Tokyo without tears: New impressions of Japan

editor's insight

Nevil Gibson

A subtle pronunciation difference demonstrates the contrast between New Zealand and Japanese business philosophies.

In a discussion on corporate responsibility at the high-rise Tokyo headquarters of Asahi Breweries (in middle of picture), company officials spoke of its “kando” philosophy, which prompted comparisons with the New Zealand “can do” attitude.

Kando means the spirit of achieving an “aha” moment in exceeding – not just fulfilling – a customer’s expectation.

The meeting occurred within hours of arriving in Japan at the newly built Haneda International Airport terminal, located in the city’s southern port district and offering an alternative international gateway to the much more distant Narita.

Haneda is just a short monorail trip from links with Tokyo’s subway and above-ground railway systems. After a 5.30am touchdown from Singapore, we were checking in at the Mercure Ginza just over an hour later and in time to avoid the morning rush.

Tokyo subway tips
Surely the world’s largest and most intricate, the Tokyo subway system, with 13 lines plus standard commuter and Shinkansen bullet train networks, is run by two outfits.

Tickets cover the entire system but knowing the fare charged on the various stops is sometimes hard to fathom, given the age of some ticketing machines despite their English aids.

But if you have miscalculated, your ticket will not work and you will soon be paying a “fare adjustment” to make up the difference. However, it doesn’t work the other way when you overpay, which is quite often.

The two subway operators, Tokyo Metro and Toei, offer specific one-day passes, which offer great savings from individual trips, but these can restrict your travel destinations unless you pay for all lines.

The smaller Toei is a bargain deal at just ¥500, which can take you to most key destinations, such as Asakusa, Ueno, Shinjuku and Tokyo central/Ginza.

The main national rail operator, JR, operates a ring-route above-ground line around Tokyo for a top fare of ¥190 and an hour’s worth travel around the near 30 stops.

Business etiquette in Japan
On arrival at Asahi HQ, one of Tokyo’s more distinctive towers in the northeastern Asakusa district, we meet four corporate-attired hosts, through we were somewhat under-dressed in jeans and heavy jackets.

Their first gesture was to offer a free drink from Asahi’s vending machine range – from hot and cold coffee, tea and milk beverages through to soft drinks and juices. Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines offer drinks from ¥100-200 but no alcohol. Cigarette machines require an ID.

For an hour, we discussed Asahi’s corporate responsibility policies and its $1.5 billion investments in New Zealand (Charlie’s and Independent Liquor). Asahi is a backer of Japan’s Stop! Campaign, which aims at ensuring young people adhere to the alcohol ban on under 20-year-olds.

It seems heavy drinking by this group is just as much a social problem as it is in other countries. Asahi is an integrated drinks company, which makes everything from spirits and RTDs through to beer and wine.

The business session was followed by lunch at one of Asahi Tower’s several restaurants on the 20th floor. This was an Italian themed eatery with a close up view of Tokyo’s latest major attraction – the Sky Tree Tower, just officially judged the world’s highest independent broadcasting tower at 634m. It is due to open to the public on May 22.

After lunch, it was on to Asahi’s Ibaraki brewery, on the express train to Japan’s science city, Tsukuba, and the northern outskirts of Tokyo. The suburban setting and large-scale greenfields housing development would not be out of place in New Zealand or Australia. The fast commuter train service has made these ‘burbs a viable option for middle class executives.

Sightseeing on the cheap
Our one-day plan started at Asakusa, near Asahi’s HQ, with its Nakamise Tourist Shopping Alley and the Sensoji Temple, proving no country escapes the vast array of trinklets, souvenirs and T-shirts, though most of the tourists were other Japanese followed by Chinese and Korean groups. CNN reports the Japanese tourism business has yet to recover from last year’s tsunami and nuclear disasters.

We were soon trapped by our first tout, a woman who said she was raising money to rebuild a “destroyed” Buddhist temple – the lowest “donation” was ¥2000 ($32.50). Meanly, we offered a ¥100 coin.

