A Passion for pottery

I so love Japanese pottery and lacquer ware; my kitchen cupboards are full of the stuff. Last week I went to the Tableware Festival, a very comprehensive display of Japanese and European tableware to see and buy, along with a table arrangement competition and a few art pieces. The place was packed with young and middle aged Japanese women scouring booths filled with plates, bowls, chopsticks, and any and everything to be put on a table. Last year when I went I was the only westerner I saw in the place.
There are four main styles of Japanese pottery (that I could determine).
The rustic, hand made look. Usually in natural colors, beiges, browns, greys. Generally earthenware clay is used, but sometimes stoneware. This is my favorite.
Lacquer ware, which comes in black or red/rust, and occasionally brown. It is made of bamboo and the lacquer is painted on; it is buffed, repainted and buffed again until the required effect is reached. The red color of Japanese lacquerware was the inspiration for the colors I chose for this site.
The modern, clean lined variety made from porcelain usually in clean white or very light blue.
White glaze with blue designs painted on, sometimes painted in red/rust, sometimes with green, yellow, or gold accents. This is the most prevalent type, but I get the impression most of it is mass-produced versus hand made.
Sometimes the designs include varies swirls or other abstract graphics, sometimes there are Buddhas or babies, but the most frequently occurring element are bunnies. I have yet to figure this out. I know that cute things are important in Japan, but why bunnies? Why not doggies or kitties or fishies?

The importance of cute

Cute, in Japan, is part of the cultural mainstream, appealing to adults as well as children. Women in their 30’s carry Hello Kitty notebooks, and the country is blanketed in cute comic characters with big, round, baby eyes on every street corner and product imaginable.

I suppose from an anthropological point of view, part of Hello Kitty’s popularity can be explained by its extreme exaggeration of juvenile features, large head, wide spaced eyes, small chin, that are designed specifically to elicit a mothering instinct. Perhaps this is more important in Eastern cultures, with their greater emphasis on the feminine.

From the Kitty Goods Collection catalog there is merchandise for the whole home.


In Japan, street signs look like this and are usually accompanied with warning messages to be careful or dangerous or simply, NO.

Stars who sell out

In the west you may not know about the big Hollywood stars who sell out in Japan. See if you can match the star with the product. I can only assume these stars were paid mucho bucks with iron clad contracts that these ads would never appear in the western world.

A. Schwartzeneggar
B. Kevin Costner
C. Brad Pitt
D. Bruce Willes
E. Ben Stiller
F. Charlize Theron
G. Jodie Foster
F. Ewan Macgregor

1. Gas Station – includes star in bug costume.
2. Rolex.
3. Canned vending machine coffee.
4. Honda – star driving with orange puppet.
5. English language school – this ad is everywhere
6. Rahmen noodles includes spinning bowl and stars spinning head.
7. Canned vending machine water with star speaking dubbed Japanese.
8. Executive Recruiter – star says “be all you can be.”

Answers and links to sites that specialize in stars who sell later this week.

Foreign woman working in Japan

Today I was quoted in the Financial Times in an article on foreign women’s experience working in Japan, my first time being quoted in a newspaper ever. It unfortunately is not on the FT site so I will include a scan of it here.

Somehow I have also made it onto the Tokyo speaking circuit on this topic. I recently spoke at the Career Seminar organized by FEW (Foreign Executive Women), next week I will speak at the Tokyo American Club, and later in the month for JET participants.
For those of you who don’t know I work for a German bank in Tokyo. I now work part time from home, but was full time onsite my first year here. I certainly had my ups and downs, but I believe that most of the challenges I faced had more to do with being foreign / cultural barriers than with being a woman. I get the impression that foreign women can succeed in the workplace in Japan because they are viewed as foreign instead of as women. (The point I am quoted on in the FT).

