Tag Archives: Japan

Dispatches from Tokyo, Japan

March 21, 2013

1 asakusa sensoji 2011b

Ever heard of the Thiel Fellowship 20 Under 20? Neither had I until I settled in my seat on board the United Airlines flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles and watched the 90 minute documentary “20 Under 20: Transforming Tomorrow”. The Thiel Fellowship is the brainchild of billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel who thinks students with big ideas need to have the freedom to pursue them. He does not believe that education is needed to innovate. Instead, he believes that innovative ideas need to be acted upon right now and not be put off into the future after a college degree has been earned. Thiel’s mission is to offer students a chance to trade school for Silicon Valley. The Thiel Fellowship “encourages lifelong learning and independent thought” to 20 candidates under the age of 20 by offering them each $100,000 and two years free to pursue their dreams. The decision these young people have to make is drop of out of some of the most prestigious universities in the U.S. or Canada for two years to pursue their vision. This is a big risk they are to take, as there’s no guarantee that their idea is going to take off. But we need some people to take risks on some big ideas if we want innovation to happen.

Having just spent two weeks in Hong Kong and Tokyo, this idea of dropping out of college and stepping into an entrepreneurial venture is the antithesis of what students from the Asia-Pacific region are raised and educated to follow. While the young high school graduates from for example China, Hong Kong, Japan, S. Korea are preparing themselves for admission to the top 10 universities in the U.S., their counterparts, at least those aspiring to qualify for the Thiel Fellowship are making the giant leap of dropping out of the very colleges these students are coveting and stepping into the entrepreneur’s abyss. A Chinese, Japanese, or Korean student returning back to his/her home with a degree from one of the top 10 U.S. universities expects to find a better job with higher pay and enjoy the prestige that comes with having a degree from a brand name institution.

This idea of fostering innovation is what we’ve been conditioned to believe is the very function of our institutions of higher education alongside acquiring a rounded liberal arts education. But does innovation truly need a degree to be realized? Certainly that was not the case for innovators like Steve Jobs (Apple), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg (FaceBook) who dropped out of college to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. For a list of other successful college-drop-out entrepreneurs click on this link: http://www.youngentrepreneur.com/blog/100-top-entrepreneurs-who-succeeded-without-a-college-degree/

In Tokyo, as was the case in Hong Kong, students in elite schools are preparing themselves for university at an early age by round the clock tutoring, test prepping, cram schools, and foregoing holidays and summer vacations with more of the same. A Hong Kong colleague with two small children under the age of five complained about the pressures put upon parents to begin preparing portfolios of their children’s accomplishments when they’re as young as two!

One thing I learned while in Japan is that with the decline in birthrates and the slowing of their economy, Japanese students and their families are no longer looking at U.S. institutions to pursue higher education. Those who can afford to are looking at the top 10. Just like Hong Kong, the Japanese want to send their children to Harvard, Yale, MIT or Stanford. Otherwise, they are perfectly content with staying in Japan and enjoying a comfortable standard of living.

Having briefly browsed through markets and grocery stores in Tokyo, I was humbled by the overwhelming abundance and varieties of produce, vegetables and fruits. They certainly made our WholeFoods markets look like second-rate grocery stores. Of course, the impeccable displays and packaging at the Japanese markets can make the most humble looking orange or broccoli look like a gift from the heavens. Mind you all this beauty and presentation comes with a high price, which can also be said for Whole Foods, though nothing comes even close to the űber attentive service and staging offered at the Japanese stores.

The lack of litter on the streets and sidewalks in Tokyo or in its subways was also a remarkable sight to experience, as was the fact that no one locks their bicycles left on racks alongside buildings. As a non-Japanese speaker, I was heartened to see subway signs, automated ticket machines, restaurant menus in both Japanese and English. Contrary to what I had heard from those who had visited Japan a decade or so ago, more Japanese seem to have a basic understanding of English and those I’d randomly approached on streets for direction were more than happy to help in English. In fact, on a subway ride to Asakusa, to visit the famous Senso-ji (Buddhist Temple) and market, my colleague, Zepur Solakian with CGACC (Center for Global Advancement of Community Colleges) and I had a lovely chat with a Japanese family and their two children, a boy of about eight and a girl of twelve who spoke English. When we asked them where they learned their English, the young girl told us they both started in the kindergarten at the Little Angel Academy & Kindergarten in Tokyo. (An interesting side note on this school’s teaching methodology is that it offers early education based on the Indian curriculum. “The school teaches Indian Mathematics in English and uses English drills to teach English. However, it combines both Japanese and Indian methods of education at the preschool stage.”)

