I first visited Japan in 2002. It was at the time the most futuristic country I’d ever seen. Everything was electronic, automated and smoothly running like a machine. It seemed light years ahead of the rest of the world, and set to lead the world forward.
The second time I visited, in 2013, it was still a fantastically modern country, but everything looked fairly similar to the way it did in 2002. It no longer felt like they were ahead of the rest of the world. It was as if they’d had a lost decade not only on the stock market, but also in terms of city innovation.
As Shinzo Abe tries his best now to reinvent Japan, I’m struck by all the comments I read solidifying the view that Japan is still stuck in the past. It is a very modernistic past, but it is still the past. The FT ran an article yesterday about how the Japanese high-tech companies, such as Sony, still make old-school, deeply commoditized products such as electric rice cookers. And they’re unable to cut their losses and move on. No matter how hard hedge fund activist Daniel Loeb tries to make Sony split itself up, they’re stuck in their old mindset.
Abe has shot the first two of his three arrows, and the world is amazed at the boldness of the Bank of Japan, but the third arrow, that of reform, seems to be still stuck, held back by corporate Japan.
It is like Japan is Apple without Steve Jobs – once very innovative, but now just repeating the same formula, churning out a country that looks modern, but feels old.
Apple still has a chance to reinvent itself, as 2014 rolls around hopefully bringing iWatches and iTVs, but judging from the latest news, they seem to be happy keeping on doing incremental changes.
Similarly, Japan now has a chance again given that they were just awarded the Olympics for Tokyo in 2020. Let’s hope they take it.
Photo credit: Wikipedia