Human Pictograms

Looking back at the human pictograms used to illustrate 50 Olympic sports in 5 minutes I realized the inspiration is from an Japanese game show I wrote about earlier, Kasou Taishou.

via NBC Sports

Nike Japan

Props to Nike Japan for pushing forward a conversation about racism in Japan. They have continued to stay on point on this issue. Back when Naomi Osaka won her historic third Grand Slam and again with this commercial released on Monday.

Nike Japan’s commercial depicts three mixed-race kids who overcome bullying and prejudice through sport

With the Olympics coming up this year in Japan (maybe), it is the perfect time to celebrate the diversity of biracial athletes in Japan. Besides Naomi Osaka there is Rui Hachimura who plays in the NBA, the sprinter Sani Brown, and scores of professional baseball players that grew up in Japan biracial and are representing the country on the world stage.

Tommy Lee Jones in Japan

The actor Tommy Lee Jones has been the celebrity spokesperson for Suntory’s Boss canned coffee since 2006. Many Western celebrities do commercials in Japan, it’s a quick way to make a buck. But TLJ has been doing it for so long he has become synonymous with Boss coffee and his face firmly part of Japanese popular culture.

In all his commercials he is cast as an outsider, watching Japanese society as a melancholy observer. Over time, we discover he is an alien, sent to investigate the Japanese. He takes a series of odd jobs to get closer to his subjects but he is always removed, watching, alone, with his can of coffee. Stoic.

Last week the Emperor of Japan voluntarily stepped down and a younger generation took his place. It was the end of the Heisei era and the beginning of the next. Everyone in Japan was given 10 days off to reflect and, while I’m not there, I can imagine it must be a time of great retrospection as people look back on the past 30 years and how the country has changed.

The Tommy Lee Jones character is no different so in celebration, Suntory ran this 2 minute super cut of TLJ’s greatest hits as a nostalgia piece.

Alien Jones supercut (soranews24)

Further Reading

Mr. Jimmy

One of the highlights of SXSW 2019 that I want to expand on a bit was seeing the premier of Mr. Jimmy, a documentary film about the Jimmy Page tribute artist, Akio Sakurai.

The film is a loving appreciation of Japanese attention to detail and craft. In much the same way that Jiro Dreams of Sushi introduced the world to the lengthy apprenticeship and dedication of the world’s best sushi chefs, Mr. Jimmy dives into Sakurai’s singular 35-year devotion to replicating the lead guitarist of Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page.

Sakurai’s intimate knowledge of all phases of Led Zeppelin’s musicology allows him to recreate any song from any era exactly matching the phrasing, pace and tone. He can even play entire solos from specific concerts that he has collected in the bootleg CD shops of Tokyo’s Shinjuku 7-chome neighborhood.

If you want to hear the famous 30-minute version of No Quarter played on June 21, 1977 in Los Angeles, Sakurai can play it for you, note-for-note. In order to capture the exact sound, Sakurai insists on using the same (now vintage) equipment that Jimmy Page used. The same guitars, amps, cables and even pick-ups. He plays the acoustic portions of Stairway to Heaven on the same guitar used by Mr. Page. The exact same one. He spares no expense in his pursuit.

Before the screening of the film, the director (Peter Michael Dowd) told a story of when he first heard Sakurai play. As a Led Zeppelin fan himself, he understood the time it must have taken to get the sound just right. Sakurai told him it took him 30-years to learn that particular song to his satisfaction. Dowd could tell from the look in Sakurai’s eyes that this was not just a term of expression. It really did take Sakurai thirty years.

There are wonderful snippets of dialog with the constellation of craftspeople who support Sakurai’s quest for perfection. They each have a gleam in their eyes as they know they are working for someone who notices every detail they put into their work. From Shinji Kishimoto makes Sakurai’s pickups to Rie Nakahara, the costume designer, who pours over concert footage with Sakurai in order to capture and recreate the stitching and creasing of the custom shirts worn by Jimmy Page.

It’s this pursuit of the pure experience that has attracted a devoted fanbase in Japan that is equally obsessed with the church of Zeppelin. His fans in Japan study his every move as if they are experiencing the band for the first time. Most of them have never seen the original band so a Mr. Jimmy concert is their only experience of a live Led Zeppelin show. It all comes full circle when Jimmy Page attends one of Sakurai’s concerts while visiting Japan. After the show, Page compliments Sakurai and they exchange a moment when Page recognizes a telltale lick that reveals which era’s style he was playing. The master giving an approving nod to the apprentice.

The film follows Sakurai as he leaves his family and steady job (at a kimono maker) in Japan for the United States to follow his dream. We see him struggle with his Western bandmates who are more realistic about playing the hits, selling tickets, and having fun. “No one wants to hear an 8-minute guitar solo, even if it is faithful to the time period.” they say to Sakurai. They are not used to getting post-show pages of feedback on their performances – criticisms about how they sang or placed their hands. Sakurai and Led Zeppagain eventually went their separate ways and Sakurai seems happy to leave the “jukebox band” behind.

