Cuba is an island nation, Japan is an island nation, and the similarities end there. Walking around Havana, I couldn’t stop thinking to myself, “this is the most anti-Japan place ever.”
In Cuba, life happens on the streets. People hangout outside of their houses, play games, eat snacks, etc. Go to the parks, plazas, seaside, and it’s full of people enjoying each other’s company. In Japan, streets are the spaces between destinations. Besides festivals, very little happens on most streets as people busily move from point A to point B. Fukuoka is a little bit of an exception as the warmer weather allows for food carts on the streets where people come together, but those have died off in most Japan cities.
Cubans are incredibly confident and casual. They have no problem starting conversations with complete strangers on the streets and there seems to be no social rules on how to engage people. I’ve had many curious Cubans start conversations with me, and they weren’t all scam artists and pimps. I actually had a hard time distinguishing between the touts and the genuinely curious locals. Japanese people are painfully shy and the culture is so formal. It’s annoyingly difficult to start conversations with people and have them open up. This is why drinking is so intertwined in the culture in Japan.
Refinement is not Cuba’s strong suit. Walking around the cities, you see that a lot of things are rough around the edges, the roads, the buildings, the food. You get the sense that things are just good enough (or sometimes not good enough). Japan is all about refinement. Japan loves perfecting everything, sometimes to an unbelievably irrational tune, even meals that cost few dollars with razor thin margins.
Despite the amount of traffic, the density of the cities, Japan is surprisingly quiet (unless you step into a pachinko parlor or an electronics store). Havana, despite how little seem to be going on, is loud. The people shout from the streets to the windows, mufflers on cars seem to be a foreign concept, and music is very much part of the city. Havana sounds more lively while major Japanese cities feel more busy, which leads to…
Time. Everyone is always going somewhere in Japan, and everyone looks busy. Very rarely do you see people “wandering.” Even during the weekends, people are going somewhere to relax. Time moves at a different pace in Cuba. No one seems to be in a rush to do anything, and people are just hanging out outside without any set aim. Some people might see this as unemployment and hoodlumism, but when so many people are doing it, happily, it feels natural. Life, and values are just different in Cuba.
Japan is a well oiled machine, where the individual pieces are placed and functions efficiently to create a harmonious prosperous society. Cuba is a collection of individuals with a strong culture and loose organization that functions, somewhat. Interestingly, in the 2006 Satisfaction with Life Index, Japan ranks 90th and Cuba ranks 82nd, despite a five to one nominal GDP per capita difference (two to one PPP). Two completely different societies, two sets of strengths and weaknesses, many things both countries can do much better.
A while back, I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba for 6 days, and I wrote this blog post then but did not publish it until now, for reasons I won’t go into.
Cuba is not a time machine or a time capsule. Just because there are old 50s American cars still being driven, you’re not slipping back in time. In reality, those 50s American cars share the same roads as 80s Russian Ladas, 2000s Korean cars, 2010s Chinese busses, and of course animals pulling carts, human and non-human. The architecture is not frozen in time. There are new buildings along side dilapidating colonial style buildings. You definitely won’t feel that you’re experiencing the glory days of Havana you see in gangster movies set in the 20s.
But Cuba is not another underdeveloped Latin American country either.
Instead of going back in time, Cuba makes you feel that you’re living in many different decades at the same time. The mishmash of vehicles on the road along with the architecture are obvious indicators, but look deeper and you find many idiosyncrasies.
Cuba is one of the world’s last remaining socialist countries following the Marxist-Leninist ideology, but that does not mean the dynamics of capitalism is missing. Cuba has a two currency system, where tourists are technically supposed to use the Convertible Pesos (CUC) and locals to use the Cuban Pesos (CUP or MN). In reality, with the fixed exchange rate of 24 CUPs per CUC, the two currencies confusingly intermingle. While there are people who unenthusiastically work at their fixed income government jobs, there are also those who work in the tourism industry trying to score as many CUCs as possible from tourists, both legitimately and dubiously. Go to the right parts of Havana and you’ll encounter the usual touts trying to get you to their “cheap, local” restaurants or buy some random trinkets. Overcharging and confusing tourists is another national past time, something travelers to Southeast Asia are used to.
