Could the dimming of Tokyo lead to a brighter future?

Since the earthquake and subsequent tsunami shutdown the Fukushima nuclear plant almost two weeks ago, Eastern Japan has been facing a reduced electricity supply.

In Tokyo, this has meant businesses and individuals trying to cut back on their energy use, a move that so far appears to have held off most of the planned ‘rolling blackouts’ that were announced soon after the quake hit.

And for the most part the effect has been minimal, with life continuing pretty much as normal.

The only conspicuous effect has been to the lighting around town. For a city that shines so bright in the public imagination with images of neon strips and illuminated billboards, Tokyo is looking noticably dimmer than usual.

I started jotting down the idea for the blog post sitting in the half-light at work, where in an attempt to do our bit we’re working most of the lights off. Other businesses and shops around the city are doing the same, with shops even switching off their signage to help.

However, this city-wide toning down is by far the most obvious in Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s most recognisable landmarks, now transformed from an audio-visual assault of commercial messages to just a busy thoroughfare.

It all feels a bit eerie after dark but judging from a series of interviews with passing youth broadcast on NHK, the new state of affairs is not a problem. Some even seemed to be embracing the new state of affairs.

Is this just a reflection of the current sense of solidarity in the city? Or is it a sign of deeper dissatisfaction with the way things have been and the beginnings of a recognition that the status quo is probably not sustainable for much longer anyway?

At the moment it’s hard to tell. But with talk of Japan facing a turning point, there does seem to be a feeling that out of the disaster could come some positive change – and not just a return to business as normal.

Another conspicuous victim of the power cuts have been the flashy vending machines installed at Shibuya station and other points around the city,  perfectly underlining my point about their lack of resilence

The ongoing crisis at Fukushima has highlighted the potential hazard of nuclear power and brought the issue of how we are going to supply our future energy needs to the fore. With the price of oil already volatile and set to rise as we near peak production, the need to use energy more sensibly is only going to increase in the years to come.

Perhaps one way that Japan could move forward positively from the disaster is by turning their reknowned technological prowess towards developing products that take account of this fact.

For a generation of young Japanese, the current power-saving measures could well be a wake-up call to do just that.

Tokyo’s Twitter moment…

I’ve always doubted the claim that online ‘citizen journalism’ is a better source of information than the professional mainstream press. But over the last week in Tokyo we’ve had more reason than usual to pay attention to the news, as we’ve faced the decision whether to flee Tokyo (and what many have reported to be the risk of nuclear fallout) or stay and get our lives back to normal as soon as possible?

The experience has left me with a new take on things. Over the course of the last ten days in Tokyo at least, give me Twitter over the press any day of the week.

On the face of it, the role of the media is to provide people with ‘news’. They employ ‘professionals’ to filter through the ‘facts’ and produce stories for their readers. But of course they also have commercial concerns and attention-grabbing headlines help sell papers. In a market where everybody’s at it, it must be difficult not to join in with the shock tactics.

Thus the sensational headers from all corners of the British press this week. As they both reflected and stoked the deep-seated public fear of ‘radioactivity’, they helped create the very panic that they were reporting on – another case of the press as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Twitter on the other hand is largely a network of individuals. And whatever agendas these people may have in their daily lives, during the course of this crisis those in Tokyo have been united by one thing – getting as accurate a picture as possible of the situation in order to make an informed decision about what to do next.

Through Twitter I’ve been able to connect directly or indirectly to medical experts, nuclear scientists and yes… Tokyo-based journalists free from their editors. A huge network has been collecting and sharing information and a few more active bloggers have been collating it to their sites (herehere and here for instance). A community spontaneously sprung up which anybody could tap into. Thanks to the hard work of a few dedicated bloggers at the centre of it, we’ve all been able to benefit.

Press conferences have been tweeted in English as they’ve happened. Links to Geiger counters around Tokyo and at the nuclear plant itself have been posted. Academic and specialist press documents have been passed around. Those with the expertise to do so have analysed and clarified articles appearing in the press.

Even with all this information, plus advice from real-life friends who work in the nuclear industry, it was not an easy decision to stay. However, thanks to Twitter we’ve been able to bypass the sensationalism of the mainstream press and get a more informed view based on direct sources. We’ve been able to avoid panic and the fate of this gormless (and most probably invented) soul whose story was told in the Sun (in an article so misrepresentative of the truth it leaves me seriously questioning the value of a free press).

