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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 15, 2009 @ 6:45 pm


    Harry McGee

    It’s now 17.45 in Ireland. A reasonable hour, you might say. Sadly for me, there is a nine hour time difference and it’s 2.45 am over here. I finished filing my last story just a couple of minutes ago.

    On the face of it, you think that the time difference would work in your favour. But not so. The four journalists over here from Ireland finished the last joint interview with Taoiseach Brian Cowen at about 9.40pm local time. By the time I got back to my hotel it was 10.40 and not a child washed (well certainly not scrubbed behind the ears).

    I’m not complaining. A lot of the week has been spent in this hotel attending various seminars and listening to speeches. A few functions have been held elsewhere in the city but that means a minibus to and for provides the bookend for the experience. And most of the time you are in the hotel room tapping out the stuff.

    I’m seriously not complaining. I’m not even pretending not to complain while really complaining.

    My room just happens to be on the 35th floor of the Conrad Hotel. The view is across Tokyo Harbour. Beneath, may hundreds of metres below,  is a majestic garden. Behind that the waters with all the ships and barges, fringed by tall buildings, intersected by a bridge with an incredibly long span. It looks lovely during the day. Even lovelier now at 3am with the twinkling lights of the city.

    And there are enough in-between bits where you can go to a coffee shop or local restaurant to savour the atmospher and the difference and the majesty of the local food. I had a plate of sushi in a small no-fuss place in the basement of Tokyo station today that was incredible.

    Though barely touching its margins, I can easily see why so many find the culture so fascinating. Like any society, including our own, there is a rush to modernity and a cleaving to tradition. I have heard of the extraordinarily low crime figures but have not yet got round to reading material or talking to local authorites as to why it is so. The courtesy and spotless cleanliness of this huge metropolis is amazing. You find the ancient (especially surrounding religion) coexists with the modern, especially technology.

    And there are the quirks. The obsession with brands (92 per cent of women aged 20 have at least one Gucci product) and conspicuous consumption (no wonder the Beckhams are such a big hit here). Gadgets and gizmos dominate from 3G phones with television and games; to fancy all-singing all-dancing toilet; with heated seats; to the huge interest in cuddly toys and comic books (manga) and animation (anima). The most popular local gambling game (which seems to involve ball bearings falling into a hopper in incredibly noiscy machines) is called pachinko and reputedly is a bigger industry in Japan than the motor industry (and with Toyota based here, that is saying something!)

    Not all of them are good. Women have found it difficult to break out from the traditional view that decrees their careers must end at 30 or 31 so that they become homemakers. The concept of the ‘salary man’ who must show endless fealty to the company at the expense of family life should also be consigned to history. But there have been moves away from such conformism

    That coalescing of traditional and modern infuses business and political life. The protocols surrounding the Taoiseach’s visit were very formal. So are business dealings. There are many rules for business etiquette Dress must always be neat. Business cards are presented with two hands.

    According to a briefing note: “Each card shoudl be stiudied for a while in front of the person who has given it, immediatley after the introduction.

    “At a meeting or a lunch or dinner occasion, the calling cards should be left on the table in front of you for the duration of the event and carefully taken away at the end.”

    Tipping is not expected here. If you leave a tip on a table in a restaurant or cafe they will follow you out to tell you you have left money behind. I must say I like that convention. You always know exactly where you stand.

    The other thing that is interesting is that trust and commitment and common courtesy are as important as commodities as money in business dealings. A lot of the Irish business representatives said this week that  you needed to gain trust before forging partnerships and deals. But once that was done, the relationship was always for the long term.

    And against that, the areas of focus are the ones that are out there… in the development of smart technology where Japan seems to have a head start on everybody else. I have read before that people who are employed as trend spotters in Europe and the US spend a lot of time in Tokyo. They have seen the future and it works.

    The other thing that really impressed me was Japan’s embrace of the environment and technology. Having said that, they do like their neon bulbs and bright lights and giant screens here. Already in central Tokyo, they have recharging stations for electric cars. Thanks to the fact that one in three  workers commute by train, Japan has one of the lowest rates of carbon emissions of developed countries.

    My favourite is Tokyo Station, the massive train station in the heart of the city. Hundreds of thousands of passengers pass through here every day, and they have developed special underfoot panels that converts all the footfalls into energy that lights up the station.

    Today was the busiest day so far of Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s visit. He delivered a very broad speech on foreign policy at Keio University in Tokyo. Like all such speeches, it touched on just about everything. But the passages criticising Israel’s disproportionate response to Hamas’s rocket attack  and also implicitly criticising the unilateralism of the Bush adminstration were particularly strong.

    Students asked him questions on the speech. You couldn’t help but noticing that he is much more comfortable in that situation, engaging on issues on a one-to-one basis, rather than reading from a script.

    He met the prime minister Taro Aso later this evening. We asked him about them having common problems in relation to the economy. But they were also in a position to share their pain in relation to popularity polls and the inheritance of whirlwinds.

    Aso has been PM for only four months. And he has a General Election this year. Which he looks set to lose on the back of an economy going deep into recession.

    Unenviable. Unwinnable. Uncontainable.

    It’s now 6.45. Or 3.45. My blogs always take at least an hour to write. But, hey, who’s complaining?

    • Harry,

      I’m not sure if you know but while most of the media dutifully report on claimed “new” export orders during trade missions, it’s mainly spoof for the great unwashed at home, to give the impression that ministers who are so inept at home, can pull rabbits out of hats in quaint places like Japan.

      So €46 million in new orders have been gathered this week, while Enterprise Ireland’s Frank Ryan admitted that Japan accounts for 1 per cent, or €90 million of Ireland’s annual indigenous exports.

      It may all seem innocent but sadly, PR is a substitute for a credible enterprise policy and journalists like yourself, avoid making waves for the leaky boat.

    • Joe says:

      Good essay — but surely Shinjuku Station rather than Tokyo Station is the hub of the city?

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Joe, Shinjuku is a bigger transport hub but Tokyo station is more impression in part because of it’s integration with underground city centre shopping and its role as a massive city centre bomb shelter. I think the Diet is near it too.

      The truth is that Tokyo, apart from the Imperial Palace, doesn’t quite have the compact O’Connell st. type centre that Dublin has, and for many people coming into the city they tend to think of the station on the Yamanote line that their commuter train connects to as being the hub. Speaking for myself, coming from the north I tended to view Ueno as as the centre.

      So the Yamanote line is kind of the centre with multiple different hubs around it.

    • Harry says:

      Sorry for replying to you so late, Michael. Two Japanese companies announced 150 new jobs in Ireland. Enterprise Ireland announced €46 of potentially new business. Report dwelled on admission by Frank Ryan that Irish trade with Japan was not good enough, as indeed did a couple of other reports that I filed. As a political journalist covering the visit of the Taoiseach to Japan, I brought no experties of enterprise or industrial policy and therefore reported in a straight manner on what was announced. I did write that they were announcents, proposals and potential. At some stage what has been said needs to be followed up to see if what was announced became reality.

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