What Created Godzilla

Nissan GT-R (R32), Mercedes Benz 500E. These monster cars were born in around the same time (around 1990). When I was a teenager, my friend’s father owned them both, and they sometimes gave me a drive. I will never forget the impression I had when riding in the cars for the first time. The start-dash of GT-R was just violent, though it was not normal but souped-up to more than 700 HP. I felt like being in a vault when riding in 500E. As it may sound like nostalgia from an old-timer, I don’t think such legendary cars will never be made again. Indeed, car makers could spend more budget on product development, and legal restrictions (crash safety, environmental conservation, etc) were much less in 90’s. I know social conditions have changed a lot since then, but the root of the reason why I’m dissatisfied lies somewhere else.

Lexus is now popular anywhere in the world. Mazda, saved from bankruptcy by Ford in 90’s, has increased sales especially in the overseas markets. In order to leave an impression on people’s memories, recently their cars have common design motifs, such as the spindle-shaped front grill incorporated in all the Lexus cars. The grill shape stems from the history that Toyota started their business as a loom company, by the way. They are often cited as successful examples of branding. Consequently, all the models look almost the same, and streetscapes become featureless. As the accuracy of market surveys and analysis is improved, we are more likely to be led to safe and moderate (sometimes boring) options.

Mr. Yamaguchi making the Ippongi Table

GT-R was developed to win the Japan’s top motor racing series at that time, and 500E was a result of just pursuing the slogan of Mercedes Benz: “The best or nothing.” If thinking about it rationally from the marketing perspective, they might not have put such cars on the market. I feel like there was more room for pathos or passion in product development. Once, I bothered the immediate past chairman with a large number of questions about the marketing strategy of a new product. He answered “There’s no such thing this time. I gave a go because it looked technically challenging. We (the management) have to be considerate to the emotional aspect of the production team as well in order to keep up their morale.” Some of our products may end up in commercial failure, but I believe we can keep on developing new passionate products.

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.

Photo Credit: https://hypebeast.com/2020/6/nissan-skyline-gtr-history-car-drivers-ed-guide-information

The Revelation of the Pyramids

It only took 20 years to make the pyramid of King Khufu by using many slaves. Is there anyone who still believes all this? Some decades ago, the Japanese biggest construction company (Obayashi Corporation) seriously calculated and estimated it would take 5 years even if they tried with all their resources without limitation. I always thought the above legend of the pyramid construction would be too short time for people from about 4500 years ago without heavy machines and too high-quality for low-morale workforces like slaves. In my opinion, the construction of the pyramids would be a super-long-term public project to create employment and to enhance the national prestige, though it’s not my own unique view but becomes one of the common theories these days.

Have you ever watched the movie “The Revelation of the Pyramids?” Actually, it’s not a movie about pyramids but about environmental issues. In the structure of the pyramids, can be seen many signs suggesting advanced geometry, astronomy, etc. Many people (even researchers) couldn’t believe such advanced knowledge and skills existed 4500 years ago, and had been only saying “That’s a coincidence.” On the other hand, the movie logically proclaims the pyramids are evidence proving that there was a super-advanced civilization, and that catastrophes (natural disasters) completely destroyed it. I realized again how difficult it is to hand over tradition.

BARCA Lounge Chair

The most popular shrine in Japan is said to be built about 2000 years ago, and is completely torn down and re-built every 20 years, even now. As evident from the fact that Horyu-ji temple, the world’s oldest existing wooden building, was built about 1500 years ago, it’s not because of a structural problem but to preserve traditional building skills. Ancient wisdom knows it’s very costly to take back what we’ve lost, as shown in our much ado about the pyramids. Fortunately, the Japanese traditional woodworking skills are still inherited in the series of shrine rebuilding, and I believe you can see some of them in our products.

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.

Photo Credit: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/lost-giza-pyramid-treasure-found-in-cigar-box-in-aberdeen-archive-kz2mj6t9l

Japanese Summer Festivals

Last year (2020), the Tokyo Olympic Games were prevented by the COVID. There was one more thing it took away from us: summer festivals. The number of Japanese summer festivals is said to be more than 300 thousands. They are held everywhere in Japan every year in late August. It’s a magical time especially for kids. Cheap candies given after a festival dance, food stands, fireworks, etc. Kids enjoy together with friends, missing the last days of their summer vacation. The COVID robbed us of such a seasonal tradition and even a sense of the seasons.