However, while tourists are burdened with the realities of capitalism, there are many elements missing from the cityscape. Advertisement is basically non-existent, so are signs for stores. Without motivation to attract the locals to products, services, or stores, there is very little information to guide them. Since most people get rations of basic necessities, the notion of supermarkets is missing. The locals on government income do have disposable income, but that hovers around 20~30 CUC (roughly 20~30 USD) per month which is negligible compared to what tourists can bring in. On one hand, there are fancy restaurants with faux live music catering to tourists who pay 10-20 CUCs for the meal. On the other hand, the spartan local restaurants offer pizzas for half a CUC and a full functional meal for one CUC. The local restaurants also have long menus, but normally, only few dishes are available because of the ingredients available on that day.
If you think Cuba is some kind of ideological socialist nation with equality for all, you’re in for a rude awakening. With the country opening up to tourism in the mid-90s, the good and bad of capitalism have invaded Cuba, and as a tourist, you can’t easily escape entrepreneuring locals who can do much more with your money.
The same with technology. Smartphones are everywhere, even though there are no cellular data connections in the country. Instead, people go to WiFi hotspots (public hotspots and big hotel lobbies) to connect to the internet for few CUCs per hour (which is incredibly expensive considering what you could buy for a CUC). This is a rather surreal sight, seeing hordes of locals in a city park, all glued to their screens in one specific area. On the flip side, people are not on their phones at all elsewhere. Socializing and playing games with or without a bottle of rum is a common sight. A lot of the travelers I came across worry that once Cubans get access to data anywhere including their homes, their fabric of culture will be destroyed. I wonder though, has it destroyed ours?
One night I joined some travelers and went clubbing. If that conjures images of the Buena Vista Social Club, you’re sorely mistaken. The rows of clubs all spilled music heavy on bass and beat, and Reggaeton was the local favorite. You could easily mistake the scene for Miami or LA, though all the clubs were much smaller in scale. There are more “traditional” music clubs, but most people warned me that they are really just tourist traps. Even the stereotypical Cuban cigars weren’t that prevalent with the locals preferring cigarettes instead.
Many people think Cuba will drastically change now that their relationship with the US is being normalized. The common belief is that the hordes of American tourists will ruin the isolationist island with a pristinely kept relic from the past. Many tourists are inundated with the narrative and already flooding the island “before it’s too late,” but Cuba is no time capsule and I doubt the island will change so fast. For one, American tourists and the money they spend won’t be able to change the island. Millions of tourists have already been coming to the island, and besides making the locals more entrepreneurial, it hasn’t had that much impact on the infrastructure. Even if American cars and computers become available, most people aren’t rich enough to buy them, and they already find a way to get the music and movies.
For Cuba to truly change, there needs to be significant amounts of foreign investment that will build up both the local and tourist infrastructure. This means significantly altering their economic system to something more capitalistic, and I doubt this change will happen all night. Nevertheless it will probably happen, slowly but surely, as every living person on the Earth gets pulled into the giant economic machine that spearheaded by America and the OECD.
Should we lament to loss of Cuban uniqueness? No, just as we should not lament the days when we tilled land with oxen and lit the house with candle light. The quality of life by most measures (but not all) will go up for Cubans as they plug themselves into the world economy. Nevertheless, this will take time.
To want Cuba to remain as some kind of socialist relic is selfish, countries aren’t museums and people don’t live in museums. Do go to Cuba, but don’t go expecting some kind of movie scene. Enjoy what Cuba has to offer now, and the changes that are coming ahead. Personally, I look forward to revisiting the island in couple decades to see how the country changes, and how it doesn’t.
I don’t like where the world is going right now, and as an eternal optimist, this is hard for me to say.
For a long time, I’ve been thinking that we are in the midst of a generational war, and the most recent Brexit voting data clearly shows the generational divide that is happening.
This is not an isolated incident. In Japan last year, there was a major referendum to combine the city and prefecture of Osaka in order to reduce the waste from duplicated services provided by each government. Spearheading the initiative was a young politician by the name of Hashimoto, a brass but charismatic lawyer who put his political life on the referendum. When the referendum didn’t pass, he put an end to his political career as promised.
While the generational split wasn’t as pronounced, the effect was very much there. The older generation did not resonate with the young leader and did not want the status quo changed. Twitterverse attributed the loss as another case of the social phenomenon that has come to be known as rougai (老害) which can be best translated as harm brought forth by the elderly.
Japan is the oldest society in the world, with more than third of people over 60. They represent a huge voting block and wield a large amount of influence. In a span of two days in December last year, the government both cut child benefits and approved an one time benefit payment to the elderly. The benefits that the boomer generation will reap from the national pension system versus Gen Y has been discussed, but the notion of generational war hasn’t entered the mainstream media here.