We also learned from an American colleague in Tokyo, that some Japanese are turning in their Green Cards at the U.S. Embassy seeing no future need of holding onto their residency permits in the U.S. They are perfectly happy living and working in Japan. If anything, it is the international students living in Japan—the children of ex-pats or of Japanese-American parents—who are interested in studying in the U.S.

Earlier, while I was in Hong Kong attending the APAIE (Asia-Pacific Association of International Education) conference, where Zepur and I were presenters on a panel discussing partnerships and collaboration between U.S. community colleges and higher education communities in the Asia-Pacific, I was overwhelmed by the aggressive growth of higher education institutions in the region and their desire to become more global in their reach. I was a little crestfallen, thinking that the U.S. had lost its competitive edge and that the Asia-Pacific region had had us beat and ahead. Apparently I’m not alone in this observation, when I asked Zepur on her thoughts, here’s what she had to say: “In the past 18 years I have seen East Asia region transform and grow and embrace globalization; the enormity and magnitude of which can only be understood when witnessed… the written word or videos can only attempt to describe/convey what is really going on.”

But I shall remain optimistic. If the “20 Under 20” student-entrepreneurs I saw in the documentary on the Thiel Fellowship is any indication, innovation and thinking outside of the box—the hallmark of American ingenuity—is alive and well.

I’m not convinced that a college education is worthless or has little or no merit. But I also see the importance and value of creating an environment free of the traditional academic rigor and structure, like the two-year time-frame of the Thiel Fellowship to support innovation. According to Peter Thiel “the greatest challenge of the 21st century for US is to find a way to go back to the future and to go back to the time when people believed in progress and in the ability of technology to transform our society radically for the better.” Fresh new ideas need to be fostered and nurtured immediately rather than postponed. A combination of a life-long learning and independent thought with academic instruction may be just what the U.S. needs to stay competitive and relevant in today’s global market in education and business.

Jasmin S. Kuehnert
President & CEO ACEI

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Filed under Credentials, Education, History, Human Interest

Sounds Like…Geisha!

January 31, 2013


I grew up in Los Angeles, where the oldest standing building, the Sanchez Adobe, reportedly dates back to the early 1790’s. Therefore I am astonished on a daily basis, by the structures I see here in Bremen, Germany. Some of the oldest date back to the 11th century—really. Their Gothic and Renaissance facades seem to somehow confer and convey the weight of historical fact by their stubborn persistence. So it was with that particularly American, grew-up-with-Disneyland, naïve ability and desire to accept a good fairy-tale, that I experienced my first of many on-going, trans-cultural misunderstandings.

The center of town is the Marktplatz, the main market place, ringed with buildings that look so impossibly old; they appear to me as made-for-the-movies, scenic facades. Set into the cobblestones on the north side of the 13th century Cathedral St. Petri, is a 30 x 30 cm dark granite plaque, etched with a cross. On one of my first “walking tours” into the Marktplatz, my father-in-law regaled me with a bit of “graveyard glee,” like one pointing with morbid fascination to a house haunted by angry, murdered ghosts, “This marks the spot where the infamous Geisha Gottfreid was hanged!” He said with a glint in his eyes.

He went on to tell me that although he never did it himself, people often spit on the stone cross. I was horrified. Why would people in the 21st century spit on the spot that marked the hanging of a Geisha—how absolutely awful!

“When was that hanging, and why was she hanged?” I asked him, my mind racing with images of a beautiful Japanese Geisha swinging from the gallows.

“Oh, she was a serial killer who murdered 15 people, most of them her family, before finally being publicly executed herself in 1831,” he said. “She was the last person to be publicly executed in the city.”

I still do not understand the cathartic act of spitting, but it opened up a doorway in my mind—Hmmm, I didn’t know that the Japanese were here in Bremen in the 1800’s. Of course, I was later to find out that she was not exactly Japanese, she was German, and her name was spelled Gesche, sounds like Geisha. Oops.

But I was soon to be surprised by an exhibition in one of the Bremen’s many museums, The Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum titled; Japan und der Westen, Japan and the West. Walking through the exhibition, full of beautiful Japanese woodblock prints depicting the life and the seaports of Germany, I again found myself confronted with the same thoughts about the history of Japanese-German relationships. Later, while touring some of the many fairy-tale castles in Germany, I was struck by the large number of Japanese tourists, pouring out of busses, beside themselves with joy, while standing in front of the real life edifices. Why are they so fascinated by German culture? How long has this been going on?