Even bigger numbers awaited us at Ueno’s Ameyoko shopping street, a few subway stops away. It was hard work as thousands crowded the narrow street seeking the New Year delicacy of crab legs being sold at every second stall.

We escaped to the nearby Ueno park, home to a large pond, several museums, a zoo and 1000 cherry trees. Though far from “green” in winter, the cloudless sky showed Japan’s first western-style park at its best for strolling and relaxing in the sun.

The retail habit was renewed a kilometre or so away at Akihabara, Tokyo’s Electric City and the place to go for hobbies and gadgets as well as the more conventional electronic equipment. It’s mainly window-shopping, except for some “duty free” export goods, which are no cheaper in Japan.

However, it’s a different story for hobbyists and collectors of Japanese action characters, trains, cars and aircraft models.

From Akihabara, it was a longish walk or short surface rail trip to northern end of the districts where the main sights are the Imperial Palace Gardens, specialist museums, such as those for communications, science and currency, and the financial centre.

For us, it was a full circle trip that took in at least half of Tokyo in a day, leaving the rest of the evening for visits to the main night-life areas.

As the Ginza, with its Manhattan-sized collection of giant department stores and luxury goods stores, was well beyond our price range or interest in most goods, except for one music store, we tested Shinjuku, on the western side of Tokyo.

Our one-day pass took us first to Roppongi Hills, with its Mori tower for the best sky-top view at night, large cinema complex (and best bookshop) and public artworks displays, and then to Shinjuku.

From the outside, it was as garish and outlandish as you would expect in any red light district – but with no sign of the sleaziness or (feeling of danger) that comes with public drunkenness and obvious crime.

Toilets and other sights
A couple of days down and we were already looking hard for other attractions. We opted for the seaside to make the most of another sunny, though cold, day. Specifically, Tokyo’s Odaiba district and one of its best harbour redevelopment projects.

Odaiba and neighbouring Toyosu are on a single rail line that uses rubber wheeled, driverless “sky” trains. We were drawn to Toyota’s displays of new cars and design centre, the giant 250m ferris wheel and a shopping centre called Venus Fort that boasts it is Japan’s largest outlet mall.

Toyosu has several large malls laid out to resemble large ocean liners. Tokyu Hands, which sells a vast array of classy household gadgets (we bought a pair of Mukky Hands rubber gloves for cleaning potatoes and carrots), and a KinoKuniya bookshop were just some that caught the eye.

Food Circus brought new meaning to the term “fast food” – on entering you were given a reservation marker to save a table and plastic cards on which you could “charge” your choice from a dozen different cooking stations.

At the end, you paid only once for whatever you had billed on the card. Smart and quick, leaving the chefs, servers and cleaners to concentrate on their main tasks.

Did I mention the toilets? No visitor to Japan fails to wonder why the Toto technology has not been universally exported. No matter how humble the public toilet, all are equipped the same as in a luxury hotel with a combination bidet that all but removes the need for paper. (Though we found one exception in a sushi train restaurant in Omotesano, Tokyo’s equivalent of Rodeo Drive.)

Because the Ginza was our home base, we saved it until last by visiting the Imperial Hotel, where I stayed in grandeur on an earlier trip to Tokyo. It is one of the few places I know where you can buy the Western newspapers that are printed in Tokyo but still hard for tourists to find: International Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.

The stalwarts of the Japanese English-language press, the Japan Times and the Daily Yomiuri, are more common but are mainly aimed at residents in Japan, not visitors. The Nikkei Weekly sums up the business week but is mainly about new products and processes.

Car-spotting in Ginza
Tokyo Drift was one of the better films in The Fast and the Furious series. We were more interested in luxury cars than boy racer machines.

