Reflections on revisiting Japan


Just back from Japan. The highlight of our two week trip was three days spent in Takaragawa Onsen, which has to be one of the best of the hundreds of hot springs in Japan. It claims to have the largest rotemburo, or outdoor hot spring pool, in the country. It snowed continuously for our three days there, allowing us to bask in the beautiful warm hot water at night and watch the snow quietly cover the mountainside. The cold of the snow on our heads perfectly matched the warmth of the volcanic water gushing out from the hillside. There are few more special experiences. Baby Leda loved it too.


We spent most of our time in Tokyo. The most striking feature of returning to Japan for me was the refound feeling of affluence after the “lost decade” of no economic growth from the early 1990s. New buildings have sprung up around the Roppongi area and on the city’s fringes, there is continuing land reclamation in Tokyo Bay, and shoppers are busy at upmarket shopping complexes in Omotesando and elsewhere. Yet despite increasing Westernization, Japan still seems not to have changed that much. It is easy to imagine that Tokyo will look and feel much the same in a couple of decades from now. Japanese culture will continue to be passed down through generations. Certainly the structural rigidities of the business system seem barely to have loosened, leaving it indeed largely the “old boy’s club” that Takafumi Horie of livedoor infamy claims it to be. Yet there continues to be world-leading innovation in some areas of technology and business processes. As I’ve written previously, the key challenge for Japan in coming decades is its rapidly falling population, and whether the pace of advances in automation will compensate for this.

Another striking aspect was the massive amount of content produced. Manga and anime are estimated to represent a $6 billion global market, much of it in Japan (where manga represents 40% of all book and magazine publishing), but also with broad international distribution, notably in the US. Magazines are still a flourishing market in Japan. While much Japanese content produced is only likely to be consumed locally, it has already been highly influential on Western culture, and we can expect to see more content repurposed for international consumption. Internet access is a standard feature of mobile phones and plans in Japan, and with speaking on phones discouraged on the trains and subways, many play games or access information on the Net. The early success of DoCoMo provided a platform for a truly wireless culture. While the complexities of Japanese written language were an early drag on the implementation of information technologies, Japan is now as digital as any country. Japanese claim their country and culture to be unique, and they have a good claim to that. Yet Japan will have to balance integrating further with global business in an increasingly interdependent world, at the same time as it retains its extraordinary culture.