In the end we’re glad to have made the decision to stick around and play our tiny bit part in helping get the country back on its feet. We remain tuned in for future developments at Fukushima but at the moment we feel safe and confident that we will be able to avoid serious effects in the extremely unlikely event that things do take a turn for the worse.

So does this mean that I’ll be using Twitter for my news from now on?

Well probably not. For Twitter to be effective you need to be tuned-in to the right people and you need to keep up with the information being shared. You need to piece together a story from fragments of information. This all takes effort and time; resources that feel in increasingly short supply. So most of the time, I suspect I’ll continue to rely on the mainstream press to do the filtering for me.

From now on though, I’ll be treating anything I read in the ‘professional’ press with a little more skepticism and ignoring the headlines altogether. And if I really want to get insight into a situation, then I’ll try bypassing the press completely to tune in to the ‘citizens’ involved on the ground – and hear the story from those who care the most about it.

Tokyo Earthquake – 11th March 2011

We’re at home now and, except for the occasional mild aftershock, Tokyo feels eerily normal. The bin men are outside as I type collecting the rubbish that people put out this morning. But watching the terrible scenes around the country on TV makes us realise how lucky we really were. Our thoughts – like everyone else’s – are with those who are still suffering.

Yesterday I responded to a request from the Guardian Japan correspondent for an eyewitness account of the quake in Tokyo and the piece I wrote ended up getting published online in the Christian Science Monitor here.

Here’s an unedited and rather garbled full-length version written at speed last night…

I came to Tokyo from London three months ago with my Japanese-born wife to get the full experience of her culture. I certainly got that today, but in a way that all the Japanese lessons I’ve been taking couldn’t have prepared me for.

One of the thoughts going through my mind throughout the actual 5 minutes or so of the quake though was that I wasn’t the only one who seemed unprepared. I know that native Japanese go through regular drills at school for how you’re supposed to cope in this kind of situation but my Japanese colleagues at the job I started just a week ago seemed as much at a loss about what to do as I was. Perhaps there just is no way you can really prepare for an earthquake.

We were in our second floor office when the first shocks hit. They were relatively gentle, the kind of thing that I’ve already felt since my arrival and that seem pretty common place for Tokyo-ites. It didn’t take long for it to register that this was not the normal passing tremor though and as the force gradually built, my colleagues looks of acknowledgment started to look a bit more like panic. Then there was what seems like a few seconds of stunned silence. At this point the thought of getting under my desk ran through my mind, this being the one piece of advice I remember from my wife giving me some basic emergency drilling. As the shaking continued to build something much more primal was telling me to just get out of the building as soon as possible though, a thought obviously also running through the mind of my colleagues as we all seemed to dart for the door at once and down the flight of stairs to the car-park behind our building, joining people from surrounding buildings who obviously had similar ideas.

It was when we were outside that the most powerful tremors began to hit and seeing our relatively old building visibly shake from the outside, the external spiral staircase we had all just run down loudly rattling against it’s side, I was glad to have got outside. It was at this point that panic started to turn to fear though, as we looked around at the surrounding skyscrapers visibly swaying, like trees blowing in the wind. It was only talking to people later that I learnt that this bendiness is part of what makes them resistant to quakes. At the time I was genuinely scared that one of these 100 storey building could come down on top of us.

It all feels like a bit of a blur now but the main quake seemed to last a few minutes. I remember the cars around us being lighted off the ground. The power cables above our head swinging wildly. People staggering to keep balance. Some guys in another floor of our building  who had obviously decided to try and see it out inside darting down the stairs to join us in the car-park, safely thank God, during a lull. My heart beating, wondering what I should be doing now and what exactly I was doing here anyway.