The actual history of that relationship dates back to the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868) when Germans arrived in Japan to work for the Dutch East India Company. From that point forward, the relationship was to take a decidedly on- again-off again course. Things went O.K. for a while but between 1635 -1853, the Tokugawa shogunate enforced a policy which it called kaikin. The policy prohibited foreign contact with most outside countries, however the Netherlands was one of three countries with who trade remained open. Despite the national seclusion policy, which the emperor had put into place, a German physician, Philipp Franz von Siebold was allowed to travel freely throughout Japan in the 1820’s. Throughout his journey, he wrote one of the first Western accounts of life in Japan, “Nippon: Archive for The Description of Japan.”

Hot and Cold
However, the relationship ran hot and cold over the ensuing century. In 1861, Prussia and Japan signed a treaty to facilitate goodwill and commerce, and in the ensuing years diplomatic missions moved freely back and forth between the two countries, though the “unequal treaties” were later revised during the Meiji period (1868-1912). During this time many Germans went to Japan as advisors to the new government, and were known as “oyatoi gaikokujin,” hired foreigners. The German industrial company Siemens opened an office in Tokyo in 1887, to enable Japan to enter the industrialized world. It helped them set up their first hydro-electric power facility, supplied power generators to copper mines, and gave them all the railway equipment for an electric railway system. Getting warmer.

Then, things cooled off at the end of the 19th century, as competition between Europe and Japan grew rapidly over territory in China. Japan grew further estranged when Germany decided to support Russia during the Russian-Japanese War of 1904. As a result of the Japanese victory over Russia, Germany became fearful of Japan’s growing power as the leader of a United Asia, prompting Wilhelm II’s colorful coinage of the term “Yellow Peril.” Nice. Definitely cold.

WWI ushered in a new arctic front between the two countries when the British asked Japan for help in destroying the ships the German Navy had stationed in Chinese waters. Japan was keenly interested in reducing European colonial power in South-East Asia, and decided to take the opportunity to declare war on the German Empire. In 1914, acting as an ally of Britain, Japan engaged in battle with the Germans in the Chinese port of Tsingtao. This eventually led to Germany having to relinquish its Southeast Asian territories to Japan. Very cold.

In the aftermath of WWI economic pressures grew in both countries and somehow, through diplomatic efforts, relations were strengthened once again. A re-establishment of cultural alliances developed through the founding of several cross-cultural societies beginning in 1926, and a Japanese-German Research Institute was created in 1934. With the rise in militarism in both countries throughout the 1930s, the relationship grew warmer still, as Germany signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, or the Anti-Communist pact with the Empire of Japan in 1936. The following year, Italy joined the pact, creating the historical alliance known as the Axis Powers. In a chilling gesture, Adolph Hitler even bequeathed the title Honorary Aryans on the entire populations of Japan, which was primarily politically motivated, but creepily, also served to acknowledge their racial “purity.” He sent a boatload of Hitler youth to Japan in 1938 for a seven-month friendship tour. Uncomfortably hot.

This was unquestionably a fragile alliance, and what might be seen as a shifting coalition of political/economic interests. In the Journal of Japanese Studies Mark R. Peattie wrote,”…the Tokyo-Berlin connection, from its beginnings, faced unprecedented difficulties: national selfishness; enormous distance; radically different values, culture, languages, and political institutions…”

Beer, Cameras, and Industry
As in all relationships, there are the good and bad, the light and the dark and sometimes just the sheer tenacity to hold on. Despite the differences, and though often at odds with each other, these two enterprising countries have found ways to focus on a number of rewarding and fruitful collaborations.

Take Beer for example. It is by far, hands down, the most popular alcoholic drink in Japan and Germany. Both countries export their brews around the world with great success. In the 17th century the Dutch opened up a beer hall, The Holland Merchant House, in Japan for sailors working their trade route between the two countries. It was obviously a big success; so much so that when early pioneers in Japan found Hops on Hokkaido, they took action! In August 1875, an intrepid young man named Seibei Nakagawa, directed the construction of the first beer factory, having just earned his Beer Brewery Engineering License in Germany. It opened in Japan in 1876 under its symbol, the North Star and is now known worldwide as Sapporo.

In 2004 a classically trained brewer from Bavaria and his Japanese wife, opened a brewery at the base of Mt Fuji. He adheres to the strict German purity laws of brewing, uses the fresh water from a nearby stream, and actually imports his malt from Bavaria. There is even a Bavarian Representative Office in Tokyo, which celebrates Beerfestival (Oktoberfest) in the Bavarian tradition, with Bavarian beer, culinary specialties, and music. http://yokosonews.com/travel/german-beer-festival-nagoya-2012/ This is definitely a successful/hot aspect of Japanese and German unity!


