Stay in Bed (in Tokyo)

One hugely important benefit of foreign travel doesn't require long dinners, endless mid-summer museum queues, factory tours, and the like. While the museums and dinners and tours are invaluable, so is simple immersion in the local papers and magazines, assuming the country, like Japan where I am now, has a vigorous English-language press. Of course, what I'm about to report could be extracted from the Web, but at least for me, the antennae aren't likely to be fully tuned unless I'm on the ground with a pressing need (such as an imminent speech) to absorb some serious ambience. Hence what follows, from Nagano and Tokyo between August 4th and August 8th, was "work" done while reclining on a couple of pillows propped on my futon, fighting off jet lag:

(1) Competition in Japanese domestic markets is intensifying, the Nikkei Weekly reported on August 2nd. But winners are increasingly cut of a different-than-the-past stripe: "Low-price strategy is now outdated. Firms gaining more market share are fueled largely by the incorporation of design and unique functions into popular products." True, there's no Wal*Mart in Japan, but nonetheless I find the trend worthy of note. (Especially since I'm such a noisy design champion in general. And so annoyed that so damn few "get it.")

(2) "Japan Firms Count on High Tech," blares another Nikkei Weekly headline on August 2nd. Japan is appropriately obsessed with Chinese incursion into its markets at home and beyond. "Only original core technologies," the analysis begins, "will give Japanese corporations the edge needed to retain their top spots in global digital electronics markets." Japan depends far more on manufacturing than the U.S. or Europe (understatement!), and is in a panic about keeping a grip on traditional bases of competitive advantage. An op-ed piece in the Daily Yomiuri (8 August) makes the same point. "Japan's future," the article gravely intones, "depends upon its manufacturing industry. It is essential to retain within the country its core, cutting-edge technologies ... an environment in which one new technology after another can be created [by] keeping domestic manufacturers creative."

All this is in stark contrast to U.S. concerns. When we talk about manufacturing, it often seems, our sole concern is with keeping-protecting jobs "on shore" (think Lou Dobbs) and at any cost, not with competitiveness per se. On the other hand, I'm almost dumbstruck by the degree to which so many in Japan seem to be singing "manufacturing ... or death." While I am a technology fanatic of the first order, I see the future of high-wage nations largely as services-driven, albeit very, very high-tech services of the new-UPS variety.

(3) Singapore is services- (high-tech services) driven, but still not satisfied, as "off shoring" threatens its extraordinary performance of the last two decades. Hence the efficiency-fanatic Singaporeans are relentlessly seeking ... Cool! "Stimulus for Creativity," read the Japan Times August 6th headline. The story tells of Singapore going all out to beat Milan and Taipei to win hosting rights to the World Cyber Games 2005. (San Francisco hosts the 2004 WCG finals from the 6th to the 10th of October.) "The World Cyber Games," the article contends, "is a nice fit for Singapore's new program of promoting a creative industry sector in graphic design, game development, filmmaking and postproduction work." Bravo Singapore, per me!

(4) Is it just me? I work at keeping up, but I find day-to-day Asian news still short-changed by the U.S. biz press. (Admission: I don't read the Asian Wall Street Journal daily—I should!) (I will!) For example, consider just a couple more headlines from the August 2nd Nikkei Weekly: "Taiwan's Top Four Chipmakers Planning Record Spending on Production Capacity." Note: Similar U.S. investment spending still borders on the anemic. "Samsung Set to Boost Memory Output." Samsung is already # 1, but aims to thwart new Taiwanese and Japanese challenges. The "feel" of these headlines is important. All we Americans read about Taiwan has to do with National Security ... just a part of the picture in an increasingly muscular Asian economic renaissance.

(5) Trends increasingly start ... wherever. (Not just California—don't tell Arnie.) In particular, global tech trends often are born in Japan. So consider the two pieces I read in that dog-eared Nikkei Weekly. The first, titled "Bathrooms Become Entertainment Centers," describes a flood of products aimed at moving electronic virtuosity into the land of the shower, sink, and crapper. Wow! The second, "Washer/Dryers Take Drudgery Out of Dishes," reveals that the demand for tabletop dishwasher-dryers in Japan has passed that for the built-in variety; sure, that's abetted by Japan's relatively low kitchen square footage, but my first reaction was, "Where can I get one? A.S.A.P.?"

So ends my little tour. I feel like a kid in an idea candy store when I'm out of the country, particularly when I'm in Asia. So much going on beyond our borders! The planet is not just the U.S.A. and the Middle East! I just turned in my 10-year-old passport ... which included entry stamps from 51 countries. So I'm not parochial by most standards, and I do try ... but I really feel soooo xenophobic in outlook! What about you? And what do me/you/we do about it?