Archive for November, 2010

Why Japan Can’t Woo More Moo’s

Saturday, November 27th, 2010

Cash Cows. They’re the kind of killer-products that every company craves.

Yet Japan’s premiere blue-chip companies have become increasingly unable to provide “the next big thing.”

Take Sony for example—a decade ago Sony seemed impervious to skeptics of its continued growth. Sony’s walkman and high-resolution televisions were taking the world by storm, and it seemed like no competitor could match Sony’s sleek, hip products.

But now Sony’s grip on all-things-electronic has been attacked by all fronts: Apple has taken the lead in portable music players, Samsung’s LG has taken home the winning gold in preferred television units, and to add insult to injury, Sony’s Vaio laptops have become increasingly MIA from store shelves around the world (no, they aren’t going Dell’s way of online custom-orders, they’re simply deep in the red.)

For all of Sony’s dismal performance of late, Sony still has incredible technological capabilities. The Play Station 3, like the Play Station 2, set the world-standard in next-generation video recording through its Blue-Ray ready drives. Sony’s laptops, though increasingly harder to come across, are so sleek they’d serve as paper cutters. The company’s R&D labs have some of the world’s finest engineers, many of them with decades of experience in the audio, visual, and entertainment industries.

Why then, are Sony’s products doing so poorly? Seth Godin, a marketing guru, says that to conceptualize, create, and market a cash cow, one has to get rid of all the P’s in marketing (like Pricing, Promotion, Positioning, Packaging, etc.)

All companies have to focus is the new P—the Purple Cow.

Here’s Seth’s anecdote about Purple Cows, in—surprise!—his book Purple Cow:

“When my family and I were driving through France a few years ago, we were enchanted by the hundreds of storybook cows grazing on picturesque pastures right next to the highway. For dozens of kilometers, we all gazed out the window, marveling about how beautiful everything was. Then, within twenty minutes, we started ignoring the cows. The new cows were just like the old cows, and what once was amazing was now common. Worse than common. It was boring.” (p.2).

He then goes on to drive his point ruthlessly to the reader, just in case anyone missed his point the first time around:

“Cows, after you’ve seen them for a while, are boring. They may be perfect cows, attractive cows, cows with great personalities, cows lit by beautiful light, but they’re still boring. A Purple Cow, though. Now that would be interesting.”  (p.2).

The point that Seth Godin is trying to make is that a good product just doesn’t quite cut it anymore. The product has to be remarkable. Sony’s walkman had good design and offered good sound. Apple’s iPod may not have delivered better sound quality (in fact, it was probably worse), but the clickwheel? Now that was remarkable, and that was worthy of being called a Purple Cow.

What do today’s remarkable companies all have in common? They’ve got Purple Cow mindsets. They aren’t playing it safe. They aren’t kissing up to the status quo. They are, as Seth Godin observes, “outliers. They’re on the fringes. Super-fast or super-slow. Very exclusive or very cheap. Very big or very small […] the leader is the leader because he did something remarkable.” (p.20).

Sony’s predicament provides a case in point for Japan’s economy as a whole—Japan has all the technological expertise to make a plethora of remarkable products. Yet it just can’t seem to deliver, and it’s because Japan played it safe for the past two decades.

It’s time Japan decided to take one big, audacious gamble.
It’s time Japan decided to become a Purple Cow.

//By Ryo TAKAHASHI

Japan’s Graying Democracy

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Of the many problems Japan faces today, a graying democracy is one crucial yet oft-overlooked malaise. The term “graying democracy” refers to how Japan’s political decisions are increasingly being controlled solely by the older generation. This phenomenon bodes ill for Japan’s younger generation because the government’s expenditures are currently heavily lopsided in favor of the elderly.

The de facto preferential treatment of the older generation at the cost of marginalizing the younger demographic has far-flung ramifications. One egregious case lies in the government’s expenditures: of every 35 yen spent for social security, only 2 yen is allocated towards childcare support. While this may allow Japan’s senior citizens some level of modest living (although the elderly have also begun to feel the effects of Japan’s financial squeeze), this also renders young mothers with very little support when the time comes to raise a child.

