Tag Archives: Japan

shinkansen

A tale of two incentives

Meanwhile, the bullet train has sucked the country’s workforce into Tokyo, rendering an increasingly huge part of the country little more than a bedroom community for the capital. One reason for this is a quirk of Japan’s famously paternalistic corporations: namely, employers pay their workers’ commuting costs. Tax authorities don’t consider it income if it’s less than ¥100,000 a month – so Shinkansen commutes of up to two hours don’t sound so bad. New housing subdivisions filled with Tokyo salarymen subsequently sprang up along the Nagano Shinkansen route and established Shinkansen lines, bringing more people from further away into the capital.

- How the Shinkansen bullet train made Tokyo into the monster it is today, The Guardian

It is standard practice for a Japanese company to pay for an employee’s commute expenses. The government will not tax the company nor will the employee be taxed for the cost of their monthly commute pass. In a sense, the government bears the cost of transporting a company’s workforce, which allows them to spend their resources on locating themselves as close as they can to their customers and vendors who are, mostly, in Tokyo.

As the Guardian article points out, this has allowed for a network of “bed towns” to spring up along the spurs of each of the high speed rail lines to branch out from Tokyo supporting further centralization of the city. Think of Tokyo as a the capital of government, entertainment, media, finance, and business all rolled into one megalopolis. The equivalent of Washington DC, Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago all rolled into one. It is very difficult for a business to be located outside of this center and succeed and, with the commute subsidy, very little reason to do so.

The Japanese commute expense subsidy gives incentives for people to use the public transportation industry so, as a result, Japan has one of the best public transportation systems in the world.

Contrast this with how the tax incentives in the United States work. Mortgage interest is by far the biggest deduction you can apply to your income which supports the housing industry and, more directly, the banks. While this has allowed for distributed population centers to pop up around the country where ever people decide to invest in their home but has also contributed to successive housing bubbles.

Which would you rather have? A kick-ass public transit system that efficiently gets you where you want to go or an over-valued ranch house in the suburbs and an hour commute by car each way into work?

Radio Taiso

Radio Taiso (ラジオ体操) is as core to growing up in Japan as the Pledge of Allegiance is to an American. Before school, kids are lead through these exercises which have been a standard for years. Wikipedia says that Radio Calisthenics was something actually imported from the US where the MetLife was broadcasting a 15 minute exercise routing during the 1920s.

Here is your plain, vanilla, NHK-approved Radio Taiso video.

Because it’s so universal, there are endless parodies. Here are a few I found.

and my favorite, Salaryman Taiso

Bonus Video – Japanese Precision Walkers

japanese knife

Japan as the great curator

The Smithsonian Magazine shares a trend that any American who has spent anytime poking around the back alleys of Tokyo knows in their bones. The Japanese have a loving appreciation of American culture that runs deeper that Americans.

From burbon to jazz, denim to hamburgers, the attention to detail of the Japanese is flawless. If you have a chance to peruse the magazine racks of Kinokuniya, a Japanese book seller found in several US cities, look for magazines dedicated to fashion where issues will go into great detail on how to dress as a fixie-riding hipster or a 1920’s dandy, the Japanese have taken loving imitation to a new level of reverence.

In keeping with the “same as is ever was” theme of this blog, when new trends from Japan make it to the shores of America, we see refined American culture filtered, improved, and made better for the discerning retroactivist.

  • Blue Bottle Coffee and the barista culture? Think of it as the Japanese tea ceremony applied to coffee.
  • Moleskin notebooks? The Japanese have a deep appreciation of calligraphy and Evernote’s success in Japan as an online version of the notebook is a reflection of that. Japan’s love of stationary is legendary.
  • High End Audio? Only in Japan will the local record shop let you sample the inner tones of Ella Fitzgerald on a set of McIntosh tube amps.

japanese knife

There’s a special way that the Japanese sensibility has focused on what is great, distinctive and worthy of protection in American culture, even when Americans have not realized the same thing. It isn’t a passing fad. It’s a long-standing part of Japanese culture, and, come to think of it, as more Americans are exposed to U.S. products revived or reinterpreted by Japanese designers, the aesthetic is becoming part of American culture, too. If you ever wonder which of the reigning American tastes, sounds, designs or styles will last into the future, there’s no better place to answer that question than in the stores and restaurants, the bars and studios of Japan. They often know us better than we know ourselves.

Further Reading:

Wonderful story of a Japanese furniture craftsman in Osaka – Beyond Jiro of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”: Japanese Craftsmanship at its finest; furniture edition

The Importance of Being Human

The New York Times has a front page story about the All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition. In this day of automated voice mail trees and customer service forms, Japan still stresses the importance of having a human answer the phone  promptly and efficiently.

Reception desk at NTT Docomo
Reception desk at NTT Docomo

What is ironic is that, to the Western ear, the high-pitched tones and honorifics used by the people that answer the phones sound almost saccharine in tone (check out the video). There are strict protocols on how to address the caller that come from a long tradition of customer service in Japan. The customer is not only always right, in Japan, the customer is God.

As an American, it’s tempting to poke fun at the robotic, rule-based behavior of the elevator operators and department store greeters but look at us. The West has automated itself to the point where many hi-tech firms do not even advertise a phone number or, if they do, have re-directs on their voice mail instructing you to shoot off an email into the ether.

Which would you prefer, a person that sounds like a robot or an actual robot?

Why Ise is rebuilt every 20 years

Ise Shrine

The Shinto shrines of Ise in central Japan are famous because they have been re-built every 20 years for hundreds of years (2013 is a re-building year). In an example of long term thinking, there is a special grove of cedar trees that are grown specifically so that they may be harvested in time for the next rebuilding. The same family of carpenters have been taking care of the rebuilding, each generation being trained by the one before.

But there are some even more interesting details about Ise that I only learned today. The shrine is designed in the style of old rice warehouses. One might think that any design that needs to be rebuilt every 20 years must be flawed but there is, in fact, a reason for this design.

via The Long Now blog is this quote from Junko Edahiro on why the Ise shrines are designed this way.

A great deal of rain usually falls in Japan’s early-summer monsoon, and as the thatched roof absorbs rainwater it becomes heavier. The heavy roof presses down on the walls, and this closes gaps between the wall boards, keeping the inside dry. In summer, the roof dries out and becomes lighter, allowing air to pass through the building and this also keeps it dry. Thus, the roof and pillars function together like a living organism to securely protect the seed rice from moisture and pests.

It seems to me, this harmony between form and function is uniquely Japanese, uniquely Shinto.

So now you know.

Struggling is a given and struggling can be good

Japanese Students

Nice post over on my dad’s blog about the difference between learning in Japan and learning in America,

When that one boy as applauded for struggling to learn, the teacher gave the lesson that anyone struggling to learn deserves to be applauded. The lesson was that struggling is a chance to show that you have what it takes emotionally to overcome the problem by having the strength to persist through that struggle. Simply put, struggling is a given and struggling can be good.

At school in Tokyo