What d’you call it religion? What d’you call it tradition?

This week we visited our local temple with about 300,000 other revellers for one of the biggest traditional festivals in Tokyo,Oesishiki at Honmonji. The three day celebration culminates in a huge parade of chanting, drumming and matoi spinning men, women and children marching through the streets of Ikegami and up to the main temple. There is a carnival atmosphere as the crowd drink, eat and make merry, their needs more than catered for by the many stalls set up inside and outside the temple grounds for the event.

It’s often said that Japan is not a religious country, yet thousands of people take part in festivals like this each year, with many thousands more turning up to watch. The sound of people practicing for the parade, a haunting loop of flutes and singing, has been drifting over to our house for the last few weeks. Whether you call it religion or not, people certainly seem involved in the life of the temple.

There is a different feel to that involvement though. Whereas religion as I know it from my Western upbringing is to be primarily about meaning and ideas, about a certain abstract representation of the ‘truth’, ‘religion’ in Japan seems to be more about a set of practices, things that are done without too much concern as to what they represent or literal truthfulness. It’s hard to imagine someone rejecting the festival on the basis of it not being provable by science.

Officially, the event is a commemoration of the death of the founder of a particular school of Buddhism, Nichiren, who is buried at Honmonji. However, the implications of this event, what from a Western religious perspective we would see as being it’s true ‘meaning’, seems almost secondary to the actual participation.

That’s probably why some people explain this kind of event as ‘tradition’ rather than ‘religion’. Again though, this is a reflection of our Western way of looking at the world, breaking things down and turning them into concepts with ‘meaning’ in a black and white way, so that ‘religion’ and ‘tradition’ become two different things. In fact, the embodied way that religion is celebrated here, as a group of communal practices that  bind the community together in a common celebration is probably much more how religion used to be practised in the West – and so in that sense religion is the same thing as tradition. The meaning is more in the doing itself, rather than what the doing represents.

Hopefully that makes sense but I feel like I’m tripping over my words so I’ll leave it there. Perhaps it’s simpler to say that the festival was a lot of fun. If we’re still here next year then we’re even considering finding out if we can take part, whatever the meaning. The night was pretty much devoid of ‘commercialisation’ and had a sense of transcendence, of escape from the everyday. It’s left us feeling that little bit closer to our local community.

That’s more than I can say about any religious event I’ve ever attended in the UK.


Trying to make sense of a tragic event

On Thursday I saw a man fall from a building. Or rather I heard him land, just catching sight of it in my peripheral vision. There was no blood but hus body lay there totally still, facing the ground, his head resting on a slight curb. One shoe had come off and was lying on the ground. The body didn’t look mis-shapen or broken but it didn’t look right. It looked lifeless.

This all happened about 10 meters away from me, just on the other side of a street crossing. The people immediately nearby seemed not to have realized what had happened for a brief moment. Then somebody started shouting to call an ambulance.

By chance a small fire-service van happened to be passing by. I don’t quite know how, because it was still just around the corner and out of sight of the immediate incident, but one of the observers realised and rushed to tell them what had happened. They drove literally 5 metres to the street corner and pulled up. It took them a few seconds to get the life support equipment and stretcher together before they rushed to do what they could to help.

They felt for a pulse and their response didn’t look hopeful. Together they turned the body over and then one immediately began CPR. The other checked the body. He felt around the man’s hips, as if to check if his pelvis was still intact, or more likely confirm that it wasn’t. One of the fire staff looked up at the building and counted out the floors with his finger – 8 storeys. They hooked him up to a life support machine and continued to pump his chest. You could hear the machine beeping in tandem with pressure of the CPR.

After a couple of minutes another larger emergency vehicle arrived, it’s sirens wailing. A third emergency worker rushed out and together the three strapped the man into a stretcher. As they lifted him, they had to stop pumping his chest momentarily and the beeping tone from the life support machine flatlined. Once on the stretcher, the CPR, and the beeping, began again and they carried him over to the ambulance.

One of the observers picked up the missing shoe and ran it over to the ambulance.  He handed it to the medics and then continued talking with them, eventually writing down his details. During this time I presume that the effort to save the victim’s life was continuing in the back of the emergency vehicle.

Throughout all of this I felt compelled to stay and watch. It took a few seconds for my brain to register what had happened – it just seemed so unlikely – but once it had I was struck by a very physical feeling of shock. My eyes widened, my body kicked into alertness and I remember talking to myself: ‘oh my god, oh my god, what the fuck’.