Such lack of government-sponsored childcare support is undoubtedly one factor that contributes to Japan’s dismally low fertility rate and is also an explanation for why many women in Japan hesitate to give birth. The women are certainly not to blame—with so little help from the government—such as the lack of financial assistance along with the dearth of daycare centers—young women today are faced with the crushing choice of a “child or career.” This particular predicament that Japanese women are facing is unique, or at least anachronistic to say the least; most liberal democratic countries provide for the childcare needs of young mothers.

Fueled by the cozy relationship between the government and the older demographic, Japan’s graying democracy has also distanced the younger generation from politics. Such disinterest only exacerbates the problem of “a graying democracy”: the younger generation is becoming increasingly disinterested in political affairs, and less than 20% of Japanese youth vote. The absence of the voice of the younger generation in the Japan’s politics allows the government to continue to earmark its expenditures in a way that will benefit the older generation, all at a cost to the next in line.

So then, what can be done to ameliorate this lamentable situation? One thing that must be done is to bring the younger demographic back into the political realm. After many years of being “unrecognized” by politicians, many of today’s youth are now not only being socially disenfranchised by a government that clearly favors the eldest generation, but have also unconsciously silenced their own voice by losing interest in politics altogether.

This rift can be narrowed by garnering the political interest of those in their twenties and thirties. The Japanese government must show that it genuinely concerned with the problems that today’s youth are facing—such as the economic instability and a weakening sense of community—and intends to take on a leading role in addressing such issues.

One doesn’t need to look at social indicators like the Gini coefficient to see that the level of intergenerational inequality is rising in Japan—young people mired in poverty is no longer a rare phenomenon. For all its metropolitan allure, in recent years people who seem to be in their mid-twenties can be seen in tent-villages to survive the winter cold in Tokyo’s major parks. Increasing rates of unemployment, underemployment, and a precipitous decline in living standards amongst Japan’s youngest generation will prove costly over the long-run: after a while, it will be nearly impossible to turn these people into productive tertiary-sector workers.

Only when the Japanese government finally provides the catalyst for political concern amongst the younger strata will we finally begin to see real changes in Japan’s graying democracy, and thus a turnaround in a country headed for long-term decline. Without addressing Japan’s fatally flawed “democracy,” future prospects for the country will undoubtedly remain bleak.

Two decades of pitiful economic growth have certainly taken their toll on people’s spirits. Without the energy and activism of the young, the rays of a brighter future will never penetrate the omnipresent gray clouds that have been looming over Japan’s populace for far too long.

//By Ryo TAKAHASHI

Democracy’s Growth Pains

Friday, November 19th, 2010

One of the things that Nel Noddings analyses in the opening pages of his book “Educating Citizens for Global Awareness” is social and cultural diversity. Noddings states that “diversity” involves “racial, ethnic, and religious differences” while disregarding physical appearances of individuals. In other words, Noddings considers “diversity” along lines of cultural heritage—which, of course, is defined by the social, historical, and cultural context of the people in question.

In his book, Noddings states that recognizing the importance of “diversity” is paramount to the creation of “pluralism,” that is, “sharing power with all those affected by policies and decisions.” By this Noddings means that in order to construct a rich political sphere that is representative of the myriad discrepancies that make up the populace, we must recognize that the “public” is not one homogenous mass but rather one that is made up of an people of eclectic backgrounds.

The thrust of Noddings’s argument concludes with the remark that “diversity, pluralism, and multiculturalism—rightly understood—protect us from our worst social/political impulses.” Although Noddings does not provide historical examples of such cases, one can easily make a link between his argument (which is an abstract truism) and say, some of the real, harrowing events which serve as examples to verify his claim (like the Holocaust and the oft-overlooked yet no less horrifying genocide of the Chinese committed by Japan during WWII).

Yet one cannot help but question the limits to Noddings’s rosy vision of a public sphere where minorities and marginalized people can freely express their opinion. Noddings seems to accept the deliberative democracy envisioned by Jager Habermas in his book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1961)—that is, a democracy that functions healthily by taking into account the multitude of opinions of a non-homogenous populace.

