Returning From Japan

by David J. Cunningham
Tue Sep 11 2018

[A repost from November 2017]

Japan is a fascinating and beautiful place. For two weeks this November, I was able to tour and experience some of what it had to offer. I visited Kyoto, Nara, Nikko, and Tokyo, and came away with some strong impressions.

One big lesson that I took away from my visit is that doing things right matters. One of my greatest frustrations in my day to day life in the US is seeing people that don't care to do their jobs properly, and products that were made with little attention to detail or quality. This approach to business and creation is alienating from the customer and user perspective, and enough of it can lead to disillusionment about the state of modern technology and business. Japan seems to embody the philosophy of doing things properly, with attention to detail, if you're going to do them at all. This can be seen in their spotless cities, their sanitation, their landscaping, their food, technology and art. It is deeply satisfying from a user/visitor perspective to be surrounded by this. As a creator or entrepreneur, people recognize when you took the time to ensure their satisfying experience

Lean methodology seems to promote release of the imperfect, dirtier product as part of the natural path toward the eventual release of a more pristine one. I think this philosophy need not clash with the pursuit of high quality customer experience previously mentioned, but too many creators and organizations quit developing something once it has produced a steady enough income or they have found something else shiny to chase, leaving the proverbial store shelves filled with shoddy, mediocre products. The end goal should still be a satisfactory user experience with any product endeavor.

Another lesson I learned is that a smile and a cheerful attitude go a long way. I can't count the number of times in the US I have been in a generous, productive mood, only to be met by a surly, impatient stranger or customer representative, and have left with a bad taste in my mouth. This kind of interaction, continually experienced, also engenders a sense of disillusionment. Though this is not universal of Japan, I found that in general, the people of Japan make a point to bring forth a cheerful attitude to strangers or customers whenever they can help it. Encountering this ethos throughout each day sharply contrast the feelings I am left with after, say, a particularly hectic weekend traversing New York City. Cheerfulness and positivity cost you nothing, and can pay huge dividends in the form of good will from the recipients, whether they be customers, potential friends, or possible professional connections.

Another lesson is that less can be so much more. You can see this in zen architecture and gardening, in sushi, and in much modern Japanese interior design. The distillation to the essence of what is important in your creation can really clarify its beauty and functionality. Don't be afraid to strip away the rest and bare the soul of what you have built.

One last lesson was a reminder: if you are trying to decide whether to try something unexpected or unplanned or simply stay the course, you'll almost never regret trying it out, but the same can't be said the other way around. An afternoon I spent exploring every nook and cranny of Akihabara - essentially, the geek district of Tokyo - provided hours of bizarre and fascinating entertainment. It may not always be a slam dunk, but you will almost always come out having learned something, or at least having made some interesting and worthwhile new memories.

I am flying back home across the Pacific Ocean now, and I will miss this place. I hope to come back soon.