our ancestors’ untiring efforts, and “Made in Japan” is now used to describe quality products. At the time of sales visits, I’ve been often told “No need to explain quality.” People seem to have full confidence in the quality of our products, even though they don’t know a lot about us. Probably in the near future, Japan will tumble from the economic-power-country position. Even if that’s the case, I want to keep working hard to pass the good impression on Japanese products down to the next generations.


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.


Hunger Is the Best Sauce


It’s like a mirage.

A journey itself is worthless, which is a part of the subject of my previous article. As some of the readers may notice, it is inspired by the words of Marcel Proust (the above image is not him but Marcus Tullius Cicero, by the way): “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” I have lived in many places so far (relocation may not be regarded as a journey), and so, I believe I have them. In addition, things sometimes can’t be seen when they’re too close. Let me introduce a funny characteristic of people living here in Hokkaido that I become able to see after gaining the new (and hopefully clear) eyes.

Hokkaido is the northern-most part of Japan which is covered with snow in winter for about four to five months. We are under the spell of snow. For example, when we see a narrow road, a house with an odd-shaped roof, people driving a convertible car, or even people dressed in white, the very first thing coming up in our mind is a concern – what if it snows? The last one is just kidding, but I recommend you not to wear in white in a heavy snowstorm, so as not to be hit by car.

Hunger is the best sauce, or our satisfaction is something generated internally, not caused externally.

I’m sure you’ve understood how much anguish snow causes on us. For fear that you may feel dislike for our hometown, let me share a big advantage which, I strongly believe, will more than make up for the anguish. After enduring the long and harsh winter, you can see the moment when the world is brought back to life. Winter scenery is beautiful, but as is often used in English poems, the metaphor of winter is always death. Grasses are hidden under the blanket of snow, and trees lose their leaves — the whole world really looks like being surrounded by death, but spring brings about a drastic change. I don’t think plants in Hokkaido are something special, but assume our cravings would make us see spring more vividly. In order to experience this special moment, you will have to live here and survive the winter, though.


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.