Sunday, 14 June 2015

Turning Japanese: Innovation

Godzilla shares a coke with Shinjuku

When we think of Japanese innovation, what sort of images come to mind? Electronics? Sushi? Hello Kitty?

According to our guide, 46 new inventions are patented everyday in Japan. 

In the eyes of the rest of the world, Japan has been somewhat of a mecca for innovation - original, cutting edge technologies, laser-targeted precision and creative (sometimes zany) ideas.
"Facing increasing competition for China and South Korea, Japan now focuses primarily on high-tech and precision goods, such as optical instruments, hybrid vehicles, androbotics. Besides the Kantō region,the Kansai region is one of the leading industrial clusters and manufacturing centers for the Japanese economy."*
Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to test the latest artificial intelligence, eye-tracking advertising and headline-grabbing robot assistants as I'd originally planned before this trip.

Instead, I discovered a different, more subtle form of Japanese innovation. One that has always existed, is accessible to the masses and is inherently fascinating.

'Japanification' Evolution

Where does Japanese creativity come from? Contrary to what you might imagine, it breeds from a lack of, rather than an abundance of living space or resources.  Creativity is a result of constraint. 

"About 73 percent of Japan is forested, mountainous, and unsuitable for agriculturalindustrial, or residential use."*

The proneness to natural disaster and unstable supply of energy resources means foreign imports and making the best use of what's available locally is essential. For instance, wind-power plants, electric cars are growing markets, whereas large urban redevelopments are out. 

I was surprised to learn that many inventions and technologies we consider stereotypically Japanese were historically originally imported from nearby countries like China and 'turned Japanese' through design evolution. This may involve tweaking features and modifying ingredients to suit the nutritional needs or preferences of the local population.

It's as much about philosophy and tailoring as it is about process. The Japanese are experts in taking existing prototypes rather than from scratch and making them more useful, beautiful and precise. This innovation details/'Japanification improvement' is present in almost everything if you look closely enough. From the shaped curves of Chinese chopsticks' tips that were modified for better grip, the lowered sugar content in standard Coca-Cola to its lighter, daintier, fusion interpretations of European cakes, American confectionery, dim-sum and French patisserie.

Watermelon slice ice lolly with chocolate 'seeds'. Just one of the many unusual ice cream flavours from Japan.

An internet cafe of dreams in Dontonbori, Osaka

'Calpis' is a Japanese invention. It tastes like Yakult- you can also buy alcoholic versions and diluted 'Calpis water'  

Nature's Spring Cleaners

Tap water is generally safe for consumption. But for small 'satoyama' communities that lie between arable land and mountains, the water supply comes from nearby lake streams. Local villagers have maintained an extraordinary water management system unlike any other.

This culture is known as the Riverside Method or 'Kabata', where giant carp 'Koi' are employed as trusty kitchen helpers, keeping the spring water clean and safe to drink. Carp are hardy groundfeeders - so there's no detergent, no waste, no chemical pollution. Just a naturally sanitised supply of clean water which is used for everything in homes from preparing food, washing dishes to laundry.

Japanese wildlife seem to have developed their own innovative methods for survival too. For example, the celebrity onsen (hot water spring) bathing-macaques, aka snow monkeys in Honshu are super-saavy and pick up their treats underwater in their individual styles. Catch them in action while you can in the BBC's recent brilliant documentary 'Japan: Earth's Enchanted Islands' here.

Toilet Inventions

I draw the line at bathrooms when it comes to sharing holiday snaps on social media. However, it's impossible not to talk about Japan's toilet culture. There's even a National Toilet Day and children are taught to do their business neatly to respect 'lavatory gods'. Heated seats, bum-cleaning bidet-style toilets are installed in 72% of domestic households. Personal hygiene is non-negotiable - words that mean 'clean' in Japanese are frequently used to describe beauty.

Sci-fi slick and luxury toilets that come with carpeted reading rooms and artworks are commonplace at road rest areas - you will be blown away. The most memorable experience I've had was with the 'smart toilet' cubicles - where I was greeted by automatic doors, seats and buttons that produce 'flushing' noises to "reduce one's embarrassment".

This motorside rest stop toilet has a digital display system to help you find the nearest vacancy

An underwater themed toilet. Joined with spacious powdering and changing rooms that feature smart mirrors and lighting

Transforming Spaces

A microtrend I'd noticed was how the living/working spaces, or lack thereof in urban Japan is driving innovation. In the city financial district of Nihombashi, Tokyo's equivalent of London's Canary Wharf, entrepreneurial startup co-working spaces are popping up on the street-level. Think random bonsais, garden plots and swings in offices. 

Another example is accommodation - you've probably heard about Capsule hotels, which were developed for city-dwellers who were too drunk to go home to their wives safely. My Tokyu Stay hotel was compact but absolutely perfect - complete with a washer, cooker, even a selection of kitchen knives neatly tucked inside hidden compartments. And to my surprise, consisting of just a few sofas, desks and a complimentary cappuccino maker, my hotel's tiny lobby transformed into a buffet breakfast hall from the hours of 7am-9am. 

So there you have it - a few things that constitute as unconventional originals in Japan. Innovation is part of everyday life. Some ideas will last and make an impact, some are gimmicks that will inevitably flop or evolve in time. But as an outsider and as a tourist, it is fascinating to witness. 

There's no shortage of crazy trends that make no sense whatsoever, but I've enjoyed trying to understand the differences. 'Quirks' should always be considered in open-minded context whether you're holidaying or doing business in another country as a sign of mutual respect.

*Source: Wikipedia

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