The Imperial visit netted the largest collection so far for my car-spotting companion. We saw a $2 million Wald International customised Black Bison Rolls Royce Phantom, several Bentleys (including a 2011 Continental GT Roadster), the new Ferrari FF, a Mitsuoka (a Japanese coachbuilder of British-style sports and luxury cars), an Audi R8 (his favourite), a Lotus Elise and a yellow Lamborghini Gallardo, not to mention Porsches, Maseratis, Abarths, Chryslers, Mercedes SLKs, a BMW650i and other exotic breeds that prove Japan is not just a country of generic automobiles.

Ginza showrooms featured Minis on steroids and the no-emissions Nissan Leaf while Toyota featured its just launched hybrid Aqua, based on the Yaris, and a redesigned grunty-looking FJ Cruiser Fenwick in black livery.

Car-spotting is best done along Omotesando’s main boulevard, where on a Sunday afternoon we saw classic sports cars mingling with luxury sedans and over-sized SUVs.

Business conditions
It is difficult to assess a country’s economic health from a cursory surface examination. We only experienced packed trains and railway stations, crowded subways and shopping streets, and fully booked hotels, admittedly at a peak holiday time.

But the figures cannot lie.

Japan’s big businesses, and some of its smaller ones with global aspirations, doubled its spending to a record $U86 billion on foreign investment in 2011, as the manufacturing and export sector shed jobs due to the impact of the strong currency, which is at historic highs.

This, plus the impact of the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and consequent Fukushima nuclear disaster, has also deterred tourism, with foreign visitor numbers dropping a record 25% last year.

The sharemarket fell 18% in 2011, one of the worst performances in Asia, and bringing the market to its lowest in 40 years.

On the jobs front, the growth of lower-paid jobs in the services sectors and healthcare does not compensating for the decline in manufacturing. The employment of people as security and parking attendants, even when they are unnecessary, is still rife, though that will have to change.

Official statistics this week showed the number of 20 year olds on New Year’s Day were for the first time fewer than half the peak in 1970 and at a record low for the fifth successive year.

This means Japan’s ageing population is no longer a projection but a reality.

Political climate
This is also hard to gauge as an outsider. Political gridlock and indecision is generally blamed for the lack of economic progress over two decades, except for a five-year spurt under the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi.

These are the facts: five prime ministers in the past five years; the main party leaders are elected every two or three years; the two houses of the Diet (Parliament) are controlled respectively by opposed political groupings and are elected on differing election cycles; and all but budget bills need a two-thirds majority to over-ride a vote in the upper house.

While the public, and the media, can now react immediately to government proposals through public opinion polls, the political process is seen as unable to deliver results the voters say they want.

Some critics say the closed nature of the system, which lacks women and other diverse views, including those that advocate liberalisation of the economy in the interests of consumers, needs to change to attract better talent.

The handling of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, by both the power company and the government, has been a watershed.

Public trust in officialdom has decreased sharply, with many realising the local media (minus a few exceptions) was part of a culture in which accountability and transparency were missing in the country’s greatest natural disaster.

The Olympus corporate scandal, which was exposed after the sacking of the British chief executive, merely added to a pervasive mood that change is necessary but no one is capable of making it happen.

For their part, Japanese businesses are more focused than ever on global activities and, in the long run, this may mean more chance of Japan reclaiming the influence the befits a world-leading economy.

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3 Comments & Questions

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How was the smoking ban working? The one that's far too hard to implement here...

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Hey Neville

Given that you are an outsider and state the obvious that you can't make judgement on the Japanese economy, how about interviewing some expat kiwis who have been in Japan for a while and can explain what is going on? Then you wouldn't be able to claim ignorance.
You should be able to get quite a range of opinions from which you can sift the facts and get some very pertinent data points.

I'm sure the embassy and trade commission can point you in the right direction.

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One of the better quick 'over views' I've read recently. Used to go up regularly for work and retain many business & personal contacts constantly in touch. I think you crammed a lot into a few days, but isn't that always the case up there. Enjoyable reading.

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