Thursday, September 15, 2005

Back in America

I am once again sitting here at my much beloved desk in the lovely town of Boulder Colorado USA suffering from an excruciating case of jet lag. Some folks have the international travel bit down pat. I am not one of them. I’m seriously considering tooth picks props or perhaps large shots of adrenaline injected directly into my eyelids.

As I recover, I’ve been catching up on emails and a bit of reading. The trip to Japan was wonderful and remarkably busy. My secret plans for spending 40 to 80 hours slaved to an internet terminal were fortunately left unrealized. Luckily, I did get lots of time to write so there will be several articles forthcoming.

Some notes and musings from Japan…

The DS rocks as a portable platform in Japan
I used my DS mercilessly on long train rides and momentary stops during our extensive and epic shopping excursions. I appreciated the solid battery life and the fact that it was built like a tank. Half the time, I just left it in my pocket. The ability to pause the game instantly by closing the screen was a relationship saver. Taking five seconds to save a game is a huge no-no when the purchasing decision between two types of cute socks hangs on the line.

And did I mention the games? There’s a mess of them out in Japan that makes the DS a far more mature platform than it is in the US. Not everyone needs 3 mahjong titles, but I like platforms that have enough room for niches. We picked up Band of Brothers, a mahjong title and Brain Training. I’m having a blast watching Aya and her reaction to the various titles. She rarely games, but it appears that when you can take a game and tie it to a real world interest or goal, there is a much better connection. This bodes well for the serious games movement.

Japan knows consumerism
Shopping has been raised to an all encompassing art form. The wrapping paper, the polite clerks who seems to actually enjoy their jobs, the 5-stories of toy figurines shopping madness…it all brings a deep warmth to my capitalistic heart. And a stabbing pain to my wallet.

The vast majority of Japanese production never makes it outside of Japan (two-way foreign trade in 2003 was only 18% compared to 60% in China). The result is a rich ecosystem of Japanese producers serving Japanese specific needs. Items such as toilets, trains, red bean desserts are raised to almost insane levels of perfection. Combine this with one of the largest middle classes in the world, both highly educated and flush with disposable income. The result is an unending sea of excellent shops all competing based off their highly polished marketing, messaging and customer experience. Bad stores simple don’t survive.

When my fiancé complained that shopping in America was limited, I brushed it aside as the misplaced reminiscence of an ex-pat. Oh my god. Was I ever wrong. Shopping in America sucks. You were so right and I will never doubt you again in things related to shopping.

The competitive Japanese environment results in a rapid vetting of consumer trends. Certainly there are fads, but there are also deeper trends that can be witnessed. It makes me wonder about gaming in America. Video game sales are declining in Japan ( and if you treat them as a focus group for hyper informed consumers perhaps they are onto something. The reasons given? Increased cell phone usage and the same old genres catering to an increasingly hardcore fan base ( Will Americans wake up in a few years and figure out that the current game genres are boring, repetitious and that there are other uses for their valuable time?

I guess we’ll simply need to wait three years until cell phones in America are as good as those currently in Japan. Then we’ll see if the American video game market is still thriving.

Kawaii rules
I’ve been a closet fan of all things small and cute my entire life. It just sort of happened from an early age and I never really noticed it. The yellow New Beetle, the tiny Sony boom box, my miniature Panasonic A100 phone. It’s all so obvious in retrospect.

Visiting Japan was like being gay, living in Utah all your life and then one day getting a chance to visit San Francisco. Cute cars, cute phones, cute toys all out in the open, being used by common men and women as if it was the most natural activity in the world. Japan is a virtual orgy of unrestricted cuteness. My Puritan forefathers would be appalled. I was in heaven.

If you look at Japan’s future economic plans, they will be moving away from a manufacturing base, increase their technology spending, and begin investing more in their cultural exports such as anime, music, fashion and games. With China sitting next door and rapidly gaining high end production techniques, Japan sees its position as a creative brain trust to be the most defensible long term strategy. If their plans succeed, Japan with its export friendly kawaii-crazed culture becomes a major influencer of our cultural trends.

Manga is finally taking off in the US. Anime is growing in popularity. Video games are here to stay. Of EGM’s 2003 list of top 100 titles, a full 93 were Japanese in origin. Perhaps one day, my unnatural attraction to things that are cute will become normal, even celebrated.

Until then, I have my new Panda-Z toys. Sweet urban hip cuteness has never been so great.

America is sometimes hard to appreciate
In comparison, America seems like some post-USSR monstrosity. The cars-truck abominations are crude and lumbering, the airports attendees are rude and the shopping is like being processed in cattle plant. The politics make me cringe and the rolling suburban plains of Denver seem like some post apocalyptic wasteland.

Ah, the ennui of jetlag. Why is it that I only feel culture shock when I return to the US, not when I leave? :-)

All and all a wonderful vacation. Many thanks go out to Aya’s family who made us feel welcomed beyond all my expectations. I hope to return soon.

Take care