Just by having witnessed what had happened I felt involved, not just as an observer but viscerally, as part of the tragedy unfolding in front of me. It was only when the ambulance left that I felt able to continue on my journey home – although even now I still feel affected by what I saw and felt then.

That same night, my train home was delayed and sat in the station for 40 minutes before setting off. This is a rare event in Tokyo and when it does happen it is often due to somebody jumping on the tracks, an occurrence that anybody from London is also familiar with from travelling on the Tube. Of course, every time this happens it is a tragedy but our usual response is to shrug it off or even to get annoyed with the inconvenience.

There are many details about what I saw that remain a mystery. Who was this man? Did he fall or did he jump? Did he have a family? Did he survive? I’m unlikely to ever know the answer to these questions. Even so, just by being there, I feel somehow personally involved.

This was a real person, whose life had likely ended and I had somehow shared in his last moments. That night the thought of what I had seen kept popping into my mind. Not so much the image of the man lying there but the sense that this person, this life and all that that entails, had probably ceased to be. Although this guy had never been a part of my life, in a strange way I can feel his absence.

By being there, his loss has become a part of me and that feeling has affected me more profoundly than just knowing about any number of similar accidents.

As our experience of the world becomes increasingly mediated by screens and reproductions of reality, we need to hang onto this idea that there is something very different about the physicality of real experience. It engages us more fully and affects us more deeply, involving our whole being and yielding a qualitatively different experience. At the extreme, it is the difference between knowing and feeling something.

There is something intangible about feelings. They’re difficult to quantify, unlike knowledge. However, it is feelings that are at the root of empathy and of really understanding the world and what it means to be human.

How far has the earth really moved in Tokyo?

An article I wrote following a piece of research we conducted at work with a cross-section of people in Tokyo, six weeks after the quake. It has also been published online at RW Connect.

I found the results quite surprising…

How far has the earth really moved in Tokyo?

On March 11th, only two months after leaving London to start a new life in Tokyo and just one week into my new job at Sugata Research, Japan was hit by the biggest earthquake in its recorded history.

The effects of the quake were felt powerfully in Tokyo and will go down as perhaps the most memorable five minutes of my life so far. From media reports at the time it was clear that many others were also thinking about the significance of the quake, as a whole slew of articles appeared in both the foreign and local press predicting that the event would mark some kind of turning point for people in Japan.

It was with this in mind that our mixed team of local and ex-pat researcher set up a series of 8 informal consumer workshop groups in mid-April amongst students, working adults, parents and housewives. Our aim was to understand how people were feeling about the quake six weeks on. Had the event been a turning point for Japanese consumers?

The results weren’t what I – an Englishman new to Japan – were expecting but were a little less of a surprise to some of my Japanese colleagues.

‘Our’ Disaster?

Importantly, none of our respondents lost close ones in the disaster and only a couple had family living near to the affected areas. Despite that there was still something that made this earthquake feel different, even amongst those who had strong memories of the quake in Kobe in the early 90s. There was of course a strong awareness that Tokyo had not really been affected. But even so this felt in part at least, like ‘our’ disaster.

This feeling stemmed from the experience of the initial shock, a ‘flashbulb moment’ that both tied our audience together and gave each individual their own story to tell. It has been kept alive even since by the after-effects: ongoing tremors, rolling blackouts, worries about the damaged nuclear reactors 200kms away in Fukushima, shortages of some goods in shops, the need to conserve energy, reduced train services.

The 24/7 media coverage played a key role in shaping perceptions at this early stage, making the devastating effects further North feel closer and amplifying fears in Tokyo, with many blaming the coverage on widespread panic buying.

And there’s no doubt that in the first few weeks following the quake, for many consumers both behavior and attitudes did change significantly – with government statistics showing an 8.5% drop in consumer spending nationwide.

Beyond ‘jishuku

The Japanese term jishuku, best translated as ‘self-restraint’, came up a lot during the course of our research as a way to explain this drop in spending – but behind the word lies a multitude of feelings and motivations.

The reaction was definitely to some extent a show of solidarity with those in the affected areas. There was a sense of national pride in the way people were reacting in the images on TV and a strong desire to do something to help. Actually visiting the affected areas was not a mainstream option with the government advising against it but, by saving electricity and living a more frugal life, people were able to feel they were doing something to help.

In part, the response was driven by very real fears about what might happen in Tokyo – further quakes, possible nuclear fallout from Fukushima, potential economic consequences. For many going out to have a good time or shopping for fun just didn’t seem important or appropriate.

