Japan was known for shoddy products before 1950. Humiliation from the World War II defeat, accompanied by atomic devastation, made them determined to beat the West. Rising from wartime ashes, the Japanese performed the post-war economic “miracle” from 1950 to 1960 to become the world’s second-most powerful economy in less than a decade.
It was a collective national willingness to change the quality perception and reality of Japanese products. They understood then that claiming to be inventors may not be their route. Instead, they paid attention on how to adapt European and American invention in a different scale of aspiration to surpass the global customer’s expectation. From being fancy, but tacky, and of flimsy quality, Japanese products have since become the world’s benchmark in quality.
In one of my several visits to Japan on work, I got hungry seeing a Yakitori restaurant signboard in the heart of Tokyo’s commercial district. I followed its directional arrow through a narrow staircase to the first floor. The restaurant chef was cooking healthy, delicious, hot food surrounded on three sides by customers sitting on bar stools. Behind them were small tables stuck to the wall filled with people, but nothing looked overcrowded. The condiments the chef needed were in a glass case behind him and neatly arranged below that were raw ingredients frequently replenished. Even if you don’t speak Japanese it’s not a problem. Every dish was communicated with beautiful detailed pictures. The Japanese menu was translated into English in small letters.
Between two persons sitting at the bar, or at small tables, is a set of interconnected sauce and spice bottles that fit into a wedged carrier.
Every tiny bottle has puzzle designs on it. When I asked the chef about these designs, he explained how they serve functionality. You can’t place the bottles anywhere you want,as the design integrates them into their carrier. It’s the best time, space and convenience management crockery I’ve seen. Guests get attracted to it, play with it and arrange it correctly. They never keep any bottle outside the carrier. That saves the waiter’s time and looks neat. From procurement of raw products, to servicing crockery, sealed wet napkins to multiple usage of the arranged sauce carrier, there’s no wastage of time or space in the 700 sq ft that’s considered among the best Yakitori restaurants in Tokyo. This is unique miniaturisation in gastronomy. Having experienced the elaborate, regal way the French come up with delicious food served in a sophisticated manner, this miniaturisation was incredible. The comparison with gigantic American restaurants and serving portions also instantly hit me head on.
Do you know the 1957 Toyopet story? Japan, war-torn and labelled “bad” quality, had the guts to enter the US, challenging its gigantic car culture by offering a small car. The Toyopet name, which connoted toys and pets, was dropped. But the Japanese managed to impose the mini-car culture of low-cost maintenance, where of course the 1973 global petrol crises helped a lot. Apart from Volkswagen Beetle, no small car could market in America the way the Japanese did.
High awareness of hygiene and sanitary conditions is another aspect that makes Japanese design so clean. When industries there took the challenge to improve product quality, they somehow neglected safety. Improper handling of industrial waste resulted in Japan’s “four big pollution diseases” like itai-itai (earlier in 1912) which caused bone fractures and kidney disorders, minamata (1956) and niigata minamata (1965), that afflicted the central nervous system making patients insane, and yokkaichi asthma (1961) that caused chronic bronchitis. From here, Japan became aware that chasing extreme economic growth could harm them harshly, that Mother Nature would get her own back. That’s when corporations started CSR to preserve and protect the environment.
Researching on how to sell French luxury alcohol Remy Martin’s armangnac in Japan, my friends there suggested I learn about the Japanese art of drinking by visiting their special bars, frequented by top corporate managers after work. These bars were small but outstandingly well embellished, not glitzy. They serve high-end European drinks, although the local sake comprised 80 per cent of the market in the 1990s. Sophistication in this small space, from the barman to the crockery to ice cubes shaped in a special mould, was unforgettable. As armangnac was an ancient drink of the French monks, I had designed a glass bottle with the hammered effect and shape of a Middle Ages Catholic temple. The transparent plastic cap is elaborate like a chandelier. Interacting with people at the bar, they immediately liked the glass bottle, but said the intricate cap made it lose its Middle Ages authenticity. To make it classy, they advised it had to be changed to glass.
Because of the iPod, it seems like miniaturisation started in the US. In reality, when European or American tape recorders were still large, Japan had begun miniaturising entertainment instruments in the 1970s, although the quality was questionable. Then Sony’s Walkman revolutionised listening to music. Having learnt design from France, Germany, Italy and America, I was curious about why the Japanese conceptualised miniature products. Was it because the country is a small island that’s subjected to natural calamities, so the people needed smaller, portable objects during crisis situations? Japanese friends didn’t disagree, but said space is a big problem so miniaturising objects made them more functional, and such design followed the intricacy of ancient Japanese art. Process is incorporated in Japanese culture as is visible in social life too, like their sado tea ceremony which is a highly embellished service system.
Universally, miniaturisation has appeal because it’s very relevant to human cocooning. Next week, I will conclude my experiential learning of industrial design from five countries by taking you to Italy.
Shombit Sengupta is a global consultant on unique customer centricity strategy to execution excellence for top management. Reach him at http://www.shiningconsulting.com.