I’m sure similar phenomena are happening around the world in advanced societies, places like Spain where the youth unemployment rate is well over 40%.
It’s easy to take an us versus them attitude, to blame the other side for their ignorance, complacency, and/or malice. However, this will never be constructive.
What distraught me about the entire Brexit conversation was how irrational it was. To say that Europe is in an economic rut would be an understatement, and in such times, people want to find something to blame that’s not themselves. In the case of this campaign, it became the EU and their regulations and immigrants. It became so bad that the UK stat office had called out Leave Campaign’s use of facts and figures. Some people are starting to call this the post-factual democracy.
Americans are now seeing their own version with Donald Trump, a presidential candidate who caters to people’s emotions rather than facts and truths. This may not be surprising to many countries in Europe where right wing nationalist parties have risen in the last decade.
Many believe and worry that such rise of irrational nationalism, especially in Europe will lead to another world war, although I don’t think (and hope) it will go that far. We are too capable of destruction to actually cause it.
I do worry that we are becoming more polarized however.
While mostly ignored by the mainstream media and general public, Pew Research Center has done fantastic research to show that the American public is becoming more polarized in their political beliefs.
Polarization is bad. Polarization ultimately leads to violence, to revolutions. Many of the social institutions that we’ve created were in response to the inequalities. Democracy replaced monarchy, aristocracy, and dictatorships, sometimes in violent overthrow. Many of the social safety nets, regulations, and redistribution of wealth was in response to the collection of wealth (and dissatisfactions) that resulted from the industrial revolution and the first phase of capitalism. Neither of the institutions are doing enough in this day and age.
What’s ironic about the Internet is that while it’s polarizing the world, it’s also making the world a smaller place and the inequality more apparent. One could argue that the Arab Spring would not have started without the internet, without pirated videos of Hollywood lives and mundane Facebook posts of Western youths that highlighted how antiquated the Arab society was. The arrival of Perry’s Black Ships and the subsequent opening of then isolationist Japan to the global market showed how far behind Japan was and caused the rapid modernization of the country as well as the overthrow of many existing institutions.
We are at a turning point in our history. I don’t want a generational war. It’s too easy to blame them and not us, but it’s not us versus them, we are in this together. Our technologies are separating us further and further, both economically and socially, but the solution is not to rid them like a Luddite. Instead, we need to create a new system that will bring us closer, put us on the same page, have us walking the same path again.
I don’t know what that will look like, but we invented democracy, social security, international commerce, (ironically) the Nobel Peace Prize winning EU, and more. I’m sure that we will find something, but first we need to recognize that WE have a problem.
Of course very few people know the real answer, and I doubt those people who will speak up, but my colleague came across a fascinating blog post in Japanese by someone in the game industry linking Nintendo’s decision to Japan’s characteristics (not culture).
What are the characteristics?
1. New things are criticized heavily and many scream for regulations.
2. When something causes a problem, people bash it by focusing on the negative while ignoring the positive aspects.
3. When few without common sense use something idiotically, the service provider is blamed for some reason.
4. However, when something has already become popular, develops a precedence, people are blindly kind to it.
The author argues that, as the game utilizes AR and could cause some idiots to enter forbidden areas or walk without paying any attention to the surrounding and cause accidents, this could negatively affect the Pokemon brand or even get the game banned.
Releasing it outside of Japan first is a strategy to maximize popularity while minimizing possible the damages caused by idiotic users.
While this may or may not be true, it’s an incredibly astute observation on the Japanese national psyche, and I couldn’t agree with it more.
Drones have become heavily regulated in Japan because few idiots crashed them in parades or landed it on the Prime Minister’s Official Residence marked with a radioactive sign (it was not). The media had a frenzy with drones and it’s pretty much impossible to fly one in most places now.
Airbnb and peer-to-peer hospitality is at the cusp of being regulated to oblivion as abuses and clashes with the local inhabitants is being constantly reported on TV. This is a shame since there is a massive shortage of hotels in some parts of this country right now.
Uber never gained a foothold in Japan, but if all the negative press inducing events happened in Japan, the company would be disassembled by the national equivalent of peer pressure. This is the country where a very popular ramen restaurant would shut its doors because all the people waiting outside would disturb the neighbors.