Before going on writing about Japanese summer festivals, I think I should explain a little about Japanese religious views because summer festivals are originally religious events to send back the spirits of ancestors welcomed back during summer. Japanese people are thought to be non-religious, and we ourselves think we are. It’s because the main religions (Shinto and Buddhism) don’t have strict doctrines. This is why we have no hesitation to celebrate Christmas throughout the country, and Halloween is getting more and more popular nowadays. Actually, I think we are religious. About 70% of the population visit a shrine or temple in the first three days of the new year. Most of the companies have a small shrine in the building. The number of shrines is more than 80000, temples more than 70000. That of even convenience stores (the total of 7-11, Family Mart, Lawson, etc) dominating the whole country is still less than 60000, for your reference.

Many people may forget the original meaning of a summer festival, but I don’t think that’s a serious problem. What is more important is many people gather and enjoy a summer festival. It’s a good opportunity to develop relationships. CondeHouse has participated in the biggest summer festival in the home town, making a portable shrine float by using woodworking skills. We always pull the float around the main street, perform some comical dances, and have an after-party. I assume most of the 300 thousands summer festivals were canceled last year, the same as ones in our home town. Summer here in Hokkaido is very short, and so, a summer festival is important more for us to enhance relationships in the local community and the workplace, and to convince ourselves that summer is over. It’s a worn-out phrase, but it seems true that we always realize the importance of something after losing it.

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.

Photo Credit: https://jw-webmagazine.com/best-summer-festivals-in-japan-2018-a377b74f0f08/

New Japanese Office Environment

Do we still need an office? This discussion gets lively everywhere because remote work becomes common due to the COVID. The anti-office people are arguing there’re many advantages: productivity improvement by concentration improvement; more effective use of time by no commuting; stress-free from relationships at work. Before the COVID, I had a lot of business trips and was rarely in the office. Funnily enough, I once worked remotely but now work here in the office, against the times. Let me share what I, unfamiliar with working in the office for a long time, think about the discussion.

In the first place, I think I should explain something more about the basic rules of Japanese offices. Executive desks are positioned at the window, closely facing to their team members. Private rooms are rare, only permitted for big bosses if space permits. Partitions are put in between desks, but they are too small to protect privacy. It can be said to be an open-space community, to put it better; a prison under mutual surveillance, in reality. I may sound like having trouble in relationships at work, but it’s not the point here. Japanese offices are full of distractions. Picture that—the phone is always ringing somewhere; people are talking loudly around your desk; someone even talks to you by throwing a meaningless question “Do you have a minute?” It never ends in a minute, and our minute has already started to be wasted to answer the question.

Having complained a lot about working in the office, I didn’t mean to completely deny it. During the COVID, I’m keenly aware of the importance of human relationships with others. Loneliness is a deadly disease, which leads me to the conclusion: we need to work in the office in order to avoid loneliness, but keeping a reasonable distance between colleagues is important for a good office environment. Today, I have a good solution for you. The above images are of our Tokyo office. My favorite part is its diversity: you can be alone and absorb yourself in something in the semi-private areas with some partitions; you can communicate closely with colleagues in the other areas when feeling lonely to death. The problem is the headquarters office where I’m working is a typical Japanese office, totally different from the Tokyo office.

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.

Photo Credit: https://www.bulsuk.com/2016/05/working-for-japanese-company-challenges.html

Japan Blue

Indigo is a dye extracted from a plant. As Jeans may be a synonym for indigo, it was once used to dye fabric all over the world, not only in Japan. You may think most of the jeans are still dyed in indigo blue. Nowadays, in most cases, it’s an artificial dye because natural indigo is difficult to handle. It requires a delicate adjustment according to the day’s temperature, moisture, etc. In exchange for the difficulty, it provides more beautiful and deeper coloring.

