Innovation in Lost Japan

by Scott Bowden

Innovation in Lost JapanOne of my favorite categories of literature is the travel narrative.  A lesser-known work of this type is Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan from the Lonely Planet series, which chronicles the author’s experiences living in Japan from the 1960s to the 1990s, paralleling the great bubble of the 1980s.  Many of us recall this period as a time when Japan rose to economic dominance on the world stage (see Shintaro Ishihara and Akio Morita’s 1989 essay The Japan That Can Say No).

Just as a stroll through a new place can inspire creative thinking on the part of the traveler, so, too, can a walk through Kerr’s fascinating set of experiences from Japan.  For the innovation practitioner, the most relevant ideas to explore are kanji, the shrine no one sees, how to explore a mandala, the sound of one hand clapping, the hossu brush, spilled tea, and the Mandate of Heaven.  My hope is that some of these ideas will resonate with innovators and help lead to creative thinking.


Kanji symbols are the Chinese characters that serve as the foundation of the pictoral representation of numerous Asiatic languages.  Unlike English, where words are made up of a series of characters, a kanji character has multiple meanings wrapped up into a single symbol.  Kerr notes that as a native English speaker, the impact of kanji is particularly striking:

When you read a word made up of alphabetical letters, you must first line these up in the brain before you can understand what is being said.  But when you look at a kanji character, its meaning penetrates the brain directly.  As a result, one cannot ignore kanji signs, even if one wants to. I almost never read signs when I’m in America, but whenever I ride the Japanese subway I find myself unconsciously reading the advertisements hanging in the carriages.

The lesson of kanji is the value of a pictoral representation of a concept as opposed to the alphabetic interpretation of a concept.  This goes beyond the typical notion in presentations that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  Pictures are important, but something that I see frequently in innovation presentations is a complex image that combines multiple concepts in a way that triggers a sophisticated neurological response on the part of those looking at the image.  The goal of a complex image should be to achieve the effect that Kerr describes when he looks at a kanji character.  The complex image should “penetrate the brain directly” which means that it triggers a series of actions within the observer’s brain that can serve as the foundation of innovative thinking.

One great example of this is the prevalence in the innovation industry of slide presentations consisting mostly of images and few words.  When I first starting working in this space, I noticed that many of the presentations in the field consisted largely of pictures, with the innovation consultant speaking around the picture.  This ran counter to years of instruction in slide presentations that focused on headlines that strung together to tell a story, along with endless rules about bulleted lists and page layout.  Innovation consultants clearly see the power of a single picture as a way to penetrate the minds of the audience more effectively than would be the case with a black on white textual representation of the same content.

The Shrine No One Sees

Kerr notes that there is a fascination in Japan for secrecy, and this is manifested in the ancient Shinto tradition of ensconcing certain objects within a shrine and not revealing those objects to anyone, sometimes for hundreds of years.  Japan’s oldest Shinto shrine, at Izumo, contains an object that has not been seen for so long that no one remembers what the object is, simply referring to it as “the Object.”  There is a mirror at the Grand Shrine of Ise that has not been seen for over a thousand years.  In some sense, innovation may be the “shrine that no one sees” in today’s business environment.  It certainly warrants the designation of “shrine” to the extent that so much adulation is heaped upon innovation though very few people actually see innovation in action.  In a different sense, the power of innovation may in fact derive from the fact that it is not something easily seen, which, like the hidden Japanese shrines, adds to the mystique.

How to Explore a Mandala

Another aspect of Japanese life shrouded in secrecy is the Buddhist concept of a mandala, which Kerr defines as a diagram showing a path to spiritual truth.  According to Kerr, a mandala…

can be a painting made up of squares and circles with Buddhas at strategic corners; equally, it can be an arrangement of statues, the layout of a building or a temple circuit followed by pilgrims.  The largest mandala of all covers the whole island of Shikoku, which is made sacred by a ring of eighty-eight temples founded by the monk Kukai.  Iya Valley, as it happens, lies right at the heart of this great mandala – appropriately, since the heart of a mandala should be inaccessible and secret.

Kerr notes that one interesting aspect of the mandala is the particular way that one should approach and contemplate a mandala:

A Tibetan lama once gave me the following instructions about how to explore a mandala: never rush headlong to the center.  The proper way to contemplate a mandala is to first train your thoughts on the Buddhas guarding the gates along the periphery.  Having entered, you gradually work your way into the interior, going round and round in ever tighter circles until you arrive at the center.

This Tibetan advice should resonate with the innovation practitioner to the extent that it informs the way an innovation expert should approach a particular topic in a workshop or other discussion. When kicking off a session, the innovation practitioner should “never rush headlong to the center.”  Rather, he or she should spend time considering the equivalent of the Buddhas surrounding the concept at its periphery, then work his or her way into the interior on a step by step basis, moving in increasingly smaller circles until reaching the center.  This center is the core innovation idea that the practitioner is seeking to define in the session and, in addition to ensuring that proper due diligence has been applied to confirmation that the participants have indeed reached the correct core idea, there is also value to the exploratory steps along the way.

