Archive for June, 2011

Japan Market Expansion Competition 17

June 25, 2011

The JMEC 17 first place team: Marc Nyhan, Asami Okusawa, Mary Fidler, Kyoko Mikami and Soichi Koshikawa

Japan has often been considered a tough nut for foreign businesses to crack. In 1993, the Australia and New Zealand Chamber of Commerce in Japan decided to do something about that by establishing the Japan Market Expansion Competition, or JMEC. Now supported by 16 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan, it’s a contest in which businesspeople vie to see who can come up with the best plan for a foreign company to successfully introduce a product or service to the Japanese market.

Earlier this month, I attended the awards ceremony for the 17th annual JMEC in Tokyo. There were 10 teams this year. The photo above shows the winning team holding a glass trophy moments after their victory was announced. They had impressed the judges with a business plan they had come up with for Sumitomo 3M Ltd to introduce a certain new product to the Japanese market.

From the comments and demeanor of the people I saw and spoke with at the event, JMEC sounds like a kind of business boot camp (but in a good way).

It was a four-phase program that began in November. In Phase 1, the participants – young or young-ish businesspeople officially described as “English-speaking Japanese and non-Japanese individuals living and working in Japan who have a genuine interest in improving their business skills, broadening their business network and achieving higher career and personal goals” – attend a series of lectures and workshops by more experienced individuals.

This year there were 20 such presentations, on topics such as market research, financial analysis, public relations, meetings and business writing. Rikkyo University Prof. Roy Larke taught the participants about distribution in Japan, Thorsten Meyer of J Walter Thompson spoke about communication, Second Harvest Japan CEO Charles McJilton described how his NPO became a success, and so on.

Australian communications consultant Anthony Fensom, who was on the winning JMEC team in 2004 (and is a friend of mine), told me, “The lectures are really worth attending. I found that worthwhile just by itself.”

“You can read books about Japan, you can read articles, you can watch TV, but if you get lectures from people who are actually out there doing things – who have actually had hands-on experience in the Japanese business environment – that kind of advice is much more valuable than any book or any lecture by an academic that you could go to. So I think that was probably one of the best things about it, the fact that you had lectures from people who know what they are doing,” Fensom said.

After the classroom portion of JMEC, comes Phase 2, in which participants are divided into teams of five or six and assigned to write a business plan for a real-world company that wants to accomplish something in Japan. The firms involved this year included not only the giant Sumitomo 3M but smaller companies such as Internet phone-system provider PBXL and Finnish log home builder Honka. There was even one charity, the Tyler Foundation.

Each team works with a professional mentor. Fensom spoke highly of his team’s mentor, Greg Story. “He’d been in Japan for about 10 or 15 years, worked for Austrade, worked for Shinsei Bank, spoke Japanese pretty well. He was actually quite experienced in Japan. You don’t usually get that kind of access to that kind of knowledge in a regular course you might go to at university,” he said. (Story, now president of Dale Carnegie Japan, was one of the instructors for this year’s JMEC.)

According to the JMEC judges, each team spent a total of about 1,400 hours working on their business plans from January to April. One team put in nearly 2,000 hours. That’s the boot camp part.

But if the plans are good enough, they may be put into actual use. Most of the results are protected by nondisclosure agreements – to my own personal dismay – but JMEC does boast publicly about a couple of past projects. One business with its roots in a JMEC project is GoLloyds, a wire transfer service of which I have been a satisfied customer for years. When I first came to Japan, I had to use postal money orders to send money to the United States. It was a slow and tedious process. But as a GoLloyds customer I can send money to my U.S. account just by pushing a few buttons at a Japanese ATM.

In Phase 3, the participants make their presentations to a panel of judges. Phase 4 is the awards ceremony.

The companies and individuals involved in JMEC must pay to participate. The cost this time was 1.2 million yen for a company and 125,000 yen for a person.

Naturally I wondered where all that money went. I asked and received this reply from JMEC by e-mail : “The funds are used to cover all the operating costs in the given program year, including salaries, course materials, honoraria to mentors/consultants/lecturers, office overhead, the Awards Ceremony, marketing etc. The teams do incur expenses associated with printing the business plans, renting meetings spaces etc., and these are covered by an allowance JMEC gives to each team.”