Japan blue. Some of you may have heard this color name because it’s the signature color of the Tokyo Olympic Games. Having studied the origin of the name, I’ve learned it is Robert William Atkinson, a British chemist who named it. He was invited to Japan by the Japanese Government in 1875, and wrote in his book he had seen so many people wearing in indigo blue across Japan. Indeed, ordinary people’s outfits of the time were commonly dyed with indigo due to its antibacterial characteristics required especially for work clothes. The proportion of farmers at that time is said to be about 85%. I assume Japan would look like being wholly dyed in indigo blue to him.

Jeans are originated in the US and have spread throughout the world. Even now, the US market is biggest, and the Japanese market is less than one eighth of it. To tell the truth, I’m not interested in jeans at all, and didn’t know that Japanese jeans were popular internationally for its high quality, in spite of such a small market size. Most of Japanese jeans makers still use natural indigo to dye their denim. Our Singaporean dealer has insisted we should collaborate with a Japanese jeans maker, saying there will be a synergy effect because we have a common root: Japanese craftsmanship. I gave it a try and asked some Japanese jeans makers. Surprisingly enough, one of the most popular makers accepted the offer. It’s “Japan Blue.” Now, you can order our furniture upholstered with Japan blue denim by a Japanese top jeans maker. It’s denim developed for furniture, and you don’t need to worry about fading. There’s no reason not to buy it!

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.

Photo Credit: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2019/sep/24/jean-genius-how-kojima-became-japans-denim-mecca

Ideal Born in Despair

At the moment, I was in the middle of Tokyo and thought I was going to die, staring out a window street lamp posts widely swinging like a metronome needle in a slow tempo. After the quake subsided, someone turned on the TV, and we just uselessly watched everything was swept away by the tsunami. This is about the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, exactly 10 years ago. As most of you may still remember, the real nightmare came after the quake: the melt down of the nuclear power plant (NPP) destroyed by the tsunami. Even though we somehow survived through hell with support from all over the world, the current Prime Minister, in his policy speech last October, declared to build new NPPs, to my disappointment.

According to the latest public opinion survey made by Japan’s public broadcasting station last December, 50% of the public are against building additional NPPs. It seems like democracies are dying. Pro-NPP people always attack opposition people like me, by saying “Think realistically. Do you want to go back to primitive times?” I want to say exactly the same words back to the pro-NPP people. After the earthquake, from September 2013 to August 2015, all the NPPs in Japan had been shut down, but there was no opportunity where we needed to light a fire with a flint. The pro-NPP people have alleged it must have increased environmental burdens, but it actually didn’t by saving power and using more renewable energy.

First of all, I hate the words “Be realistic.” If wanting to change the world better, we should be idealistic and struggle to make reality close to ideal even a little. Especially leaders like Prime Minister must be idealists (leaving realism to staff officers). In a sense, the management of CondeHouse is worthy of praise because they have decided to hold up the ideal of being a real ecofriendly company. Since the time of establishment, CondeHouse has been an environmentally conscious company. They will expand and deepen their identity further. Some of the concrete measures may not look advantageous directly to customers. More to the point, the new trial would not be very marketable in the short term. May the force be with idealists.

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.

Photo Credit: https://asiasociety.org/new-york/events/fukushima-disaster-10-years-lessons-never-forget

Speed or Quality

Leap before you look. Haste makes waste. These are ancient proverbs, meaning opposite to each other. It seems a speed-or-quality issue has been long bothering human beings, but nowadays, speed appears dominant, maybe because of the rapid change of the times. Mark Zuckerberg, the star of the digital era, well expressed the priority of the present-day business, “Done is better than perfect.” I’m always in haste like the devil, but am not going to deny the spirit of painstaking and slow work. I don’t think speed and quality are necessarily trade-off concepts.

In short, I think it’s a matter of conditions. For example, if it’s a free meal at a five star restaurant, I could wait in a line even outside under cold weather for more than two hours, but I’m sure I couldn’t if I have to pay out of my pocket. This controversy of speed and quality couldn’t be less of an issue only if we mutually pre-determine a minimum acceptable quality and longest acceptable waiting time. In the current era of accelerating change, it’s certain that speed gets more prioritized than before, though. Generally, Japanese organizations take longer to make decisions, which I’ve keenly felt in international business. I’ve been always annoyed by the tradition, but at the same time learned there’s something that can’t be sacrificed even for speed.