As soon as it seemed the worst had passed everybody’s thoughts turned to their loved ones and we all got our mobiles out at once, but of course the network was overloaded, meaning lots of frantic re-dialling but very little in the way of contact being made. Somehow the word got round that we should head to our local evacuation centre, a nearby elementary school and we made our way over as streams of people from elsewhere did the same. Phone networks were still down for calls but I eventually got through to my wife with a Skype message sent from my mobile and as soon as I knew that she was alright and had managed to get a message through to family back at home I felt the worst was over. Messages coming out over the loudspeaker saying that there was no serious damage reported in Shibuya-ku also helped. Still there were a few false starts moving, as a second wave of less powerful shocks hit and aftershocks continue to roll on,  and it was a couple of hours before I set off for Shibuya with a few colleagues to meet my wife and make our way home.

Walking though Harajuku, the most visible effects of the earthquake were the crowds of people jamming the pavements, making their way home without the help of a shut-down public transport system. Otherwise what was really striking was the lack of damage. Apart from a few cracked tiles, there was virtually no evidence that a short time ago we’d just been through what my Japanese colleagues were describing as the worst quake they had ever experienced. I was still feeling shaken at this point but seeing how the city had withstood the shaking did at least reassure me. The fact that the buildings in Tokyo are built with the risk of earthquakes in mind must have saved a lot of lives today.

Shibuya was pandemonium when I finally met my wife, who had good news about the rest of the family, and we headed off on our two hour journey home to the South West of Tokyo. The closest comparison I have to the atmosphere is the 7/7 attacks in London, all a bit of a dream, an impression compounded by the lack of a damage.

It’s only when we got home that and turned on the TV that we really realised the terrible extent of the damage elsewhere in Japan and started really worrying about a friend in Sendai who we haven’t been able to get in touch with yet. And with small aftershocks still hitting every half hour or so, and the talk of there still maybe being more big ones to come on TV, it looks like it’s going to be a long night ahead.

As I say, amazing that we barely encountered any damage except for the occasional dislodged tile…

Unbelievable given the way the buildings were swaying earlier. And believe me, it looked way worse than this at the time!

I’ll Be Your Mirror

Last weekend the indie music institution that is All Tomorrow’s Parties hosted I’ll Be Your Mirror, their first event in Japan and with a line-up featuring the cream of Japanese alternative music – the Boredoms, Boris – alongside post-rock legends Godspeed You Black Emperor, Fuck Buttons and cult Japanese toy-maker AMOS providing visuals amongst others, it’s perhaps no surprise that tickets for the event were sold out weeks in advance.

The growth of ATP over the last 10 years is an amazing story – and one that a lot of brands could learn from. What began as a single event put on in an old Butlins holiday camp by Belle and Sebastian in 1999 has now become a true phenomenon, with regular festivals in not just the UK but also the USA, Australia and now Japan, alongside its own in-house record label.

So what’s behind their success?

Well first off, unlike many of the identikit festivals that appeared (and promptly disappeared) in the UK over the last decade, trying to cash in on the festival trend, ATP has never been about the money. In fact, it doesn’t even have any brand sponsors, with everything funded by ticket sales alone. It’s clear that ATP really is all about the music.

But what really distinguishes ATP festivals from others is the way that it hands creative control over to the musicians. Each event is curated by one of the bands, who selects the line-up, creating what the events founder, Barry Hogan, has described as being like a mix tape of their favourite bands. The curators, which include Portishead, Animal Collective and even Simpsons creator Matt Gorening, each select what will be played on the TVs in each of the holiday camp ‘chalets’ over the course of the festival.

This approach is at the heart of what makes ATP so special. By handing the festival over to the musicians, they’ve created something that musicians love and want to be a part of. This approach opens more doors than money ever could because artists genuinely want to get involved. That’s why ATP is able to attract names such as Jeff Magnum from Neutral Milk Hotel, who will be curating an upcoming festival in the UK. It’s why the Boredoms chose to play what is likely to be their only gig of 2011 at ATP last week in Tokyo.

This sense of community runs right through the ethos of the events. The artists and promoters stay in the same accommodation as the fans, bringing everyone closer together. For several events ATP have handed creative direction over to the fans, allowing them to collectively select the line up. The collective spirit is even reflected in a documentary that ATP released in 2009 , All Tomorrow’s Parties: The Film, which was made up of footage taken by fans, musicians and the organizers over the course of the last 10 years.

It’s these values that have allowed ATP to grow beyond their initial base in the unlikely setting of Butlins in Minehead and become the institution that they are today. In the process they’ve created something far more valuable than profit, a movement that people genuinely want to be a part of. Instead of trying to give people what they want, they’ve done what they believe in and led by example, no doubt in the process creating their own fans, people inspired to share in their values.