JMEC finances also include money from the sale of raffle tickets at the awards ceremony, which usually goes toward the following year’s expenses. But “this year was an exception and we are pleased that we have raised 575,000 yen to go toward helping SMEs [small to medium-size enterprises] in Tohoku, which is in the JMEC spirit of helping mostly SMEs thrive in the Japanese market.” The money referred to here was given to an entity called Tohoku New Business Conference. Hopefully it will contribute to the economic recovery of that region, which was devastated by the March 11 tsunami.

Although the JMEC participants are not paid for their labors, they learn a lot and they make potentially valuable connections. According to the JMEC site, at least one participant got a job as a direct result last year, when the company Instant UpRight hired Mari Yamakawa to help implement the plan she and her JMEC team had come up with.

Even though it was hard to find participants this year who were willing to speak on the record – those darn NDAs – most seemed to think the experience had been worthwhile.

At least Fensom was able to tell me this: “It certainly was a challenging program, and I think I’d recommend anyone who is in Japan for a while to do it.”

Cast of 30,000, take a bow!

June 24, 2011

The amazing Kyushu Shinkansen video that I wrote about in a previous post (here) has just won an international advertising award.

To refresh your memory, the ad makers asked members of the public to stand alongside the tracks to be filmed as the new train went by. Approximately 30,000 people turned out to participate over the 250-kilometer route.

The people who made this ad really know a thing or two about winning over an audience. Not only was their original production brilliant and moving, but take a look at their submission (here) to the Cannes Lions advertising contest. They put major emphasis on the fact that the 250-kilometer route from Kagoshima to Fukuoka is about the same as the distance from Cannes to Geneva – thus turning their “foreign” ad into something the contest judges could instantly relate to in a familiar way.


International Tokyo Toy Show 2011

June 18, 2011

The International Tokyo Toy Show 2011 runs though tomorrow (June 19) at the Tokyo Big Sight convention center. If you’re looking for a cheap diversion, this trade show is open to the public and admission is free. During my visit today, many of the exhibitors were encouraging children to test-play the merchandise.

Toy sales in Japan amounted to 669.9 billion yen in fiscal 2010, a 3.5 percent increase over the previous year, according to a press release from the Japan Toy Association, the show’s organizer. The association takes this to mean “the traditional adage ‘the toy industry is immune to economic slumps’ is very much alive.”

That is certainly to be hoped. In the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the ensuing nuclear disaster and resulting electricity shortages, Japan could certainly use an industry that is immune to economic slumps. Whether the toy trade will continue to fit that description remains to be seen. Fiscal 2010 ended on March 31, just three weeks after the quake, and many industries that are now reporting positive results for that year will find a repeat performance in fiscal 2011 to be more than a little challenging.

But in a more cheerful vein, here’s a quick look at a couple of the products that caught my eye at the toy show today:

A portion of the Happinet pavilion is made up to look like a sushi restaurant to promote a 3,800-yen game in which players try to stack sushi plates on a revolving platform. The bottoms of the plates have irregular shapes, so deciding which plate will balance best on the existing stack is part of the challenge.

Would you like some beer with your sushi? In an ice-cold mug? How about a mug made of ice? The Kawada pavilion had an appealing summer toy for adults in the form of a 1,280 yen set of plastic molds and handles that lets you make a beer mug out of ice. It might be fun to use in conjunction with another item from a different part of the show – the Beer Hour server from Takara Tomy, a plastic device meant to ensure that canned beer has a proper head when you pour it.

Running away with the prize for weirdest item that I saw was a faux chemistry set in the Bandai pavilion that lets its users play mad scientist in the bathtub. The target audience is boys of primary school age who will mix two different ingredients in a beaker or flask and then watch the resulting substance change color and expand dramatically as it swells up to become a thick foam that appears to be at least as solid as shaving cream. This foam can then be dissolved in the bath – it seems that a certain amount of splashing is required – to change the color of the water.