Apparently, once Japan had created a thriving beer industry, other large German companies began to feel right at home. Although Siemens http://www.siemens.com/about/en/worldwide/japan_1154631.htm had its first contact with Japan in 1861, when a delegation presented the Edo government with a telegraph developed by Werner von Siemens, it was not until 1887 that it opened up it’s first office in Tokyo. This relationship continues today in a very special way. Beginning this year Siemens is slated to begin supplying northern Japan with 23 wind turbines, part of a power project designed to help Japan move away from nuclear power to more renewable energy in the wake of the terrible Fukushima disaster. Definitely cool, I mean Hot!

Japanese companies apparently feel right at home in Bavaria as well, where hundreds of companies have set up subsidiaries, making it one of the largest Japanese communities in Germany. However the largest Japanese community in Germany— actually in Europe—is in Düsseldorf. Beginning in the 1950s, Japan was on the lookout for raw manufacturing materials such as steel and chemical products. They found them in Germany, in the Ruhr region, resulting in the growth of the Japanese community in the city of Düsseldorf. The Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf currently offers a Department of Japanese Studies.

The industrial giant now known as the ThyssenKrupp Group, also has long-standing ties to Japan. In 1894 two Princes from Japan visited Krupp’s steel plants in Essen, Germany, launching a spate of reciprocal visits and a successful strengthening of business relationships. Japan received: rails, locomotives, coking plants and rolling mills, all made by predecessor companies of today’s ThyssenKrupp Group.

Currently ThyssenKrupp Group supplies Japanese customers with a wide variety of industrial products such as; components for the Japanese auto industry, parts for large wind turbines, engineering of production plants and recycling centers.

Of course it would be impossible not to mention the bond of photography shared by Japan and Germany, although in the beginning the technology to develop cameras was not exactly a mutually agreed-upon collaboration. In 1932-33, Leica in Germany introduced its first high-end camera models. They were so good and became so successful that they became immediately popular worldwide. The Japanese called them takane no hana, or something far beyond reach for ordinary people. This is where the not-exactly part comes in: A man named Goro Yoshida, decided to “study” the Leica Model II by disassembling it. He wanted to create a camera that would be more affordable to customers in Japan. At this time, Germany continued to lead in the sophistication of its precision instruments, so, using available technology, Yoshida and two partners developed a precision engineering research laboratory in Tokyo, using German cameras as models. They eventually accumulated valuable ideas, which led to the Kwanon, the nation’s first 35mm focal plane camera, equipped with a range finder. The company is now known as Canon, and on their website they share this interesting fact; “…The prototype camera was named “Kwanon” because Yoshida was a believer in “Kwannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy…” I would say this particular aspect started off rather frigid and evolved into a warmer relationship.

Bio-Med Technology and Healthcare
Japan and Germany are both very strong in research, development and the Pharmaceutical Industry. Obviously a good match, they signed an intergovernmental agreement of cooperation in scientific and technological endeavors, in 1974. At the same time they created a youth exchange program called “Youth Summit” which is held annually. With German Re-unification in 1990, Germany has become Japan’s largest trading partner within Europe.

Both Germany and Japan have large Bio-Med Clusters, or areas of the country, where hundreds of pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical companies, start-ups, and research institutes are accumulated. These clusters participate in world business forums such as Bio Med in Europe and BioJapan, in Japan, where they strive to create new business relationships, and strengthen existing alliances. These events allow pharmaceutical and chemical companies to create new networks, mixing entrepreneurs, academic researchers, venture capitalists, and other supporting agencies. One of the largest in Germany, the Munichm4 Biotech Cluster and their Japanese counterpart, the Northern Osaka Biomedical Cluster, recently signed a transnational biotech and life-science agreement on close collaboration between the two regions, with the aim of paving the way for industry-industry and industry-academia cooperation between the two regions.

One final and noteworthy connection which deserves mentioning, is the spill over into popular culture. As a fan of animated films, I have been surprised by the European/Old World styling and scenic design occasionally used in contemporary Japanese animated films. I never really understood it until now. One great example is the way acclaimed filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki uses Germany as a reference in his wonderful film, Howls Moving Castle. http://www.cinemagia.ro/trailer/hauru-no-ugoku-shiro-castelul-umblator-al-lui-howl-1993/

I swear I’ve been to that village!

Jeannie Winston Nogai
Owner / Winston Nogai Design
www.jeanniewinston.com / E: jeanniewn@gmail.com


Filed under History, Politics, Travel