ATP has done something that all brands would love to do but very few actually achieve: they’ve become part of the cultural fabric. Not all brands can be music festivals and not many could inspire the same sense of community as ATP but most could act a little bit more out of their own beliefs. In doing so, they may just find that this is the quickest way to win over customers that they’re usually trying so hard to please.

Nintendo Gets Real With 3DS

In Japan it’s a common sight to see people out on the street trying to promote this or that brand or product or shop. But for all their enthusiasm, I often wonder how much is actually being achieved considering the man hours being put in.

For example, close to my language school in Ikebukuro there is an ongoing promotional street-fight between the two biggest electrical retail chains in Tokyo, Biccamera and Yamada Denki. On one street corner outside the station they battle it out, each with a team of several people dressed in their respective colours of red or yellow, handing out catalogues and announcing deals through their hand-held megaphones to a seemingly oblivious passing crowd.

Then there are the tissues. You can’t walk more than 500 metres in some areas of Tokyo without being offered a free pack of tissues by some young guy or girl with a bar or ‘ladies’ club to promote. Great if you’ve got a cold. But I can’t believe they really pull much trade in this way.

However, this weekend Nintendo were out at one of Tokyo’s busiest thoroughfares in Shibuya to announce the launch of their new handheld 3DS with a promotion that made a little bit more sense.

The 3DS has already been heavily advertised, with TV spots featuring technology-pimping boy band of the moment Arashi (they’re also the face of AU’s high profile Android campaign). Of course, the trouble with these ads is that, for all the fun that the boys seem to be having with this apparently jaw-dropping new technology, it’s impossible to really get across what 3D could add on a 2D screen. Any attempts are bound to fall a bit flat (sorry!).

So with DS ownership already so high in Japan – according to one Internet survey a whopping 42% versus smartphone penetration of 12% – how do you convince consumers that this latest incarnation is worth shelling out for?

If anything is going to work then it has to be getting hands-on with the technology because it really does need to be seen to be believed. The 3D screen, which works without glasses and can be switched off if desired truly does – sorry but I just couldn’t think of any other way of putting this – add an extra dimension to the experience.

With games that are normally 2D – like Super Street Fighter IV 3D – the effect is nice to look at but doesn’t really add much (and can be turned off if desired). But its on games that normally take place in a 3D environment where the technology really seems to come into its own, with the extra depth making 3D look like more than a gimmick for the first time. The demos on display weren’t playable but even seeing say 3D soccer has sold me on the technology. If the point of gaming is to create an immersive experience then this is probably the biggest advance – in interface terms – since the Nintendo launched the Wii back in 2006. Now it just needs the right software to back it up.

In the end, the launch couldn’t have gone better, with all 400,000 units selling out within the 24 hours. The street promotion may just have drawn a few of these punters in and will at the very least have whet the appetite of those who didn’t buy on the day (such as me!). And now that the genie is out of the bottle the technology should start to sell itself with new owners of the console taking over the job of demonstrators as friends have a go on their machines.

Enter Through the Gallery

Nowadays, we’re all used to the idea of galleries having a shop, a fact recognised by Banksy in the title of his film Exit Through the Gift Shop, a truth-bending commentary on the modern day relationship between art and commerce.

In the future will become as familiar with the idea of seeing a gallery in a shop?

Diesel certainly seem to think so – at least if their Shibuya store, which houses its very own gallery, is anything to go by. Their latest exhibition, billed in bright cinematic lights on the shop front, is a collection of source materials, props, interviews and behind the scenes material from the set of Spike Jonze’s latest film, I’m Here.

The range of fashion brands available in central Tokyo seems almost endless. Competition is fierce. Even a brand like Diesel could struggle to stand out in this saturated environment. But by turning part of their retail space into a gallery, they’ve helped make a visit to their store a very different experience, giving passing trade an extra incentive to pop in and the chance to take a break from the hard grind of shopping.

Besides enticing potential customers into the store where they’re more likely to open their wallet, the exhibition also does a good job of feeding into Diesel’s carefully cultivated image of anarchic style. Here, Spike Jonze and his latest work seems a fitting partner, with his surreal approach to film-making – very evident in the props on display – somehow feeling appropriate for Diesel’s slightly off-kilter approach to fashion.

