Tokyo, July 2010

The Imperial Hotel is an absolute knock-out. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, it is obviously beautiful. But everything about the place is first-class. The Japanese toilet with heated seat had all the buttons that make water spray into the right places and then it had an arm that offered warm air to drive those delicate body parts. The bathroom also offered a traditional Western bath/shower, but then they had a Japanese section where you could sit on a little stool and use the sprayer to cleanse yourself, just as I had done at the onsen. There was a little mirror there so I could also shave while sitting there. Very civilized.

You didn’t have to bother putting out a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door knob. That was all electronic. Just push a button by the door to tell the maids not to disturb you or to make up the room. And did they ever make up the room. We were not around much when they did it but it appears that an army of people descended, all dressed in black and white uniforms. If Rita left a cup of tea on the desk, they would put a Kleenex over it. One person checked the mini-bar in a kind of religious quest for thoroughness. (We didn’t use anything from it, of course.)

The concierges spoke English and would help us make arrangements. Because of computerization and because of Japan’s strength in printers, the concierge would be able to print out a map, in color, of wherever we were going. They went to great lengths to book seats at the kabuki or help us organize the train ride to Kamakura. It is a precisely organized society that demands a high level of attention to detail.

It was a shock to eat at the hotel–$10 for a cup of coffee and $25 for a turkey sandwich. So we tended to get breakfast at the Starbucks about a block away, and we tended to eat at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan.
The location was just superb. I could sally forth, as I did one morning, to run around the Imperial Palace. We could walk to the FCCJ, and both Marunouchi and the Ginza were within easy walking distance.

As we had in the country, we kept seeing lots of pet dogs, particularly in residential districts like Minato-ku. We saw papillon, huskies, shitsus and other expensive breeds. In Minato-ku, we even saw a dog parlor where customers can buy home made biscuits and designer leashes and designer collars for their dogs. This is something I have never seen before in Japan.

The business district of Marunouchi has been completely redeveloped, thanks to major roles played by the trading companies that are headquartered in the area. Mitsubishi has developed a brick courtyard, with a museum showing Manet. Mitsui has built a major movie complex. The Japanese seem to be nuts for movies, mostly Japanese and European. No American films to be seen. Groups of women starting lining up in the morning to go to the movies. Newspapers are filled with ads for movies. The Japanese did not use to have time for so many movies. Now they do. They also can be seen sitting in Starbucks (another new phenomenon) at 10 or 11 a.m. in the morning. People have time and money, more so than I’ve ever seen before.

As we move around Tokyo, I also see a surprising number of sleek gyms. The Japanese used to have to work all the time. Now they have time to go to the gym. The days when the Japanese literally worked themselves to death, a syndrome called karoshi, are long gone.

In general, the Japanese are placing a major emphasis on improving their lifestyles and that means coming up with distinctive looks and distinctive hobbies. This is another one of the many contradictions of Japanese society. As a whole, they are conforming because they are all seeking to differentiate and to improve their quality of lives. In that sense, the old conformism is still in place. But as individuals, the Japanese are displaying more unique identities with their clothes and accoutrements.

I’m struck by the number of bakeries selling croissants and other high end yum-yums. The shopping in Maronouchi and the Ginza is just incredible. It puts Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue in New York to shame, both in size and sophistication. Rita felt that the styles on the Ginza were more akin to those of Soho or Chelsea—cutting edge, very hip.

A new Abercrombie & Fitch was opening on the Ginza and the line to get in stretched around the corner. At Salvadore Ferragano, a scarf cost $250 and at Louis Vuitton, bags in the wondow were going for $1,000 U.S. Lanvin, Mount Blanc, Hermes, Coach, Gucci, Pucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Tagheurer, Armani, Tiffany, Chanel, Prada, Dior, Valentino, Langchamp, Burberry, Mauboussin. Geox. They are all here. The Mitsukoshi Department store dominates the Ginza with several locations and it also is stuffed with the latest designer clothing and shoes, plus cosmetics. Shiseido is the emerging powerhouse in Japanese cosmetics. Rita was struck by an exhibit in the window of lipsticks that were assembled to look like a giant pair of women’s lips. Rita thinks that Japanese women have done a better job of becoming fashionable and attractive than the men have.

