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Visiting Japan at the end of August was a once in a lifetime trip; or so I thought until I was three days into the visit. I will be going back, again and again, if at all possible.
I spent the bulk of my visit in the Tokyo area and the city has leapt above Beijing and New York as my favourite destination, though I also thoroughly enjoyed visits to Osaka, Kyoto, Mount Fuji and Kamakura.
With its neon-lit modern buildings, the result of restoration following the Second World War, and beautifully preserved historic temples and gardens, Tokyo has all of the aesthetics and attractions of both of those cities, but somehow gives more, in terms of the understated warm welcome, cleanliness, feeling of safety, eastern wackiness, great food…and shopping.
My wife and I had come to expect an expensive time, but were very pleasantly surprised. Fashion prices were on a par with UK retailers, though there was much more for men (Marui, in Shinjuku, is a five-storey men’s department store, and the more expensive Isetan Men is a higher fashion alternative, with amazing pieces from the likes of Givenchy and Yohji Yamamoto, best known in this country as Adidas’ collaborator on the trendy Y-3 range). Food and drink were reasonably priced; think Newcastle or York prices, not London or Dublin.
As one might expect, there were some very interesting things to learn from the business practices of this very savvy nation, even for a casual tourist; not all of which I would like to see adopted here. Some were simply smart moves for a better economy. For example, the markets and street vendors common in Beijing, selling counterfeit goods, were not to be found. We were told, simply, that they were bad for business. The thriving retail outlets across the cities we visited were testament to the success of this strategy.
However, for many, work hours are long. The former standard of a six day week has been shortened to five days, though some employers continue to demand the same hours are squeezed into the reduced time frame. Others still insist on more days. A Tokyo-based friend we spent time with had worked 8am to 10pm, Monday to Friday, in the previous week, while her husband met us after work on the Saturday and returned to work after lunch on the Sunday. Seven days was their normal maximum allocation for any one holiday and our two-week trip was the envy of our Japanese friends.
In terms of business communications, there was also a stark difference to be noted, at least from my own personal experience. It is the norm that an individual will arrive at work on a morning and check their e-mails for the first time that day. They will then shut down their e-mails until they are ready to leave the office at the end of the day, when they will check them for the second and final time. Checking your e-mail at home, out of hours, is an alien concept to the people we met. If someone wants to contact you, they pick up the phone. I recognise this is not always practical, and certainly in our business there is the risk of missing an opportunity for our clients, should we shut down our e-mails for the bulk of the day. However, we have to ask if there is something to be learned in terms of retaining the art of verbal communication above such things as a hastily knocked out e-mail or the grammatical devil that is text speak.
The UK can certainly learn a lot from the Japanese telecommunications and rail infrastructure. The coverage of 3G in Japan is vast in comparison to the UK. So much so, I was able to hire a pocket wi-fi, no larger than a mobile phone, which utilised this 3G to create a personal wi-fi hot spot in excess of 40MBPS (devices providing more than 70MBPS were available, but surplus to my needs and the coverage at this level was limited to some extent). Not only was this a hugely valuable research asset – and a great help in finding my way around – it meant that even at Stage 5 of Mount Fuji, I had better wi-fi than I have from the fibre in my own home. It was certainly a reality check to land at Heathrow and quickly find my phone wavering between E and GPRS during a weekend in the Home Counties.
The rail network was also superb. Having left the North East with news ringing in my ears that the trains on my local line – still the same archaic beasts of my childhood trips from Shildon to Darlington – were not to be upgraded, with, surprise-surprise, the South East getting the investment, the Japanese system was a marvel. Punctuality and comfort were the key words and “standard” Japan Rail services were up there with my First Class experiences of UK rail travel.
My lasting thought, however, came from the country’s political history. Having wrestled power from the Emperors, the Samurai ran the country up until as recently as 1867, when the two sides were once more in conflict; one side supported by the French, the other by the British. Fears were rising that one or other of these foreign powers would invade Japan. For the good of the sovereign nation, the Samurai Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, ceded power to a new Emperor and ended the conflict, leading to the Meiji Restoration and the start of a market economy in Japan, heavily influenced by Western society, but without being enforced by invasion and occupation. Personally, this seems a sensible and selfless act, for the good of the nation over personal power. Am I the only one who thinks there should be more of this type of thinking in world politics?