If I may, I impart the following advice from very hard-learned lessons working in Japan. I wish someone had told me this:

  • Read between the lines: when someone says, “it’s difficult” it means, “it’s impossible.” Yes also usually mean no.
  • It’s a waste of time to ask people to brainstorm new ideas.
  • Lying is okay if it is done for the purpose of saving face.
  • Watch your back, ratting someone out is perfectly acceptable.
  • Make sure you have tons of business cards. Treat other peoples business cards as delicately as a newborn baby.
  • Don’t expect anyone to take ownership, just tell the exactly what you want them to do and you will be far more pleased with the results.
  • People don’t like to make decisions. Try asking which option is better and you might get an answer.
  • Say your sorry all the time even if your not. Say thank you and excuse me even more often, it will make your life easier.
  • If you are willing to lead others will willingly follow. Be warned if one of them then f#cks something up it is your fault.
  • As a foreigner the same rules don’t apply to you. As long as you are polite about it you can get away with lots.


Here’s a picture of me at work. I had a cute little stuffed animal on my computer. My co-worked in the back had one too. All the girls did, even women in their 30’s!

You choose for me

I have been watching a new store under construction outside my bedroom window, elegant white modern structure with glass cube top floor. I finally went inside. It is a department store of sorts, with clothes as well as home goods, but with the most edited (and elegant) selection of merchandise.

In American it is about choice: We expect nothing fewer then 31 flavors of Baskin Robins ice cream. In Japan, it is about the comfort in not having to choose. I once was in a ramen shop with Japanese only menus. I asked the waitress (in Japanese) to choose something for me. She freaked out about having to make a decision, for the customer no less, asked a few coworkers their opinion, and continued to become more and more uncomfortable. I resorted to the close your eyes and point to something on the menu just to save the poor girl for her pain.

On one hand the Japanese want what everyone else has/wants (marketers know that if they can get the key 5% of the population to buy a product, they can then get 50% then 90% to buy it.) On the other hand stamp “limited edition” on anything and the Japanese will wait in line for the chance to purchase it. Many store’s product selection is very specific and deliberate. The store merchandisers are sometimes referred to as “Directors”. Only they know the “right” item in a product group to complete your life vision. They, in essence, direct the customer’s lifestyle. Never return to a store and expect to find the same selection, it turns over quickly to give people something new to buy.

A dozen or so Japanese businessmen in drab suits (the investors?) storm the store during construction. They looked so funny all in booties. Watching them climb the latter was positively hysterical.


Happy Coming of Age Day!

Today is the official Japanese holiday, Coming-of-age-day (Seijin no Hi), which celebrates turning 20 (the legal adult age in Japan). All girls 20 years old dress in kimono and attend parties. This is the only day where it seems like everyone is wearing a kimono. Aren’t these two cute with their white rabbit stoles.


The myth of Kyoto II

The friend who went with me on the trip to Kyoto was really shocked by my post so I thought I would share it here. In sum, she found the shrines spectacular, and despite the fact that the city was full of ugly modern architecture, she thought what I was saying was similar to saying that the “Coliseum is minimized by the hellhole slum its in.”

My response was that perhaps I was exaggerating a bit for effect, but I do believe that the temples sit almost apologetically amongst the concrete and I am outraged that 40,000 wooden structures were bulldozed in the last decade alone and it’s not stopping. Paris, London, Rome are (even with a bit of scum) beautiful, enjoyable cities. I did think the temples were very, very beautiful, I am thrilled to have seen them. Maybe the slum that surrounds them “shouldn’t” take away from that, but it makes me mad that I have to ignore the scum and focus and the itty bitty bit of beauty when Kyoto could have been so beautiful. It makes me more mad that the Japanese don’t care, they continue to bulldoze and concrete everything. No relic is safe. It is Western groups that are doing anything to try to preserve that city.

In sum, maybe if a few more tourists get outraged it will (for economic reasons: tourist $) drive the Japanese to do something about preserving their city.

Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons book articulates far better than I ever could. If you are at all interested in modern Japan please read this book.

The completely unrelated photo of the day is school girls sleeping on the subway. One instant messages on her cell phone.