Japanese Innovation

Gen Kanai comments on a recent Newsweek piece -- Why Apple Isn't Japanese. Gen's take is certainly interesting and, sadly, pretty tough to argue with.

The article is pretty critical. The bits I found most interesting were the language and culture issues, since I experience those walls every day. They are so much bigger than anyone on the outside realizes, and I think they go a long way to explaining Japan's lack of growth in certain global markets.

The article also states that Japan will have to compete with new sources of innovation in the future: "Over the next century, disruptive innovations won't be coming only from countries like the United States. They'll also be emerging from dynamic, hungry, rising economies that offer plenty of room for risk-taking, flights of fancy and cross-border synthesis." Although these sources are not directly stated, it's clear that the nations are primarily China and India, which are both embracing capitalism and globalization at blindingly fast rates, and both don't seem to struggle with the language and culture issues like Japan does.

Now, I've been told that these observations represent the distinction between emerging markets and mature markets. But I no longer buy it. Too much of that article describes my direct experience, so I no longer accept the excuses. But will Japan eventually react and change? Are the Japanese hungry enough to compete in a global economy? I actually think they will react and compete. And in ways that may surprise many of their critics. That's the cool thing about innovation and market disruptions. They cycle. When you are disrupted, that sets up the perfect circumstance to innovate do some disrupting yourself.
Comments:

The closeness of Japan society is a huge impediment. The post-WW2 era growth is fueled by a generation of diligent youngsters. The lost of war also gave them a clean slate to build the most modern industry and social structure. 50 years later, those advantages are fading away. The same elements (youthful labor pool, clean slate of innovation) are apparent in China and India.

Japan must start to out-source and welcome foreigners. Otherwise, its aging population will drive down the national productivity into irrelevancy.

Posted by Sin-Yaw Wang on December 19, 2007 at 06:25 AM JST #

And nice profile picture, Jim.

Posted by Sin-Yaw Wang on December 19, 2007 at 06:26 AM JST #

Hey, Sin-Yaw. I totally agree. Japan's restrictive immigration policies and lack of globalization are critical to this issue. I think China and India will force Japan's hand, too, though I don't see Japan reacting just yet. But I don't see in Japan's history a people who will wither away, either. I do, however, think things will get much worse before they get better. Should be an interesting 50 years or so around here, eh?. :)

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on December 19, 2007 at 08:32 AM JST #

I will buy you a sake at the new year of 2058. In case I am not there, you buy yourself one. OK?

Posted by Sin-Yaw Wang on December 19, 2007 at 02:25 PM JST #

Hi Jim,

when you have some time, I'd really, really like to read about your personal experiences, cultural experiences, and perception of the Japanese culture and society.

Where do you see the biggest differences?
What are the subtle (and not so subtle) pitfalls that a foreigner living in Japan will/might hit?
Did you unknowingly ever find yourself in a pickle, caused by a cultural difference?
How do you perceive the mentality of the natives?
Have you been able to truly befriend, or have been befriended by one or more of the natives?

Lastly, how is your Japanese coming along, are you fluent yet?

(You and I could probably go on for hours, even days on end exchanging experiences on the subject...)

Posted by UX-admin on December 19, 2007 at 05:08 PM JST #

>
>
> when you have some time, I'd really, really like to read about your personal experiences, cultural experiences, and perception of the Japanese culture and society.
>

It's always changing. :) My observations are somewhat limited since I've only lived here for under 2 years, though. It's hard to judge many things since I don't understand the "why" of what's going on. But then again, no one asks questions here, so it's difficult to find certain things out.

> Where do you see the biggest differences?
>
There is no specific area. Japan is very, very different in almost \*every\* way imaginable. Most tourists and business travelers completely miss this, since they are treated vastly differently from the foreigners living here. Plus, it takes time to dig down and find all the differences, so you don't get the full impact on short business trips. It's a much shorter conversation to talk about the things that are the same!