Watching the 24/7 media coverage of the devastating effects further north in Tohoku and the surrounding areas also prompted a temporary reassessment of values for some. Watching how the quake had washed away people’s possessions made material things seem less important. The initial fear of the quake reinforced the importance of family and friends. People report purposefully spending more time with loved ones.

Against all this it’s also important to remember the practical barriers. Throughout much of March the shops were still closing early and there was a reduced train service. For many shopping just wasn’t an option.

Shopping for Japan

At around the beginning of April, there seems to have been a shift in behaviour. Again, this is a shift that took place at multiple levels.

At one level, against a backdrop of a reduction in media coverage and an end to the much of the disruption in Tokyo, consumers just appear to have got tired of worrying. April in Japan is cherry-blossom season and the start of the New Year, a traditional time of renewal that seems to have acted as a prompt for many of our consumers, now distanced from the actual effects of the quake, to get their lives back to normal and start enjoying themselves a bit again.

Alongside this, messages started to filter through the media that the best thing people could do to help was keep the economy going, in part spreading via social media from producers in the affected areas. As politicians continued to call for jishuku, there was a backlash against the phenomenon from some consumers, angry at attempts to enforce something that they felt should be self-enforced and questioning the economic implications for economic recovery.

In reality this process was gradual and affected different consumers in different ways, with some still in a jishuku mood even 6 weeks on but, as March turned into April, the general trend amongst our audience was to get out spending again. In fact, many claim to have been shopping more than normal, giving themselves a boost and at the same time feeling good for doing what they could to help keep the economy going.

Importantly, there were signs of shifts in how consumers were spending. Some were using their consumer choices to try and maximise the sense that they were helping, buying anything sourced from the regions affected by the tsunami or from the numerous brands that were tapping into the trend by promising to donate some of their profits to relief efforts. There were also clear trends towards purchases that could be enjoyed in the moment and give an immediate mood boost. This meant more spending on inexpensive treats or intangible experiences rather than status-based material items. With uncertainty about the future still in the air, some we spoke to were also still putting big purchases – such as white goods, cars or properties – on hold.

How far has the earth really moved in Tokyo?

The longer-term consequences of the quake for those living in Tokyo are difficult to predict but there are perhaps some lessons to learn from the response we were receiving six weeks on.

The individuals who had been most negatively affected by the quake were those who had felt the effects at work. A few of our working guys had seen serious drops in business and were worried about the future of their own jobs and of the Japanese economy as a whole, with one describing it as like “another Lehmans”. If there are further negative economic consequences from the most expensive natural disaster in history, then these may well be a spur to deeper changes in behaviour and attitudes. Whilst the big events may be important, the immediate jolt to attitudes that followed the quake seems to be fading and it will be the tangible effects on everyday lives left that remain that really matter.

Beyond economic fears, the ongoing nuclear crisis at Fukushima means a continued need to conserve energy, a behaviour that most seem happy to engage with, especially as it enables them to feel that they’re doing their bit to contribute to relief efforts. It also dovetails well with the pre-existing ‘eco’ trend in Japan, with many consumers claiming that the need to save had highlighted how wasteful they were being previously. Whether these changes in attitude are really post-rationalisation is still an open question but perhaps behaviour learnt now will turn into habits that last beyond the current need to save energy. Whatever the case, the demand for consumer goods that help save energy only looks set to grow.

For the most part though, as those in the affected areas start the struggle to piece their lives back together, people in Tokyo are now able to get back to their lives much as they were before the quake and with this there seems to be a return to everyday attitudes. To my Japanese colleagues this is perhaps less of a surprise. Despite the scale of the tragedy, natural disasters are part of Japan’s history and run to the core of the national psyche. This has created a somewhat fatalistic streak and an acceptance that some aspects of life are out of control, arguably making it easier to move on but at the same time limiting the potential scope of changes that could follow such an event.

As we get back to a busy schedule of projects at Sugata and everyday pressures begin to mount up again, I can see parallels with my own experience. Looking back on the period now, on a personal level, it feels more like a milestone than a turning point.

With this in mind, perhaps the most interesting lesson from our research is not that it will have a lasting effect on attitudes in Tokyo, although we may still see some of those. Perhaps the more important insight is that the people here – with the support of government and the media – will need to work hard to keep reminding themselves of the very real tragedy in Tohoku to ensure that they don’t forget, even as their own lives return to normal.

Shopping for Japan

It seems hard to believe that it was just a few weeks ago that the streets of Tokyo seemed half-deserted as people stayed at home and practiced jishuku as a show of solidarity with those affected by the tsunami in Tohoku. In the research groups we ran last week asking people were feeling about the quake now, it was clear that a very different attitude is now taking root.