What was less obvious at the exhibition was the integral involvement of another brand. Absolut Vodka actually funded the production of I’m Here, although there was little sign of this at the exhibition beyond a small logo on one of the signs. This is in keeping with the approach that they seem to have taken throughout this process, having handed creative direction completely over to Spike and only getting a mention in the credits in the same way that any other producer would.

The half an hour film is still available to watch online on its own – unbranded – website at http://http://www.imheremovie.com/

Be warned, ‘showings’ are only every two hours and and you’ll need to order a (free) ‘ticket’ in advance to watch the half hour film. As a fan of Spike Jonze’s other work, I’d say its definitely worth the wait (and so would many others judging by the IMDB reviews).

The work that Absolut and Diesel have done together with Spike Jonze is a great example of how brands and artists working together can create genuinely interesting stuff and push marketing way past the interruption of traditional advertising. Questions will continue to be asked about whether artists will be able to maintain their values whilst being funded by brands, a phenomenon that is only set to grow.

This campaign goes to show that, with a proper grounding in shared values, both creators and customers can stand to gain something positive from the process. Perhaps the only real question is if – in Absolut’s case – they can justify the ‘effectiveness’ of spending their money on ‘entertainment’ rather than ‘advertising’ given their low-key involvement in the process? Judging by the quality of the work they’ve produced here, let’s hope so!

How ethical is Japanese food?

This Sunday we went to watch Food Inc. at a tiny, one-screen cinema in Shibuya, which as well as leaving me feeling shocked and more than just a little bit angry about the state of the food industry in the West, also got me thinking about ‘ethical’ food in Japan. Or rather, the lack of a conspicuously ‘ethical’ food industry here compared to the UK.

I’ve written before about how the Japanese fast food industry hasn’t (yet) suffered the kind of backlash that it has experienced at home, at least from some quarters. This less questioning attitude seems to extend beyond fast food to cover most aspects of the Japanese food industry.

Take organic produce, or what’s usually called ‘yuki’ in Japanese. In UK supermarkets now you’ll now find an organic equivalent for virtually every item in the produce aisle. In our local Japanese supermarket you might find one or two items at best. When it comes to meat, I’ve seen no or organics at all, and little in the way of any other recognisable sourcing certification.

Fair trade products are just  as scarce. In the few supermarkets around our house, the only Fairtrade symbol I’ve seen so far was on one pack of imported bananas.

The one food issue that really does seem to have hit the mainstream here is eating locally. Japanese origin products are always clearly marked and often slightly more expensive than their foreign equivalents, a price that people seem willing to pay. However, whereas ‘local’ in the UK is wrapped up with the idea of ‘food miles’ and environmentalism, here motivations seem more narrowly focussed on supporting the local community and maybe avoiding potentially unsafe produce from abroad.

So, all that considered, watching Food Inc left me with mixed feelings: on one hand I was determined to try to make better food choices, even if that meant spending more; on the other hand I wasn’t sure how easy I would find that in Japan. For all I know I may already be – unwittingly – making ethical choices. But if the food industry here is anything like its been in the West then somehow I doubt it. The problem is that in the absence of labelling, its impossible to tell.

Which is why I was heartened when, after leaving the cinema, we almost immediately stumbled across a ‘Farmer’s Market’ at the nearby UN University. With stalls selling everything from locally grown organic fruit and veg, bread and honey alongside ethically sourced wild Ethiopian coffee beans and a menu of other delicious produce, we walked away with a loaf of proper bread (not easy to come by in Tokyo) and a bagful of vegetables for the week ahead.

The solid stream of trade at UNU on Sunday goes to show that that there is an interest in organic produce in Japan. Whether there’s enough to tip the trend into the mainstream is quite another thing. Despite many predictions of organic taking off here – and I believe it has potential if only on health or taste grounds – it will remain niche until the (relatively conservative) supermarkets get involved.  So it seems that for now at least, most shoppers will remain satisfied in the knowledge that their products are ‘made in Japan’.

After watching Food Inc though there’s a different question nagging at me  – not where but how the food I’m buying here was produced?