The product is called “Mazemazenerurun Nyuyokuzai,” and it is meant to be the first in a series of products sold under the aegis of a crazed-looking mortarboard-wearing mascot named Ofuro de Jikken-kun, whose name translates approximately as “Young Mr. Experiment, in the Bath.” The sets will sell for about 250 yen.

One of the newest additions to Beverly’s line of crystal puzzles is this model of the Tokyo Sky Tree. The new Tokyo landmark also appeared in a variety of other products throughout the show, including puzzles, models, and a 126-centimeter-tall coin bank from Wiz that claims to be able to hold 634,000 yen if filled with 500-yen coins. The show catalog also included a “Tokyo Sky Tree Balance Game” from Takara Tomy. Players must stack components of a 63.4-centimeter model of the 634-meter tower and hope that it doesn’t topple and smash before they are done.

I wonder if that’s really the image the Sky Tree builders want to project.

Best wordplay on a setsuden poster

June 18, 2011

In yesterday’s post I described what I consider the best-designed of the countless setsuden electricity-conservation posters that have been going up all over the Tokyo area. Today I’d like to show you the one with the best wordplay.

The posters in my previous setsuden gallery are aimed at the general public, but the one in the photo above was designed for a more specific audience. It was produced by the Fitness Industry Association of Japan, and I found several copies of it posted around the sports club where I usually swim.

Its wordplay is based on the rhyming Japanese words denki and genki.

“Denki,” shown here in kanji, Roman letters and hiragana, means electricity.

“Genki” is a very common word sometimes translated as “health.” It also has connotations of fitness, peppiness, high spirits and good cheer. According to one of the dictionaries on my desk, it can be used to describe a “bouncing” baby or a “spry” old man. The closest all-purpose single-word definition I can think of for genki would be “vitality.” It is technically a noun, but most often functions as an adjective.

Everyone in Japan these days wants to save denki. Everyone who joins a Japanese sports club wants to be genki.

Hence the poster’s main slogan: “Denki off. Genki on.”

Usually these words are written in kanji OR hiragana. But as you can see, the poster has mixed the two writing systems to make the words more closely resemble each other in visual terms.

I also like the way they’ve managed to convey the slogan in English: “Power off. Power up.”

Not only the words but also the visual design certainly fit the context in which this poster is seen. It shows two light bulbs situated in such a way that one of them resembles a pear-shaped human torso while the other resembles a V-shaped torso. Since this calls to mind the very transformation many of the club’s members probably joined in hopes of achieving, it is likely to catch people’s eye through its connection with what is already on their mind.

Best design on a setsuden sign

June 16, 2011

In my previous blog post, I showed a gallery of setsuden electricity-conservation signs that have been going up all over the Tokyo area. But I left out two of my favorites, including the one in the picture above. (Click on it for a larger view.) This has the best graphic design of any setsuden poster I’ve seen so far.

This poster is appears all over the Tokyo area railway system, and I see it at dozens times of on my daily commute.

Its first virtue is simplicity, with “Saving electricity” in large print in English and Japanese, with very little additional text. As for the picture, it has only two elements – a light bulb and a row of subway straps.

These two visual elements are enough to tell a story. The bulb has eyes that make it a character, and the straps place the character aboard a train. The image is not quite symmetrical, but it has an interesting balance that holds the viewer’s eye, with the single big shape of the bulb mirrored upside-down by the smaller shapes of the straps.

In keeping with popular Japanese aesthetics, the character is cute – but not overly so. The shape of its eyes makes it look modest and serene. Perhaps it’s even slumbering. No doubt the railroads hope some of these characteristics will rub off on frazzled commuters as the non-air-condititioned trains grow hotter and hotter this summer.

The cool blue color was presumably chosen for the same reason. In fact, the Japanese word for this light shade of blue is mizu-iro, which literally means “water color.”

The image is further softened and made even more soothing by the almost total absence of sharp edges. The bulb is rounded, its eyelids are gently curved, and the strap handles are perfect circles. The blue field in which these elements appear is only approximately a square, and its corners have been rounded. The English typeface has no bristly serifs. Even the naturally angular letters A, V and N in the word “saving” have had their points sanded smooth. In the Japanese text, too, the end of each stroke is round rather than square, pointed, or trailed out in a spiky brush stroke.