There are many thinkers today who challenge such optimism. Chandal Mouffe is one such thinker, and her argument about agonistic pluralism, that is pluralism where differences are the source of friction rather than deliberation, is convincing enough—after all, is it really possible to completely ignore conspicuous disparities between people of different cultural heritage and view each other as equal citizens who share a common heritage?

Mouffe’s antithesis to Habermas’s claims can also be applied to the argument put forth by Noddings—a deliberative democracy assumes goodwill and well-reasoned, cool-headed (yet passionate) deliberation amongst people of differing backgrounds. Yet Mouffe says that this is impossible; as human beings, we cannot help but recognize our differences, and it is through recognizing these differences in an agonistic way that we can really express, and hope to overcome, our grievances.

At present, those of the deliberative democracy camp and the agonistic pluralism camp have dug their heels firmly into the ground to challenge the other on ideological and conceptual grounds. This all comes to show that present structuralized forms of democracy are well overdue for a serious update, and its flaws once again unearthed.

Once such flaws are unearthed and tended to, we may be able to finally water down the stereotypes and biases so prevalent in the world today and strive for a truly global, peaceful coexistence amongst the people (and hopefully in a green earth too!)

 //By Ryo TAKAHASHI

[Poem] At First

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

At first I had thought I would hate this class,
It’d be another irrelevant pass,
But now I admit I find myself corrected,
My interest in writing has been resurrected.

She stood in the front of the unwelcoming room,
And I felt like I was stuck in an old tomb.
She told us she’d grade us very harshly
I prayed to God and hoped for her pity.

But when we began to write
Gone was my earthen plight
Soon enough my mind was brimming with thoughts
That could not be restrained by glue or knots.

Like a faucet that leaks endlessly more
One twist then two twists then three twists then four
My passion for writing has multiplied fourscore
Making me become someone different from before.

So take pencil in hand and voyage the seas
Or close your eyes and hoard honey with bees.
I’ve learnt from you that while you plea
Your heart and mind will not be free.

//By Ryo TAKAHASHI

Japan’s Identity Crisis

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

The chapter “Ethnic Diversity and Citizenship Education in Japan” in the textbook “Diversity and Citizenship Education: Global Perspectives”  is a rather scathing critique of the Japanese government’s backwardness. The government, despite egregious indicators suggesting otherwise, has continued to preach the notion of a homogonous Japan.

This façade obviously cannot hold  for long. Borders between countries are becoming ever the more porous, and Japan is already finding itself in the throes of globalization’s turbulence. Even if the government doesn’t recognize a multicultural Japan, they’ll have to recognize it when the ministries are swarmed with trick-or-treaters from all across the world nagging at their sleeves for candy.

Of course, the rational hunch would be that the Japanese government officials are fully aware of Japan’s future as being inevitably awash with foreigners, and they’re probably just as equally aware of the outdated notions of the “pure and homogonous Japan” that they’re trying to peddle with increasing desperation. It is all most likely their way of buying time before the day of reckoning.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s book “utsukushii kuni he [To a Beautiful Country]” really comes to mind in terms of rising nationalistic sentiments amongst the Japanese people. The book’s notoriously nationalistic overtones is probably matched only by Masahiko Fujiwara’s “Kokka no hinkaku [The dignity of the State].” Both are, quite conspicuously, attempts to try and resurrect a national identity amongst the Japanese people.

As Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, the author of the chapter eloquently pointed out, the sense of collective identity has continued to decline precipitously in Japan. But efforts like Abe and Kiichi’s are counterproductive: any man with a morsel of liberal education will be able to quickly spot the words which connote the arousal of nationalistic fervor.

What we really need, then, is a new generation of Japanese who consider themselves members of one multicultural global village.

//By Ryo TAKAHASHI

Japan: The Place that Never Existed

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

The French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, a man who advanced new frontiers in linguistics in the 19th to 20th century, once observed that “every language is a complete system of signs.” His work in linguistics led him to differentiate between signifiers (the symbol, or word) and the signified (the object that is brought to mind).