The Japanese are now buying European luxury cars like gangbusters. Rita and I were greatly surprised to see a steady parade of Porsches, Ferraris, Bentleys, Mercedes stream by one Sunday afternoon as we sit at a café having a beer. Even a Lotus. The Japanese always have had a smattering of foreign vehicles, but now the consensus has changed and it’s okay to buy these high-end vehicles, even if there is no place to truly open them up and see what they can do. They’re purely for display. This is another way that the Japanese are enjoying their wealth.

The subways system is one of the touchstones I use to observe change in Japan. Over the years, I’ve watched how technology has changed the system, which is an absolute marvel of sophistication and planning. Lights have now been added along the edge of the platform to show which way the train will be headed once it comes into the platform, lest anyone harbor any doubts. Signs show how many minutes it will be before the next train arrives.

The way one pays for a ride keeps evolving. It used to be that you paid with a simple plastic card, like a MetroCard in the New York subway. But now they are issuing smart cards called Pasmo. You have to put down a 500 Yen deposit and then you can put various amounts of money on the card. You simply swipe the card over a reader on the turnstile and it automatically deducts the fare from the card.

The subway system is fully linked to the JR national railway system. New York has Grand Central and Penn Station, but Tokyo has many more of these transportation hubs—Shinjuku and Shimbashi were two that we visited.
As a result of its mass transportation system, Japan has done a much better job that the United States in energy consumption. Gas costs about $6 a gallon, about on par with what it costs in Europe. That discourages the use of cars, certainly in Tokyo, and it’s one reason that the Japanese consume less per capita than Americans.

I keep coming back to the level of detail. In men’s toilets, there are hooks to hang an umbrella while one relieves onself in a urinal. Who thought about doing that and why did they feel it was necessary? In the entryways to public buildings, there are racks of plastic sleeves to use for one’s umbrella, if it is wet. There are also dispensers of hand cleanser in many key locations to cut down on the risk of infectious diseases.

Everywhere you turn, it seems the Japanese are obsessed with their devices. Iphones and Ipads are everywhere. At Narita, where we had to kill time, we watched Japanese young women on Facebook. They are a very plugged-in, high communication society. At least they are internally—one gets a sense that they are not truly engaging in a deep way with the outside world. They are drifting into the fortress mentality that I mentioned earlier.

So I ask whether the Japanese can sustain their economic power in the world or whether they will get lazy? I had an interesting conversation with Shin Horie, a top Japanese analyst at Goldman Sachs, on that subject. “People got so wealthy,” he says. “The younger generation has never seen poverty. They are very comfortable.”

He tells a story which is making the rounds in Japan. In the new class at Harvard University, 300 new students are Chinese, 200 are Korean and just two are from Japan. I haven’t confirmed the numbers, but the trend line seems to be accurate. The Japanese aren’t trying as hard as the Chinese and Koreans because they don’t perceive that they have to. Horie likens it to being a rich European nation. “Very few students have the incentive to try to go to Harvard. If you are born in Austria, why would you want to go to a U.S. university to compete so hard? There’s not much desire for the challenge because they don’t need it. They can be happily unemployed.” (Of course, Harvard has a reputation for letting its students take it easy, but the point of this story is that American universities in general are much more competitive than elsewhere.)

One has to be profoundly humble about what we can really understand about Japanese society and economy. It is a very complex country that operates on the basis of different values from our own. It is easy to project American values and therefore make basic mistakes about what is happening. But of this much I remain convinced: the obituaries that are being written about Japan in the Western media are simply not based on what is happening on the ground. They are ideological statements, not statements based on detailed observation of what is happening on the ground.

Share this article

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Email
  • RSS