Takeaways from a week in Japan

November 2023

By Bert Beagley-Brown


1) Attention to detail.

Japan is the only country I've been to where pretty much everyone has attention to detail. My friend, who has lived there for most of his life, explained how although the word 'mame' literally means 'bean' it also describes a person who has attention to detail. He observed that Japan is an entire nation of 'mame'.

I noticed this not through speaking with Japanese people, but through their work - primarily in design and construction. Product design and architecture consistently demonstrate attention to detail - in terms of quality and finish but also in terms of ideas - clever and creative ways of solving life's little problems. They all make perfect sense when you think about them in the context of Japanese culture.

Manhole cover in Gifu featuring cormorant fishing, an activity that famously only happens in Gifu.


road markings in Japan

Road markings in Hatagaya, Tokyo.


Japanese firewood

Japanese firewood with kindling in the centre, packed with reference to the tree it came from.


2) Design Integrity.

This made a big impression on me during this trip. Japan has a reputation for valuing 'honour' but during this trip I realised that this flows down through to design, too, perhaps more than anywhere. Designers worldwide value 'integrity' and 'honesty' eg. of materials (don't make plastic look like wood). I believe this idea of 'honour' translates to design in the form of integrity. Everything must be done the correct way, corners must not be cut. Everything has a reason.

I was lucky enough to meet Senza-san, a traditional Washi paper designer-maker in Mino, the Japanese 'Paper Town'. Washi has been made in Mino since the 8th Century. Senza-san was dedicated to maintaining traditional methods and knowledge - keeping the craft alive. At the same time, though, he brought modern technology to the craft, in the form of a laser cut metal templates for texturing the washi paper (using a home made 'washi shower'). It struck me this is almost identical to the approach to making kitchen knives in Seki, only a few miles away. The results speak for themselves. We see beauty in objects that have integrity.

Washi paper making

Senza-san in his Washi workshop!



closeup of Mino washi paperCloseup of Mino textured Washi paper.

 Washi flowersMino Washi paper origami flowers.


3) Calorie Counting.

If there's a nation that doesn't need to count calories, it's Japan. I saw about 17 million people during my eight days there and I'd say three of them were overweight. But perhaps there's a reason for this other than an incredibly healthy diet.

A new law in 2022 required many UK restaurants to state calories on their menus. Japan has taken this idea one step further and is stating calorie consumption on physical activities too. As well as this calorie counter on stairs (in a shop with 24 floors), the menu in our Karaoke bar stated how many calories we'd burn by singing different songs. After some Sake and salted plum wine though, I wasn't counting.

calorie counting stairs


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