Admittedly, the ultra-round pattern is broken by a few 90-degree angles, such as at the tops of the straps and the base of the bulb. These look like deliberate choices to suggest that the objects continue to exist beyond the borders of the frame. But every angle that can be eliminated has been eliminated.

Next to the three large navy blue characters for “Setsuden-chuu” are two text boxes. One says “Aboard trains” and the other says “In stations.” Below that is a line of mizu-iro text that says, “Please understand and cooperate with our efforts to save electricity.” The small text below that is a list of 22 large and small railways (including two monorail lines) operating in the Kanto area.

No further information is given, presumably because not every railway will implement the same energy-saving measures. But here are some changes that I have noticed:

Lights inside backlit station signs and advertising billboards have been turned off.

Escalators have been turned off.

Schedules have been adjusted to run fewer trains. (This was especially true in the immediate post-quake rolling blackout period.)

Lighting aboard trains has been reduced, in some cases with every other fluorescent tube removed. (But there’s still enough light to read while riding.)

Air conditioning has been turned off.

Major Japanese buzzword: “Setsuden”

June 14, 2011

High-end shops in Ginza don’t normally plaster their windows with hastily photocopied announcements, but the photo above shows that a men’s shoe store that ritzy district has become one of countless Japanese businesses to jump on the “setusden” bandwagon.
“Setsuden” means “saving electricity.” The sign in the shoe shop window informs customers that the shop is lit more dimly than usual for the sake of conserving power. With many of Japan’s power plants shut down as a direct or indirect result of this spring’s earthquake and tsunami, “setsuden” has become this summer’s big buzzword. The term is written with the pair of kanji characters at the top of the shoe shop’s sign. Take a moment to look carefully at those characters. If you live in Japan or plan to visit (and please do visit — our economy over here could use the help), you’re going to see these two characters everywhere.

For example, here is a sign at an entrance to the Matsuya department store in Ginza, telling customers that the air conditioning has been turned down to save power. The message is printed on a background shaped like a hand-held paper fan, suggesting an alternative way to keep cool. The fan’s lettering reads, “Kotoshi wa, setsuden o kangaeruu,” which means, “This year, we are thinking about saving electricity.” The last word is written in katakana phonetic characters to emphasize that it is a pun. “Kangaeru” is the correct Japanese word for think, but here it has been slightly altered to make it sound more like “kangaruu,” which is the word for kangaroo.  And that’s why there is a kangaroo holding the fan — not just because it is cute.

The power hand driers in many public restrooms have been turned off to save electricity, such as this one I photographed at a shopping mall in the Tokyo suburb of Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture. Here, the two characters for “setsuden” are followed by a third character. This simple-looking character is an extremely versatile one with many uses, but here it is pronounced “chuu” and means “in progress,” “under way,” or “in the middle of.” It is often used as a suffix to words that describe activities, so here it means something like “now conserving energy.” Walking around town, you’ll see the three characters for “setsuden-chuu” quite a lot.

For example, here we see “setsuden-chuu” on a closed escalator at Yoga Station on the Denentoshi Line in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo.

And back at the Kawaguchi mall, here are two “setsuden-chuu” signs, explaining why an advertising video screen and a beverage heater/cooler have been turned off.

 Even fish are getting into the act, with these specimens in the lobby of my sports club bragging that the light in their tank is from LEDs.

Here’s a Ginza dental clinic whose setsuden sign includes an anthropomorphic tooth mascot climing Tokyo Tower in King Kong style.

The McDonald’s at Korakuen subway station in Tokyo is displaying a setsuden sign that turns a lightbulb filament into its golden arches. I’m not sure this is such a good idea, because at first glance it seems to associate their logo with electricity use rather than savings. The word “setsuden” is not prominently displayed on this poster, but it’s there if you look.

One of McDonald’s restaurants is a tonkatsu pork cutlet restaurant that has a much plainer setsuden sign.

While I was at Korakuen Station, I noticed the word “setsuden” crawling past on an electronic announcement display. This might strike some people as ironic, but if the displays have to be kept on to inform passengers of information such as suicide delays, they may as well also include some positive messages about saving energy.

