Goodbye Japan!

So, we’re back in New York and I’m already missing some of the joys of Tokyo. The peacefully quiet precise trains, the amazing sushi and those toilet seats!

During our last two days in Tokyo we went out on our own and took advantage of the free time to explore most of the shopping districts of the city and a few sites that we had missed. That Saturday evening we met for our final dinner, a traditional Japanese meal on a karaoke boat around Tokyo Bay. It was amazing fun!

On that we’re back at school, the constant ‘how was your spring break?’ questioning has made me reflect on Japan. If I had to sum up Japan in one sentence I would say that it is a country that has found a perfect balance between hi-tech advancement and a strongly rooted culture. This has probably given rise to the famous Galapagos Syndrome: the situation describing Japan’s development of highly specialized technology that is not successful anywhere else in the world. One of the recurring themes from our company meetings was Japan’s struggle to go global and become ‘World no. 1’. Language and culture seem to be a big barrier to this aspiration. In my view though, Japanese culture seems to be the key driver behind successful Japanese global brands like Toyota.

It will be interesting to see how Japan overcomes the challenges of an ageing population, high debt burden and unique culture, over our lifetimes. Hopefully we’ll see more from the country that brought us Canon, Sony, Panasonic, Toyota, Nissan and Honda!

Finally, I’d like to thank our fearless leaders for organizing such an amazing trip and for making sure we don’t break the many cultural rules during stay in Japan. It was an amazing opportunity to learn about one of the world’s quiet superpowers. Arigato!

Toyota City and Tokyo!

On Tuesday morning we reached Toyota’s head office in Toyota City. We started the visit in their museum, an interesting space showcasing the company’s history and showing off what they think could be the vehicles of the future. Best of all, to welcome us at the entrance to the museum, was Toyota’s violin playing robot! Video link:

The Toyota Mirai, the company's first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.
The Toyota Mirai, the company’s first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

After a traditional Japanese meal we moved to the boardroom to hear from some of the executives about their views on autonomous cars and electric vs fuel cell vehicles. The visit concluded with a fascinating visit of Toyota’s Motomachi factory. We got to see first hand what JIT and Jidoka looks like. We couldn’t take any pictures but watching robots and humans working together to produce a car every 52 seconds was incredible!

We retreated to Nagoya to spend the night at a Ryokan hotel to enjoy some more Japanese food, hot baths and karaoke. Best performances of the evening go to Sean O’Mealia for his Rasperry Beret rendition and to our organizers for their awesome AKB48 performance with choreographed dance moves:

"I want you! I need you! I love you! kimi ni ae te dondon chikazuku sono kyori ni MAX high tension"
“I want you!
I need you!
I love you!
kimi ni ae te
dondon chikazuku sono kyori ni
MAX high tension”

Wednesday morning we hopped on the Shinkansen and arrived in a flash in the capital, Tokyo. We met with popular fast fashion retailer, Uniqlo, to hear about their plans of becoming the worlds no. 1 retailer of its kind (watch out Zara!).

Best Question: Inigo: So, I went to Uniqlo and couldn’t find any shoes, what’s up with that? Uniqlo: We don’t sell shoes.

Next up was Rakuten. Our host had asked us to read an HBS case about the company’s ‘Englishnization’ strategy. Rakuten’s goal is to be the world no. 1 internet services company, and to do this they believe that converting their corporate language to English is critical. They did a raffle at the end of the meeting and lucky Azeem ended up winning a Kobo (Rakuten’s version of a Kindle).

That night we had an amazing Chinese dinner with a view from the top:

Awesome view of Tokyo at Yebisu Garden Place!
Awesome view of Tokyo at Yebisu Garden Place!

Thursday morning we headed to All Nippon Airways (ANA). We got a chance to tour the enormous maintenance hangar. It was really cool to get up close and personal with the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner!

Teamwork at ANA
Teamwork at ANA

In the afternoon we visited DeNA, a mobile gaming company founded by a female (rare in Japan’s gender unequal society). A few days before we arrived they announced a deal with Nintendo that would see Nintendo’s games available on DeNA’s mobile platform. Their share price jumped 20% on the day! DeNA’s goal is to become the worlds no. 1 mobile internet company (sensing a trend here). Our host demonstrated the addictiveness of their games when he started playing one in front of us (projected on the screen from his phone) and got a little carried away killing Storm Troopers!

That evening the CBS Alumni in Tokyo hosted us for a networking reception. Shiseido CEO, Masahiko Uotani (’83) spoke to us about the importance of the role of marketing in Japanese business. According to him, Japan has very strong craftsmanship but lacks showmanship.

We ended the night with a surprise birthday party for Inigo! In return he wowed us with a few magic tricks!:

Inigo's  Birthday Surprise!
Inigo’s Birthday Surprise!

Friday was an interesting day. Many of us got up at 3:30am to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market to watch the famous Tuna auction (apparently the worlds biggest auction). Unfortunately only 120 tickets are available everyday and they had been sold out by the time we arrived. We consoled ourselves with an early morning breakfast of fresh-off-the-boat sushi.

