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What do you think of when you think of Tokyo? Bright lights? Electronics? Robots? Lots of advertising?

Here are 12 things you might not know about Japan.

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Konnichiwa boys and girls! I was recently lucky enough to cash in some frequent flier miles and visit Japan. Along the way I took notes, giving me some pretty cool content to bring you 3-4 episodes on Japanese marketing and pop culture. While many of the things I saw were what I expected, there were quite a few things that took me by surprise.

Could Tokyo possibly be bigger, brighter, and bolder than New York City? Lets find out.

Here are the Tokyo 12.

1. Advertising Equality
If you picture parts of downtown Tokyo as one giant, brightly-lit neon television commercial, you’re not far off. For example, thousands of people cross intersections near Shibuya Station as billboards and LCD screens tower above them, pushing Coca Cola and cell phones. You’re a long way from Kansas.

But is it any different from New York or other major US cities? Not really. While the JR subway line might have little advertisements on the hanging straps and a small TV monitor in each car, I’ve seen the entire subway car on the shuttle from Grand Central to Times Square or giant city buses wrapped in advertisements. There was definitely lots of advertising, but at a level was about what I was used to.

2. Electronics Letdowntokyo-electronics-town
One of the must-see side trips on my list was a visit to Akihabara, or Japan’s ‘electronics town.’ I was prepared to see 3D television sets, $500 laptops I could fold up and put in my pocket, and of course, a land of robots. I couldn’t wait to bring back some type of secret gadget that no one in the US had even heard of yet. At the next party, everyone would gather around and marvel at this piece of next generation technology and ask, where can I get one of those? To which I’d smugly reply, it’s not available in the US.

So it was to my disappointment that the stores were more WalMart than Wired. In fact, it reminded me of the not so glamorous electronics vendors here in New York. The ones that tourists go to, but not residents. iPods? Same price as the Apple store down the block from me. Digital cameras? Talk to me when you can beat Amazon.com’s price. And Robots? We had to trek up four flights of stairs to get to the one building out of 50 that had robots, only to find the decent ones priced at hundreds and even thousands of dollars.

tokyo-robots

3. Baseball Blooper
If this isn’t a missed marketing opportunity, I don’t know what is. Since it was late October, Japan’s version of the World Series was going on, pitting the Yomiuri Giants vs. the Seibu Lions. I asked some people what I thought was a simple question… Hey, where could I buy a hat from one of the teams? Silence. People were stumped.

Seriously? If this were Boston in October, you couldn’t go 15 minutes from Pittsfield to Portland without seeing a Red Sox logo on every man, woman or child, be it on a hat, shirt, onesie, or tattoo. What kills me is that you can buy a NY Yankees hat in Japan in 12 different colors. But a Giants hat? You have to go to the Tokyo Dome. A Lions hat? About 20 minutes away at their stadium. Really? No one has thought of selling these in the city? Imagine if the only way a 7-year old boy from upstate New York could get a Yankees hat was if his Dad brought him the team store in the Bronx.

4. Sky high restaurants and bars
Here’s another difference in the way establishments market themselves vs. the US. Whether it’s bars on Bourbon Street or a Subway in strip malls, we make it pretty easy to poke your head in, see if you like what you see, and make your decision. Maybe it’s because I’m not a local, but don’t expect to find a cool bar or restaurant via foot traffic in Japan. Many of the pubs and restaurants are located high above street level, hidden in back alleys or behind unmarked subterranean doorways. You don’t know what you’re getting until you’ve hoofed it up 5 or 10 floors. Then again, that makes it that much cooler when you stumble upon a gem.

5. Cell phone chatter
Everyone in Japan has a cell phone, right? They use them to talk and text and play games and open their garage and pay their mortgage and cure baldness. But here’s the shocking thing they don’t do. They don’t talk on them incessantly. It took me awhile to notice what wasn’t happening. Thousands of people weren’t talking on them while they walked. They weren’t taking calls at dinner. They weren’t yelling over other conversations in a bar. They even adhered to the no talking signs on above-ground subways! I actually cringed when I landed in NY and the second the wheels hit the runway every person powered up their phone and began a conversation during the 3 minute process of unloading the plane. We could learn something here.

