Japan Notes 1990

5 September 1990

I woke up with a gentle breeze on my face, and for a moment I was not sure where I was. My room had reed mats covering the floor and wooden panel walls painted with beautiful nature scenes. A sliding door opened onto a tiny garden with a narrow street below. Just outside the door on the step was a small pair of slipper-like shoes. I heard the strange yet vaguely familiar words: “Ohayo gozaimas” called in a woman’s voice in another room. Then I remembered that I was in Japan, halfway across the world from South Africa. It was a strange feeling.

Only three days ago I had been in Tokyo attending a five day international AIESEC conference with 200 other delegates from 50 countries. We had worked hard and partied hard together while enjoying a fantastic and successful conference (in fact, we had almost solved all the world’s problems!). Now I was in Nagoya (Japan’s third largest city) on a five day tour together with twenty of the delegates. On the night of our arrival we had been whisked off to a huge welcoming party organised by the Japanese AIESECers. We survived and went to stay with Japanese families for three days. My host family were great and spoiled me terribly.

I got up and greeted Hisako (my Japanese mother) in my best Japanese – “Ohio gozaimas, Hisako” (which means “Good morning”). She asked if I wanted to take a traditional Japanese bath. I discovered that bathing in Japan differs from Western baths. You do not wash in the bath because that’s for soaking in after your shower. Also, the baths are about one and a half times deeper than Western baths and filled to the brim with temperature regulated water and usually a sprinkling of herbs (what a pleasure!). Yesterday I had visited Nagoya castle with its spectacular seven storey tower fortress. It was built in 1612 for strategic defence, and after being almost totally destroyed in the Second World War, was rebuilt in 1959. That evening my host family dressed me in a kimono (traditional Japanese dress) and we all had a good laugh.

It will be sad to leave behind these wonderful friends, but the experiences I’ve had and the culture that I’ve grown to love will always be a part of me. This country with its charming mixture of ancient and modern I will take with me to share with others.



Meme-Splicing in the Land of the Rising Sun

Meme-Splicing in the Land of the Rising Sun

Blog by Wayne Visser

Kaizen, Sushi and Toyota

My career in sustainable business really got started in September 1990, when I attended AIESEC’s World Theme Conference on Sustainable Development in Tokyo, Japan. This was an opportunity of a lifetime. As a management student, I was all too aware of the rise of the Asian tiger economies, especially Japan. The West was spellbound by the revolution of total quality management (TQM), which the American statistician Edward Deming had introduced to Japan in the 1970s. The Japanese had perfected TQM through their kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement or ‘change for the better’.

The aim of the conference was to create a contribution to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit in 1992, which we called ‘A Youth Action Guide on Sustainable Development’. We also had study tours, most notably to the Toyota headquarters in Nagoya, where we met with the senior management team. I remember being served a sushi style lunch in square plastic trays, each morsel neatly and aesthetically arranged. Apart from glimpsing the highly automated production line, we had a chance to explore the company’s R&D display area. I was amazed by numerous eco-efficient and alternative fuel technologies already in the mature stages of development.

Having seen all this in 1990, it was no surprise to me that Toyota led the motor industry with its sustainability reforms nearly 20 years later, launching the Toyota Prius hybrid technology and RAV4 EV all-electric vehicle in 1997. With around 3 million Prius cars sold and the RAV4 EV relaunched in partnership with Tesla Motors in 2012, other automotive companies have been falling over themselves to catch up and introduce their own hybrid and electric models. This is one of those rare moments when we are seeing a ‘race to the top’ on environmental performance.

Earth Charter, Zero Waste and Fuji-Xerox

One of my great insights from the trip was that ‘vision’ is something the Japanese really understand. Shortly after my visit and ahead of most companies in the world, in 1992 Toyota issued its Environmental Guiding Principles and adopted its own Earth Charter. What is interesting is not that it has these principles (after all, many companies have flowery statements on their boardroom walls now), but rather the way they are expressed, which I believes conveys a qualitative difference in aspirations.

For instance, in its Guiding Principles it commits to ‘honour the language and spirit of the law’; to ‘enhancing the quality of life everywhere’; to ‘foster a corporate culture that enhances individual creativity’; and to ‘pursue growth in harmony with the global community’. And in its Earth Charter, it is already striving to ‘pursue production activities that do not generate waste’ and to ‘participate in the creation of a recycling-based society’. Note that it does not say ‘activities that reduce waste’; they say activities that ‘do not generate waste’. Hence, long before Ray Anderson at Interface conceived his much-celebrated ‘Mission Zero’ or McDonough and Braungart had popularised cradle to cradle concept, Toyota had understood and integrated the concept of a circular economy.

Of course, it is not just Toyota that has understood these principles. In August 2000, Fuji Xerox  …

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Related websites

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Cite this blog

Visser, W. (2013) Meme-Splicing in the Land of the Rising Sun, Wayne Visser Blog Series, 3 July 2013.

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