Ippongi Solid Wood Table (Photo Credit: mizuaki wakahara)

Among our product lineup, there’s a unique table collection. In the process of order placement for the collection, customers are supposed to select lumber boards for their table tops, to begin with. Basically, the table tops are not shaped into a square, but the shape of the edges is left as is: the outline of a tree trunk. Wood is natural material, with no two exactly the same in shape, color, character, etc. This is what makes this collection special and popular, and makes our craftspeople so nervous. The chief in charge of the collection says “I always feel anxious, worried if I’ve done anything wrong, if everything goes in order, etc. because mistakes are never allowed. I measure more than three times, cut once.” By such reason, we appreciate your kind patience for this table collection, IPPONGI.

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.

Photo Credit: https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/japan-fastest-bullet-train-alfax-scli-intl/index.html

Small Businesses Are Endangered in Japan

In Japan, most of the small and medium enterprises (SME) like us may disappear in the near future. According to the definition of the SME Basic Act, SME are companies of which capital is less than 300 million JPY or of which number of employees is less than 300. In terms of number, 99.7% of the companies in Japan are SME. Soon after the change of government last year, the current prime minister organized an advisory board, and has implemented economic policies based on the advice of the board. The board members always treat SME like an enemy, on the ground that SME is the main cause of low productivity, though I strongly object to it.

They always bring up a gap in wages in order to substantiate the low productivity of SME. I admit there’s a wage gap by company size, but I think the cause and effect are reversed in their argument. Large companies in a better position in competition earn more money and pay more salaries to their employees, which makes them look better in productivity. I’ve worked before for large companies, and am sure SME are more desperate to increase productivity because it’s a more serious life-or-death issue for SME.

The same as many other Japanese makers, CondeHouse has an improvement proposal scheme where more than 1000 improvement proposals are submitted by employees annually. The white holders for electric drills in the above image are hair dryer holders sold at one-dollar stores. The woman in charge of upholstery came up with this idea during shopping. Indeed, some incentives are offered for good proposals, but this case tells us proposing improvement is something more primitive or voluntary for them. She always placed electric drills on the platform on her left side. The improvement has reduced time and labor of switching hands. I know the case is not a big one, but you can see how serious we are about improving productivity. Such continuous efforts by our craftspeople to reduce costs without reducing quality have made what we are, but SME including us are flickering in the wind of unjust criticism by the government advisory board.

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.

Photo Credit: https://www.nippon.com/en/japan-data/h00798/

Japanese Chopsticks

One of the difficulties I have to face when going abroad is table manners. Among other things, it’s difficult for me to eat without chopsticks. How can you eat a lettuce salad only with a fork? I’m always frightened, worried if lettuce leaves may flip and dressing may splatter on my shirt. Even if it’s in Asia, things are still difficult. I can’t hold noodles with Korean chopsticks, for example. By the time I finish a noodle dish in Korea, my shirt will have a psychedelic pattern. I feel invincible when I use my chopsticks. Japanese chopsticks are different in shape, material, etc. from those used in other countries in Asia.

The world can be divided into three regions by table manners: 40% of people eat by fingers; 30% by a spoon; another 30% by chopsticks. The difference is caused by a difference in staple food, but I can’t help thinking chopsticks are most useful. They work almost the same as fingers, and we can pinch even hot things, though it’d be painful to fingers. Indeed, chopsticks can’t scoop soup, but Japanese people lift a soup bowl to the mouth to drink soup, instead. If allowed to use chopsticks, I can confidently wear a new white shirt and eat even tomato sauce pasta.

As I didn’t know that until going abroad, Japanese chopsticks are unique: sharply tapered, made of wood basically, and personally owned. To be more precise about the last unique point, we don’t share chopsticks even with family members. Each of the family members has its own personal chopsticks. The same rule applies to rice bowls. I don’t think wood is the best material for chopsticks. It’s difficult to wash off rice stick to them (and so, it’s recommended to wet them before use), it takes time to dry, and kids sometimes bite and break the tip of them. Even so, Japanese people are attached to wooden chopsticks, maybe because we’re just familiar to wood, or maybe because we’re super-particular about the texture of wood. Our wooden furniture is made by such Japanese craftspeople.

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.

Photo Credit: https://matcha-jp.com/en/192