Tokyo-ites are now out doing their bit to help by throwing restraint to the wind and spending money.

No doubt this was to some extent fuelled by calls in the media to keep the economy going, particularly as mainstream sources began to take up the cause of those in Tohoku making the call for people to keep their lives going and support the region through their economic choices.

On the other hand it’s undoubtedly also a reaction to quake fatigue, brought on by the start of a new year in April and the blooming of the Sakura.

In part this is a movement centered on Tohoku. Many of the people we spoke to claimed to be buying Tohoku products when available, with not one mentioning any of the much-hyped worries about radiation.

Even better, one of the girls in the better half”s office brought in a couple of crates of Tohoku-made coffee yesterday, purchased on the Internet and offered to colleagues with a note attached requesting they buy more if they like what they taste.

However for the most part this is more than just a valiant way to support the affected areas. The new attitude is also an excuse for some in Tokyo to get back to doing one of the things that the Japanese quite rightly have a reputation for… Shopping!

The merits of this in the long-term are open to debate but in the short-term people are taking it as an opportunity both to do their bit for the country and lift their own spirits. No wonder many seem to have taken the cause up with gusto.

Memory and Attachment

I had been thinking of trying to write about something other than the earthquake but then the aftershocks started up again. Not just aftershocks either. Several of the tremors we’ve felt over the last week have been separate quakes in their own right.

Last monday was the one month anniversary of the quake. I was in the office, just like I was a month before. At 2.46 pm people around the country spent a minute in silence to remember the event. A couple of hours later, we felt the now familiar sensation of the building starting to shake. Just like a month before, we looked around at one another in the office. Just like a month before, the looks on people’s faces started to look a little concerned as the quake started to go on just a little too long for comfort.

Thankfully, this time the shaking did subside before anyone got worried enough to bolt out of the office. Even so, the quake was a detructive 7.1 magnitude at its epicentre in Fukushima and was enough to shake me up a little.

The experience also brought back vivid recollections of the event one month ago when I was in exactly the same place with exactly the same people. It got me thinking about memory and how it is affected by events like the one we went through here

There are some moments that you know that you will never forget. I don’t have much recollection of what happened on the morning of the quake. I was at college and it was a day much like any other. I don’t remember what I studied or if anything special happened. But the time around when the quake struck is vividly imprinted on my memory.

The brief moment of panic before we all fled the building. The time we spent just outside our office watching the buildings around us sway and the cars bounce up and down. The sight and sound of the building we had just left rattle and shake during the strongest shocks. Desperately trying to call my wife. The journey over to out nearest evactuation point at the local school.

Highly emotional events tend to stick in our memory. These moments of extraordinary arousal would in our collective past have likely to been life or death situations, as our caveman ancestors battled with a hostile environment. Fight or flight. What happens at these times matters for our survival so it seems only natural that we should remember them, the better to learn from them.

The quake certainly felt like a potential life or death situation at the time and if I ever do experience another of a similar or – god forbid – higher magnitude, then I might have a slightly better idea of what to do. It’s not like you can run away from a quake. One of the scariest things about them is that they’re everywhere at once. But maybe I would be more likely to get to a place of safety. Or more likely, less liable to panic.

What I am sure of though is that the experience has imbued the last month with a deep significance. What was a completely unexceptional car park behind our office the will now forever be etched in my mind with 5 of the most intense minutes in my life. The following month too I will always carry with me.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. It’s clear that for the country as a whole the event feels like some kind of turning point. Whether the repercussions are ultimately positive or negative for Japan, the events will shape the future of Japan and the people who live here. I’ve heard it described by one person as being like what 9/11 was for America.

Perhaps though the experience is slightly different for a foreigner?

I can sympathise with what are now being called ‘flyjin’, a play on the semi-dergoatory Japanese terms for foreigners ‘gaijin’ that has become popular here to describe the ex-pats that left the country in the days and weeks following the quake. For those with kids especially, I can understand why they took the option to leave and minimise their risks. Flight has always been a good survival strategy.

However, for other foreigners living here, including me, the intensity of the experience has done something very different. The sense of having been through something important, individually and collectively, has created a sense of attachement, a personal and social bond.

By going through this experience in Tokyo, in some way I feel like Tokyo has also become a part of me.

Moving on Together for Japan?

The mood of self-restraint that has swept Japan in response to the devastating events of the 11th march has been palpable on the ground in Tokyo. The lights are still dimmed, the governor of the dity has called for a cancellation of the annual hanami parties and by all accounts the karaoke parlours are still struggling for business.