Even LINE, the incredibly popular messaging app (think WhatsApp of Japan) was being bashed in the media in mysterious ways when it was being used for unsavory purposes such as prostitution or cheating. As a result, LINE has significantly more parental control features than any other messaging app. Snapchat doesn’t stand a chance in Japan. Even if Twitter started in Japan, as soon as terrorists started using it, there would be a massive backlash.
This is why I’m worried that Japan won’t be the first country to implement automated driving or many of the game changing technologies in the next decades. I don’t think Japan was always like this, but now it’s a country that loves creating new things and loves bashing them to the ground. What a schizophrenic country.
I didn’t catch this until now, but in November last year, Alanis Morissette and James Corden did a “modern update” of Alanis’s 1995 hit song “Ironic.” Having spent my adolescent years in the mid-90s and still able to sing along to the original (I’m honest), I found the updated version hilarious. Then I started thinking about the different cultural references and how much originated from Silicon Valley and the tech scene.
I decided to color code them:
An old friend sends you a Facebook request
You only find out they’re racist after you accept
There’s free office cake on the first day of your diet
It’s like they announce a new iPhone the day after you buy it
And isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?
It’s like swiping left on your future soulmate
It’s a Snapchat that you wish you had saved
It’s a funny tweet that nobody faves
And who would’ve thought it figures
It’s a traffic jam when you try to use Waze
A no-smoking sign when you brought your vape
It’s 10,000 male late-night hosts when all you want is just one woman, seriously!
It’s singing the duet of your dreams, and then Alanis Morissette shouting at you
And isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?
A little too ironic, and yeah I really do think
It’s like you’re first class on a Southwest plane
Then you realize that every seat is the same
It’s like Amazon but your package never came
And who would’ve thought it figures
It’s like Netflix but you own DVDs
It’s a free ride but your Uber’s down the street
It’s singing “Ironic,” but there are no ironies
And who would’ve thought it figures
Blue is for references originating from Silicon Valley:
- iPhone (Apple)
- Snapchat (started at Stanford but now headquartered in LA)
Purple is for references that seem Silicon Valley but aren’t:
- Tinder (I didn’t know they are based in West Hollywood, though it makes sense)
- Waze (Israeli but with an office in Palo Alto)
- Amazon (The biggest internet company not in Silicon Valley)
Red is for other references.
This is astounding. The Late Late Show is not a tech show and it’s on CBS, a major broadcast network. Only Amazon (est. 1994) and Apple existed when the original song came out. While we don’t see Silicon Valley as a cultural hub as we do New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, it’s influence over the last twenty years is undeniable. Without the geeks and wide-eyed dreamers, we would be living very different lives today.
Where will the next wave of major cultural influence come from?
And speaking of change, is it just me or has Alanis not changed at all in the last twenty years? Here is the original “Ironic” music video:
Lyrics from Spin
This got me thinking, how many Steve Jobs does the world need?
You can imagine that if everyone in the world was like Steve, neurotic eccentric visionaries, the world wouldn’t function so well. For every Steve, there needs to be many, many Frank Smiths who do as they are told, obedient workers who get things done.
Of course the degree of “visionary-ness” is not binary, it’s a sliding scale where some people are crazy visionary while others are not so much. There are other traits that determine one’s ability to succeed and/or be of value to society.
While arguable, my mental model tells me that leaders and those who are higher in the organizational pyramid need to be more visionaries. If a Walmart clerk is a visionary, he or she really needs to be in a position to exert more influence.
So what’s the appropriate ratio between the Steves and Frank Smiths of the world?
Obviously, there is no fixed number, but phenomenology might point us toward an answer. Dunbar’s number is a social science theory that states that people are generally able to maintain stable social relationships of about 150 people. One of Dunbar’s argument is that historically, there have been many organization that formed organically to be around 150 people, such as military units (companies in the U.S.) and nomadic villages.
When Steve Jobs resigned from Apple in 2011, the company employed about 60,000 people. Microsoft was probably in the same vicinity when Bill Gates stepped down, but both companies now employ over 100,000 people. Obama leads over 4 million US government employees, Einstein probably didn’t work with much more than few assistants.
Ok, industry and context matters heavily, so finding that ratio may not be so easy.
It seems that these days, everyone wants to be Steve. No one wants to live a secure but boring life of Frank Smith. We all want to be visionaries, inspire, and change the world in one way or another.
This is not going to work.
