The Japanese Master Ramen Chef
Let’s call this man Sho. Sho grew up in a regional town in an insignificant prefecture in Japan. After graduating from the local high school, like many of his classmates, he decided to work instead of go to college. While his teachers recommended the local construction company because of the foreseeable demand for roads and bridges in the area, he chose to work for his uncle who ran a rundown ramen shop in town. Sho loved ramen and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Sho’s uncle’s ramen restaurant was not popular, it attracted customers purely for the lack other ramen choices in the area. Sho thought of many different ways that the recipe could be improved but his uncle would not listen to him. While the pay was not good, Sho lived at home and saved as much money as he can so he can open his own restaurant someday.
After five years of working in a mediocre restaurant, Sho finally saved enough money to buy a property at the edge of town to start his own restaurant (or enough money that the bank was willing to lend the rest).
For the first few years, the restaurant did not bring in too many customers because of its remote location. Those around Sho urged him to quit as he was barely making payments on his loan, but Sho refused to do so. In the mean time, some of the avid local ramen fans started to write about the hidden gem online. Soon the word spread through the blogosphere, Twitter, and Tabelog (Japanese equivalent of Yelp). Lines formed around the restaurant everyday, at all times of the day, and people came from all over Japan.
Those around Sho then urged him to expand the restaurant and move to the center of town but Sho refused, worried that a bigger restaurant would lead to decreasing quality. He stayed put in his remote location, serving the handful of customers he was able to service.
In the mean time, the media discovered the restaurant and flocked to the remote location. However, the master refused all but a select few interviews citing his belief that “the customer comes first.” The restaurant becomes a legend in the ramen community, a must-visit-site for anyone claiming to be a ramen expert.
Around this time, Sho got a lot of requests from those wanting to study under him. He refused almost all requests, taking only a couple who showed true dedication to become a ramen chef. After ten years of studying under Sho, the first apprentice, with Sho’s blessing, moved away and started his own restaurant in the style of his master in the center of the city. The apprentice’s restaurant does well but not as well as his master’s, because it’s not the original.
After 25 years of working six days a week with no holidays, those around Sho finally convince him to take a vacation. He takes a week off to go to Hawaii with his wife, but fails to enjoy the too foreign experience and is glad to be back when he returns home. Once back in Japan, Sho’s everyday routine of creating the perfect bowl of noodle soup continues until he retires at the age of 75 when his body can no longer handle the arduous tasks.
The American Master Ramen Chef
Let’s call this man Sam. Ever since watching “Tampopo” as a high school student, Sam was interested in ramen. He had his fair share of instant noodles growing up but believed that the real thing has to be better. After all, real Italian food was so much better than mac and cheese.
Sam’s first trip to Japan during spring break in college was a revelation. After the first bowl of ramen, he could not stop. In the seven days he spent in Tokyo, he ate more than twenty five bowls ramen, completely ignoring all other forms of Japanese food. After coming back to the US, he started reading as much as he can on ramen, which was very little in English (he had no inkling to learn Japanese). The next year he moved off campus to an apartment with a proper kitchen where he experimented with his recipe ever day, pissing off his roommates.
After graduating from university with mediocre grades and a degree in political science, Sam scrounged together money from friends and family to start a restaurant in the edge of his hometown (so he could live at home). After a trial period where he learned all the difficulties of running a restaurant (his high school waiting experience didn’t come in that handy), he took out an advertisement in the local newspaper and promoted the restaurant aggressively through Yelp.
The patronage grew slowly but the turning point came when the local TV station covered the restaurant (after all, it was the only dedicated ramen restaurant in a 200 mile radius). The number of customers quickly grew, and when the taqueria next door went bankrupt, Sam bought it out to double his restaurant size. The business grew steadily with increased media attention.
Sam then opened his second restaurant in the nearby city, followed by another restaurant in New York City. In five years, Sam opened more than twenty restaurants in the US covering most major metropolitan areas. Around this time, Sam started publishing several books on ramen such as the “Master of Ramen” and “Around the world in 80 bowls.” Most of the content is ghostwritten.