Sound of One Hand Clapping

Another aspect of Lost Japan is the well-known Zen parable, referred to as a koan, which asks “what is the sound of one hand clapping.”  According to one Zen master, who refused to tell Kerr the solution to the riddle, the “answer was not worth knowing, and the whole value of the koan lay in the process of figuring it out.”  Like a person who explores the mandala in a set of ever-shrinking circles, the value of the koan rests in the process of thinking involved in arriving at a decision.  This can serve as a reminder of the importance of the step by step effort of working through the solution to a problem and the importance of capturing the insights that occur along the way.

Hossu Brush and Pure Conversation

An implement that Kerr recalls fondly from Lost Japan is the hossu brush.  This brush, typically a long horse or yak tail attached to a wooden handle of red lacquer, bamboo, or a branch, was used by Chinese Taoist sages in the fourth century to swat away flies while the scholars were engaged in what was known as “seidan,” or pure conversation.  Over the passage of centuries, the hossu brush…

came to symbolize the brushing away the flies of care [… and h]anging one nearby meant that you were going to engage in ‘pure conversation.’  In a modern setting, a hossu brush displayed near a sofa indicates that space is reserved for a more esoteric conversation.

As innovation workshop leaders, we should consider how to establish a tone in our innovation workshops that aligns with the concept of “pure conversation.”  Although hanging a hossu brush on the wall may go over the heads of most of the participants, perhaps the innovation practitioner should consider other mechanisms to signal to his or her participants the significance of the conversation about to take place in the workshop.

This is why it is sometimes difficult to drive innovation discussions in a traditional corporate setting where a group of subject matter experts moves from one set of meetings to another and, when arriving in a meeting to brainstorm innovation topics, must immediately switch mental gears from line-item budget reviews to more esoteric topics such as how to transform an offering to develop a new product or service.  Perhaps a symbol like a hossu brush could help establish the proper mindset.

Spilled Tea

It is well-known that tea occupies a prominent place in Japan, and Kerr cites one example of the importance of the tea ceremony, which is a highly-choreographed event laced with centuries of tradition.  Kerr relates a story of a tea ceremony training session that seemingly ended in disaster, but ultimately imparted an even greater lesson to the students:

The tea used in the ceremony is a finely powdered green tea, carried in a lacquered caddy called a natsume, which is shaped like an egg with a flat bottom and top.  One day, a student failed to support the body of the caddy, taking only the lid in his hands, and the caddy dropped from the height of about one meter directly into the tatami.  The powdered tea puffed up high into the air in a cloud, and tea settled in a green ring on the mat before our startled eyes.  Everyone was petrified.  In the silence, [the Tea Master] Sawada asked us, “What is the appropriate thing to say at a time like this?” Nobody could answer.  He said, “You should say, ‘How beautiful!’  And indeed, the ring of powdered green tea on the tatami was beautiful.  Sawada told us to gather around and look at it.  “You may never see this again in all your lives,” he said. “It’s almost impossible for the caddy to land perfectly on its bottom like that.  Look, and admire!”

The lesson for innovators from this anecdote is a constant reminder that we need to look in all areas for potential innovation, even in failures.  There is a well-established literature among innovation authors touting the importance of looking at failures as a source of inspiration for new thinking, and Kerr’s example provides a nice image of this.  This could even be a good story to use to kick off an innovation session because it forces the participants to transform their mindsets in the way that the tea master Sawada transforms the spilled tea (a seemingly devastating setback) into something amazing, beautiful, and even inspirational.

Mandate of Heaven

The final observation from Kerr that can be related to innovation practitioners relates to the Mandate of Heaven.  This concept represents the governing authority leveraged by Chinese dynasties over the centuries to rule their country (Kerr writes about China in his book on Japan because of the deep connections between then two countries in ancient times).  One interesting aspect of the Mandate of Heaven relates to an activity that occurred when there was a transition of power from one dynasty to another.  According to Kerr,

[i]n ancient China, when the Mandate of Heaven passed from one dynasty to the next, the very first task of the new dynasty was to record the history of the previous one.  Sung scholars wrote of T’ang, Yuan scholars wrote of Sung, and so on.  It is only when a culture has been superseded that it can be summed up.

The counter-intuitive aspects of this concept are instructive to the innovation practitioner because one would think that the last thing a “new” dynasty would want to do is spend any time focusing on the actions of its predecessor which it just defeated.  After all, if the previous dynasty had been so powerful, it would not have succumbed to the power of the new dynasty.  One would expect that the new dynasty would be focused on implementing and consolidating its newly-gained power rather than focusing on the past.  However, the lesson here from Chinese history is more than just respect for past institutions, but presumably there is value to be gained from a deep understanding of the past to the extent that it informs how the new dynasty should operate.  Lessons learned from the past can certainly help the new team proceed in the future.

Likewise, innovation leaders should not hesitate to absorb the institutional knowledge from a company.  Even the most radical reorganization of a firm, or a significant new product or service can benefit from understanding how that firm operated in the past, or how a product or service performed in the marketplace.  Kerr’s last comment is particularly relevant for an innovator working on a new product or service.  When looking at the previous version of a product or service, an innovator should think about how “[i]t is only when a [product] has been superseded that it can be summed up.”  In other words, we can’t truly understand all the aspects of an older product until we have found a way to supersede it, but in looking back at an old product we may stumble upon observations that help us design the next generation of that product.  Looking backwards can sometimes improve our ability to look forward.

Sources: Alex Kerr, Lost Japan (Singapore: SNP Printing Pte Ltd, 1996);

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

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