I don’t know when it became a bad thing to be Frank Smith. While I never lived in the 50s and 60s, but it was probably okay to be normal back then, and a lot of people lived, normally. They say that we don’t want to live same way our parents do, and if so, is this a pendulum that swings back and forth between Steve and Frank? Will the generation that follow look at how unhappy Gen Y yuppies are and conclude that they want a more stable life?
Will we make movies celebrating Frank Smith?
I’ve been terrible about updating my blog. Moving to Japan has made my life so much more hectic, professionally, semi-professionally, and a little bit personally. Being able to speak the language fluently has opened up my world significantly, and I’m definitely chewing off much more than I can handle. But hey, it’s fun!
My blog has been the victim of my newfound busyness (my friends in Germany are probably wondering how I can be even more busy than before), but I am still Yelping! And recently, I hit the 1000 review milestone on March 12th so I decided to look back at my Yelp career (that’s a weird way of saying it). Just as a reference, my 500th review was on February 25th, 2013.
I started using Yelp around 2006, after I graduated from graduate school and signed up for an account in April 2007, but I did not write a review until 2009 which was for a sandwich store in San Francisco. Actually, back in the day (around 2007), my friend and I discussed creating a Yelp competitor that focused on map-based search because the Yelp interface was so clunky. They definitely solved that problem and expanded their empire significantly. I’m glad we didn’t start that company since we probably would have been a fishing boat trying to take on a battle ship.
Since my first review in 2009, I have now written 1012 reviews and amassed 156 compliments and 628 Useful, 562 Funny, and 465 Cool votes, gotten at least one “Review of the Day” (I thought I had another one but I can’t find it), and almost all my reviews are seven words long.
Why? I explain in detail on my blog post from 2009, but in short, I wanted to create a format that people can easily digest while challenging myself creatively. I still find many Yelp reviews too long to be scanned, and unlike TripAdvisor, there are no subject lines.
This has actually gotten some of my reviews removed because it doesn’t quite follow the content guideline of providing “enough detail about your customer experience.” I thought it was only restaurants using it as an excuse to get rid of bad reviews, but looking back, good reviews were taken out too.
Since I have them archived in e-mail, here are the five that got removed (there may have been few more):
- Kunitoraya: Standard Japanese Udons… in Paris? 2.5x the price.
- The Fish People Cafe: Definitely worth the trek to obscure location.
- Café Jade: Waiters have goldfish memory, cockroach attention span. (And they expect you to drink soup with a fork)
- Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris: Hi dad, didn’t expect to see you here. (This is not my usual style of reviews… for more details: http://www.sushi-suzuki.com/
- Scotty’s Bar & Grill: Not pretentious, not dive, not expensive, not cheap, not anything special.
I have broken out of style few times by writing near the Yelp character limit of 5000:
- My 500th review which was about a dive bar in Mountain View that fights against the tide of time
- My favorite sushi restaurant in the world, the my family has been going for ages
- Worst restaurant in Frankfurt, period
- My 999th review which was for a French-inspired ramen restaurant in Kyoto
- My 1000th review which was for a ramen restaurant in Taipei that I somehow turned into a cultural commentary
In 2010, I became a Yelp elite for the first time, not because I was finally noticed, but because I was living in Paris where Yelp was in its infancy and a new community manager was hired. Anyone who was active in Paris at that point pretty much became an elite. I’ve been an elite since, except for 2012 and 2013 when I lived in Frankfurt and there was no community manager.
Being an elite, even though I don’t like the pretentiousness of the name, has its perks in free food and drinks. I’ve eaten a lot of free meals thanks to Yelp, although I’m sure I’ve put in way more hours writing reviews than what those meals were worth.
Yelp’s international expansion has interestingly intertwined with my life. While living in Europe, Yelp pushed strongly their European expansion, ultimately buying out Qype, and a year before I moved to Japan, they launched there although I wrote that they will fail.
For the longest time, Yelp kept expanding to countries where I have been or was soon going, and once I visited Sweden for a few hours just so I can review a place there (I was in Denmark, just across the strait). However, I can no longer say that I have reviewed in every country where Yelp exists. I’ve never been the Malaysia and the last time I was in the Philippines, the USSR was still intact. 30 out of 32 is not bad though, and I’m sure I’ll head to Malaysia and Philippines one of these days as I don’t live so far away.
Onwards and Upwards!
P.S. I made it onto the Yelp podcast in Japan too (episode 27 on March 3rd).
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?