The media expansion continued as Sam then started appearing in different TV shows before he started his own short-lived show, “It’s Ramen Time” on a niche cable channel. Taking advantage of his media exposure, Sam then sold his naming rights to a major food company who produces and markets instant ramen under his name. At this point, the master is rarely seen in his restaurant, but instead on the road promoting his brand and books.
Sam then got the idea to start a restaurant in Japan, which became a media sensation on both sides of the Pacific. However, once the hype dies down, the restaurant closes down due to lack of customers.
When Sam’s restaurant in Japan failed coincided with when the ramen fad started fading in the US, and many of his restaurants struggled to stay in the black. Sam had to close several of his restaurants and after few years of stagnation and decline, he decided to sell his entire empire to a private equity. The company then streamlined the management system, modified the recipe to cut costs, and made the restaurant chain profitable again.
By this point, Sam had already retired to a small island in the Caribbean where he sips rum and cooks bbq for his neighbors.
Both stories are of course fictitious, stereotypical, and “truer than true,” but should resonate if you come from either one of these countries. The goal isn’t to oversimplify the cultures but to highlight how differently we think about growing something, even something so simple as ramen.
Well, I was meaning to post this a lot earlier.
I now live in Kyoto, Japan, the city I was born and raised until the age of ten.
I really enjoyed my time in Germany. Frankfurt was a fantastic place to live, there was a great expat scene, and my Ultimate team was the closest thing to a family away from home. Alas, it was my time to move on.
I am now working as a specially appointed associate professor at the Kyoto Institute of Technology working on the KYOTO Design Lab. For the first time since Paris, I am back in academia, but the context and work is very different.
During my time in Frankfurt, I had two unofficial offers: join a major German company and their design thinking team, or come to Japan and start working at the Kyoto Institute of Technology.
Something about my personality that has me jumping into the path of maximum ambiguity. The job in Germany was clearer, I already had a base there, and for once, a stable visa. The job in Japan had no job description (again), required lugging my things across the world, and rebuilding my personal and social life, again.
I picked the latter.
Japan also had the allure that I speak the language near fluently, and part of me was curious if I could fit into a country I left twenty two years ago (the verdict is still out on that one).
The KYOTO Design Lab (D-Lab) is a platform for innovation on top of the education layer at the Kyoto Institute of Technology (KIT), and part of its mission is to connect with the international design community. KIT has one of the strongest design programs in Japan despite being a predominantly engineering school.
My mission has been loosely defined and I’ve been doing a little bit of everything (publicity, outreach, networking) but ultimately, I’m setting up workshops and creating new programs for the D-Lab. While I was in Paris, teaching was my main responsibility; my role here is more diverse, and I have a good amount of autonomy.
That’s not without its downside of course. I have no experience working in the public sector in Japan (KIT is a national university) and there are a lot of challenges getting things done in Japan as you could imagine. There is definitely no shortage of learning experiences here.
The other advantage of being in Japan is that I am now able to network freely inside the country with my language ability, something I was not able to do well in Germany and France. As a result, I’ve been doing a lot outside of my work like being a pitch coach for Slush Asia , teaching at Kyoto Startup College, participating and winning in Startup Weekend, helping out with Makers Boot Camp, and of course Ultimate Frisbee. There is actually a budding startup scene forming in Kansai (the Metropolitan Area in which Kyoto belongs), and I love being part of it (although I’m not an entrepreneur right now).
Like with many of my previous jobs, there is still no defined career path ahead of me. This position has a maximum duration of five years (unless something changes) so it’s doubtful that I would be working at the university until my retirement. Life full of ambiguity but also full of excitement and meaningful things to work on. Can’t ask for much more can I?
Non-Ultimate Frisbee players looking at the title probably said to themselves, “huh?”
Conservation of Greatness is a concept in Ultimate Frisbee that states that there is only so much greatness to be had in the universe. More concretely, it means that a player who just made an earth-shattering play will make a comically stupid decision or play (normally a throw) immediately afterward. When this happens, the entire sideline will laugh, sigh, or hold their head in disgust, thinking, mumbling, or screaming “Conservation of Greatness” (the term “conservation of karma” has been used interchangeably in the past but it seems to have gone out of fashion recently).