For our final meeting of the trip we met with Japan’s State Minister of Finance, Mr Nobuhide Minorikawa (a SIPA graduate). Our discussion focused around some of the country’s key challenges, including Japan’s debt burden, ageing population and poor English education. It was a great way to the end the formal part of the trip as it put into perspective many of the discussions we had during the company meetings.

Best Comment: Yuko to Minister Minorikawa: We love Sakie, we drink a lot of Sakie!

We spent the rest of the day visiting sights around Asakusa and Akihabara (the center of the weird Otaku subculture; think anime, manga and maid cafés). We ended the day with some karaoke and clubbing in Rappongi.


Kyoto: Shrines, Temples and a Zen Experience fit for Steve Jobs

Chazen Japan kicked off with dinner at a Okonomiyaki restaurant. Okonomiyaki literally means ‘make your own grill’. After dinner a few people headed off to see one of the temples lit up at night.

Monday morning we headed to the Myonshinji Temple, the largest Zen Buddhist temple in the world, for a meditative Zen experience. Given that we’re a-type business school students from New York, our Zen teacher showed mercy and limited our meditation (which required us to sit silently in the lotus position) to just 15 minutes. After we cleared our minds, we received a presentation about the Japanese and Buddhism. These are some of the take-aways:

  1. Steve Jobs practiced Zen Buddhism at this very temple! – By the way, the one-button iPhone was inspired by one of the core Zen principles: keep things simple.
  2. Japanese Buddhism differentiates itself by focusing on fewer rules but more discipline. So, Buddhist monks are allowed to marry, drink, eat meat and are supposed to actively participate in the community. To this end, our teacher was also a goodwill ambassador for tourism in Japan. He had been invited to the WEF in Davos, visited the former Pope, the Dalai Lama and various other religious leaders around the world.
  3. Japan believes strongly in promoting interfaith harmony. As an example, our teacher had been involved in setting up a fun radio show hosted by a Shinto priest, Buddhist monk and Christian priest. He also organized a relay marathon where the baton would be passed between leaders from 4 different religions.
Traditional Japanese vegetarian meal at the Myonshinji Zen Buddhist temple
Traditional Japanese vegetarian meal at the Myonshinji Zen Buddhist temple

In an effort to enhance and preserve the temple for the next 300-400 years, the Myonshinji temple have hired an artist to paint all the sliding doors in the temple. The artist, a young lady whom we were lucky enough to meet, is required to live in the temple for 3 years. She was required to learn the Zen way for the first 6 months in the temple before she could even touch a paintbrush!

In the afternoon we visited the beautiful Golden Temple and Fushimi Inari with its 1000 gates leading up a steep flight of steps to a shrine on top of a hill. I walked up a quarter of the way and then turned around, inspiring many of the people behind me to do the same!

Golden Temple, Kyoto
Golden Temple, Kyoto
Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto
Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto

In the evening we had a traditional Japanese style dinner in the Geisha district. To dispel some myths, the term Geisha girl is a generic term, which refers to any girl involved in entertaining people. Obviously this has some negative connotations. Traditional Geisha girls (the ones with the white face makeup and kimonos) are trained for 4 years in classical music, dance, games and conversation. They are referred to as Maiko’s or Geico’s, depending on their seniority. Below is a picture of me playing a game with a Maiko (a junior Geisha girl).

Playing games with a Geisha giirl
Playing games with a Geisha giirl

We’re on the Shinkansen now on the way to Toyota City to visit, well, obviously, Toyota!

Chazen Japan: 3 hours to go!

I was so excited for this trip that I got here a week earlier than the required arrival date. For the Chazen trip, we will start in Kyoto and work our way north towards Tokyo, so I decided to start in Tokyo and work my way down, and meet the group in Kyoto. I kept a close eye on our Chazen itinerary to minimize any duplication of sightseeing and restaurants but there is so much to do here that this hasn’t been a problem. So what are my first impressions of Japan?

For starters, I have to say that I’ve never encountered a culture so polite and so respectful of each other and of visitors. I’m trying to pick up some Japanese during the trip and just learnt that there are 9 different ways of saying ‘thank you’, go figure! I remember reading a case that spoke about the level of trust involved in business dealings and how Japanese businesses emphasize ‘contact over contract’. It makes sense that these philosophies (respect/trust/reputation) go hand in hand.

Japan’s much hyped about precision and efficiency lives up to expectations. It’s become a thing here for us to stare at our watches/phones when we get on a train just to see it take off exactly on the scheduled minute; it’s fascinating every time! FYI, in 2012, the average delay on the Shinkansen trains was a ridiculous 36 seconds. Yes, 36 seconds.

I organized Chazen South Africa over the winter break and remember the excitement and anticipation in the last few days before the trip started. I’m sure our organizers are experiencing the same feeling. I’m most excited about the Toyota and ANA visits because we get to step out of the boardroom and see the factory/hangar floor.

Some of my favorite parts of the trip so far have been the amazing sushi, the view of Mt Fuji from the Shinkansen and the Onsen (hot spring baths). Along with some exciting company visits, I’ll get to experience those things again :). Looking forward to meeting the group and kicking off the official trip this evening at Hotel Granvia!