Japan's new society / Japan
Dogs and new tricks
Japan is a nation moving beyond an unthinkable disaster to re-establish itself as a regional leader in culture and innovative lifestyles. This issue we meet the people spearheading the unusual evolution of Japanese society.
We’re often asked why we maintain a bureau in Tokyo and not Beijing. “Aren’t you missing out on the biggest story in the world by not being in the Chinese capital?” Ask some. “Isn’t the Japanese story over?” Query others. “Not really and far from it,” is our standard refrain. For sure there’s plenty of action in the PRC but we do quite well zipping our editors in and out of both Hong Kong and Tokyo to support our correspondent in Shanghai. As for the Japan story, it’s becoming more rather than less interesting.
Spend a few minutes on Ginza’s main streets, examine the crowds of weekend shoppers in Fukuoka or pay attention to the other guests checking out of a luxury ryokan on a Monday morning and you’ll hear a lot of Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese and Korean being spoken. A year after the Great East Japan earthquake, tourism numbers from other Asian nations are starting to creep back as Japan’s airlines, tourism authorities and regions entice the neighbourhood with incentives, discounts and new properties. While visitors from Chengdu, Busan, Chiang Mai and Taipei come to enjoy the thermal waters of Hokkaido, the ramen in Kyushu and the shopping in Kyoto’s craftier corners, they also come to soak up the culture and style on the streets. At its most basic, this translates into people returning home with a new appreciation for linen smocks and footwear resembling baked potatoes. On a more advanced level it turns into Japanese hamburger chains popping up on the streets of Bangkok, new bar concepts in Jakarta and super-deluxe dog salons in China’s biggest cities.
Make no mistake, when it comes to retail, hospitality and other service concepts, Japan is still the epicenter of inspiration for the entire region – for the less creative it offers an endless source of ideas to steal and for more upstanding entrepreneurs and investors Japan provides a rich feeding ground for businesses to franchise or license. Which brings us to the issue of that small, perfectly coiffed toy poodle waiting perkily in the middle of the sitting room.
Japan’s current obsession with tiny, fluffy four-legged creatures that can be groomed, dressed and coddled by a service sector only too eager to think of new ways to create premium experiences is not a consumer wave restricted to an archipelago that stretches from Ishigaki to Wakkanai – it’s a socioeconomic phenomenon that’s likely to have a wider impact across the entire Asia-Pacific region.
For those who haven’t experienced Japan’s doggie boom first hand, it requires a full afternoon spent on the streets of Aoyama, Daikanyama or some of Tokyo’s posh suburbs to get to grips with the full meaning of our cover story. As our Tokyo bureau chief noted, her daughter finds it somewhat disturbing to return to the UK – a land where dogs not only have to walk (as opposed to being pushed around in a pram by their loving owners) but are also naked. For sure there’s many a pup living in Tokyo’s Jiyugaoka district with a far bigger wardrobe than your average child in Chelsea. With almost as many dogs as children in Japan, the nuclear family in Osaka or Sendai circa spring 2012 is just as likely to feature a shiba ken in a stripey sailor top and mini-wellies as it is a plump toddler in a similar get-up.
Given Japan’s influence on the region, it’s not surprising that the canine economy is already on the rise in Taiwan and is starting to gain momentum in China and Thailand. While many Japanese find dog ownership more practical (even rewarding) than child rearing due to living conditions, family codes, working hours and a challenged economy, the same doesn’t necessarily hold true for other Asian economies. For newly affluent Chinese and Indonesians, the dog as accessory is more about taking cues from Tokyo than living through nearly two decades of a flat economy. In this issue Tokyo bureau chief Fiona Wilson reports on this fascinating, if occasionally worrying, sector of Japanese society and what its broader meaning might signify.
Around the corner from our Tokyo bureau, a newly renovated building is representative of another trend that’s reshaping society. Recently launched, The Share development in Harajuku is part 21st century commune, part solution to the challenges of living at home with your parents (or alone) in a distant Tokyo suburb. On the floors of this converted workers dorm, considerable investment has gone into creating a lively, well-designed environment for young Japanese to live and work in. From ground level to the rooftop garden, developers ReBITA have transformed the structure into a vertical community with a round-the-clock metabolism and its own community radio station – broadcasting to the surrounding neighbourhoods.
Before anyone gets any bright ideas and reckons this is another Japanese concept that’s readily transportable – think again. Sharing common spaces like living rooms, bathrooms, kitchens and laundry facilities demands a high degree of social capital (something Japan has in spades – witness the orderly living dorm style living conditions after March 11) and community spirit. While other global capitals could also do with such live-work environments, they’d also require abundant security and maintenance support to keep the peace. Such additional services would not only blow away the economics but also the charm of living in a tight-knit, functional mini-society.
Nevertheless, The Share concept will likely travel beyond Japan and while it may not work in London or Los Angeles (there’d have to be a lengthy interview to get the chemistry right), it could end up doing quite well in Singapore, Seoul and even Hong Kong.