Nearly a century later, a Frenchman by the name of Roland Barthes would step foot onto Japanese soil. Barthes, who devoted much of his life to sociology and lexicology, was intrigued by the country.

So intrigued, in fact, that he would go on to write an entire book—Empire of Signs—on his observations of Japan in 1972.

His initial quest was simple, audacious, and fascinating; Barthes would go to Japan although he spoke no Japanese.

And thus Barthes’s journey began:

“The murmuring mass of an unknown language constitutes a delicate protection, envelops the foreigner in an auditory film which halts at his ears all the alienations of the mother tongue: the regional and social origins of whoever is speaking, his degree of culture, of intelligence, of taste, the image by which he constitutes himself as a person and which he asks you to recognize.” (p.9)

Yet Barthes could not have been ever the happier:

“What a respite! Here I am protected against stupidity, vulgarity, vanity, wordliness, nationality, normality,” Barthes notes exuberantly. He then goes on to play observant: “the unknown language, of which I nonetheless grasp the respiration, the emotive aeration, in a word the pure significance, moves around me, as I move, a faint vertigo, sweeping me in its artificial emptiness, which is consummated only for me: I live in the interstice, delivered from any meaning.” (p.9)

Eventually, Barthes reaches the conclusion that Japan is, as the title suggests, an empire of signs devoid of meaning. He arrives at this conclusion from his analysis of Japanese haiku, gastronomy, and city planning.

Starting with Haiku, he first enumerates a few such as:

I come by the mountain path.
Ah! This is exquisite!
A violet!
-
Basho (p.71)

Which leads him to conclude that “The haiku wakens desire: how many Western readers have dreamed of strolling through life, notebook in hand, jotting down ‘impressions’ whose brevity would guarantee their perfection, whose simplicity would attest to their profundity.”

This basic analysis leads to a much deeper observation: “there is a moment when language ceases, and it is this echoless breach which institutes at once the truth of Zen and the form—brief and empty—of the haiku.” (p.74)

What Barthes is thus talking about is haiku’s attempt to elucidate the lack of a Saussurian signifier to accurately represent the Saussurian signified. In other words, he realizes in haiku a certain form of arresting silence that talks quite loudly to the soul in the most ineffable of manners.

Likewise, in the field of gastronomy, Barthes notes Japan’s emphasis of lightness rather than the rich and creamy tastes preferred in his France:

“For us, in France, a clear soup is a poor soup; but her the lightness of the bouillon, fluid as water, the soybean dust or minced green beans drifting within it, the rarity of the two or three solids which divide as they float in this little quantity of water give the idea of a clear density, of a nutrivity without grease, of an elixir all the more comforting in that it is pure.” (p.14)

By stumbling upon Japan’s emphasis on things that are clear, pure, and silent, Barthes triumphantly lands upon one more triumphant find: the lack of a “Center” in Tokyo.

Again, Barthes begins his observations with what he’s used to seeing at home—a concentric city with the center filled with churches, offices, banks, and other key functions of civilization. In contrast, “the city I am talking about (Tokyo) offers this precious paradox: it does possess a center, but this center is empty. The entire city turns around a site both forbidden and indifferent, a residence concealed beneath foliage, protected by moats, inhabited by an emperor who is never seen.” (p.31)

Thus Tokyo’s ominous center imposes the stillness of nothing amongst the daily havoc of a typical modern city.

And thus, concludes Barthes, “daily, in their rapid, energetic, bullet-like trajectories, the taxis avoid this circle, whose low crest, the visible form of invisibility, hides the sacred ‘nothing.’ [Tokyo] is thereby built around an opaque ring of walls, streams, roofs, and trees whose own center is no more than an evaporated notion, subsisting here, not in order to irradiate power, but to give to the entire urban movement the support of its central emptiness […] in this manner, we are told, the system of the imaginary is spread circularly, by detours and returns the length of an empty subject.” (p.31-32)

Welcome to Japan—the land that has never existed.

//By Ryo TAKAHASHI