Tokyo 21 Oct 2011

Japan, in my opinion, is perhaps the best example of how a country and its people adopt and adapt foreign ideas and put them to good use in their own way, often improving on the original.  Being a dual citizen of Japan and the United States, I’ve experienced this phenomenon first hand over the years.  My current trip to Tokyo is a great opportunity for me to see this in current form.

It’s well established that Japan has benefitted over the centuries by borrowing foreign ideas, selectively adopting the best of breed available at the time.  Japanese written language, governance structure and Zen form of Buddhism are just few examples of adaptation of Chinese and Indian imports. Japanese arts and crafts owe much to the Korean artisans of the past.

View of Mount Fuji from Harajuku, part of the Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō series by Hiroshige, published 1850

This is not to say  that the Japanese do not have original ideas or innovation of their own.  As an architect, I appreciate the fact that an idea born in Japan,  Ukiyo-e,  has significantly influenced Western Art. In fact, Ukiyo-e has defined a different way of representing 3-dimensional space than the western perspective created in the Renaissance period. Visit the home studio of Claude Monet in Giverny and you’ll see numerous original Ukiyo-e hung on his walls.

What enables the Japanese to rapidly assimilate foreign ideas is their open-mindedness and imagination to abstract and apply concepts to their own environment.

So what is going on in Tokyo today?

Tokyo has always been the lifestyle trend-setting capital of Japan.  You might see glimpses of Paris, New York, Amsterdam and other foreign capitals of the world represented in parts of Tokyo.  Tokyo districts like Harajuku for fashion and Akihabara for commercial technologies  set the trend for all of Japan to follow.  Needless to say, these two districts were high on my itinerary.


The first phenomenon that’s different from my last trip to Tokyo is the recent infatuation with the iPhone.  Riding on the crowded  subways or having dinner with my friends in Tokyo, it seems Tokyo-ites have fallen in love with the iPhone.  The folks I met generally fall into two categories: either they have an iPhone or they want one. Within a week of the new iPhone4S announcement, many are already using it. Its cousin, the iPad, is everywhere in Tokyo as well.  I love my iPhone, but in Japan, it is a lifestyle defining platform.  More than once, I’ve heard their sentiment on how much Steve Jobs will be missed.  The entire first floor of the institution of tech geek and gadgetry, Yodobashi in Akihabara, is all about the iPhone 4S and its endless racks of accessories, as far as my eyes can see.  My friends at Nihon Cisco and KDDi claim the recent surge in smartphone popularity is causing a sharp increase in demand for additional internet infrastructure.

Carpenters shaping huge timber beams with power tools

Walking in the back streets of Meiji-Jingumae district, I came upon a small construction site.  Upon closer look, there were carpenters shaping huge timber beams, presumably replacing some centuries-old counterparts in a neighboring shrine.  What was very dismaying to me is that the carpenters were using powered planes to shape the huge timbers, not the traditional hand planes that the carpenters used for centuries.

The Japanese Saw (nokogiri 鋸), the Japanese Plane (kanna 鉋), and the Japanese Chisel  (nomi 鑿) define the essence of Japanese carpentry and elevate it to a state of art, if not Zen. “This is sacrilege!”,  I thought.  Is there no respect for tradition?  Such is the new landscape of idea arbitrage.

Harajuku - early morning scene

Harajuku seems to have lost a bit of its former edginess in fashion.  The outlandish kitsch outfit has become mundane.  And speaking of kitsch in general, the commercialization of kitsch and in some respects idea arbitrage is part of “Zakka”  (雑貨)  lifestyle.

Wikipedia definition: “Zakka (from the Japanese ‘zak-ka’ (or ‘many things’) is a fashion and design phenomenon that has spread from Japan throughout Asia. The term refers to everything and anything that improves your home, life and appearance. It is often based on household items from the West that are regarded as kitsch in their countries of origin, but it can also be Japanese goods, mainly from the fifties, sixties, and seventies… Zakka has also been described as “the art of seeing the savvy in the ordinary and mundane”. The zakka boom could be recognized as merely another in a series of consumer fads, but it also touches issues of self-expression and spirituality. ”

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai's most famous print, the first in the series 36 Views of Mount Fuji

Ideas transported across great distances and time….’Zakka’ is just another manifestation of idea arbitrage.