But true artists eventually find each other and we see Sakurai form another band, joining together with Jason Bonham, the son of the late-John Bonham (drummer for Led Zeppelin) for a world tour. It’s a dream come true.

Please see this movie. It was a labor of love (the director sold his car to make a second trip to Japan) that investigates Japanese otaku culture through one person’s journey, a hero journey but with a twist. Sakurai can never truly become Jimmy Page but instead the audience has internalized a bit of Sakurai’s obsession. I have been listening to old Led Zeppelin bootlegs for the past week.

After the movie, we were treated to a few songs played by Sakurai himself who was in the audiences. Here’s a clip I filmed of him playing The Rain Song which we were told was written on a dare by George Harrison who complained that Led Zeppelin never wrote any ballads!

Jimmy Sakurai plays for the audience after the premiere of Mr. Jimmy

Grandma’s Recipes

Izumi turned me on to a YouTube channel she’s discovered that features lovingly documents the kitchen recipes of an older, sometimes forgotten, generation in Japan. Each short vignette explores the life of these women who fed their family with what they had and passed on traditions of their region.

From the producers:

Our team especially tries to focus on eccentric, lovely but “Rock” ladies above the age of 80, who have lived through World War Two. We interview them with great care, and through their recipes which represents the relationships they share with those they care about, we are able to uncover great depth in their life stories. We want to spread those stories to the young generations living today. We believe that if we can share the stories of those beautiful and loving ladies to the world, regardless of borders and languages, people may appreciate even the dinner table just a little bit more.

Grandma’s Recipes
Masami-san has lived a hard life in Nagano and reflects on her grand life of 99 years.
Keiko comes from a wealthy family in Tokyo. During the war, she made a frying pan out of unexploded bomb.

Personalized Discovery

When asked what we’re trying to build at SmartNews, I sometimes explain it with a department store metaphor. When algorithms are applied to online shopping, they are optimized to show you exactly what you are looking for. Amazon and Netflix are famous for perfecting the “others-that-bought-what-you-bought-also-bought-this” algorithm to great effect.

If you’re looking for a red sweater, they will show you the best red sweater. But that only works if you’re looking for a red sweater.

What if you are just browsing around? What if you are wandering around, looking for inspiration, not sure what exactly you want? Japan has a some of the world’s best department stores. They are wonderful at curating interesting things from around the world and introducing them to the sophisticated urban consumer. They have a long tradition of doing this.

Marvis toothpaste from Italy comes in Aquatic Mint, Cinnamon Mint, Classic Mint, Ginger Mint, Jasmine Mint, and Amarelli Licorice

Ginza has a new department store called Ginza Six that opened a couple years ago. Besides these wonderfully packaged $20 tubes of toothpaste from Italy (above) you can also check out the completely impractical spiked boots (below). It’s a curious browser’s delight.

Totally impractical but cool, nonetheless

What I’m getting at is that SmartNews is trying to re-create the Japanese Department Store experience online with news. I keep talking about “hidden gems” and this is what I mean. You never know what you’re going to find but we’ll do our best to make an algorithm which is optimized for finding something serendipitously, interesting.

Anyway, more on this in this interview with my boss, Rich Jaroslovsky, below as he describes the concept of “personalized discovery.”

The key is personalized discovery. Of course that also means sometimes users will see stories they don’t like. I’m generalizing, but a conservative might see a Mother Jones story, or a liberal might see something from Fox News.

That’s probably the biggest complaint we get: That the stories are all “left wing,” or “right wing.”  But when we look at studies about user engagement in news apps, our audience is far more engaged than that of any other news app.

My argument is that those are two sides of the same coin. As a 40-year journalist, when all you see is stuff you already know or already think you’re interested in… news gets boring. There’s no serendipity. You don’t get to learn anything new. You don’t get to discover.

That’s the textbook definition of a filter bubble.

Our goal is to puncture filter bubbles.

Tired of Filter Bubbles? This Free News App Can Help You Find Stories You Just Might Love

Japanese TV News

Television news programs in Japan are famously entertaining. The sets are more interesting and the hosts are much more physically involved with the story-telling. Below are some screenshots of a lengthy and incredibly detailed explanation of the sport of speedskating.

Here they are talking about the importance of drafting complete with a huge fan for effect. I can’t imagine Brian Williams or Savannah Guthrie doing this.

Well, maybe Al Roker.

Kasou Taishou

We spent this morning looking at YouTube videos of Kasou Taishou. These are short skits that re-create special effects using charmingly amateur stage effects. Think of it as a mashup between traditional Japanese kabuki stage-craft and a high school play.

Add a twist of self-depreciating humor and you’ve got a winner.