The Conservation of Greatness is akin to the Hot Streak in baseball or the idea of Clutchness in basketball, and like those two concepts, it feels like it should exist. However, this has never been scientifically proven.
Can we do this?
Unlike Baseball, Basketball, American Football, and now Soccer, there is absolutely no comprehensive source of Ultimate Frisbee playing data that could be used to analyze this. Simple goals, assists, and Ds are not enough. Even a player to player possession path does not capture the required data. To truly scientifically approach this problem, someone will have to sit down and visibly code the “greatness” and “stupidity” of each play and statistically analyze the data to establish if the Conservation of Greatness actually exists.
Now that there is professional Ultimate, quality video data is at least available but there is still monumental amount of work that is required. If the data is available, I’m sure the folks over at fivethirtyeight would be interested but I don’t think they are interested at all in gathering data like this.
Maybe in the future, deep learning and AI would become good enough to understand “greatness” in Ultimate Frisbee to simplify data collection, but if we want to do this now, we need volunteers to sit through hundreds of hours of Ultimate footage.
Any one want to attempt this?
Photo by Kevin W. Leclaire
How does one get promoted? Climb the steps of the organizational ladder?
In a system of additive merit, people are evaluated by how much extra value they create for the organization. Going beyond expectation is the motto. Pieces of merit, small and large, add up as a person gets noticed and promoted.
In a system of subtractive merit, people are evaluated by how much time they spend in an organization without screwing up. Don’t fuck up is the motto. A person will slowly but surely climb the organizational ladder unless he/she makes some grave mistake, at which point the progress stops.
American readers generally resonate with additive merit while the Japanese reader is thinking “yup, subtractive merit is the Japanese system.”
As most people reading this blog are college educated professionals, most people are probably thinking the whole world should operate in a system of additive merit. People should be motivated to and be rewarded for going the extra mile.
No so fast.
There are types of work where subtractive merit is more of a natural fit, namely remedial jobs. It’s difficult for a grocery checkout clerk, mailman, train driver to really outshine each other.
Then there are those kinds of work where you may not want a system of additive merit, which can cause people to be competitive and/or overzealous at times. Do you really want a overzealous bouncer? street cop? Policing is an interesting case since there is only so much crime to be prevented. Put too competitive of a system for cops and they’ll start creating their own crime to police.
A system of subtractive merit generally creates more social harmony. Trying to one-up each other is a non-factor and people are unlikely to sabotage each other when everyone is slowly succeeding. When tasks and goals are definable and defined, subtractive method may be the preferred mode of working.
Of course this is not innovative work.
Not surprisingly, system of subtractive merit induces risk averse behavior. When there is nothing to be gained from trying something new but much to be lost by it not working out, people avoid it. This makes innovation incredibly difficult.
Not all organizations need to be innovative, but when a traditional one driven by a system of subtractive merit needs to become innovative, there are huge challenges. Behavior is incredibly inertial and even if the system is changed, it takes a long time for people to change.
A system of subtractive merit is also challenging for innovators inside established organizations. Doing something new often challenges the rules of an organization and without those willing to bend the rules, innovation can be tough. Furthermore, in a system of subtractive merit, most people see the innovator as a virus that could disrupt the cohesion of the organization, something that needs to be avoided,
Needless to say, this is the story of entrepreneurship in Japan and intrapreneurship in Japanese organizations. Much of Japan functioned smoothly for decades with an emphasis on social cohesion and not screwing up.
Maybe this is a better model of society, but I will remain judgement neutral for now.
What can be said is that in the age of increasing global competition and rapid change, Japanese needs more entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, people who are willing to take the risk and fuck up once every so often. There are more and more people taking the leap, but the system of merit is pitted against them.
Two years ago, I posted that I was addicted to ukulele.
I still am.
In addition to learning how to play new songs and expanding my song book, I’ve started working on projects with friends and recording some music. Here they are.
Back in 2013, my Finnish friend Tuuli visited me and while messing around on the ukulele, we decided to create a song. We spent one night writing away and the next morning recording it before she had to leave and I had to go to work.