I'd say the biggest shock for me has been to discover that there is so little English here. People in high tech know more English since they interact with the west a lot, but the average Japanese person simply has no English skills. They may be well educated (Japanese absolutely are), but they have little ability to communicate with non-Japanese from a language and cultural perspective. And all those famous Japanese "Salarymen" out there? They wouldn't last 10 minutes in New York or London or anywhere else outside Japan. This is becoming a big problem for Japan, too. Now that the world economies are internationalizing, Japan is being passed by for other regions in Asia. I regularly read about international companies leaving Tokyo because of two reasons: cost and lack of English-speaking locals to employ.

Other differences: Quality of the food: the best in the world by far and it's not even close. Cars: the best. Houses: very poor quality. Innovation: very little. Work ethic: second to none. TV: garbage. Religion: unbelievably welcoming, open, and gentle. Cabs: spotless and extremely professional.

> What are the subtle (and not so subtle) pitfalls that a foreigner living in Japan will/might hit?
>
Oh, they are not subtle. The society has strict rules and they are followed rigidly. There is very little flexibility or individuality here (I don't think that's true in the arts, but I don't really have a good feel for that yet). There are many Japanese sub-cultures here, of course, where the rules are quite different. But in general, things here run based on a "group" mentality, and seniority is honored even when the person is utterly incompetent. But that gets complex, too, since there are many groups -- family, company, department, profession, school, university, country, etc. So, it all depends on what group you are talking about. Foreigners are not really that welcome into these various groups very easily. You can go along, sure, but you never quite get in. Then it gets even more complex at night, where all the rules change and the rigidity of the day turns into wildness of the night.

Although there is very little flexibility here, that comes in handy when the trains need to run on time. Which they do. To the minute. It's amazing. The precision with with these guys run complex transportation systems is shocking. Delivery systems are the same. Perfect. Scary.

> Did you unknowingly ever find yourself in a pickle, caused by a cultural difference?
>
Every day. But I don't care anymore. :) That's the difference. I used to care a lot and get upset and apologize and all. No more. I'm not even trying to integrate anymore. For the most part, it's not possible. I'm a foreigner. Also, no one expects foreigners to follow all the million or so Japanese social rules. So, you learn to just be polite and figure it out so you get by without offending too much. Japanese offer little assistance, too. They find it extremely difficult to explain their own society. So, in many ways, you're on your own. Japan is all about mono-culture.

> How do you perceive the mentality of the natives?
>

The Japanese who have an international outlook are quite open and engaging, and their English is pretty good. However, they are a distinct minority. Most Japanese are focused on Japan and are isolated from the rest of the world as a result. This is very obvious. I don't think the men care, but the young women know this \*very\* well and they are concerned. They are also very much trying to teach their kids English.
Outside work, most people are very kind. They are very shy, though. Work is different. Work is extremely difficult and rigid. The rules seem to be all pervasive during this time, and it totally ruins individuality and creativity. I do very little work in Japan, though, for obvious reasons. My job is global, and I spend about 5% of my work time doing projects specifically for the Japan market.

> Have you been able to truly befriend, or have been befriended by one or more of the natives?
>

All of my friends are internationalists in Tokyo, some of whom are Japanese, of course, but most are American or European. I know a lot of Japanese people, of course, but they are mostly colleagues and acquaintances and such. I'd say I'm pretty far away from having a "true" Japanese friend. It takes years and it's a complex process of establishing trust. It's \*nothing\* like the west.

> Lastly, how is your Japanese coming along, are you fluent yet?

Not even close. :) I'll get there, though. I'm no longer worrying about it. I'm going a lot slower now, to be honest. There are other issues that I need to focus on.

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on December 23, 2007 at 01:23 PM JST #

UX-admin ... also, you may want to look at the two links I have here:
http://blogs.sun.com/jimgris/entry/in_japan_too_long
Although each of these are rather funny and good natured, each also represents profound differences between Japanese and Americans. I could write an essay about at least 80% of them! Funny and otherwise. :)

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on December 28, 2007 at 06:16 AM JST #

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