6. Celebrity vending machinestokyo-vending-machine
I wasn’t really sure exactly what else people would be buying from vending machines in Tokyo, now that I can buy an iPod from one here at a Macys. Do they have more vending machines in Japan? Yes. They have soda and drinks and types of food. They also have a giant photo of Tommy Lee Jones on them. But were people buying chocolate soufflés or getting their shirts dry-cleaned at them? Uh, no.

7. Thin is in
Nine. That’s about the number of overweight people I saw in 8 days of traveling. Single digits. Country of 128 million people. And to be honest I’m not sure it was that high. Oh, and zero would be the number of obese people I saw.

Look, maybe I missed the ‘Houston, Texas’ of Japan, and there were a lot of people smoking, which surely isn’t healthy. But I didn’t see lots of ads for Weight Watchers or the Zone Diet or 8 minute abs. With reportedly 1 in 3 Americans obese and 2 of 3 overweight, it was stunning to realize that I can’t recall seeing a single person that made me think, hey, maybe he should lay off the fatty tuna at the sushi counter next time. I don’t know where all the Sumo wrestlers were hiding, but this was one healthy country.

8. Men’s Fashion (Speaking of Tommy Lee Jones)
Their fashion could be described as the same, but different. Picture the scene… waves and waves of businessmen pouring out of the subway in crisp dark suits like an enormous casting call for the movie Men in Black. It seemed that 9 out of 10 men of all ages I saw during the day, from executives to office workers to students, rocked a dark suit and crisp white shirt. Always impeccable. Never sloppy. No baggy jeans. No sideways hats. No oversized t-shirts.


Japanese Men in Black from Jim Hopkinson on Vimeo.

So how did they distinguish themselves? One way was the shoes. Another is their hair. Without the diversified hair shades of blond, brown, and red, the cut and style becomes more dramatic. A 50-foot monitor at Shibuya’s busy crossing hypes ‘Moving Rubber’ hair gel (my friend bought some and we weren’t sure we’d ever seen such a substance). Some of the hairstyles I saw could be classified as pompadours, spikes, and the 1990s Jennifer Aniston look. But it did set them apart.

9. Women’s Fashion Wonderstokyo-girl-shoes
In a word, stunning. Like the men, most of the women, from students to store clerks, seemed to follow a ‘standard uniform’ for fall. That was dark sweaters and jackets, skirts, knee-high socks and boots.

And they definitely like their brands. Several areas we were in had high end shopping, from Ralph Lauren to Louis Vuitton, as well as plenty of boutique shops. It’s interesting how major brands transcend different cultures. And again, the style was impeccable. Check out the photo I took of a group of girls all wearing the same outfit, but differentiating with their crazy shoes.

10. No Japanese spoken heretokyo-university-pittsburgh
My last comment on fashion is that it was nearly impossible to find a single shirt with Japanese writing on it. At first it was just casual browsing, trying to find something authentic. But at the end of the trip, I was in full-scale tourist mode. Yes, I want to be the dorky – um, I mean cool – guy that has a t-shirt with Japanese writing on it to be different. Look, it’s not like I’m getting a tattoo that I think means ‘inner peace’ and it actually means ‘bean curd.’ I just wanted something that had Japanese writing.

But it got to be ridiculous. Yes, I know Japanese like fashion with English sayings. But I was in Japan, and I couldn’t find ANY shirts with Japanese writing. NONE. Nothing with their native language on it! Can you imagine shopping in New York or Boston or San Francisco and only finding shirts written in Italian or German? See the photo of me at a high-end department store holding up a $63 shirt with University of Pittsburgh on it!

11. At your service
The level of customer service is unprecendented. Astounding. Shocking. Breathtaking. And, worthy of it’s own podcast. Stay tuned.

12. Royal Flushtokyo-toto-toilet1
All I can say is that the Toto Toilet company should immediately be given a US Government contract to replace all the toilets in the entire country. A new law will make it illegal to install anything but their models. Yes, they’re that good. And yes, I am going to do an entire podcast about toilets.

If you enjoyed this episode, make sure to subscribe to the podcast in iTunes so you’ll automatically download upcoming topics about the land of the rising sun. Also follow me at Twitter.com/hopkinsonreport.

Thanks for listening, and sayonara.

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