Japanese Aesthetics

The most beautiful abandoned hotel in Japan (Hachijo Royal Hotel)

Rusted steel frames, faded curtains fluttering out of broken windows, tableware scattered on the floor. Ruined factories, hotels, restaurants, etc. in deserted towns are just shown, sometimes even without any narration or subtitles. Such YouTube videos are popular in Japan, and actually, I often enjoy them. “Horror is a genre in which disgust is central as an emotion,” Malcom Turvey, a British professor of film studies, said. “A lot of monsters are designed to be explicitly or implicitly disgusting.” In that sense, our interest in ruins is completely different. Japanese people see the beauty in things decaying away, which, I believe, is the origin of Japanese aesthetics.

Sakura, cherry blossom is one of the Japanese national flowers (another one is chrysanthemum, for your information). We are a kind of addicted to it. As most of you may know, cherry-blossom viewing would be the most important seasonal tradition in Japan (in spring), so important that the elderly often say “How many more times can I see cherry blossoms before I die?” Indeed, cherry blossoms are really beautiful, but it’s not flowers in full bloom but the scene where flower petals are falling that touches our heartstrings. Sometimes, we are more attracted by a single piece of cherry blossom petal floated in a puddle, rather than ones blooming on trees.

Ippongi Solid Wood Table (Walnut) 3600 x 1200 x 740

Why are Japanese aesthetics like this? I personally think it’s closely related to the natural environment of our country. As I wrote in last article, Japan is the island country prone to a lot of natural disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes, etc. In such a harsh environment, with a feeling of powerlessness before nature, we have no other choice but to accept reality: we’re a part of nature, and death is a part of life. This is the reason why we find beauty in transient and imperfect things. Our furniture is made of wood. Each wood piece has its unique characteristics, and is liable to change by aging. In the sense of Japanese aesthetics, it’s so beautiful.

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.thesun.co.uk/news/3114057/haunting-pictures-show-faded-beauty-of-abandoned-hotel-on-island-once-billed-as-japans-hawaii-which-is-being-slowly-overtaken-by-nature/

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

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

Overtime Problem in Japan

It’s very difficult to summarize this problem briefly because it is so deep-rooted. Are you ready to gaze into abyss? The Japan government has started frequently using the word “Work Style Reform” since 2015 when a new girl working in the top advertising firm committed suicide due to overwork. Her average overtime hours were reported to exceed 100 hours a month, which is almost the same as that of mine when I worked in the Ministry of Finance. The painful sad news made many people including me think “That could be me.” Even now, about 300 deaths from overwork are reported annually.

Photo Credit: mizuaki wakahara

I believe this is a structural problem, stemming from the structure of employment systems in Japan. Although the structure is said to be breaking down, the basics of employment systems are still a set of recruiting of new graduates and lifetime employment. Companies assign jobs to generalists grown internally, instead of assigning specialists to required positions. The former companies adjust output by the amount of overtime; the latter companies by hire and layoff. Each employment style has both advantages and disadvantages. People may die due to overwork in the former system; due to unemployment in the latter system. Some of you may think penalties should be toughened. Actually, some bills already passed the Diet in 2019, but dishonest companies have concealed the information of overtime. Consequently, the toughen penalties have caused new poorer victims engaged in unpaid overtime.

There’s another factor making the darkness of the overtime problem deeper in Japan. We should keep away from psychopaths, but they are necessary for human evolvement. The ratio of psychopaths in island countries is less than 1%, much lower than that (around 4%) in continental countries. Do you know why that is? It’s difficult for deviants to survive in the closed society of island countries like Japan. People rejecting overtime are judged as deviants in Japan of today. CondeHouse? Yes, it has the problem of overtime, but the management regards it as a problem and is working on it. Unfortunately, such companies are inferior in market competition. I’m hoping for a system where people reject products made in overtime, like FAIRTRADE activities.

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.nytimes.com/2019/06/18/business/japan-work-overtime-tv-show.html

How to Survive Meetings

You won’t read to the end of this article because the average human attention span is down to only eight seconds (one second shorter than that of goldfish). I remember I read many articles starting with this kind of sentence when the survey result was released some years ago. Today, it’s not about human attention span but about meetings that I hate. I don’t mean I hate unproductive meetings, but mean that meetings themselves are basically unproductive. As a hardship destined for workers in Japan, I’ve endured a lot of meetings. It is not only meetings themselves that distress us. We spend a lot of time to prepare meeting materials. What is even worse, a preparatory meeting is sometimes held for a meeting. Some may refute me by saying “it’s a matter of your way of meetings.” Yes, they may be right. We should limit meeting time to eight seconds for productivity.