The elevators were also still on at the station — as they must be for the sake of the disabled, the elderly and people with baby carriages — but this sign asks, “stesuden no tame” (for the sake of setsuden),  that people refrain from using them as much as possible.

This sign next to an elevator at a public gym and pool in Kawaguchi has a hortatory tone: “Please! Everybody setsuden! Genki people use the stairs!”

Meanwhile, at a similar facility in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, which has its entrance on the ninth floor, a setsuden sign announces that the middle elevator in a bank of three has been shut down to save energy. The air conditioning in the elevators apparently had also been shut off at the time of my last visit there, and air inside the glass elevator cars was baking.

A setsuden sign upstairs in the same building asks for everyone’s cooperation.

A sign in the window of a Domino’s pizza shop in Kawaguchi announces that their setsuden measures include turning off their neon sign.

Daitune, an udon and tempura shop in Ginza where I had lunch yesterday, has a hand-written setsuden sign in its window. There was no air conditioning inside, but the doors were kept wide open.

A bar in the Yaesu district adjacent to Tokyo Station had a similar sign, and a similar practice.

Here’s a close-up of the Yaesu bar sign. Next to the word “setsuden-chuu,” you can see three characters that are read “shou-ene.” This is short for “shou-enerugii,” which means saving energy. This seems redundant to me, but it is another common feature of many setsuden signs.

Here’s a setsuden sign at a bar in Ginza.

This setsuden sign is in the front window of a Ginza shop called Kyukyodo, a purveyor of traditional Japanese luxury goods that is currently emphasizing its selection of elegant fans and cooling furin wind chimes. They should do a booming business this summer.

This setsuden sign at the Washington Building, home of Uniqlo’s main Ginza store, says that the lights have been dimmed.

This setsuden sign on an ATM in Korakuen Station says its operating hours have been reduced to 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. to save electricity.

A sign at an ID photo booth in the same station says its lights — presumably not including the flash — have been dimmed for setsuden. Interestingly, the sign describes the machine as a “jidoubaiki,” or vending machine. Before stopping to take this photo, I hadn’t realized that photo booths count as vending machines in Japanese.

Here’s a setsuden sign on a more conventional vending machine, run by Pepsi Japan.

Here’s a setsuden announcement at another dimly lit vending machine. In addition to reducing or turning off their lights, many vending machine operators have also reduced the daily hours during which their refrigeration units are running.

On this drink machine’s sign, the word “setsuden” appears next to a three character word pronounced “hanbai-chuu,” which means “now selling” — or in this case, “now still selling.”

On this drink machine’s sign, “hanbai-chuu” gets pride of place, and “setsuden-chuu” gets second billing.

Here they get more equal emphasis.

And here’s one more drink vending machine pleading its case. Vending machine companies have been on the defensive since Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara condemned their business as wasteful, but if you live or work in Japan and don’t belong to a group that Ishihara has criticized, then you probably aren’t doing anything interesting or worthwhile.

This has been quite a long blog post, but there are two special setsuden signs that I have left out. The signs to which I refer are my favorites — one for its appealing visual style, and one for its amusing wordplay. The’re so good I’m going to give them each their own blog entry later this week. So stay tuned!


Here’s my pick for best design on a setsuden sign. Read more about it here.


And here’s my pick for best wordplay — a setsuden sign that uses bilingual puns. Read more about it here.

The help-wanted ad as a law enforcement tool

June 11, 2011

Yesterday morning I photographed the above sign attached to a utility pole next to a busy road about half a block from the front entrance to Kawaguchi City Hall in Saitama Prefecture. Here’s my translation of it:

Searching For Witnesses
If you witnessed an accident involving a truck and a bicycle at this location around 1:25 p.m. on Friday, February 18, 2011, please come forward.
Kawaguchi Police Department
Accident Investigation Desk
Phone (048) 253-0110

Posting this kind of sign at an accident scene strikes me as a good idea. But considering that nearly four months have passed, and that the sign has been up long enough to have ivy curling around its edges, I have to wonder whether this particular case is going well.