Last year for Christmas, my friend and I recorded a very famous Hawaiian Christmas song by Bing Crosby:
Yes, she is a much better singer than I am. We also covered Mama Cass’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me” which works surprisingly well on ukulele:
And Ingrid Michaelson’s “You and I”:
Lastly, two years ago, I posted on Facebook that if I received over hundred likes, I would record and post a video of me playing ukulele. 865 days later, I’m keeping my promise:
This is one of my favorite Japanese songs so I subtitled the translation.
Needless to say, I have lots to improve and I’m never going to be a professional, but it’s a lot of fun. I sold my recording gear before I left Germany so I have to get another set in Japan but sooner or later, I plan to start recording again, this time maybe one of the songs I’ve been writing on the side. It would also be cool to find a partner in crime (or even a band) in Japan to work on projects too. In the meantime, my YouTube updates, even less frequent than my blog, are available at Sushilele.
With my western background, social nature, and curiosity, ever since coming to Japan I’ve been trying to connect with as many people as possible in order learn and expand my network. As a result, I’ve attended many many events and my transportation costs have been incredibly high from all the trips to Osaka.
Besides events, I’ve also been trying to meet people through lunch, and this has been proving incredibly difficult. Almost everyone is too busy to catch up for lunch, which you know is bullshit.
This pattern was new to me, so I asked a close friend why it kept happening.
“Japanese people generally ask out people for lunch to ask for something (e.g. favor) and because it’s so uncomfortable to say no, they instead avoid the lunch all together coming up with some excuse.”
There you have it. A cultural tidbit from one of the most unique cultures in the world.
This of course doesn’t apply to everyone in the country. I have met some people for lunch, so don’t think it’s impossible to meet people just for lunch. It’s just a lot harder.
If you want to make software in Japan, go to Tokyo. If you want to make hardware, come to Kyoto.
Following the trend of too many things converging in Tokyo, the startup scene within Japan is strongest in the modern capital. Most big-name Japanese startups are based in Tokyo, and for anyone trying to start a software or web startup, being there is a natural conclusion.
It’s an entirely different story for hardware startups.
In one of the largest, densest, and most expensive city in the world, trying to work with more than your computer and the cloud and build hardware could be a costly venture. The network also isn’t as established compared to software and web services.
Unbeknownst to most, the ancient capital of Kyoto, my hometown and my current city, has a rich culture of hardware and electronics. While most people see Kyoto as a tourist destination or the home of Nintendo, there are a lot of world class companies that most people don’t know about because they operate mostly in the B2B field: Kyocera, Rohm, Omron, Nidec, Shimadzu, and Horiba to name a few. Furthermore, there is an amazing amount of capable SMEs that support these companies in a very Japanese style of industry networking.
Until now, there wasn’t a robust startup scene in Kyoto, but that is starting to change. With the network and resources available, this is the perfect place to build hardware. In addition to the companies, Kyoto is one of the best university towns in the world with over 25 universities.
Now to make it easier for entrepreneurs in Japan and around the world to build hardware, a new program called Makers Boot Camp just launched in Kyoto. The idea is to create an acceleration program that connects with all the advantages of Kyoto.
The university that I work for, Kyoto Institute of Technology, is providing a hardware crash course for budding entrepreneurs and the organization I’m a part of, KYOTO Design Lab, is contributing with design expertise and maker spaces. Kyoto Shisaku Net, a coalition of over 100 companies are providing their expertise in mass-production prototyping, and the city along with the Advanced Scientific Technology & Management Research Institute of Kyoto is involved as well.
It’s quite exciting.
While there are several hardware accelerators around the world, as much as I can tell, this is the first one that is really focusing on mass-manufacturability. Unlike software, the path to market for hardware companies is much hairier, and just because you created a functional prototype doesn’t mean you can suddenly create it en-masse and spread it around the world. There are many entrepreneurs on Kickstarter who underestimated the difficulty in design for manufacturability.
I’m really excited that something like this is starting in my hometown and even more excited that I get to be involved.
Now I’m hoping cool people from around Japan and world will come to Kyoto to make awesome new products.
P.S. Some of you are probably wondering what I’m exactly doing back in Kyoto. I know the newest rendition of “what is Sushi up to” is months delayed. I promise, in due time.