Japan visit 2012 (part 3)

We stayed with my in-laws while in Japan, who head a two-person, six-cat, thirteen-umbrella (!) household. That theory about squirrels forgetting where they buried their nuts, no longer seems farfetched to me…  :)

Mom-in-law’s years of experience herding cats have been invaluable in managing her husband, an atypically adventuresome Japanese entrepreneur who possesses the kind of jaunty self-confidence that has helped many an investor make a small fortune in the Japanese stock market, out of a big one. Lucky for him, that’s a hypothetical: he didn’t start off with much to begin with. ;) And he’s got lots of company. If your country’s principal stock index has been trending down for the past twenty-two years, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone whose investments haven’t endured some downsizing!

After years of asserting his maverick status by driving foreign cars despite the steering wheels being on the wrong side, dad-in-law settled on a Prius, which has been among the top-selling cars in Japan for the past few years, thanks partly to public policy favouring fuel efficient vehicles. To offer up a statistically irrelevant but deceptively impressive anecdote, there are three (and soon to be four) Prii on the lane where they live.

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Cars…

Some of you may remember the phase in the 1980’s when American automakers fell in love with the “ie” sound, jamming it into the Cutlass Ciera (GM car), the Sierra (GM truck), the Fiero and Fiesta (Ford cars). h/t to The Straight Dope for that factoid!

Well, in contemporary Japan the “it” sound is… “it”, as evidenced by the Honda Fit, Toyota Vitz, and Sukuzi Wit — all three of them compact cars, directly competing for the same customer dollar!

Japanese carmakers sometimes rebadge cars when they’re exported to other countries, because the home-market names can be a liability: how many of us would drive around in a Nissan Bluebird or a Daihatsu Naked? I think we’ll all agree though, that the prize for least-exportable brand name goes to the committee that came up with the Mitsubishi Toppo BJ. That is not a typo, and it is a real car. The initials stand for “Big Joy”, which really doesn’t help things. As relaxed and liberal-minded as I think I am about such topics, I still felt compelled to avert young son Leo’s eyes when I saw it. ;)

Sticking with cars a bit longer, I saw the Nissan Leaf TV commercials while over there, which upended all my expectations for automotive advertising. They basically position the electric vehicle as a mobile family energy reservoir:
– charging at night when demand on the electric grid is low
– or when the family’s solar panels generate electricity (Japan announced a massive solar feed-in tariff recently)
– providing power to the household during peak times (easing the strain on the grid)
– and of course it can drive you around town, too

Irritatingly, I can’t seem to find the solar panel-containing ad on the Nissan YouTube channel, but the others are there.

The Leaf comes with a 24 kWh battery — enough to power a Canadian household for a day, or a Japanese household for two. Since Nissan has sold 30,000 Leafs, they’ve already put 700 MWh of potential “grid storage” on the market. Put all the automakers’ electric-vehicle plans together, and we soon get enough grid storage capacity to do very nifty things, in the event of natural disasters.

I could imagine that by 2015, one of the carmakers will come out with a major ad campaign built around a testimonial from a customer saying how their Chevy Volt / Nissan Leaf / Mitsubishi MiEV / Ford Focus Electric / or other electric vehicle helped their family get through a [hurricane, earthquake, or other disaster]-related power outage, safely, by keeping the lights or heat on / the radio working / or some such thing. I didn’t include the plug-in Prius in this list, since its battery is a lot smaller than the aforementioned cars, and would run out of power sooner.

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Sports

Soccer seems to have replaced baseball as the most popular sport in Japan — I wonder if the growing number of baseball players going to America has the effect of diminishing Japanese baseball, making it seem like a minor league. It was interesting that the sports section of the news had the usual local sports, then tacked on a review of how each Japanese player in Major League Baseball had done the prior evening.

On that topic, Ichiro Suzuki from the Seattle Mariners got his 2500th American hit a little while back. If you add his Japanese league hits he’d now be third on the all-time hit list, having recently passed Hank Aaron. If he’s able to get 3000 hits in the US, he’d have more trans-Pacific hits than all-time hits leader Pete Rose (who gambled on baseball and was banished) and second-place Ty Cobb (who gambled on baseball and was pardoned). No word yet whether Suzuki likes to gamble. ;) Still, he’s had a miserable past two seasons so it’s doubtful any team will keep him around long enough long enough for that.

Japanese baseball is infamous for trying to prevent foreigners from breaking records held by Japanese players, so it’s worth noting that when Hank Aaron (black) broke the all-time home run record held by Babe Ruth (white) in the 1970’s he received a lot of hate mail — and even death threats. I’m almost old enough to’ve been alive back then!

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and Baby Races

What else… oh yeah, Leo won the second of the two baby races he participated in — these are events put on at various malls by the local baby-goods retailers. He got lucky too; if I remember correctly, one of the other three babies was in the lead, but then got distracted by one of the baby toys placed partway along the course. (If you can call a four-metre stretch of foam flooring, a course.) Fortunately for him, Leo was interested in the toy that was at the finish line, so crawled all the way there before sitting down to play with it. :)

The decision by baby-goods retailers to put these community events on was one of the many, many examples of thoughtful service that seem to permeate Japanese culture. Another example was a discount grocery store which had a complimentary dry ice dispenser, so people’s frozen goods would stay frozen on the drive home… especially if they needed to make another stop elsewhere. Such a level of service must necessarily result in higher prices, but customers seem willing to pay the extra money to get that level of satisfaction. Even the store run by Wal-Mart (!) seemed more heavily staffed than the grocery stores over here.

In that vein, I wonder if people would grumble less about taxes if staff counts at government centers was doubled, and employees were forced to be cheerful. As gauche as I am, even I’ve grumbled Fraser Institute-like words after waiting in long lineups in an unpleasantly stuffy office, only to have a rude clerk give me unhelpful (later to be proven incorrect!) advice.  (For US readers’ benefit, the Fraser Institute is essentially the Heritage Foundation‘s Canadian franchisee.)

Another example of the “proactive” thinking was a Hitachi fan which automatically shuts off once someone touches the metal grille around the blades. I imagine they use the same kind of technology used by SawStop for their table saws — which also immediately shut off once they detect a finger. (A very small electrical current is run on the saw blade; body parts or hot dogs cause a change in the measured resistance, causing the saw to be immediately halted.)

Given the sweltering weather of the past few days, and the fact that Leo is now almost tall enough to reach the base of our floor fan, I’m kind of wishing we’d bought that Hitachi unit and brought it back. I’ll be rigging some safety netting up (I’m too cheap to buy one of those nifty Dyson fans) but it’d be nice to think that North American appliance-makers valued kids’ fingers as much as the Japanese ones do…!

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