However, as the country begins to emerge from the collective shock of the disaster it faces a choice: whether to continue holding back in a show of solidarity for those in Tohoku who are struggling to piece their lives and communities back together or whether to get back to life as normal and try to get the country back on its feet?

On some level there is a real need for restraint. There are some vital supplies that really have been needed for relief efforts, say petrol or water. With the nuclear power plants at Fukushima down and out, the need to conserve electricty will be a concern for perhaps years to come.

However, if taken too far this spirit of self-denial in support to those who have no choice could begin to back-fire by depressing the Japanese economy, adding further economic woes to the already long list of challenges facing the country.

In recognition of this fact – and in an effort to lift their own sales – some brands have kicked off initiatives to try and get people buying again.

Clothing brand United Arrows have launched a campaign called ‘Moving on Together for Japan’ in which they are offering discounts for customers and donating 5% of all prceeds to the Red Cross.

In a more touching demonstration of how the self-restraint might actually be harming those it is aimed at supporting, one sake brewer from the Iwate region has recorded a YouTube video calling on the nation to go ahead with their spring hanami parties – and show their support by buying sake from the affected regions. The fact that the video now has over 350,000 views on You Tube is perhaps a sign that he’s not the only one who feels that way.

Why brands boasting about doing good is good…


It hasn’t been easy to find much positive to talk about in Japan over the last few weeks but one cause for hope has been the outpouring of generosity that has followed from individuals, charities and states, but also from businesses. In fact, with most advertising pulled from TV as a sign of respect, the last three weeks have seen brands here trying to out-do each other in terms of generosity rather than catchy jingles.

It’s easy to be cynical about the corporate world when they’re acting ‘good’ and to assume that all they’re really interested in is what’s ‘good’ for their image. Whilst that may contain some truth, the picture is a bit more complicated that that.

First off, as donations from businesses began flooding in the first few days following the quake & tsunami, it seemed obvious that they were being made out of a genuine desire to help. The feeling of national unity was palpable and everybody just wanted to do something to help.

You could still argue that if the initial motivation were really altruism, then the donor wouldn’t talk about their donation. Surely this generosity is just an attempt to score points, undermining whatever better instinct first motivated the generosity?

Looked at from an individual’s perspective this point seems difficult to argue with. However, look at things from a more social perspective and the picture changes.

Whilst talking about giving might score points for the particular brands involved, it also shifts the terms of the marketplace, forcing other brands to up their game and do the same. In the end, the original cause is better served by brands talking about their generosity. It’s a win – win situation.

In this case, those brands with products that were genuinely useful in the situation came off even better. So when Uniqlo donated £5 million worth of HeatTeach clothing alongside a massive financial contribution, including around $10 million dollars from the personal fortune of founder Tadashi Yanai, and Panasonic donated 4,000 of their solar-powered lanterns as part of their contributions, they were both being of genuine use and proving the genuine usefulness of their products in the process.

Other brands tried to stand out by innovating to give people new reasons and routes to donate. For example Groupon agreed to match whatever donations were made through their site with their own contribution rasising $3.5 million in the first week. And online fashion brand Zozotown launched a charity t-shirt that has raised over $4 million so far.

Even online brands, which in themselves formed an integral part of the communication network needed in the aftermath of the disaster, were competing to be more useful than each other. I’ve already written about the value of Twitter as a source of information during the crisis and Google played a central role in helping people locate loved one with their People Finder service, amongst other toolds. Following them, it wasn’t long before Facebook also had advice on the earthquake built into their service for Japanese users. The biggest player in search here, Yahoo, has even starting running TV ads for their range of services, including a site that displays Eastern Japan’s current electricity usage as the population tries to preserve energy to prevent blackouts.

In all, the changed context since the disaster has forced brands to compete with each other on terms that are more widely beneficial. As Japan starts to recover and commercial realities begin to loom large once again, companies will undoubtedly fall back to trying to out compete each other on less altruistic terms.

However, perhaps those with a more long-sighted view will realise that there is a bigger contextual shift taking place and that with growing pressure on the planet’s ecosystems and ever greater scrutiny of how businesses behave, brands will increasingly be judged on the wider contribution they are making to society. In that case, they may try to hang onto the current mood and reflect it a little more in the way they do business in the future.

As that happens, we should remember not to judge brands in the same way as individuals when they talk about their achievements. Because when brands boast about doing genuine good, it’s likely to be to everybody’s benefit.