Of course, holding a meeting within eight seconds is just an extreme argument, but time consciousness is important. The major purpose of a meeting is consensus-building which would not be realized without attendees’ attention. Once I thought only Japanese workers must be victimized at many meetings, but later learned the same tragedies were happening all over the world. It is Sarah Cooper who told me how to survive meetings. Her article “10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings” is really encouraging by telling me “You are not alone,” though the question remains: why has this problem not been solved yet?

Wing Armchair (Left) Splinter Armchair (Right)

Unfortunately, CondeHouse, like many other companies, has a lot of meetings, too many from my point of view. Most of the meetings are set to 30 minutes, which I think is good, but they are likely to be longer. In such a prolonged meeting, her trick No.4: “Nod continuously while pretending to take notes” is recommended, by the way. Having said that, I think we’re still lucky because we’re a furniture manufacturer. All of our meeting rooms are equipped with our comfort tables and chairs. The same as the 10 tricks, they could help you at meetings. Why don’t you buy some for your meeting rooms? In that case, you will have to be careful not to fall asleep, 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.

Photo Credit: https://www.redbull.com/us-en/theredbulletin/appear-smart-in-meetings-without-really-trying

How to Spend Money Right

It is common for me to lose (rare to make) thousands of dollars a day in the stock market. On the other hand, I sometimes give up buying cereal only because it doesn’t sell at a bargain price, though I eat it almost every morning. I once bought a suit at more than 2,000 USD but hardly ever wore it. This may be a natural result for a man like me who always wear UNIQLO (synonym for cheap clothes in Japan) from head to toe at home. It seems spending money is as difficult as making it. Today’s subject is “How to spend money right.” Let me share an interesting paper by Harvard psychologists.

“Money can’t buy happiness. This sentiment is lovely, popular, and almost certainly wrong.” One of the coauthors, Daniel Gilbert started the paper with such a sensational introduction, proposing the eight money principles to guide our spending. As some of you guessed it, I tried, as always, to draw a good conclusion to recommend the purchase of our products, but I found it difficult this time because the first one of the eight money principles is: “Buy experiences instead of things.” It seems I made a mistake in subject selection, but give me a chance.

Another one of the principles says “Buy many small pleasures instead of few big ones.” He raises an alert over our ability or curse to adapt, saying “Expensive new iPhone will inevitably reveal itself to be just a smartphone in a matter of weeks.” I should buy good cereal and even toppings instead of blowing money on the stock market (dreaming of making a fortune); wear a little better loungewear instead of paying a lot for clothes to wear once or twice in a lifetime.

Let me forcibly conclude today’s article, though I know it’s the slightly broader interpretation (or intentional misinterpretation) of the principle. The quality of life and cost performance get better by spending more money on things we use often and for a long time. In that sense, I can say buying furniture, especially our durable products, would be a right way of spending 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.

Photo Credit: https://www.aarp.org/money/budgeting-saving/info-2018/spend-money-wisely.htm

Melancholy About 3D Printing Technology

We are headquartered in Hokkaido, the northern most area of Japan, which is still the kingdom of brown bears. When I was a kid, my father often took me to rivers deep in the mountains to fish, always exploding firecrackers to avoid bears. He told me “When you encounter a bear, don’t run, act dead.” It’s a kind of superstition widely believed here, but I have always doubted, saying to myself “How do we know that’s right? We can’t listen to people who failed.” Later on, I learned it was survivorship bias: the reason why autobiographical books of successful people are good for nothing in most cases. Survivors survive because they happen to survive.

As this may sound a little strange, removal building sites remind me of people who acted dead but were killed by bears, though I don’t know if such people actually existed or not. In order to enjoy commuting even if a little, I make it a rule to try to find something new, something that I hadn’t noticed until the day before. Although I always pay attention to the scenery on the commuting route like this, I forget removed buildings so quickly, sometimes can’t even remember what was there. To put it simply, they make me remember the harsh reality: the world exists for survivors.

There are many things disappearing with the times from the market: rotary dial phones, VHS video tapes, etc. In addition to ones in our memories, there should be something more that we can’t even remember. Since around 2015, we have often heard the news about the technological progress of 3D printers. Now that they can make most of the organs and also buildings, why not furniture? From the perspective of a general consumer, I was just excited by the news of the world’s largest 3D printed building in Dubai in 2019, for example. As a member of a furniture manufacturer, I can’t help but feel a little negative about the future outlook of our business, just hoping some of our products will at least remain in people’s memory.

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/world/2016/jun/13/warning-four-killed-bear-attacks-akita-japan